In this episode, we look at Australia’s first bank note and how it replaced rum as the nation’s preferred currency. We also reveal the hidden story of how a 10-kilogram gold nugget became an unwitting prop in a game of office cricket.
Join journalist Charles Wooley and Australian Museum Director Kim McKay as they explore the astounding objects and specimens of the 200 Treasures of the Australian Museum exhibition, housed in the nation’s oldest museum gallery.
Charles Wooley: Sydney in the early 1800s was a fledgling colony full of convicts, soldiers, settlers and social climbers. It was the kind of town where you might win and lose your fortune in a single day. Wealth was literally a fluid proposition. In the absence of official currency, some people traded in rum and other spirits.
Hello, I'm Charles Wooley.
Kim McKay: And I'm Kim McKay, director and CEO of the Australian Museum. We are the nation's first museum and we house the treasures of our nation and the region. We're going to discover some of those today in the newly restored Westpac Long Gallery.
Charles Wooley: So join us in exploring the iconic, astounding and curious objects that have helped shape Australia and the world as we uncover the hidden stories of 200 Treasures of the Australian Museum.
Kim, am I looking at one of our first banknotes here?
Kim McKay: Yes Charlie, it's quite extraordinary, isn't it. On loan to us from Westpac, it of course was printed, as you see on it, the bank of New South Wales, its predecessor, and that is banknote number 55, one of the last in existence. So we are very honoured to have it on extended loan in the gallery.
Charles Wooley: And on the back of the note…
Kim McKay: A special note…
Charles Wooley: …is a staunch warning actually: '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'. It sounds like a Royal Commission into banking to me.
Kim McKay: Well, certainly what it would be would be today in very fine type and you would need a microscope to be able to read it I think. So we've known that banks for a long time have put conditions on their notes.
Charles Wooley: Did Australians at the time take readily to this, because of course they traded in rum which had much more liquidity, can we say, than a piece of paper.
Kim McKay: Well, what this currency did was it represented the beginnings of financial security in the fledgling colony of New South Wales in that day, and it had 10 shillings as its face value, which was the average weekly wage back in England at the time, so a substantial amount of money if you think in today's terms.
Charles Wooley: What do you reckon that note is worth now, that 10-bob note?
Kim McKay: Well, I'm not sure but I know Westpac acquired the note at an auction in the United Kingdom in 2014 for a substantial sum, so it's one of the most valuable items we do have on show.
Charles Wooley: And maybe the only one of its type remaining?
Kim McKay: Absolutely, there aren't many of those around, and it tells so much about who we are. It puts you in that place. The first bank started in 1817, that's 10 years before the Australian Museum was founded. So Westpac has just marked its 200th anniversary while we celebrated our 190th, and you think about the time that the first colonists are trying to give some structure to the economy and some structure to the society. And here is the first banknotes produced, let's leave rum behind.
Charles Wooley: Isn't it interesting in our 200 Treasures that I'm finding that a very small and inconspicuous thing, a little scrap of paper can engender so much discussion and thought.
Kim McKay: It is, and that's why collecting things is so interesting because each one of these treasures has a story behind it, each one of them takes us on a journey somewhere. And if you imagine in our collection of 18 million objects there's 18 million stories, oh, Charlie, we could be here forever.
Charles Wooley: Well, I'm thinking about the people listening to this podcast whom we want to come and see this, I think you need more than a few hours, don't you.
Kim McKay: You do…
Charles Wooley: I've spent an hour on a couple of objects.
Kim McKay: Exactly. If you want to really gain the benefit of a museum, to be able to really study an object and then read a little bit more about it, and we have wonderful apps that you can go into and find out more information, you need to take it quietly, you need to take it slowly, don't rush through.
Charles Wooley: Underneath the note is the Maitland Bar gold nugget, one of the biggest gold nuggets ever discovered in New South Wales.
Kim McKay: It is fantastic because it represents as well what was happening in the state at this time. Gold had been discovered in Bathurst and Wyalong.
Charles Wooley: Gold was discovered out near Gulgong, which itself appeared much later on the currency, didn't it…
Kim McKay: It did indeed, that's right.
Charles Wooley: The town on the $10 note.
Kim McKay: $10 note, that's right.
Charles Wooley: Henry Lawson's town. Gulgong in the raging days, remember the poem?
Kim McKay: I do. Look, the funny thing about this gold nugget, it was actually for some time called Queen Victoria's golden jubilee nugget, but it was lost in the 1930s, as sometimes happens in the New South Wales public service I'm sure, and believe it or not it resurfaced accidentally in 1956 in a box that Treasury officers had unwittingly used as cricket stumps. Now, I love this story. You can imagine a few old wooden boxes lined up in a corridor, Treasury guys having a bit of a break at lunchtime, throwing the cricket ball down the corridor or taking the box outside because it was weighted down.
Charles Wooley: It's nice to think of people in Treasury actually having some fun while they deny it to all others.
Kim McKay: That's right! Well, they sure had fun, and then of course one day someone thought to look inside the box, and what did they rediscover but this wonderful golden jubilee gold nugget.
Charles Wooley: Interestingly enough, the mineshaft, the abandoned mine in which the Maitland Bar was discovered had been owned by the local publicans, the Brennans. How annoyed would they have been when they discovered they'd walked out of the mine, given up, and that thing was just sitting there.
Kim McKay: I'd be a bit annoyed, wouldn't you? I mean, they say pubs are goldmines anyway.
Charles Wooley: And that's true, because what we know of the goldfields was that the real fortunes that were made there were by publicans and traders, the people who sold the shovels and the picks and the wheelbarrows to the diggers, not to the blokes who dug the gold.
Kim McKay: That's right, and Australia's gold mining industry also had captured the interest of the world. So this gold nugget actually travelled to shows as a state treasure in London and it went to Chicago and it was part of I guess an emissary for the colony in a way, saying that, look, we've got wealth here, come to New South Wales. Later of course we paid people to come here, but at the time it was saying look at this extraordinary continent that you know very little about, look we've got gold there, come and see us.
Charles Wooley: And it built the grand fine architecture of our inland cities too, didn't it.
Kim McKay: It sure did. You know, Melbourne is an extraordinarily beautiful colonial city because of gold.
Charles Wooley: Bathurst, Bendigo, Orange, look at the beautiful…
Kim McKay: Buildings, yes…
Charles Wooley: Gulgong. Lovely.
Kim McKay: Exactly. And some of it made its way to Sydney. Of course we knocked down a lot of our beautiful sandstone buildings. Sydney used to be called the amber city once because of them, and we are very fortunate here at the Australian Museum because three of our buildings were designed by early colonial architects. This one, the Lewis Wing, and then we have the Vernon Wing across down the other side, and the Barnet Wing, famous Barnet who of course also designed the GPO in Sydney. So we had some of those wonderful colonial architects build these gorgeous sandstone buildings over a 100-year period.
Charles Wooley: Have you actually held this thing, this nugget?
Kim McKay: Charlie, I have held this nugget, I had white gloves on, and it weighs 10 kg, it's bloody heavy to hang on to. And I was presented it by the former Premier of New South Wales Mike Baird, and I remember quipping to him after I was holding it, 'Gee Mike, no man has ever given me this much gold before.' He blushed.
Charles Wooley: It would make a premier blush.
Kim McKay: But look, it is wonderful, and what I love about it is that these two objects together, the first banknote, this historic gold nugget, they're more than objects, they do tell the story of the early colony.
Charles Wooley: I don't want to encourage burglars, but this is fair dinkum, this is the real thing, not a replica?
Kim McKay: This is fair dinkum.
Charles Wooley: Just behind this little bit of glass…
Kim McKay: See all those cameras Charlie, see all the cameras around you? You're on candid camera.
Charles Wooley: So if it went missing, they'd know.
Kim McKay: They'd know it was you.
Charles Wooley: From 18 million treasures in the Australian Museum we've selected just 200 for you to consider. But even exploring this distillation is going to take us on a long and exciting adventure. I hope you will join Australian Museum director Kim McKay and myself as we continue our extraordinary odyssey through the collections of the Australian Museum. And of course you can see it for yourself in the Westpac Long Gallery at the Australian Museum in Sydney. I'm Charles Wooley.
Kim McKay: And I'm Kim McKay.
Charles Wooley: We'll see you next time.