From royalty to poets and preachers – here are the stories behind the familiar faces that grace our banknotes.

It’s a question that stumbles teams at trivia nights across the nation – we see most of them daily, but for many, the names and stories behind the faces on Australia’s banknotes remain a mystery.

The Reserve Bank of Australia, assisted by a panel of consultants as well as suggestions from the public, decides who to feature on our banknotes. Ranging from poets to protesters to socialist social workers and opera singers, these figures lived large lives that shaped Australia’s history and identity.

Queen Elizabeth II

Easily the most recognisable figure on Australia’s banknotes is Queen Elizabeth II, who features next to a sprig of eucalyptus on the five-dollar note. 

The Queen has featured on Australia’s money since 1966, where she graced the now-discontinued $1 paper note. Currently, her likeness is based on a portrait the Reserve Bank commissioned in 1984 – thirty years later, we use the same image.

The Queen is no stranger to banknotes; she’s appeared on the currency of over thirty countries, the first being Canada’s $20 note in 1935, back when she was only nine years old.

On the back of the $5 note are sketches of both the Old and the New Parliament House in Canberra.

Occasionally, you may see a different face peering up from your five-dollar note. In 2001, notes featuring Sir Henry Parkes, a politician nicknamed the “father of Federation” for his continual pro-Commonwealth activism, and Catherine Helen Spence, a respected leader of the suffragette movement and prolific author, were printed to celebrate the Centenary of Federation.

Banjo Paterson

Andrew Barton Paterson (1864-1941) or Banjo Paterson, the poet behind Waltzing Matilda and The Man from Snowy River, was born in 1864 at Narrambla, near Orange, NSW.

As a child, Banjo grew up in the Yass district of NSW enraptured by the world of stockmen and drovers that surrounded him and which would later be central to his poetry. After finishing school in Sydney in 1875, he worked as a lawyer. His first published poem, ‘El Mahdi to the Australian Troops’, was published in The Bulletin in February 1885. He wrote under the pen name ‘The Banjo’, after the station racehorse owned by his family.

Banjo’s poetry proved popular. He remained anonymous until his first poetry collection, The Man from Snowy River, and Other Verses, was published in 1895 and sold out in a week, establishing Banjo as a literary celebrity. 

Banjo, who spent most of his life living in the city, was most popular with urban audiences. His ballads and verses presented – and continue to present – a powerful image of the bushman and country life, creating a mythic figure and embodying the colony’s resilience and determination in the face of hardship and harsh country conditions. Banjo became somewhat of a stoic figure like that of the working-class men in his poems; a laborious lyricist and folk poet.

After the success of his writing, Banjo became a journalist, leaving law in 1902. He wrote long-form stories and verses for multiple Australian and international newspapers, continuing to write and publish work until his death on 5 February 1941.

Fragments of ‘The Man from Snowy River’ also feature on the $10 note.

Dame Mary Gilmore

Mary Gilmore (1865–1962) was a prolific writer and socialist, passionate about the protection of workers’ rights and the welfare of women, children and indigenous Australians.

Mary wrote about workers’ conditions and socialism under pseudonyms in order to protect her government job as a schoolteacher. Mary moved to Sydney in 1891 where she became publicly involved in socialist circles. In 1896, Mary left Australia to live at Cosme, the second attempt of a socialist ‘New Australia’ colony in Paraguay. There, she met and married fellow colonist William Gilmore.

Returning to Australia in 1902, Mary began to write prolifically for a slew of magazines, literary journals, and newspapers. She was perhaps best known for founding and editing the woman’s page of the Australian Worker in 1908, continuing as editor until 1932.

Mary’s poetry collections expressed her political opinions. Debut collection Marri’d (1910) saw a female author articulate the banalities and restrictions of domestic life, while The Passionate Heart (1918) derided the brutality of war, and The Wild Swan (1931) was a critique of the destruction of Aboriginal life and customs.

In 1937 Mary became the first person to be appointed Dame Commander of the British Empire for contributions to literature. A patriotic but critical writer and activist, Mary continued to write until her death at age 97 on 3 December 1962, survived by her grandson and a massive body of work that envisioned a fairer nation.

Mary Reibey

An accomplished businesswoman and trader Mary Reibey (1777-1885) was born Mary Haydock in Bury of Lancashire, England, but soon found herself shipped to Sydney as a felon at age 13.

She was convicted of stealing a horse in Stafford, over 100km away from home, dressed as a boy and living under an alias of James Burrow at the time – the disguise only fell through months later at trial.

It’s hard to know why she was running away from home cross-dressing, but biographers have linked it to the rebellious and strong spirit evident throughout Mary’s entrepreneurial life.

After working as a nursemaid for two years, Mary married Thomas Reibey in 1794, a successful trader and merchant who, alongside business partner Edward Wills, would die from illness in 1811. Mary took over the business, expanding it greatly through congenial and perhaps not-so-congenial manners – in May 1817 she was convicted of an assault upon John Walker, one of her debtors. 

After purchasing several more ships, Mary built extensively throughout Sydney, including a warehouse on George Street which features behind Mary on the $20 note, alongside the schooner Mercury, one of her ships.

A true rags-to-riches story, Mary was a successful businesswoman who remained unmarried, retiring off her properties and building a house in Newtown in 1828. She died on 30 May 1855, survived by two of her seven children.

 

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