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Australia’s Oldest Note Sells

This article was originally printed in Bank Note Reporter.
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In late March Noble Numismatics of Sydney sold a Bank of New South Wales 10 shillings note dated April 8, 1817 for AUD280,000 [USD259,510]. The pre-sale estimate had been AUD250,000.

The note is one of the first hundred 10 shilling notes issued by the bank. It is the only known survivor and surfaced some years ago from a private Scottish collection. It is Australia’s oldest known bank note. The date of issue is that of the first day of the bank’s opening.

The note and the bank owe their existence to Lt. Col. Lachlan Macquarie. He arrived in Sydney at the end of 1809 to become governor of a colony in crisis.

He was the first army officer to assume the role. Previous governors had been naval officers and had proved unable to curb the excesses and corrupt practices of the New South Wales Corps. These had culminated in the infamous Rum Rebellion that had seen the overthrow of Gov. William Bligh of Bounty fame.

A major issue confronting Macquarie was the lack of a either a stable monetary system or a reliable circulating currency in the colony. He set about solving both issues in a number of ways. One saw him making a request to London early in his governorship to establish a local bank. This was rejected.

In 1816 Macquarie revived his banking plan and pushed ahead without approval from London. He saw a bank as essential to providing a stable and secure currency that would facilitate commerce and trade in the growing colony.

A meeting in the judge advocate’s chambers of the governor with 13 reputable citizens agreed on the need for a bank. On March 22, 1817 Macquarie signed the charter for Australia’s first bank, causing the Sydney Gazette to voice approval of this, “great colonial undertaking.” Thirty-nine individuals then agreed to invest £5,000 of the £20,000 capital when invited to subscribe. These subscribers appointed a committee of 15 to draft a corporate constitution. This was completed on Jan. 29, 1817 and a General Meeting on Feb. 7 adopted 49 of the proposed 50 clauses with the remaining one accepted on amendment.

One clause stipulated the notes could be issued in denominations of two shillings & sixpence, five shillings, 10 shillings, one pound and five pounds. These needed to be signed by two directors and the cashier, and countersigned by the principal bookkeeper.

As a measure against forgery until bank note paper arrived from England, the back of each note was inscribed with a legend compiled in a letterpress font unique to the colony. This legend reads, “WHEN we cease to render strict and impartial Justice in the Administration of the Affairs of the Bank, as it regards the Public on the one hand, and the Proprietors on the other, be our Names and Characters branded with perpetual Infamy.” The border device is identical with that used on earlier issue notes backed by the Police Fund.

On March 6 the new bank’s directors selected the house of Mary Reibey in Macquarie Place as their new headquarters. Mary was an ex-convict turned businesswoman. She charged the bank £150 per annum for a two-year lease.

And so, finally, on April 8, 1817 the Bank of New South Wales opened for business at 10 a.m. 100 10 shillings notes on that first day. All were made payable to “J. Lee or bearer.”

Macquarie prudently took two years to respond to the advice on the bank he had received from London. By this time the Bank of New South Wales had proved a great success and in 1822 was forced to move to new and larger premises on George Street.

It was still going strong in 1982 when it merged with the Commercial Bank of Australia to become Westpac Banking Corp.

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