Australia's 1930 Penny - Why Is It So Rare?

The 1930 penny has been Australia’s most popular rare coin for more than three quarters of a century.

It has been keenly studied over the decades and much has been been written about it. In an effort to fill in gaps in our accepted knowledge, even more has been assumed and speculated about it. 

Research can help us to parse out fact from the fiction, assumptions and speculation that have been accepted for decades, but requires access to the original Mint records.

Those written records that are still held in the archives of the Melbourne Mint are incomplete and highly technical, yet can still yield fresh information on this historic coin’s background, even decades after it was struck.

Reviewing the die records and bibliographical information in chronological order has provided us with a more complete understanding of the reasons behind the existence of the rare London obverse variety, as well as a better appreciation for just why this coin has captured the Australian public’s imagination since the 1940’s.

Just Why Is Australia’s 1930 Penny So Rare?

One of the first questions asked by someone when they learn of the rarity and appeal of the 1930 penny, is why is it so rare? 

The answer can be found most clearly in a letter written in March 1930 by August Bolle, the Secretary to the Commonwealth Treasury, to William Mosette Robins, Deputy Master of the Melbourne Mint: “Referring to your letter dated 6 March, No. 63/30, in which you ask that you be advised as to the probable requirements of Silver and Bronze Coin for the current calendar year, I have to inform you that no additional supplies of Silver or Bronze Coin will be required by banks during the ensuing year.”[1]

The dire economic climate of the time explains why the 1930 penny wasn’t struck as part of a normal production run, but it doesn’t explain why they were produced, much less when.

The most detailed information published to date on the technical background of the 1930 penny was written by Bill Mullett, a former staff member of the Melbourne Mint. In his booklet “Australian Coinage - An Account of Particular Coins”; Mullett interprets the rather dry and difficult to interpret original die records of the Melbourne and Sydney Mints for those of us who don’t share his deep technical knowledge of the minting process. 

Why and When Was the 1930 Penny Produced?

If the Commonwealth Treasury advised the Deputy Master of the Melbourne Mint that no coin orders were to be placed during the 1930 calendar year, the question of course is why does this coin exist, and when were they struck? 

May 1930 - “A Remarkably Unsuccessful” Trial?

When it comes to the manufacture of coins, the laws of economy and efficiency dictate that there should ideally be just one production run for any particular coin, and that it runs from start to finish. This ensures that the optimum return is obtained from the relatively labour intensive setup process. It is unusual then that there are definitely two different dates on which the 1930 penny was known to have been struck, and possibly a third - August 1930 and August 1931, and possibly May 1930. Mullett describes the circumstances of the first possible production date for the 1930 penny in the following manner:

“On 28.2.30, twelve working dies were struck off Hub A23, Nos 1/12. This hub would be the Melbourne hub off the A2B1916 origin. On 20.3.30, six reverse dies were struck off Melbourne Hub 1921 Master Die - Nos 33/38. No 36 was delivered on 13.5.30 with No. 3 obverse.[2]

“A reverse working die No. 36 recorded as off the 1921 reverse source and an obverse working die No. 3 off A2B1916 source, delivered on the same day and before the rest of their batches, appear to have been for a trial.

This trial appears to have been remarkably unsuccessful in that no entry was made in the press note book and there was a recollection by L. A. Webb that one 1930 die was set in the presses and removed the same day.[3] 

The above passage by Mullett shows that a pair of working dies (an “Indian” obverse die and a 1930-dated reverse die) were delivered to the presses on May 13th, 1930. No pennies were recorded as having been struck on that date, however a former staff member remembers that the reverse die was at the very least set in the presses before it was removed. 

Furthermore, Mullett states that the “trial” was “remarkably unsuccessful”,  which indicates that he believed there was at least an attempt to strike coins - the experiment could not be described as unsuccessful if it had not been conducted. That said, Mullet does not include an estimate of the number of pence struck on this date in his speculation on a mintage for the 1930 penny.

We can conclude that either the dies were removed from the press before they were put into use, or the number of coins struck on that date was so small it did not warrant being accounted for. 

Obverse die 3 came from the same hub used to create obverse die 10 (used in the experiments conducted in August 1931), while reverse die 36 came from the same hub used to create the reverse dies numbered 74-76, also used in August 1931. On this basis, if any 1930 pennies were struck on May 13th 1930, it will not be possible to differentiate them from the others that were struck on subsequent dates.

August 1930 - Specimens and Discards

The next production date of the 1930 penny that has been identified by Mullett (and others) was in August 1930. 

"On 30.7.30, three reverse dies S74/S76 were struck from Melbourne Hub using Skellington steel, delivered on 13.8.30 and on that day S74 with obverse A2B10 was issued to the presses for the apparent purpose of producing specimens."

"The production was given as nil thousand and on the cover of the press note book in L.A.Webb's handwriting is a statement “returned the same day[4].""

"In August, 1930, there were struck 12 specimen pieces and the discards in producing and selecting these[5]."

"I would expect no change to the stock of coins but that the coins would be placed in a calico bag, added to the canvas draft bag and held in the strongroom and still accounted as a draft of blanks. The main responsibility was to account for the metal belonging to the Commonwealth rather inconsiderable coin production."[6]

The above passage by Mullett shows that the reverse die used to strike the proof / specimen 1930 penny was S74, and the obverse die was A2B10. Although only there are only 6 proof 1930 pennies are in existence, the above passage advises that more than 6 were struck on that date - for the sake of administrative expedience, the “extra” coins were tossed back into a canvas bag holding uncoined blanks so they could be issued at a future date.

August 1931 - A Practical Experiment Designed to Test Obverse Dies

It was standard practice for Mint staff to destroy any unused dies at the end of each calendar year, and they were the express instructions given to Melbourne Mint staff at the end of 1930. Once carried out, that destruction of dies of course ensures no more coins can be struck - on this topic, Mullett has the following to say:

“At the stocktake of dies at the end of 1930 there was a penciled instruction to destroy the 1930 reverse dies. This was not done and in August 1931 the three reverse 1930 dies were issued to the presses with all the experimental obverses. It seemed an experiment to assess the various obverses with the 1930 reverse dies as a guide to the behaviour of these obverses with the 1931 reverse dies to come from the same source as the 1930 reverses. It would be expected there was a limit set on their use because of the instruction for their destruction. The number of strikes would not need to be large for this purpose, so ought to have had no relationship to the normal life of a die.[7]

Experimentation and Testing

In this passage, Mullett explains not only why the 1930 pennies exist, he also points to the reason why they are so rare - they were not struck to fill a specific order by the Commonwealth Treasury for coinage, but are the result of Melbourne Mint staff testing how different obverse dies performed when matched with different reverse dies.

Which were the dies were used in the experiments on August 13th 1931? 

Mullett again provides us with very specific information: The obverse dies used were:

A. Number 74 possibly off A2D21 (the Indian obverse type);

B. Number 108 off A2D21 (the Indian obverse type);

C. Number A2B10 off A2B1916 (the Indian obverse type). This was the obverse die used to strike the specimens on August 13th 1930; and

D. Number 78 off A2E1921[8] (the London obverse type).

The reverse dies used were:

V1. S75; 

V2. S74. This was the reverse die used to strike the specimens on August 13th 1930; and

V3. & V4. S76.

Each of these reverse dies exhibit minor differences, but were all taken from the same Melbourne / London hub.

How Many 1930 Pennies Were Struck? Two Possible Scenarios

Now that we know how many dies were used, how many coins were struck in total?

In the absence of firm figures and based on his knowledge of the reporting limits placed on Melbourne Mint staff at that time, Mullett speculated that a mintage of 1,400 for the 1930 penny was a fair estimate. He thought two different production scenarios were possible:

Scenario A - Total = 1,400

August 1930 - 400 specimens and discards struck (All with the Indian obverse)

August 1931 - 1,000 experimental coins struck (500 of the Indian obverse and 500 with the London obverse)

Scenario B - Total = 1,400

August 1930 - 900 specimens and discards struck (All with the Indian obverse)

August 1931 - 500 experimental coins struck (250 of the Indian obverse and 250 with the London obverse)

After running through these scenario, Mullett goes on to state that “Other allocations could be made, but ought not to increase the total nor to deny any possibility of the obverse 177 type.”

It is interesting to note that Mullett does not estimate that any coins were struck in May 1930, even though a pair of dies was issued to the presses for that very purpose.

The weakness on the right hand side of the 1930 pence struck with the London obverse may be an indication of why they are so rare relative to those that have the Indian obverse - the experiment with that die may have been cut short when it was apparent the coins were not being struck up as well as those with the other obverse dies. 

The extreme rarity of the 1930 penny with the London obverse does not reconcile itself with either of Mullett’s estimations. Under scenario A, he estimates they account for 35.71% of the total number struck, and under Scenario B he estimates they account for 17.85% of the total number struck.

If we work backwards from the known population of the London obverse 1930 pennies (3 ~ 5 known examples) and apply Mullett’s ratios, and if we presume a consistent survival rate for all types, that would give us a total current population of between 8 and 28 1930 pennies, which is clearly wildly incorrect. 

Although Mullett’s estimate of the total number of coins struck has long been accepted as being reasonably accurate, clearly a third scenario will better explain why the London obverse 1930 penny is exponentially rarer than those with the Indian obverse.


[1] Bloom; Walter, "The proof (specimen) Australian 1930 penny" in the Journal of the Numismatic Association of Australia, 21, 2010, p 1.

[2] Mullett; WJ, "Australian Coinage - An Account of Particular Coins", Self-Published, Canberra, 1991, p12

[3] Mullett, op cit, p12 ~ 14

[4] Mullett, op cit, page 14

[5] Mullett, op cit, page 16

[6] Mullett, op cit, p15

[7] Mullett, op cit, p15

[8] Mullett, op cit, p15


Category: Commonwealth Coins

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