The 1927 Canberra Florin - Australia's First Commemorative Coin
The 1927 Canberra florin is Australia’s first commemorative coin - enough of them remain available today to confirm that no Australian was to miss out on their own memento from the opening of the building that was Australia’s democratic heart. It remains everyman’s coin, a poignant link to an era when Australians were aware of their nation’s move to political independence.
Old Parliament House – the Political Heart of a New Nation
The building now known as the “Old” Parliament House was opened on May 9th 1927. In Canberra’s early years, Parliament House was the social, geographic and political heart of the new Australian capital. It served as the home of Federal Parliament until 1988.
The sixty years during which Old Parliament House served as a working parliament were a time of enormous change for Australia. The country grew from an Imperial Dominion to a nation in its own right. Over that time, Old Parliament House was “…the theatre in which the politics of the day were played out and momentous decisions made.”
A Special Issue Worthy of the Occasion, With Plenty to go Around
In January 1927, the Australian print media proudly announced that “A florin of special design is to be issued in Australia to commemorate the opening of the Federal Parliament at Canberra on May 9, by His Royal Highness the Duke of York.”
The Acting Prime Minister, Sir Earle Page stated that “…it was felt that the historical occasion justified a special currency issue...”, and further that “…the issue of the special coin would provide a ready means by which everybody in the Commonwealth could retain a memento of the occasion.”
The Australian population is recorded as being 6.25 million in 1927, which explains why the mintage was set at two million coins – every Australian that wanted one was to be given the opportunity of getting it. The Governor of the Commonwealth Bank at the time, Ernest Riddle, confirmed this unstated policy of universal availability when he publicly stated in the week before the big day that “…there will be plenty of these florins to go round, and the public need not scramble for them.”
Interestingly, the very first news articles discussing the new florin stated that the reverse design “…will include the coats-of-arms of the different States.” This description of course differs completely from the design that was seen in circulation around the nation just a few months later.
Although the official opening of Parliament House was scheduled for Monday 9th May 1927, as that was a public holiday in the ACT, it was decided to release the coin “…at the Commonwealth Bank at Canberra on May 7, so that residents of and visitors to the Federal capital will have facilities to obtain…” them. For the rest of the country, “The florin will be available at the head branches of all banks in each capital city on May 9.”
The Rush Was Heavy – Extra Tellers Were Terrifically Busy
The scenes on the morning of May 9th at just one bank in Sydney demonstrates that the public were keen to get their hands on our nation’s first commemorative coin “At the Commonwealth Bank, in Pitt-street for example, about £5,000 worth of the commemorative florin was paid to a crowd which assembled in long queues, and kept six extra tellers terrifically busy. About 10,000 people demanded florins at this one bank. The rush was heavy at all other banks too.”
The Royal Mint Annual Report for 1927 includes several comments by the Deputy Master of the Melbourne Mint regarding the Canberra florin:
“From the paucity of coins at present in circulation, nine months after the date of issue, it is evident that the issue has been well received by the public, by whom, it would appear, a large portion has been absorbed.” Deputy Master William Robins went on to state that “Much care was given to making the special issue of Canberra florins worthy of the occasion.”
Several newspaper articles of the day questioned just how long the public might be inclined to keep their new florins out of circulation, however there is no evidence to doubt that Kruger-Gray's reverse design and MacKennal's portrait of the King were universally regarded as being suitable.
Although there was clearly strong demand for the Canberra florin as a memento when it was first released, the number seen in heavily circulated condition today clearly show that over time at least, the purchasing power of the Canberra florin exceeded its appeal as a memento.
High at the Steps and Ear
A paper written by William Mullet on the history of the Melbourne Mint discusses the challenges that Mint staff faced in striking the Canberra florin. “The design was high at the steps of Parliament House and relatively high directly opposite. It was hard to get adequate reproduction of the King's ear on the obverse.” Discerning collectors will be aware that it is quite difficult to obtain a Canberra florin with “full steps”, where each broad step leading to the entrance of Parliament House has been struck sharply, and is distinct.
Mullet explained that “The Mint was unhappy but could only do its best to meet a tight deadline. The Government wanted these coins to be available at the time of arrival of the Duke of York. This left no chance of revision of the design to give a better result.”
When we consider that just 15 weeks passed between date the coin was publicly announced and the date it was released to the public, those challenges are made clear. If we presume that 2 weeks were allowed for to distribute the coins from Melbourne to all points of the compass, and that the reverse die made a four to six week journey from London to Melbourne via ship, that leaves just 7-9 weeks for the Melbourne Mint to strike 2 million coins. That is not an onerous timeframe by any means, however it clearly didn’t leave sufficient time for significant adjustments to be made.
The Proof 1927 Canberra Florin – Sold Without a Case for 2/6
There was a great deal of newspaper coverage on the Canberra florins stuck for circulation, however no news at all was published regarding Australia’s second commercially available proof coin.
Research by John Sharples indicates that the proof Canberra florin had a mintage of 400 coins, and that they were sold “…without a case for two shillings and sixpence .” Whether that statement implies some were also sold with a case is not yet clear. Subsequent research by Vince Verheyen, to be published in a forthcoming book on Australia's pre-decimal proof coinage, indicates that the actual mintage figure could be as low as 200 coins.
Peter Hutchinson, an experienced dealer in pre-decimal proof coins, has stated a belief that “The number of coins available on the market today would suggest that somewhere between 150 and 300 coins were sold.”
Two of the main buyers of the proof coins were the prestigious London auction house of Baldwin’s, as well as the “Keeper of Coins” at the Art Gallery of South Australia, James Hunt Deacon. Baldwin’s are known to have acquired 25 proof Canberra florins, while Hunt-Deacon is known to have purchased 48.
The purchase price of a proof Canberra florin of 2/6 was equivalent to around 2 days wages for the average worker in 1927, which may explain a possible lack of demand for the more exclusive and expensive version of Australia’s first commemorative coin.
If the nation’s media was correct in stating that the Australian public clamoured for the circulating coins when they were first released, and if the Deputy Master of the Melbourne Mint was correct in stating that the vast majority of the two million coins struck had been removed from circulation, surely it is unlikely that 100 - 250 of the exclusive proofs were unsold.
In the absence of any empirical information confirming that a portion of the 400 coins struck were unsold and presumably destroyed, Hutchinson’s observation of a low survival rate of the 1927 proof Canberra florin may be in fact explained by the same financial imperative that caused so many of the circulating coins to be treated as a medium of exchange rather than as keepsakes.
The Great Depression followed just a few years after these coins were struck, which was a period of hardship that would have tested the resolve of all but the most determined numismatists.
Identifying a Proof Strike – Die Markers Abound
It can be quite difficult for the novice to identify the differences between a proof Canberra Florin and one struck for circulation. A detailed article by Vince Verheyen identifies a series of points used by numismatists to authenticate a proof strike, such as surface characteristics and die markers.
Even the most heavily circulated example of Australia’s first commemorative coin remains a tangible link to the times when every Australian was aware of the nation’s move towards political independence. A “Gem” condition example with “full steps” is a premium example for collectors of circulating coinage, while a proof striking is a truly exclusive memento of the opening of the building that was Australia’s democratic heart.
Sydney Morning Herald, Thursday 20 January 1927, page 11
Barrier Miner (Broken Hill, NSW), Tuesday 3 May 1927, page 1
Daily Examiner (Grafton, NSW), Thursday 5 May 1927, page 9
Sydney Morning Herald,Tuesday 10 May 1927, page 13
Great Britain. Royal Mint. 1927, Annual Report of the Deputy Master and Comptroller
 Mullett; William, ""Melbourne Mint, Branch of the Royal Mint, The Establishment"", Self-Published, Canberra, 1992, p 26.
 NAA Journal 5, page 21
 Hutchinson; Peter, ""Australian Proof Coin Policy Development 1916-1953"" in the Australian Coin Review, Issue 346, April 1993, p 31.
 Verheyen; Vincent, ""The 1927 Canberra Proof Florin"" in the Australasian Coin and Banknote Magazine, Volume 10; Number 1, February 2007, p 20.