The History of the Kookaburra Coins
Australia entered a modern age post World War I and for many Australians, it was a time for breaking out, questioning and changing old values and behaviour and enjoying the good life.
It was a time of great change. People forgot the old and embraced the new in an attempt to leave the hardships and struggles of the war behind them. New technology was being created, like toasters and cars, things that today we take for granted. The fashion world was exploding, and Australians were embracing great change in their styles of dress.
Australians were identifying with their own culture, keen to lessen the emotional and cultural ties with Great Britain.
Creating a new, totally Australian coinage was a part of the deal which is why the Government floated the idea of the Kookaburra Penny envisaging a coin that would be unique to Australia.
The Government’s plan was to discard the British-styled penny and halfpenny and to create a coin with a typically Australian design featuring the nation’s native bird, the kookaburra. To maximise impact, a new shape was planned with the move from circular to square. And bronze was to be discarded and a new metal taken up, that of cupro-nickel.
In many ways, the Government’s proposal was way ahead of its time. Australia did eventually introduce cupro-nickel coinage, but some 47 years later, when the nation went onto decimal currency in 1966.
The introduction of the Kookaburra Square Penny underpinned an attempt by the then Labor Government to stir up national sentiment post World War I. To evoke the great ‘Aussie’ spirit.
If you think about it, putting the nation’s native bird – the kookaburra – onto a coin was a no-brainer to achieving that goal. A drastically changed shape, a square. And a new metal – – cupro-nickel was part of the total package to maximise impact on the population.
The proposal was contentious in that the monarch, King George V, was to be depicted on the obverse without a crown. Some say it was the rumblings of a Republican movement way ahead of its time.
Trials commenced at the Melbourne Mint in 1919 and continued until 1921 with the test pieces ultimately passed to dignitaries and Government officials to assess their reaction. It is believed that over the three-year period 200 pieces, of various designs, were produced.
In 1920 and the Melbourne Mint produced Australia’s very first Kookaburra Halfpenny.
Sadly, in 1921, and after three years of testing the scheme fell apart. The response to Australia’s square coinage was poor with widespread public resistance to change and people generally rejecting the small size of the coins (15mm x 13mm).
However, the final decision not to proceed seems to have been based mainly on another consideration – the large number of vending machines then in operation requiring a circular coin.
Today there are approximately 200 kookaburra coins held by private collectors, making it on a par for rarity with the 1813 Holey Dollar, the nation’s first silver coin. And the 1852 Adelaide Pound, the nation’s first gold coin.
The Kookaburra Pennies that remain today are relics of our past, and the sentiment that they stir up in the current market is collector sentiment, driven by their novel shape. And with only 200 believed to exist, collector thirst is driven by their extreme rarity.
The Square Pennies were test pieces. They were not struck to the exacting standards of proof coining. Given to dignitaries to assess their reaction, there was no packaging and we know that not every dignitary was a collector who would have handled them with care.
The journey began in 1919 when the Melbourne Mint produced Australia’s first Kookaburra Penny. It continued in 1920 and the Melbourne Mint produced Australia’s very first Kookaburra Halfpenny.
Production of the Kookaburra Penny and Square Halfpenny came to a halt in 1921.