The Melbourne Centenary Florin is one of the most interesting coins in the entire Commonwealth coin series. It is rare in any condition, features an enigmatic reverse and an obverse unique on Australian coins, relates to a significant event in Australia’s post-Federation history and is linked with Victoria’s first department store.
One of my favourite articles on any numismatic items relates to this coin, it was published in the Australian Coin Review in July 1971. It covers much of the numismatic background to the Melbourne Centenary florin in good detail, and is well worth reading if you can get a copy.
The Victorian and Melbourne Centenary Celebrations commemorated a hundred years of European settlement at Victoria’s first two permanent outposts – Portland Bay in 1834 and Melbourne in 1835. Over 300 events and functions were conducted over nine months, from October 1934 to June 1935.
As the worst of the Great Depression was just beginning to pass in 1934, many Victorians thought there was little to celebrate. Perhaps because of the hardship of the day, the Centenary Council went to much effort to make the impact of the event remind Victorians that their state was a positive and stable place to be. Themes chosen for the celebrations were deliberately conservative, and the image of Melbourne as a conservative city largely influenced by Britain has endured.
The Celebrations Elevated The Explorer John Batman To Heroic Status
The celebrations elevated the explorer John Batman to heroic status - reinvented as a courageous pioneer whose life exemplified the rewards of self-improvement. Such a portrayal ignored Batman's “treaty” with local Aborigines and the less savoury details of his personal life.
In line with ensuring that the celebrations were well funded, the Centenary Council arranged with representatives of the British Treasury & the Commonwealth Government for special florins commemorating the events to be struck and then sold at a premium above face value, with the profits going to the Centenary Council.
The design selected by the finance committee was submitted to the Governor-General, Sir Isaac Isaacs, for approval. The Chairman of the Art Committee, Mr. Russell Grimwade, criticized the Official Centenary Emblem (of a nude male figure seated on horseback and bearing a flaming torch), saying “perhaps it is appropriate because it looks worth about two shillings”.
Presumably Going On Sale When The Duke Of Gloucester Opened Celebrations On October 18th, 1934
75,000 coins were struck, presumably first going on sale when the Duke of Gloucester opened celebrations on October 18th, 1934. The average weekly wage in Australia was still just 80% of what it was in 1929, and sales of all memorabilia relating to the celebrations were quite subdued. Sales of the florins were so lacklustre that as the time of the final events approached in June 1935, just 15,000 coins had been sold. Mention was made in the Melbourne newspaper that “a local company has an option on 30,000” coins. The department store of Foy & Gibson distributed numerous Melbourne Centenary Florins in small paper pouches to their customers, and so it is thought this was the company referred to.
If Foy & Gibson paid the Centenary Council one shilling for each coin they obtained, the total cost of £1,500 would have been money well spent on goodwill for their customers – each receiving an unusual coin at face value in their change. Despite the fact that there were probably more Melbourne Centenary Florins issued in the Foy & Gibson bags than without them (Foy & Gibson’s allocation was 30,000, while sales through the Town Hall were just 24,000), the bags are quite rare today. Out of a maximum initial number of 30,000, surely less than several hundred bags remain in existence today, particularly in attractive condition. An even smaller number of the Melbourne Centenary florins allocated to Foy & Gibson’s were distributed by the company’s Perth branch - certainly bags issued by that branch are extremely rare indeed.
The patriarch of the Foy’s retailing dynasty was Mark Foy, the story of his life is a fascinating adjunct to the history of the Melbourne Centenary florin. Born in Dublin in 1815, Foy emigrated to Victoria with his wife Mary and six children in 1859. On arriving in Melbourne, he obtained work with the Bourke Street drapers “Buckley and Nunn”, and shortly after went into business for himself in Bendigo. Foy’s business expanded rapidly; soon there were branch stores at Castlemaine; Greytown and Spring Gully Creek. By 1868, Francis had made enough to close his outlets on the goldfields, and opened a new fine drapery store in Melbourne.
His eldest son, (Francis - born in Dublin in 1854), began working in his father's store while still at school. Francis Foy was working full-time for his father by the age of 14. Industrious, and with a clever business mind, he is described incredibly as being the mainstay of the business.
After clashing with his father, Francis spent three years in Ireland with the drapery firm of Arnott and Co., returning to Australia at the age of 21. He rejoined his father's business and before long, was virtually running it. In 1882, Mark Foy called the family together and announced he was turning over the business to them. Francis was to run it, but his brothers and sisters were also to have shares.
Left with a business seriously short of working capital, Francis Foy decided he would have to take in a partner, and consulted James Bruce of the warehouse Paterson; Laing and Bruce. As it happened, Bruce, a few days later, met a migrant draper from Glasgow, William Gibson, who was looking for a flourishing business in which to invest. Bruce told Gibson to see Francis Foy. "He's one of the cleverest young businessmen in Victoria. If you get in with him your future is made." Gibson became a partner in the firm in 1882. The name was changed to “Foy and Gibson’s”, and went on to become Victoria’s first department store.
William Gibson’s rise to department store magnate was markedly different to Foy’s, although no less interesting. Born in Scotland in 1842, Gibson worked in his local Glasgow for 20 years. He did not marry until he was 39, and shortly after he resigned from his job and sailed for Australia.
Upon arrival in Melbourne, Gibson accepted work as a sales representative for a wholesaling company, all the while looking for an opportunity to strike out on his own. An intermediary soon introduced him to Mark & Francis Foy, with a view to gaining partnership in the Foy’s flourishing business. Gibson borrowed £5,500 from his uncle in Scotland, and on March 6th 1883, the transaction was finalised. Gibson was quite pleased with the profitability of the business, as well as their prospects for the future.
William Gibson and Francis Foy were markedly different men – Gibson is regularly described as being dour; cautious and earnest, while Foy is widely known as being impulsive and outgoing. Foy continued to drive the business in exactly the same way as he had always done, and Gibson assumed what was essentially an administrative position. The business prospered, although tension between the two headstrong men rose steadily in the background.
Matters came to a head when Gibson demanded a more senior role, however Foy refused to yield an inch of control. A protracted meeting between the two men failed to yield any agreement, and so Foy proposed a novel remedy - each wrote down the price at which they were prepared to sell their half of the business to the other, then tossed a coin to see who would sell and relocate to Sydney, and who would assume full control. Gibson was unable to propose an alternative solution, and reluctantly agreed.
Gibson lost the toss, and his pain was evident for Foy to see. With what is described as “impetuous Irish generosity”, Foy put his hand on Gibson’s shoulder: "You seem terribly disappointed, William. Would you have liked to have won?" Dejectedly, Gibson said: "Yes Francis, I would indeed." Foy then told him to consider that he had won - that for £8,000, he would sell his interest and relocate to Sydney. It is thought that Gibson valued the business far higher than £16,000 (perhaps closer to £60,000), and so he wasted no time at all writing a cheque, and Foy walked out.
Francis Foy, along with his two younger brothers set out to Sydney to establish another business that they would be able to run themselves, without the interference of a partner. Their first shop opened on Oxord Street (Paddington) in 1885, and was a roaring success from the start. Reknown for their shrewd business skills and innovative publicity stunts, “Mark Foy’s” went on to become one of Sydney’s largest retailers, with a profile to match. After a colourful life, Francis Foy died aged 64, while returning from the 1913 Melbourne Cup. His younger brother Mark Foy was regarded as one of Sydney’s leading business figures - upon leaving the business to Francis in the early 1900’s, Mark Foy built the famous Hydro Majestic Hotel in the Blue Mountains, and pursued 18ft sailing. He died at St Vincent’s Hospital in 1950, at the age of 85.
Under the tutelage of William Gibson, Foy & Gibson expanded so rapidly that by the early 1890’s, the company’s premises sprawled across three entire blocks of Collingwood. The factory that supplied goods to the retail outlet was in fact the largest factory in the Southern Hemisphere at that time.
The general depression and banking failures of 1893 hit Foy & Gibson as badly as it did all other businesses, with sales of furniture & carpet in Melbourne almost coming to a standstill. Gibson thought to look outside Victoria to dispose of this excess stock, and sent a representative to Perth to determine prospects there. Gold had been discovered at Coolgardie & Kalgoorlie, and a population exodus resulted in trade suffering in Victoria and surging in WA. Gibson assumed temporary premises on Murray Street, and trade was robust from the outset. The need for larger, permanent premises was evident, and a site on Hay Street was assumed. I believe this is now the site of Central Tower, one of the largest skyscrapers in Australia.
The Perth branch of Foy & Gibson proved to be a boon in the overall success of the business – turnover increased steadily with the rising fortunes of West Australia, and the profit it contributed provided a bulwark at those times business in Victoria suffered by comparison. Drought, World War I and the Great Depression all impacted on the Victorian business, in addition to the sudden death of William Gibson from a sudden heart attack in London in 1918. The Perth operations made solid contributions right throughout the early 1900’s, with 1931 being the only year a loss was made.
In the absence of a clear, definitive description of the reasoning behind Foy & Gibson’s issue of Melbourne Centenary Florins as a promotional device in 1935, what can be determined from existing primary sources of information?
One rich source of information on the History of Foy & Gibson is a short title named “Foy’s Saga”, written by a Mr S.W. Davies (the Advertising Manager for Foy & Davies [WA] in 1945), it gives several instances of promotional competition between Foy & Gibson and it’s competitors both in WA and Victoria.
Regarding the visit of the Duke & Duchess of York to Perth in 1901, Davis notes “Foy & Gibson showed themselves... alert to sieze on anything topical to boost business … and to celebrate the visit of their highnesses they had three weeks of ‘Royal Bargains’ prior to their arrival.” Davis noted that there was plenty of competition – no less than four other similar stores for a city with a population less than 50,000. A thirty-day “Coronation Sale” was organised in 1902 to mark the accession of Edward VII, and extensive “fairs” were held twice a year. These half yearly “fairs” were keenly anticipated by the general public, and were highlights of the promotional calendar for Foy & Gibson.
The Myer Emporium had been established by 1919, and was “attracting great crowds by its novel and aggressive methods of merchandising.” Shortly after World War I, “Great, aggressive advertisements, bigger than Perth had ever seen before, began to fill the pages of the press.” Book lending libraries were opened during the Depression, and public transport were hired to bring people to and from the Summer & Winter fairs free of charge. The response to the latter initiative was described as “tremendous”. Annual knitting competitions awarded as much as £100 in prizes – equal to a month and a half’s average wages.
I expect Foy & Gibson distributed the Melbourne Centenary Florins at either their "Winter Fair" or "Christmas Fair" of 1935. By purchasing some 30,000 florins at 1/- above face value, it would have been a good exercise in public relations - the good corporate citizen making a contribution to the ailing Centenary Fund and allowing their customers to share the benefits for free was very positive, particularly at a time when competitors such as Sidney Myer were making high-profile donations of public artworks, parks, etc.
By the time of Melbourne’s Centenary celebrations in 1935, a new and modern store was being built in Melbourne, on the corner of Bourke and Swanston Streets. Foy & Gibson’s staff were looking forward to the opening of the new building, particularly for the competitive strength it would provide in duelling with their various competitors. Extensions over two floors were added to the Perth store in 1935, their opening was marked by an exhibition of Clarice Cliff china, an event attended by Sir Talbot Hobbs.
Clarice Cliff had commissioned 28 artists from the period to produce designs for their own range of decorative tableware, to be displayed at an exhibition at Harrods early in 1935. One of the artists was Dame Laura Knight, an artist with a keen interest in the ballet, circus and theatre, who chose everyday circus life as the theme of her contribution. This range of art deco China is descibed as being some of the most powerful pieces within her entire body of work, are now highly sought-after and quite scarce.
Most australians enjoyed a high standard of living in the late 1800’s. Wealth generated by gold and wool exports, together with the expansion of cities and general prosperity, created a revolution in shops and shopping.
Following trends in Europe and the United States, new types of shops such as the modern department store developed. Where once were goods had been piled randomly on shelves and the floor, they were now carefully organised into “departments”, with their prices clearly marked. Stores and advertisers presented elaborate “dream worlds” to their customers, challenging traditional ideas of thrift and economy.
In 1955, the entire retail business of Foy and Gibson was taken over by Cox Brothers, a business that was in turn absorbed by Woolworths from 1967.
As a direct link to an economic, business and retailing phenomenon that has no paralell in the 21st century, the Melbourne Centenary florin is a coin that can be enjoyed by collectors for a wide range of reasons.