History of The Mint
Rum Hospital 1811 - 1854
Constructed between 1811-1816, the building now known as The Mint was built as the southern wing of a three wing General Hospital and Dispensary. Initiated by Governor Lachlan Macquarie, the new hospital replaced the portable canvas building that had served the colony since 1789. To finance the construction of the General Hospital the authority to import 45 000 gallons of rum was granted to the contractors – Garnham Blaxcell, Alexander Riley and D’arcy Wentworth (the Principal Surgeon) – and as a result the buildings became known as the Rum Hospital.
Situated on the eastern ridgeline of the town of Sydney the hospital formed an imposing range of three colonnaded buildings. The architect is unknown. It was the most ambitious building project of the Macquarie period and on completion was described as 'elegant and Commodious'. Others were critical of the buildings, on both structural and aesthetic grounds. Francis Greenway, in one of his first duties as Civil Architect, reported on the buildings and described the columns of the verandahs that encircled each building as reflecting poorly on both the colony and the building’s architect – 'There is no Classical proportion in the Column…and [it]is of no description, ancient or modern.' He also, along with others, found serious structural faults with the buildings and extensive repairs were required in 1820 and 1826.
The centre building of the three wing complex housed 200 patients. It was later demolished for the present Sydney Hospital (1890). The two wings to the north (now Parliament House) and south (now The Mint) were to house the medical officers; the principal surgeon in the north wing and his two assistants in the south. Each building had a separate kitchen at the rear and stables and coach-house were also provided so that the surgeons could cover their extensive practice quickly by horse and carriage.
Perhaps because of its prominent site or because of its commodious buildings, the Hospital attracted a multiplicity of uses. The entire north wing was given over to law courts in 1815, the south wing became a military hospital in 1823 and at various times rooms provided an office for the Surveyor General Sir Thomas Mitchell and a studio for the artist John Lewin. A Dispensary to provide for the treatment of paupers in Sydney was established in the south wing in 1845 however this was short-lived, returning to the central wing wing in 1848. The south wing was then transferred to the military, becoming staff offices, clerical offices and a medical depot.
In 1854 Joseph Trickett, acting as Clerk of Works for the construction of the Royal Mint Sydney branch, proposed that the south wing of the hospital be converted to offices for The Mint and the coining factory buildings be constructed behind it. Conversion and construction works began in May 1854 and The Mint commenced operation the following year.
Royal Mint Sydney Branch 1853 - 1927Following the discovery of gold in New South Wales in 1851, large quantities of unrefined gold began to be circulated as money. To control this “black market” and to protect the official currency the Government suggested to the British Colonial Secretary that a mint be established in Sydney. After some debate, the British Government gave approval in 1853. This was to be the first branch of the Royal Mint outside England and twenty British staff were appointed to establish the Royal Mint Sydney.
Captain Edward W. Ward was appointed Deputy Master (Deputy to the Master of the Royal Mint) in 1853. Ward immediately began preparing designs for The Mint coining factory and ordered prefabricated iron building materials – cast iron columns, girders, roof trusses, roofing materials, windows and floor panels - and commissioned the supply of equipment and mint machinery. He also selected a team of skilled men to enable a fully functioning mint to be constructed and commence operations on the other side of the world. Joseph Trickett, appointed Superintendent of the Coining Department, was to act as Clerk of Works supervising the construction of The Mint in Sydney, while Ward completed arrangements for the supply of machinery and equipment in England.
After considering several sites in Sydney, in March 1854 Trickett suggested the use of the south building of Macquarie’s General Hospital as the site for The Mint. The hospital wing was to be adapted to provide offices and, at the southern end, a residence for the Deputy Master, while the coining factory was to be constructed on the land at the rear. Trickett adapted Ward’s plans to the site and construction of the buildings using the prefabricated components was undertaken by a contingent of Sappers and Miners (later the Royal Engineers) who had been trained in England to assemble the building as well as to operate The Mint machinery. The Mint commenced operation in 14 May 1855 and the following October The Mint Assayer, W.S. Jevons wrote to his brother Herbert “The Mint is going at a rattling pace. 14,000 oz [ounces] last week’s receipts of gold”.
Gold was delivered to The Mint by banks, individuals and the Gold Escorts from the goldfields which arrived once a week. The gold was melted, refined, and formed into ingots which were then rolled and pressed into strips. Coin blanks were cut from these strips and then fed into the coining presses. The Mint produced gold sovereigns and half sovereigns - in 1857 these were regarded as legal tender throughout the Australian colonies and from 1870, in England as well.
In the first decades of its operation changes to The Mint buildings were minor however with changing technology and the need for maintenance general upgrades, repairs and alterations were carroed out in the 1870s and the 1890s. However from the late 19th century there was the growing perception of Macquarie Street as the seat of government and law. The 1909 Royal Commission for the Improvement of the City of Sydney recommended the remodelling of Queen’s Square to make room for new law courts and the demolition of The Mint. While this plan was not realized, consideration was given to re-locating The Mint and from 1911 there were constant plans to construct law courts on the site of The Mint. After Federation of the Australian states, the formation of the Commonwealth Mint resulted in the consolidation of the various mints and in 1926, with declining profits and inadequate machinery, the Sydney Branch of the Royal Mint was closed.
Science and the Sydney Mint
The establishment of the Sydney branch of the Royal Mint coincided with the appointment of Sir William Denison as Governor of New South Wales. Denison was a former Royal Engineer with a strong interest in science and education. He arrived in Sydney in January 1855 and presided on 14 May 1855 at the official opening of The Mint. Shortly afterwards he took the initiative to create a Philosophical Society of New South Wales, with the object of providing a forum for “original papers on subjects of science, art, literature, and philosophy”. Captain E.W. Ward of The Mint was appointed an office bearer and when the first election of ordinary members took place in June 1856 their ranks included Charles Elouis, Superintendent of the Bullion Office, Joseph Trickett, Superintendent of the Coining Department, William Stanley Jevons, Assayer, and Robert Hunt, First Clerk of the Bullion Office. Elliott A Knife, Registrar and Accountant at The Mint, joined in September 1856. Henry Augustus Severn, clerk, joined in July 1859. Francis Bowyer Miller, assayer and Dr Adolph Leibius, assayer (and successor to William Stanley Jevons) both joined in November 1859.
One contemporary commentator observed that under Denison’s auspices science was becoming fashionable in New South Wales. The Sydney Mint was an important contributor to this development, at least in the 1850s and 1860sm through the training and talents of particular members of its staff and through the spirit of experimentation and enquiry cultivated within The Mint establishment. The mint played the role of government analytical laboratory. When two Sydney gentlemen exhibited a specimen of artificial stone at a meeting of the Philosophical Society in August 1857, the Governor directed Captain Ward to conduct, at The Mint, experiments as to its qualities. In March 1858 Ward devised a series of experiments on the strength and elasticity of “the ordinary timbers of New South Wales” and these were carried out at The Mint under Joseph Trickett’s supervision. Ward then presented a paper on his findings to a meeting of the Philosophical Society. There were other experiments on samples of combustible material from Tasmania and coal from Bellambi.
Mint employees made various individual contributions to the Philosophical Society. William Stanley Jevons presented a series of papers on a new sun gauge, on the formation of clouds and on earthquakes in New South Wales as well as a monthly meteorological report for Sydney. He also published on related topics in the Sydney press. Henry Augustus Severn presented a paper on the construction of specula for reflecting telescopes, Dr Leibius discussed the mundic quartz of the Adelong and Francis Boyer Miller spoke about the detection of spurious gold. Miller went on to invent a gold-refining process, patented in 1867, which was adopted in the English, American, Norwegian and other mints as well as in Australia.
Jevons, Hunt, Ward and Severn also contributed to a series of photographic ‘conversaziones’ organised by the Philosophical Society. The surviving photographs by Jevons and Hunt form an important record of both Sydney and The Mint in the late 1850s.
Post Mint 1927 - 1990
On 5 November 1926, when the official proclamation of the closure of The Mint was issued, another government department was already in occupation of office space in The Mint buildings. The Government Insurance Office had moved into the buildings some months earlier and in the following year they were joined by the Local Government Superannuation Board, the Electrical Contractors and Licensing Board and the Family Endowment Department. These were to be the first of at least 16 government departments, legal offices and courts that were to make use of The Mint buildings as temporary or overflow accommodation during the next 50 years.
Most of these departments stayed for only a relatively short time, usually two to three years at most. Others, such as the Housing Commission (1943-1957) and the Ministerial Motor Depot (1928-1965) stayed for much longer periods. However even these longer-term residents were shuffled or re-arranged within buildings as other departments were moved in.
The result of these shuffles and changes was the gradual demolition of sections of the coining factory buildings and the breaking up of their large industrial spaces into smaller and smaller sections to accommodation the seemingly endless succession of government departments and courts. Additions were also made to the existing buildings. As one former staff member of the Housing Department recalled;
“…after the war there was a…shortage of office space and they had the Public Works Department come in and put up as many offices as they could, so it was all timber and fibro…they really messed it up…fibro and timber stuff, you know, they came up very quickly…like a rabbit warren.”
The constant expectation was that The Mint buildings would be demolished and replaced by a purpose built structure that would provide appropriate office/law court accommodation. Despite several grand plans for the demolition for The Mint, the buildings survived - the construction of new buildings delayed by the Depression and two World Wars. Equally important in the survival of The Mint buildings was the fact that they provided low-cost, temporary accommodation for government departments and courts.
During the 1960s government departments occupying The Mint buildings included the Land Tax Office (1957-63), sections of the Department of Education (1958-64), the Matrimonial Causes Jurisdiction (1960-69), the Divorce Office (1964-68) and the Court Reporting Branch (1965-75). While this period also saw the demolition of the northern end of the 1854 coining factory buildings in 1968, in the early 1970s a growing awareness of the significance of early 19th century buildings resulted in restoration of both The Mint and Hyde Park Barracks. This commenced in 1975 and in 1979 the Premier of New South Wales, the Hon. Neville Wran, QC, MP announced that The Mint and Barracks would be museums, under the control of the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences (MAAS).
The Mint Offices building opened as “Australia’s first museum of historical decorative arts, stamps and coins” in 1982 although the coining factory buildings at the rear continued to be used as law courts and as a workshop for the Department of Public Works. The Mint Museum won both the New South Wales and National Museum of the Year Awards in 1983.
In 1993-5 the museum was re-developed as the Sydney Mint Museum, focussing on the impact of the Gold Rush years on New South Wales and the role of The Mint as a coining factory. However this re-developed museum was short-lived, closing in 1997. The property, comprising The Mint Offices and courtyard was transferred to the Historic Houses Trust in 1998.
The Mint Redevelopment
From 1985 to September 2004, the Historic Houses Trust head office was located at Lyndhurst in Glebe. In 1985 the Trust had a head office staff of three and managed three historic house museums in Sydney. The head office staff has now grown to approximately 80 and the Trust manages twelve historic properties, with head office staff located at several city properties, as well as The Mint.
The Trust has now located its scattered head office units into one facility at The Mint. The project has involved the conservation, adaptation and refurbishment of the 1850s Coining Factory buildings at the rear of the Macquarie Street building and development of the vacant land to the north of the Coining Factory.
The new development provides the public with proper access to the Trust's outstanding Caroline Simpson Library & Research Collection as well as facilitating more effective teamwork between units of the Trust and providing rationalised resources.
Both the public and the office functions are located in the remaining sections of the historic Coining Factory buildings and in new additions located to the north and south east of the site. The Macquarie Street building – referred to as the Mint Offices and originally the south wing of the 'Rum Hospital' – provides the "front door" to these new facilities, but is largely unaffected by the new development. It will continue to be open to the public with the existing café, meeting rooms available to the Trust and general public and the Members of the Historic Houses Trust lounge and office. The Coining Factory buildings and the project area can be viewed from the rear corridor, which also contains a small display on the history of the site and provides up-to-date information on the project.
The new buildings were designed under the leadership of architect Richard Francis-Jones, of FJMT Architects; Clive Lucas Stapleton and Partners as conservation architects and Godden Mackay Logan as archaeologists, and were carefully located to compliment the proportions and geometric alignments of the existing buildings. During excavation works, significant archaeological evidence was uncovered, elements of which remain accessible as part of the interpretation of the site.