Tales from the Vault

Jul 1, 2014

I had never regarded the Royal Australian Mint with any sense of drama or intrigue.  If I am very honest, I had never really thought much about the Mint at all. As a family we had visited once, quickly scooting around the displays, stopping off to allow Tweeny to press her own coin.

We took a fairly straight forward self tour, viewing the Mint as a factory where they make coins. Don’t get me wrong, I love a good factory tour. I think they are a great way for children to learn about how commonly used items, foods and products they use everyday are made. My mistake in our previous visit was to view our trip superficially, we looked at the robots making coins and left. I didn’t take the time to hear or think about the stories behind the very modern making of the coins.
Tweeny and I were excited to attend an afterhours Visit Canberra Human Brochure discovery event at the Mint, after reading the invitation which said “hear stories of treasures, ghosts and forgeries at Tales from the Vault in the Mint gallery”.

The tour was on one evening after school. I picked up Tweeny from Drama Club and drove the short distance between school and the Mint in Deakin quietly giggling to myself as Tweeny undressed out of her school uniform and into civvies. She was doing this all while trying to protect her modesty as she sat in the back of the car with her seatbelt on. Fully dressed, we arrived at the Mint ready and eager to hear the promised tales from the vault.
Our assembled group mounted the stairs to enter the dark and still first floor of the Mint gallery. Standing quiet and static was a silhouette of a hooded, caped figure. After we gathered around the figure, he finally moved and broke the eerie silence telling us the theatrical tale of how Australia’s first coin and currency was made by an infamous convict and forger!

English born William Henshall minted Australia’s first coin in 1813. He was a plater and a cutler by trade and a forger by activity.  The forgery got him arrested, tried and convicted. He was sentenced to the penal colony of New South Wales leaving behind his wife and seven children.

At this time there was a shortage of coins in the colony. Governor Lachlan Macquarie's solution to the problem involved employing the convict forger to recycle Spanish currency to create the first uniquely Australian coin.
Macquarie directed Henshall, to cut out by hand the circular centre piece from each of the 40,000 Spanish dollars. The outer ring of the Spanish dollar became known as the “holey dollar” with the cut out centre piece named the “dump”.  A new currency was established, with the “holey dollar” given a value of five shillings and the “dump” valued at 15 pence.
Fast forward 200 years and those humble coins have become extremely rare and hotly contested collectibles. A private collector recently purchased the “holey dollar” for a record $410,000 at a Melbourne auction and the “dump” sold for $100,000.

At the conclusion of the tale, our mysterious caped storyteller feel silent pulling his hood over his head and returned to his still and eerie position, signaling that it was time for the group to move on.

Coin production has moved on in Australia from the one man hand cut coins of Henshall’s era to a sophisticated operation at the Mint, with a capacity to produce up to two million coins a day. With over 170 staff and the use of highly developed robots, the Mint produces all of Australia’s coins along with the coins of our pacific neighbours.
We continued through the dark gallery spotting the creepy blinking lights of the factory robots below. Working silently in the dark with intermittent flashing illumination, there was something slightly spooky about these amazing robots. I blame the lighting, I am sure they look less sinister in the day!

One of the robots we saw was Titan. He is a big boy weighing in at 4.6 tonnes, baring responsibility for lifting 750kg of drums filled with coins throughout the different production stages. When he is not busy working he performs for the Mint’s visitors. He was enjoying showing off his dance moves when we spotted him.
Robbie Robot contributes to the Mint team by packing small plastic bags of finished coins into a large cardboard shipping box. Thanks to Robbie and the other robots, no human handling is required in the process of completing a coin, (they still keep the humans around for quality checks and maintenance).

Penny, Florin and Shilling are the three Automated Guided Vehicles (AGVs). We only saw Penny out on the factory floor that evening; the other two must have been on a coffee break! Penny works in warehousing and stock control, having replaced a number of the forklift s that were used at the Mint.

The last tale of the evening was delivered by CEO and master ghost story teller, Ross MacDiarmid. He spoke to us in muted tones about the ghosts that roam the halls at the Mint. The first is affectionately known as the “Whistling Ghost”.  Staff at the mint swear that he can be heard all day long in the downstairs vault, whistling tunes happily up and down the halls.

With the attention and intrigue of the entire group, McDiarmind continued on to tell us about the “Disappearing Ghost”. It is widely believed that this ghost was an employee at the mint and has come back to the work place he loved and roams the basement. Staff say they often feel a presence in the basement and see a familiar face out of the corner of their eye but when they turn to take a proper look, he disappears.
As a parting gift and souvenir, Tweeny and I got to mint our own $1 coin and left contentedly absorbing the intriguing tales from the evening.

To discover your own Tales from the Vault, visit the Mint and be sure to ask staff about roaming ghosts.