The Other Side of the Coin: Subsurface Deposits at the Former Royal Melbourne Mint
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The Melbourne branch of the Royal Mint officially opened in 1872. Built on a site that had previously accommodated Melbourne’s original Exhibition Hall, the complex comprised the extant Administration Building and flanking Guardhouses and substantial “operative departments” to the rear. The latter were demolished in the early 1970s but recent investigations have revealed that substantial remains survive. This paper discusses our new appreciation of the Mint’s archaeology – one of an increasing number of Melbourne archaeological sites where subsurface deposits are supplementing our knowledge of places long acknowledged for the importance of their built heritage. The remains reveal important evidence relating to the minting process and responses to industrial urban air pollution in the nineteenth century.
KeywordsRoyal Mint Melbourne Colonial Coins
The “other side of the coin” in the title of this paper alludes to the substantial archaeological deposits which are now known to survive at the Mint site, and the extent to which they are both figuratively and metaphorically overshadowed by the site’s impressive heritage architecture. The remains are currently only dimly reflected in the citations which support the site’s heritage listing, but they equally encapsulate the fascinating history of the site, and could, with appropriate interpretation, be employed to effectively communicate its story in tandem with the standing buildings.
The archaeology of the site complements its built heritage to provide important insights into the workings of a major mint complex and into major themes of Melbourne’s nineteenth-century history, including the City’s increasingly significant role within the Australian colonies and the British Empire, the role of its civic institutions, and growing awareness of the issue of noxious emissions in urban areas. The archaeological remains uncovered in recent years provide particular evidence regarding the local response to British designs and the degree to which these may have responded to contemporary issues, including the growing recognition of industrial pollution in the later part of the century.
Before the Mint
By 1864 the Exhibition Hall appears to have been supplemented to the northeast by an additional single-storey structure. The whole was poorly constructed and prone to leaking, and the building was eventually demolished in the late 1860s. It seems likely that much of the evidence of this structure was removed by the subsequent development of the Mint.
Petitioning for Melbourne’s Mint
Availability of currency was an important issue during the early years of Melbourne’s development. The Sterling Standard had been enforced in 1829, ensuring that British currency would replace the motley collection of international coinage that had previously been in use across the Australian colonies. But with the discovery of gold in New South Wales and Victoria in 1851 the amount of coin available soon became inadequate for the growing population and increasing complexity of transactions. Following calls from the Legislative Committee of New South Wales, in 1853 the British government decided to establish a branch of the Royal Mint in Sydney in order to raise the value of the locally mined gold by converting it into a universally acceptable form. The Sydney Mint, which was authorized to strike sovereigns and half sovereigns of the same weight, began producing coins from 1855.
Officially created as a separate colony from New South Wales in 1851, Victoria achieved self-government in 1855 and as early as 1852 the Victorian Legislative Council had petitioned for a local branch of the Mint. Alexander Sutherland (1888: 355–356) records the sense of inter-colonial competition: “was it to be tolerated that Melbourne, the larger city, and the city of gold, should be without its mint if Sydney had one?” But authorities in London were averse to the idea, being already suspicious of the quality of Sydney’s coinage which they refused to recognize as legal tender anywhere in the Empire beyond New South Wales.
Branches of the Royal Mint were under British control, their directors Deputy-Masters to the British Chancellor of the Exchequer, and they were required to obtain the approval of the local governor before submitting recommendations to London (Challis 1992). Nonetheless, as they were established at the request of the colonies, the cost would be borne by their governments. Sydney had spent £50,000 on its mint, and with working expenses of £15,000 against annual receipts of only £12,000 it was “a costly dignity” (Sutherland 1888). Victorian agitation calmed until, in 1859, the Imperial authorities accepted the Sydney sovereign as currency across the Empire. At the third Victorian request, in 1867, an Act was passed approving expenditure of £20,000 and a subsequent Royal Proclamation established the Melbourne branch of the Royal Mint, declaring coins made there to be legal tender throughout the British Dominions (Victorian Government Gazette November 5, 1869).
Development and Use
The buildings and machinery for the Melbourne Mint were supposed to follow designs sent from England. In May 1869, however, the Victorian Government asked the Inspector-General of Public Works to modify the plans to save money, and John James Clark, arguably the department’s most prominent designer, was chosen to create a local replacement for the British administrative block design. A plan from March 1870 is annotated with comments requiring changes to the Administration Building and guardhouses (HLCD 1999), and there are differences between this plan and Clark’s subsequent plan of November 1870. The general layout is the same, but internal arrangements are quite different in places, and Clark’s later plan compares more favorably with the 1895 Melbourne and Metropolitan Board of Works (MMBW) plan, from a series known to be substantially accurate. So it would seem the eventual arrangement followed the later design (hereafter “Clark’s plan”).
The operative department buildings were in a “military style” in brick, contrasting with the rendered masonry of the street front buildings but with similar hipped slate roofs over metal trusses (HLCD 1999). Design drawings show the robust structures required substantial foundations of approximately 5 ft. (ca. 1.5 m) for the main ranges and a massive 15 ft. (ca. 4.5 m) for the main furnace chimney.
In 1909, the new Commonwealth of Australia opted to have its own coinage which was produced in England until the Melbourne Mint began coining silver in 1915 and copper in 1919. In 1926 equipment arrived from the closed Sydney Mint, and the bulk of Australian coinage was struck at the Melbourne site until it too closed in 1968 and production was established at the new Commonwealth Mint in Canberra. The Melbourne plant and equipment were sold at auction and the operative departments were demolished in the 1970s.
The Mint site is of State significance and included on the Victorian Heritage Register. The Statement of Significance attributes the place with historical significance, for its important role in the development of Victoria, and architectural significance as containing one of the state’s most impressive nineteenth-century government buildings and for its associations with architect J.J. Clark (Andronas Conservation Architecture 2013; VHI 1990). Thus this listing is primarily based on architectural values and does not reflect its archaeological potential, although the site is also included on the Victorian Heritage Inventory list of known archaeological sites (VHI 1992). It is likely that public perception of the site mirrors this situation as the standing structures are of obvious heritage value but there is currently nothing to identify the car park as the actual site of the Mint factory buildings.
Given the lack of information on its archaeology, in March 2015 a desktop assessment of the site (Travers 2015a) was commissioned, and this identified a high potential for the survival of remains relating to the operative departments. Mid-twentieth-century car parks in Australia have often been shown to contain relatively well preserved archaeological deposits, at times surprisingly close to the surface. Their establishment was often expedient, through relatively ephemeral leveling, and subsequent disturbance was usually limited to discrete excavation for services. Major Victorian examples include Casselden Place in Melbourne and Forest Street in Bendigo, while elsewhere in Australasia significant remains have been found at shallow depths at numerous sites in Hobart, Sydney, Auckland, and Wellington.
Little previous archaeological investigation had been undertaken within the site, although in 2001 monitoring determined that the footings of the Administration Building and the southern guardhouse directly overlie the sandy clay bedrock (Dugay and Long 2001). This suggests that cutting at the south-west end of the site prior to the construction of the Mint completely removed evidence of any previous structures and it is unlikely that remains of the 1854 Exhibition Hall survive, except perhaps in areas not subsequently impacted by construction of the Mint or protected under the terrace fill.
The level of archaeological assessment of the former Melbourne Mint is some way behind that of the older Sydney site, which has been the subject of two quite intense phases of investigation in 1980 and from the mid-1990s to 2000.
Australia’s Other Mint Sites
When it was established in 1854, the Sydney Mint employed what had been the southern wing of the Sydney “Rum” Hospital, built between 1811 and 1816 to house quarters and offices. To its rear, around a courtyard in a similar configuration to the Melbourne Mint, was the coining department comprising melting house, quartz crushing room, rolling room, engine and boiler houses, annealing furnaces, a strong room and ancillary rooms, all constructed with components largely imported direct from England (Thorp 1994). The original hospital building and “Coining Factory,” which was shipped in pieces from England, remain, but all the other elements have since been demolished.
The 1980 excavations were undertaken in advance of structural additions for the new Mint and [Hyde Park] Barracks Museum (Burritt 1981; Potter 1981; Powell nd, 1981; Thorp nd, 1980, 1981; Wilson, G. 1981; Wilson A. 1985, 1989). These focused largely on the former hospital building and not the factory buildings, although they did examine the southern range that housed workshops for turners, carpenters and smiths. In the mid-1990s archaeological monitoring was undertaken across part of the melting house footprint (Godden Mackay 1994, 1995, 1996) but it was not until 2000 that this area was examined in detail during adaptation of the complex to accommodate the Historic Houses Trust of New South Wales. Monitored excavation revealed remains of working surfaces and machine bases but the site was found to be very heavily disturbed. Investigators concluded that deposits had been removed or destroyed during the decommissioning of the site, when private contractors thoroughly scoured it to recover waste gold (Thorp 1994).
Notwithstanding this comparatively large body of archaeological work undertaken at the Sydney Mint, Crook et al. (2003) concluded that the most detailed interpretation of the site produced to date (Thorp 1994) is, as for the Melbourne site, very much focused on architectural history.
The Perth Mint, which opened in 1899 following enormous gold finds in Coolgardie and Kalgoorlie in 1892, was turned over to the Government of Western Australia in 1970. Now run by Gold Corporation, it continues to produce precious metal coinage for investors and collectors. In 2003 a new manufacturing facility was constructed next to the original limestone building, but to the author’s knowledge no archaeological investigation was undertaken.
The similar layouts of the three Australian colonial mints present an interesting comparison and were evidently each established on the model of the London Mint, employing separate ranges around a courtyard, which had been tried and tested since the latter’s move from the Tower of London in 1809. Given that each of the Australian branches of the Mint was supposed to be built to designs from Britain, variations can be put down to local construction approaches and the employment of local materials – sandstone in Sydney, brick and bluestone in Melbourne, and limestone in Perth, and probably to technological developments in the intervening years. The post-closure management of the three Australian sites has been quite varied. Sydney’s was partially demolished and significantly disturbed, while Melbourne’s was entirely demolished but sealed and Perth’s is still standing. The sites are all state listed, but each on the basis of their heritage architecture. Wider comparison could be made with the British colonial mints established elsewhere in the Empire, including the Hong Kong mint founded in 1866, the branch opened at Ottawa in Canada in 1908 following the Yukon gold discoveries and that established at Pretoria, South Africa in 1923.
In May 2015 test excavation was undertaken at the Melbourne Mint site to determine the extent to which remains of the operative departments survive, if they had been disturbed to the same extent as in Sydney, and to gauge the potential to reveal more information relating to the industrial processes that occurred. A trench (12.5 m × 7.5 m) was opened in a central area of the car park where historic plans place the main furnace area at the rear of the coining hall. The trench location was also chosen to confirm the accuracy of the historic plans, and with the intention of revealing remains substantial enough to be legible to the public (to whom the excavation was open for viewing). Preliminary testing revealed the site was not contaminated with mercury, once used to clean the gold during the coin manufacturing process, as had been the case in Sydney.
Asphalt surface removal revealed in situ remains of the Mint structures from just 0.2 m below the ground surface. The methodology reflected that the site was not threatened and that all features could be preserved in situ to await additional investigation if necessary. Manual excavation involved the removal of undifferentiated demolition rubble, comprising mostly brick (structural and refractory) with some bluestone, glass, wood, and ceramic fragments, to expose foundation walls and surfaces. The undifferentiated rubble was attributed to a single demolition and leveling event and few individual archaeological contexts were identified.
Excavation revealed that foundations, and in some instances ground-level floors, of the operative departments survive in excellent condition. The apparent accuracy of the historic plans and the availability of constant reference points validated their overlay onto current plans to inform investigation and enable inferences to be made on the correlation of observed remains. The best indication of internal layout is provided by Clark’s plan, and comparison with the excavated remains shows it to be highly accurate (see below).
Comparison with Clark’s plan shows that one bluestone foundation is for the wall shown running to meet the southwest side of the main chimney. No definite evidence of the chimney foundation was observed in the trench, and this may indicate an inaccuracy in the plan. Alternatively, an expanse of soil “packing,” observed here and between structural elements in several other locations, may relate to this feature. Another section of bluestone foundations to the west relates to a perpendicular wall branching to the south-west, although the plan shows that part of this was actually a corridor.
One of the major features of the excavation area was a network of large subterranean flues, confirming that the area accommodated much of the combustive activity in the operative departments – i.e., producing emissions that needed to be cleared. Historic plans show these included a furnace, engine, boilers, and a forge in the smith’s shop, from which all emissions were presumably expelled via the main chimney, with all of the nearby flues leading to that structure.
The flues were well constructed with brick walls surmounted by an arched vault, generally two bricks in thickness. The inner skin, or in some cases both skins, of the wall and vault comprise heat-resistant firebrick, and all were coated in soot indicative of long industrial use. Surviving in parts, the vaulting has otherwise collapsed through demolition and the flues are filled with rubble. These were mostly left unexcavated, but slots were cleared to determine the profile and dimensions of each flue. The largest (0.8 m wide and 1.2 m from floor to the spring of the vault) runs northeast to southwest across the northwest of the excavation trench. From this flue, three others of similar dimension branch perpendicularly to the southeast.
The flue branching to the southeast is smaller and shallower (0.3 m wide) and articulates with the upper extent of the main flue. For much of its exposed length it is covered by concrete slab, with a brick vault only at its junction with the main flue. This may indicate a later repair, or relate to it passing beneath a major wall. It seems likely that it was designed to serve the forge in the smith’s shop to the northeast, although why it would not run straight to the adjacent chimney is unclear.
No structural walls survived above floor level within the trench, but the line of some can be inferred from the foundation trenches and the tendency for the flue vaulting to increase in thickness (generally to three bricks) where needed to carry the extra weight of a wall. It is likely that walls ran across other parts of the trench but demolition has made this unclear. The general impression is of an underground architecture developed by local builders in fairly expedient (undesigned) fashion to service the official design above.
A series of large metal bolts remain in situ in the northeasternmost brick platform, but their position out of the pits and only at one location suggests that they relate to other equipment than the boilers. The 1924 Mahlstedt Fire Insurance Plan shows that this room had by that date become a “Bullion Room,” and the removal of the boilers may also reflect an alternative source of heat, perhaps through the reticulated electrical power available in the CBD from the late nineteenth century.
The substantial flues observed in the excavation area and the high chimneys they are known to have fed are evidence of a significant investment in the expulsion of emissions. In addition to the obvious practical need to remove smoke from working areas, their scale can perhaps be viewed in the context of an increasing awareness of the issue of urban air pollution at that time.
Melbourne was known as a polluted city from early in its development, and historian John Lack (1985: 173) writes that “the conduct of the trades testified to the worship of economic progress through unfettered private enterprise, and to the influence of imported British traditions of industrial management.” So great were Melbourne’s pollution problems, including industrial smoke that “thickened the air,” that the city came to be known as “Smelbourne” (Lack 1985). Early attempts to clean up the city included the Yarra Pollution Act 1855 and the 1888 Royal Commission into its Sanitary Conditions, while developments such as adoption of the closed water supply catchment policy in 1872 are indicative of a more general trend towards environmental regulation.
The issue of air pollution makes the siting of the new Mint peculiar, as it would have been fairly central to the growing city even in the 1870s. Given efforts to obtain a branch of the Mint, its location was likely at least partly dictated by civic pride, and this is supported by the measures taken to prepare the site for construction. Taking this a step further, Stephen Mosley (2004, citing Douglas 1966) states that the nineteenth-century abhorrence of dirt and filth did not always extend to coal smoke which was often portrayed as good, honest dirt and not “matter out of place.” With reference to the cheerfully smoking chimneys portrayed in Fig. 8, it can be imagined that, as in Mosley’s Victorian Manchester, the smoking chimneys of the new Mint may have actually been viewed by the population of Melbourne as “benign signs of progress and prosperity” (Mosley 2004: 58).
The excavation program demonstrated that substantial remains of the operative departments survive at shallow depth across a constructed terrace of redeposited fill (Travers 2016). They appear to have been thoroughly cleared prior to demolition, resulting in very little artifactual material being recovered, and the assemblage seems to comprise background domestic refuse aggregated in the rubble during the demolition process. That no evidence of the earlier Exhibition Hall was encountered is unsurprising given that the investigation occurred outside its footprint and in an area made up with a depth of fill.
Since the completion of the excavation described above, additional small investigations have provided further insights into the archaeology of the site. Most informative have been five test pits excavated in June 2015 against the interior of the perimeter wall to inform an assessment of its structural stability (Travers 2015b). No significant deposits were encountered by the works, but inspection provided additional information on the fills making up the terrace. The observed stratigraphy varied substantially across the five test pits with some revealing mottled clay overlying clayey soils. This inversion of what would be expected in a natural profile could be taken to support the theory that upper soils were “cut” from the southwest of the site and immediately deposited to “fill” the terrace to the northeast before the process was repeated with the clay subsoils. The variation indicates that this was performed in fairly haphazard fashion to supplement the existing Exhibition Hall terrace.
Along with its standing buildings, the archaeology of the Mint represents a major historical institution that played a significant role not only in the history of Victoria and Australia, but also internationally. It was reckoned that by the turn of the twentieth century the Sydney and Melbourne Mints had been responsible for producing up to 40% of the gold coins in circulation in the British Empire, and by 1932, when production of sovereigns came to an end at all the overseas branches of the Mint, their importance had been demonstrated by a combined output of no less than £490 million in imperial gold coin (Challis 1992: 576). Although major questions about staff and expenditure were decided in London, on matters of day-to-day operations the branches had considerable freedom. From the resulting variations in practice came profitable investigation and reform, while exchange of information and staff between the branches was of mutual benefit (Challis 1992: 544).
Specifically, the revealed archaeological deposits at the Mint provide insights into the manner in which British designs (and their supporting rationale) were adopted or adapted for the site. The results of the 2015 investigation strongly suggest that structural remains will survive across the whole footprint of the operative departments, providing evidence across all of the different functional areas, and, with more extensive investigation across the footprint, the remains have the potential to reveal local variations in practice or approach to the coining process at the Melbourne Mint, and perhaps the role it played as part of the international Royal Mint network.
Thanks to the staff at the Working Heritage - the State-government-appointed committee of management responsible for the site, and especially Executive Officer Ross Turnbull, for commissioning and supporting the investigations which have yielded much of the above information. The works were undertaken through a partnership between Context and AHMS (now Extent Heritage). Thanks also to Jeremy Smith of Heritage Victoria for his sound advice and curatorial oversight of the works, and to Geoff Hewitt for providing relevant information – especially in relation to Bibb’s map of ca. 1854, and for suggestions in relation to interpretation and the content of this article.
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