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Making Their Own Money

An 1862 Castlemaine token. Image courtesy of

An 1862 Castlemaine token. Image courtesy of

The central Victoria city of Castlemaine is likely best remembered as having been a boom town during the days of the Australian gold rush. Europeans first settled this area in 1837, the land belonging to the Dja Dja Wurrung or Jaara people. The incoming sheep farmers named their settlement Forest Creek and later as Mount Alexander.

It wasn’t until 1851 gold was discovered near what is today Castlemaine, actually being discovered at the Mount Alexander Goldfields at Specimen Gully on Barkers Creek. Castlemaine was named by Captain W. Wright in honor of his Irish uncle Viscount Castlemaine in 1854. Wright was the chief goldfields commissioner. Viscount Castlemaine is a title created three times in Irish peerage. The uncle’s title dates from 1822, the third such peerage.

A population increase also requires currency to drive the expanding local economy. Coin collectors are likely familiar with the undated Murray and Christie, 1859 T. Butterworth & Co - General Merchants, 1862 Robert Calder - Wine & Provision Merchant, and the 1862 William Froomes – Draper penny tokens of Castlemaine for that reason.

Gold mining eventually ended. Breweries, iron foundries, and wool mills became the mainstay of the local economy. These industries began to decline in the 1970s, resulting in a significant decline in the local population. What was retained was the historical heritage of the gold rush, ushering in the tourism industry as well as many artists. Today, Castlemaine retains its Victorian era town atmosphere.

Now it appears some individuals in the artist colony are looking to help put Castlemaine back on its economic feet by revisiting the mid-19th century practice of making their own money, literally.

Artist Dale Cox is one of the individuals who is concerned about keeping cash local rather than being transferred out of town. Thus, came about the idea of the silver wattle, two denominations of locally produced token coins named for the native plant of the same name. The Acacia dealbata or silver wattle is a fast-growing evergreen.

Three members of Castlemaine’s artist colony launched the clay composition silver wattle in 1 and 5 denominations valued at $10 and $50 respectively. There is about $10,000 worth of the two denominations that has been released. The project was assisted by a grant from the Mount Alexander Shire group Get Lost.

Cox said of the merchant tokens, “We’d like to re-imagine where we find wealth and value. Not from a top-down authority, like a queen or from a state authority, but from the ground beneath our feet and from the environment we’re embedded in, the place we’re from.”

Cox, along with Ann Ferguson and Jodie Newcombe are the clay artists. The tokens are plain, depicting a simple number on the obverse, with an artistic rendition of the silver wattle on the reverse. Newcombe indicated the tokens are made from locally available clay, which is also fired locally to produce the finished product. Eight Castlemaine businesses were accepting the non-descript tokens at the time this article was being written.

Newcombe is an artist, but she is also an environmental economist. Newcombe said, “It really brings together the idea of ecology and economics, in the poetic sense of the coins being made of clay, but the idea we need a diversity in our system. Because currently we have a money monopoly and that’s a dangerous thing.”

Newcombe continued, “So local currencies around the world, there are about 300, are creating a diversity and kind of resilience at a local level.”

This is why Cox said the artists weren’t concerned about what Australia’s economic authorities might think of the unsanctioned local currency. “The project is such a small scale and it’s really just an art experiment that no huge amounts of revenue will be lost to the tax department and it’s really just a trial.”