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Australian Banknotes – Their Design and The Notes that Never Were

ten-royalsIf you have been following our series you will remember that in the last issue we undertook a brief examination of error notes, notes that never should have made it past the starting gate but somehow slipped through and now provide a fascinating and unique (not to mention lucrative) form of collecting. Now we are going a few steps back, to take a look at what goes on behind the scenes the ideas, the judging, the designs which made it, and the many that did not.

As with any country our bank notes represent us throughout the world. They pass through millions of hands from all walks of life, each note offering a glimpse into the heart of its maker, it’s homeland. No wonder the criteria for approval is such a fraught and weighty task so many to please, so many images to represent (not to mention avoid!) – to convey our culture, our art, our heritage and our people, all in one series of small slips of paper.

In the later part of the century, especially with the advent of decimal currency the debate became “hot” in many ways. But to start at the beginning, after the initial “pound currency” became accepted and issued by the banks, one of the most common causes of pre decimal notes never to make an appearance was simply poor changes to the layout design.

A side profile of Sir Joseph Banks on a final version of what might have become our $20.00 note by Richard Beck.
A side profile of Sir Joseph Banks on a final version of what might have become our $20.00 note by Richard Beck.

This is illustrated particularly well in the case of the one pound notes prepared in the late 1920’s. Different design influences incorporated, along with different shading effects, resulted in a whole print run of over 16,000,000 notes to be abandoned. Unfortunately it turned out in this instance that a proof of the reworked note wasnever submitted for approval before commencing print, and attention not drawn to the unsatisfactory result until far too late.

An attractive but unsuccessful final submission by Max Forbes' offered another possibility for an Australian Twenty dollar note featuring Dame Nellie Melba.
An attractive but unsuccessful final submission by Max Forbes’ offered another possibility for an Australian Twenty dollar note featuring Dame Nellie Melba.

The prospect of desultory comment from the public, even back then, far outweighed the cost. The notes were then temporarily stored, later to become known as Panel Reserve Notes, for approximately six months as emergency reserve supply should the need arise.Eventually all but a few samples were destroyed and any artwork for these notes has not been released to the public.

The shortage of silver also brought upon a run of 5 shilling notes to be undertaken which also never saw the light of day, due to the silver value eventually stablising allowing the manufacturing of the preferred coin units to once again become viable.

The introduction of the decimal currency in itself a lengthy debate as to its advantages brought with it a new dilemma. What to name the new major currency unit? A furor followed, with hundreds of suggestions made, sifted through and evaluated. Most “Australian” names were judged lacking, as in the words of the then Treasurer Mr Holt “Every suggested Australian name was lacking in one or more of such desirable attributes as dignity, pleasing sound, ease of pronunciation, brevity, and suitability of the initial letter for contraction in writing.” Looking at couple of suggestions ie. Dolaroo, Doolaus, not to mention a few Australian slang throw ins: Spin, Fiddley I personally believe we can be grateful for the seemingly worldwide dignified “dollar”. This however was not the initial choice. Our first decimal unit was originally deemed to be a “Royal” and the commissioning of designs commenced. Primary sketches were embarked on, incorporating intricate drawings and images, many which were developed to the engraving stage. These designs have since been exhibited by the Reserve Bank so at least all the hard work of the designers involved has now been acknowledged!

But finally, in 1963 the public opinion was vetted and the unanimous finding caused the government to relent and give to Australians a name that was favored and familiar to all and so the Australian Dollar came to be.

Another submission by George Hamori for the Ten Dollar note featuring Sir John Monash.
Another submission by George Hamori for the Ten Dollar note featuring Sir John Monash.

The wheels where then set in motion to undertake the enormous task ahead the designing and producing of Australia’s new currency. After much discussion and meeting, the prestigious team was formalised, consisting of the most respected of designers of that time. Four individuals to commence designing, the other members to monitor, advise and oversee the development of this huge task.

These four selected designers: Gordon Andrews, Richard Beck, Max Forbes and George Hamori all set about their work diligently, meeting together with the committee for review and suggestions. And it did indeed prove to be a long and arduous process. Modification after modification was undertaken, and from the examples illustrated (it is impossible to show all the fine work that was done) all were of high standard. But eventually a decision had to, and was, reached. In the Sydney Morning Herald, January 1966, a tribute was made to each contributor, their hard work and ongoing teamspirit. To quote: “Over the months they all submitted hundreds and hundreds of drawings and plans. Everybody commented, criticised and discussed everybody else’s work, then went away to work on a design with the discussion in mind. In the end everybody submitted their finished designs for the notes to the advisory panel. The advisory panel unanimously decided on Mr Andrews designs.”

The commissioned notes, $1, $2, $10 and $20, were all issued right on schedule on 14th February 1966 and I’m sure we are all very familiar with the creative designs that eventually emerged to become our Australian currency. It did not simply end there however. Even before the decimal currency was launched a need for a five dollar note had been decided upon, with discussions already taken place in 1965. Needless to say, George Andrews was commissioned to this task, and went on to design our $50 when the need arose. The $50 note was, as per instructions, the first to bear “Australia” in contrast to the earlier “Commonwealth of Australia”. Our banknotes once again noting a significant shift in the history our country.

It is something that most of us take for granted, and most probably never really consider – the enormous amount of work that happens before a banknote can grace our wallets. And further, that it goes on to form a monumental part of our history that will become preserved for many, many generations ahead. For the designers involved it is indeed an honour.