Melbourne in the late 1840s through to the 1860s was affected by a coinage crisis. The crisis mainly related to a shortage of small change in circulation. At this time, British coinage was in use, however not enough coins were being supplied for Melbourne’s booming population and economy.
Out of necessity, savvy entrepreneurial businesses of the day began issuing trade tokens. These tokens, which were mainly made of copper, were most often the size of a penny or a half penny. The tokens promoted the businesses that produced them, thus providing free advertising and helped to create awareness of their business names within the community.
Like the British pennies circulating in Melbourne, tokens often showed the figure of Britannia or symbols of Australia and Melbourne on the reverse side. These unofficial coins proudly promoted the various businesses, such as grocers, drapers and hoteliers, which issued them. While other businesses and clients alike happily accepted them, they were barely tolerated by the government of the day, even though they provided a practical solution to the coinage crisis.
The first tokens that circulated in Melbourne and throughout Australia were imported from Birmingham, England in 1849 by the Collins Street business, Annand, Smith & Co. Family Grocers. The importation of a coinage press and blank pennies in 1854 enabled other businesses to also issue tokens. By the late 1860s after enough British pennies had been imported for circulation in Melbourne, tokens were declared illegal in Victoria, but continued to be used elsewhere in Australia.
The most prolific issuer and maker of tokens in Melbourne and Australia wide was Thomas Stoke. He was an apprenticed diesinker from Birmingham who arrived in Melbourne in 1854. In the 1860s, his company Thomas Stokes was based at 100 Collins Street East. The business became a proprietary company under the name Stokes & Son Pty Ltd in 1911. In 1962 Stokes became a public company, renamed Stokes (Australasia) Pty Ltd, with offices in Ringwood and throughout Australasia. Today the business is still thriving, making medals/tokens and has become Australia’s major manufacturer of electrical elements and a distributor of appliance spare parts.
About twenty years ago, I came across my first Melbourne traders’ token and have been fascinated with these little windows of history ever since. Often I find myself trying to locate addresses on tokens, (difficult since the street numbering has changed in the city), to see what has replaced the savvy little businesses that once issued tokens.
The enhanced photos in this article are of my own collection of Melbourne tokens - click for a larger view.