How a newspaper contributed to numismatics
The Background to Melbourne's The Star Newspaper
“The Star” was a daily evening newspaper that was first published in Melbourne on October 28th1933. It sent it's final issue to print on April 9th, 1936, victim of the competitive newspaper market.During it's relatively short history, the Star covered all of the important events that impacted daily life in suburban Melbourne during a turbulent and memorable period in Australian history - from the depths of the Great Depression until just after the accession of King George V.
Although “The Star” is by no means the only Australian newspaper to discuss the use of currency and coinage in daily Australian life, it stands apart in that it is most likely the only Australian newspaper that has actually contributed something tangible to Australia's numismatic history – a tiny number of presentation boxes showcasing the Melbourne Centenary florin of 1934 / 1935.
These presentation boxes were produced as part of a contest intended to increase circulation of and subscriptions for the newspaper. By any measure the contest was surely a roaring success - over a million votes were received, and more than 10,000 people attended the event where the winners were announced.
The Star's ""Who Will It Be?"" Contest
The name of the newspaper, coupled with the title of the contest, has led many to think that “Who Will It Be?” was some kind of event involving celebrity and chance, and the facts of the contest bear this out. More than 1,000,000 votes were recorded across the 700 entries, and no less than 10,000 people attended the awards night staged to announce the winners.
The contest was first announced on October 13th, 1934 as being “A NOVEL CONTEST FOR ‘STAR’ READERS”. The newspaper explained the name of the contest by stating “The ‘Who Will It Be?’ means: Who will win each of the fifty prizes offered?”
Reading over the many pages of “The Star” that were dedicated to explaining and promoting the contest between October 1934 and January 1935, it’s clear that it was intended to increase readership of and subscriptions to the newspaper.
Although emphasis was always placed on the prizes, the contestants and the awards night, the commercial premise behind the contest was not entirely glossed over: “Everybody reads a newspaper, so why not read “The Star”? It is bright, authoritative, and up to the minute. It’s news is presented crisply and attractively. It has introduced new features into evening paper journalism, and is one of the most profusely illustrated papers in the Commonwealth. All phases of women’s activities and all spheres of sport are covered by experts. Nothing of interest to readers is missed, much of it is exclusive so you are doing your friends a service by ensuring that they get “The Star” regularly.”1
If the number of nominations, votes and attendees at the awards night is used as a guide, “Who Will It Be?” was an exciting contest that was embraced by the Melbourne public. “Fast becoming an important topic of conversation in factory, shop, office and mart.2
As a means of ensuring the ongoing viability of the newspaper, it may not be regarded quite as as positively - we can only presume that the vast majority of the subscribers that signed up as part of the “Who Will It Be?” contest chose not to renew their subscription for one reason or another - the newspaper folded on April 9th, 1936 - little more than 12 months after the contest finished.
The Terms of the Contest
The initial editorial covering the contest stated that “first prize will be won by the entrant who is awarded the greatest number of votes by “Star” readers during the period of the contest, the second to the entrant who is awarded the second highest number of votes, and so on until all the prizes are won.3
It’s clear that the contest was positioned to appeal to the average man in the street as an egalitarian opportunity to win a range of substantial prizes. It explicitly stated that “This is not a beauty contest, for none of us can govern his or her looks, height or station in life. The prizes will go to persons of initiative and enthusiasm - the initiative and enthusiasm of those nominated and their friends.4
“The method of voting is the fairest yet devised for any newspaper competition or contest, for neither luck nor favouritism can count, the ultimate result resting with contestants themselves, and with their friends.
“Votes will be recorded on receipt of Vote Vouchers at “The Star” office. Every entrant has an equal chance. All that has to be done is to ask friends to buy “The Star” and save their votes.
The list of the 700 contestants included:
Mr Haydn Bunton - Argued by many as being the greatest player to have every played Australian Rules Football;
Mr Fred Tupper - “the popular racing and sporting announcer from 3AW”;
Mr Ossie Nicholson - “Former Tour de France cyclist and holder of the world’s record for a year’s continuous cycling”;
Mr Bob Pratt - “South Melbourne’s [Australian Rules] goal kicking record-breaker”;
Mr Norman Banks - “The well-known 3KZ radio announcer”;
Misss Sybill Hodges - A telephonist with the Metropolitan Electricity Supply;
Miss Dorothy Smith - 12 years of age, and is a pupil at South Preston school5;
Miss Judy Davie - a typist for Mr T.F.Crabb, builder and contractor;
Mrs Louisa McDonald - “mother of 21 children…74 years old, was married when she was 16.”
It is perhaps ironic then that while much was made of the apparently egalitarian nature of the contest, just as much was made of the celebrities that entered in the early stages of the contest, and further that two of the fop four prize winners were well-known public identities!
The exact term of “Who Will It Be?” changed slightly over time - when it was first announced on October 13th 1934, it was stated that the contest would finish “before Christmas”6 in 1934, however it didn稚 actually conclude until January 15th 1935.
List of Prizes - “Who Will It Be?”
1st Prize - ￡100 (Two fully-paid ocean cruises and spending money, with a lounge suite as a “memento”)
2nd Prize - ￡50 (An open order on Craig Williamson Pty Ltd - a city department store)
3rd Prize - ￡35 (An AJS motor cycle from Stilwell & Parry)
4th Prize - ￡25 (A Brash-Karlsreiche sewing machine)
And “46 other prizes, ranging in value from ￡21/10/ downward, bringing the total value to more than ￡500.”
The list of consolation prizes included: ocean cruises, radio sets, women’s costumes, cabinets of cutlery, handbags, lounge suite, motor-cycle, sewing machine, silver fox fur, suits, set of crystal, portable typewriter, bicycles, shoes, frocks, special services, chiming clock, diamond broach, watches, tennis racquets, violin, beauty treatments, sporting goods, chocolates, and many cash and consolation prizes.7�A further list of the consolation prizes also included 鍍heatre tickets and photographs.8
To put the value of these prizes in perspective, the average weekly wage in 1935 was ￡4/2/10, making the average daily wage 16/7, and the average hourly wage 1/10.
This means that even the smallest of the consolation prizes was equal to around half a week’s average wage, while the value of the main prize was just shy of 6 months average wages.
Gifts Presented at the Awards Night
A great deal of work was put into ensuring that the awards night had an atmosphere of excitement and entertainment - no less than 6,000 bags of “carnival novelties” were distributed to the first people to arrive at the awards night. These bags included paper party hats and glasses, and were worn throughout the evening.
Chocolate was a true luxury during the Great Depression, and 100 boxes were distributed to the first 100 people that arrived - 50 for those that were dancing throughout the night, and 50 for those that chose to simply watch the spectacle unfold.9 20 of the boxes of chocolates were 杜ammoth� and measured some 18�* 12�each.
Vouchers for each of the 100 prizes were distributed to the award winners on the night, the winners of the top four prizes were also presented with a sash.
The “Get A Guinea” Game
One aspect of the awards night that was surely intended to maximise attendance and increase the excitement of the night was the “Get A Guinea” game. This facet of the awards night involved identifying a mystery guest - winners were apparently to receive a guinea.
The editorial covering this aspect of the awards night stated that “A man unknown to anybody but the Organiser will move among the throng at the Big Night Out. Anyone who can find him out may touch him on the shoulder with a copy of next Tuesday’s “Star”, and ask “Are you “Mr Star?” If it is Mr Star, he will immediately hand over a guinea as a reward for his discoverer. Others who identify him will get boxes of chocolates. Remember! To get the guinea, you must have a copy of “The Star” with you!10
Unfortunately for numismatists, no mention was made of the denominational composition of any cash consolation prizes, although as no mention of cash prizes is included in the list of prizes published on January 16th 1935, it is unlikely that any were awarded! No detail provided as to the exact identity of the “guineas” that were awarded to any eagle-eyed attendees that may have spotted Mr Star, nor how many were successful in doing so.
The Winning Contestant - Mr Les Cobon
The ultimate winner of “The Star” newspaper’s “Who Will It Be” contest was Mr Les Cobon, a 58 year-old clerk at the Port Melbourne railway station and a resident of Port Melbourne. Judging by the information published about Mr Cobon and how he won, it appears that he was in fact the public face of a grass-roots campaign by a community organisation to raise funds.
At the time of the contest, Mr Cobon was engaged to be married to Miss Eileen O’Keefe, was an active member of the Irish National Foresters Benefit Society (a mutual society supporting Australians of Irish heritage) and a man that was apparently “well known in the district”11.
It seems that someone on the social committee of the St. Vincent de Paul’s Girl’s Orphanage at South Melbourne saw the “Who WIll It Be?” contest as an excellent opportunity to raise funds for their much-needed cause, and accordingly their supporters went about Mr Cobon’s entry in such a way that made use of the strong links within their close-knit community to ensure that their man won.
When the results were announced on January 15th, Mr Cobon was quoted as stating: “I will attribute my success to the enthusiasm of my friends at Port Melbourne, and the fact that I made a personal canvas of the district.
“The condition on which I allowed myself to be nominated was what whether the prize was to be a large or small one, it would go to the St. Vincent de Paul’s Girl’s Orphanage at South Melbourne, where I am a member of the social committee which raises funds for the institution.
Mr Cobon was also quoted as saying that he made it a point of asking all his friends who were subscribers to “The Star” to save the coupons for him, and those who were not to take out yearly subscriptions. “In this way I was successful in introducing about 80 persons to become regular readers of “The Star”, and I received much assistance from my fiancee - Miss Eileen O’Keefe - who acted as my correspondence Secretary.
“Mr Cobon said that the winning of the quest would be a welcome gift for the orphanage, as only a small subsidy was received from the Government, and funds were never too substantial.
“On the last day of the contest he came to the Star office with 179,000 votes, and this proved the winning effort. During the quest he received much help from members of the Irish National Foresters Benefit Society, the organisation which gave him his early tuition as an organiser.
“Two vouchers were sent to him from an unknown supporter from Tasmania. They came over by airmail, and cost 5d to deliver.12
The Likely Purpose of the Case
These presentation cases, hand-made in wood, leather, brass and satin, have been something of an enigma to numismatists for several years now, all that has been widely known of them is the following description on the inside of the lid:
“Who Will It Be?”
Frustratingly, there is not one explicit reference to the cases over the entire three-month period that the contest ran. As is often the case with numismatic research in Australia, for the time being at least, it is left to logic and supposition to try and fill in the blanks.
The key questions regarding these cases are surely: why were they made, how many were made, and how were they distributed?
Right from October 13th 1934 through to January 17th 1935, there were numerous references to cash, money, prizes and gifts in “The Star”. A number of these announcements initially appeared like they could provide a perfect answer to each of the above questions, however a complete review of “The Star” over this period doesn’t bear this out.
Cash consolation prizes: These were indeed initially mentioned as being “additional” to the 4 major and 46 consolation prizes, however no further mention was ever made of them! The 46 consolation prizes were explicitly described in mid to late October 1934, however prizes 51-100 were never mentioned.
Novelty bags: There were a number of editorial references to the “novelty bags” that were distributed to the first 6,000 people that entered the “Big Night Out” - the best description of the contents says that they included “carnival novelties” - paper hats and glasses for the party guests to wear throughout the evening. Although there is no explicit mention of cash or any other consolation prizes being included in the novelty bags, there is of course the possibility that the coins were included in them. I believe this is most unlikely - the cost of doing so would’ve been absolutely prohibitive. The cover charge for the evening was 2/2, and the cost of the florins was 3/-, the hand-made cases would’ve also cost a few shillings each at the very least. At 6,000 party guests, the loss incurred by including a cased florin in each novelty bag would’ve exceeded ￡250 - significantly more than the total value of the four major prizes! It is far more likely that the revenue earned from ticket sales was used to pay the numerous entertainers booked for the evening.
Get A Guinea: The “Get a Guinea” contest also has a few tantalising elements that lead one to wonder whether this was the way that the Centenary florins were issued. The very term “guinea” obviously relates to a coin, and the description of the contest leading into the event states that “Everyone who attends will have the chance to win one guinea in cash.13
The obvious difficulties with this possibility is that a guinea (21/-) has a much higher purchasing power than a florin (2/-), and although the term “guinea” was still in use as something of an offbeat unit of account, it would most likely have been impractical for Mr Star to hand over that exact amount to anyone sharp enough to identify him. A further explanation of the “Get a Guinea” contest confirms this: “Everyone who attends will be asked to bring a copy of “The Star” and to touch whoever they think is Mr Star on the shoulder. If the question “Are you Mr Star?” is addressed to the right person, the first questioner will receive a ￡1 note, as a reward for his or her sagacity. The next 9 persons successful will receive an order for a large box of chocolates.14
It is indeed frustrating that a thorough review of the many pages of the Star newspaper dedicated to explaining and promoting “Who Will It Be” doesn’t yield any information, neither explicit nor implied, that could explain the role that the cased Centenary florins played in the contest. I’m reasonably confident that this information is available, it is simply yet to be unearthed.
In the meantime, we now know that the “Who Will It Be” contest was a major event in Melbourne in the days following the Great Depression - the prizes and excitement would surely have been a welcome distraction from the hardships of everyday life. Only around three cases have appeared on the market in recent years, indicating that they are indeed an extremely rare slice of Australia's numismatic history.
Melbourne Centenary BoxBy: Ashley on 29 January 2020I have a number of these florins and small paper bags the came in. Also a blue little box with Memento written inside.
Sterling & Currency Response
Thanks for letting us know Ashley, collectibles like that are great to add to a collection of Australian florins.