The Former Royal Melbourne Mint, the building the Hellenic Museum is proud to call home, is celebrating 150 years since its official opening on 6 June 1872. In celebration of this incredible milestone, we've gathered 15 of our favourite facts about the site and its history – one for every decade!
1. Home of Melbourne's first game of cricket
The city of Melbourne was first surveyed in 1836 and at that time, the plot of land bordered by William and Queen Streets was set aside for public use. But, before it was developed, the open plot hosted Melbourne's first cricket match! Military and civilian gentlemen gathered to play against each other in the November of 1838, near the corner of William and La Trobe Streets – where the Museum now stands.
2. Pasturage for police ponies
As city development increased, police barracks were constructed on this public land, on the block south of Little Lonsdale Street. In 1839 – shortly after the momentous cricket match – the grassy plot to the north of Little Lonsdale was designated an agistment for the mounted troop's horses to rest and graze.
3. The original Exhibition Building
By 1854, Melbourne was booming and the plot was repurposed for Melbourne's first Exhibition Building. In the wake of the Paris International Exhibition, space was needed to house Melbourne's displays of art and industry. The building was hastily built from wood and iron, and designed as a minute model of London's Crystal Palace.
Four years later, in 1858, the building was renovated for concerts, balls, bazaars, flower shows and receptions. In the decade that followed it was home to many events including the 1861 Victorian Exhibition and Melbourne's first civic fancy dress ball in 1863. It would come to be demolished in the late 1860s and was replaced by Carlton's Royal Exhibition Building, which was constructed for the 1880 Melbourne International Exhibition.
4. Pipped at the post by Sydney
Victoria's Gold Rush began in 1850 and with the influx of the precious metal, the desire for a Melbourne branch of the Royal Mint began to surface in 1852. The Victorian Legislative Council petitioned the Imperial Government but were denied – as Sydney's application was reviewed first, and approved. Sydney was officially appointed in 1853, and by 1855 the first branch of the Royal Mint outside of England was in operation.
5. An unstoppable force
For the time being, Victorians left the matter to rest. But as outputs of the gold rush only increased, the desire for a Melbourne mint was revived by the time of 1859 elections. The Victorian Parliament renewed its petitions and finally, on 7 August 1869, the British acquiesced. The volume of gold that could be minted locally was unable to be ignored.
6. A joint endeavour
As the new colonial Mint was a British institution, it had to be under British control. This meant all employees were classed as British Civil Servants, and the officer-in-charge was known as the Deputy Master – that is, the Deputy of the Master of the Mint in London. Even the building design had to be in accordance with plans from the London Mint, and all coins had to conform to strict regulations.
7. In good architectural company
Construction was completed from 1869 to 1872, with the final design signed off by architect John James (J.J.) Clark from the Victorian Public Works Department. You might know J.J. Clark in connection to some of Melbourne's other iconic buildings – the Old Treasury Building, Customs House (now the Immigration Museum) and Melbourne City Baths.
8. Renaissance & Rome
The building's architectural style is known as Renaissance Revival, a term for a broad group of 19th century styles which were neither Greek nor Gothic Revival, but instead drew inspiration from a wide range of classicising Italian modes. Today the building is one of few surviving examples of Renaissance Revival in Australia. It is reputed that the design is based on Raphael's Palazzo Vidoni Caffarelli in Rome.
9. Cutting corners
The original Mint complex was a quadrangle: a U-shaped factory, boxed off by the administration building and containing a central courtyard. It was finished with perimeter fences and two guard houses for the police and military, at the north and south gates.
The administration building contained offices, as well as quarters for the Deputy Master, his family and domestic servants. The original vision for this building was much grander, but by the time orders were signed in 1869, the state government had committed itself to several building projects and so had to devise ways to reduce overall construction costs.
With machinery already on its way to Melbourne, the design of the factory buildings had to remain the same.
And so cutting these costs fell on the administration building. One storey was removed and the overall length of the building was cut down by 80ft, with minimal ornamentation on the facade.
Today, only this administration building and its two guard houses survive. After the Mint ceased operations in 1968, the other structures were demolished. Remnants are thought to be cemented under the car park now in their place, which is managed by Working Heritage Victoria. Proceeds fund the conservation of 16 heritage buildings on Crown land in Victoria, including the Former Royal Mint.
10. A hidden detail on the Coat of Arms
The official opening of the Melbourne Royal Mint is recorded as 6 June 1872. On this day, the first two sovereigns were minted by then-Governor of Victoria, His Excellency the Viscount Canterbury KCB. The Governor kept one of these coins and presented the other to the Deputy Master. If you look closely, this date is scribed onto the Royal Coat of Arms that decorate the two wrought iron gates on William Street.
11. Fast facts of the first decade
The Mint's first decade of operation saw the minting and circulation of gold sovereigns and half sovereigns to the value of £15m. During this time, the Mint also produced coinage for India, New Guinea and Papua.
Images of the coining hall, examiner's room and melting plant respectively.
12. Not all that glitters is gold
Before the 1910s, the Melbourne Mint produced only gold sovereigns and occasionally commemorative medals. In the 1870s, and again in the 1890s following the discovery of Broken Hill, the government contemplated the issue of a silver coinage. Finally, in 1909, the newly federated Commonwealth of Australia decided to have its own currency and asked the Melbourne Mint to begin producing silver coins.
The first silver coin was issued in 1916, followed by the first copper pence in 1919. From then on, Melbourne Mint produced all the silver coin and a large part of the bronze for the new Commonwealth, with the balance of bronze supplied by the Perth Mint. This would continue for several decades, until...
13. Decimal decimation
1964 would spell the beginning of the end. It was decided Australia would move to decimal currency and plans were made for a new Commonwealth Mint to be located in Canberra. The bulk of this new Mint's technical and administrative staff would be recruited from Melbourne, leaving the existing Mint with inadequate staff to support its operations.
Regardless, Melbourne Mint persisted. It recruited recent migrants, borrowed engineers from the Department of Supply and made arrangements to delay transfers of key individuals. In mid-1964, Melbourne began striking the 1966 one cent coin and became the first mint to strike Australian decimal coinage.
But it wasn't enough – Canberra's Royal Australian Mint opened on 22 February 1965 and its advanced equipment left no place for the old Mint. Canberra – who are today the sole producers of all circulating Australian coins – would quickly supersede Melbourne & Perth.
In 1968, Melbourne ceased operations and its machinery was sold. The following year, the operative departments' buildings were demolished. On 29 May 1970, H.M. Queen Elizabeth II gave the official proclamation that both Melbourne and Perth would be discontinued as Branches of the Royal Mint, effective 31 July 1970.
14. From denominations to 'I do'
Following the Mint's discontinuation, the surviving administration building was restored and repurposed. The ground floor would come to be shared by the Victorian Teachers Tribunal & the Registry Office, who used the old Bullion Room for the performance of civil marriages. To this day, people often visit the Hellenic Museum to see the place they were married! The image above was given to the Museum by such a visitor.
15. The present day
Today, the administration building and its adjoining structures are conserved by Working Heritage Victoria who are responsible for the caretaking of heritage buildings on Crown land. Their office is located in the Former Royal Mint's southern gatehouse, beside the administration building which has been the home of the Hellenic Museum since 2007.
Royal Historical Society of Victoria, 1988. The Royal Mint, Melbourne.
Sharples, J. (2010) Melbourne Mint in Museums Victoria Collections. https://collections.museumsvictoria.com.au/articles/3775 Accessed 26 May 2022
Sharples, J. (2010) Establishment of Melbourne Mint, 1872 in Museums Victoria Collections. https://collections.museumsvictoria.com.au/articles/3775 Accessed 26 May 2022
Sharples, J. (2010) Closure of Melbourne Mint in Museums Victoria Collections. https://collections.museumsvictoria.com.au/articles/3782 Accessed 26 May 2022
Working Heritage Victoria. 2022. Former Royal Mint. [ONLINE] Available at: https://www.workingheritage.com.au/places/former-royal-mint Accessed 30 May 2022