First Foreign Issues of the Ottawa Mint

The First Foreign Issues of the Ottawa Mint.

By: MICC Lifetime member #001

It’s quite true that it’s an ill wind that blows no one any good – and this was true even of the international disaster called the First World War. The war proved to be very, very good for the profit columns of “The Royal Mint – Ottawa Branch”, later to become the Royal Canadian Mint in 1931.

The fact was that up until 1915 or ’16, the Ottawa Mint turned no more than a modest profit and even though it fulfilled its obligation to supply Canada with needed coin, critics could still preach that it might yet prove to be a national liability should the demand for domestic coin drop markedly. But the war changed that – especially war on the high seas.

English mints – either the Royal Mint, London, or Heaton’s in Birmingham – supplied all the coin for the smaller colonies in the British Empire. Shipments of such coin out of England became distinctly hazardous with the outbreak of hostilities with Germany in 1914 with surface raiders on the loose seeking to sink as much British shipping as possible. By 1916, such German raiders were gone and the Kaiser was loathe to risk his big , very expensive, “dreadnoughts” in open battle. But there remained yet another German naval arm in the form of the first submarines – the “U-boats” – and these formed a sort of cordon around the British Isles and Bay of Biscay extending out some 200 miles, the limit of their effective range. But Britain had an advantage in that she had overseas possessions that were capable of supporting one another – and this extended to coinage.

We know, for instance, that the Ottawa Mint, as a branch of the Royal Mint, was both privileged and obligated to coin gold sovereigns on demand – and this she did throughout the war. In many cases the sovereigns coined were of South African gold (South Africa lacking a mint as yet) that were struck to British account and forwarded to the United States in payment of war material. In this way, the gold was kept out of harm’s way from the German submarines.

For much the same reason, it was decided to turn over the coinage needs of Newfoundland in 1917 to the Ottawa Mint for the duration. Master dies were sent out from the London Mint but any coinage was essentially safe from being lost at sea due to enemy action. Even though Newfoundland remained a less-than-prosperous colony with a more-than-adequate money supply, there remained an overriding reason for her requirement of hard coin in that year: the old “Cash Notes”.

There were two types: the first were in the name of the “Department of Public Works”, issued yearly 1901-9 in denominations of 40-, 50- and 80-cents as well as $1 and $5. These notes were earmarked specifically for prompt payment of materials, labour and equipment hire for the construction and maintenance of roads. All were redeemable at the Bank of Montreal where the government kept a sinking fund for the purpose. The total face value issued during these years was $1,384,578.

Newfoundland Government Cash Note. 25-cents. Fiscal year 1910-11

The second series ran 1910-14, the purpose for them being broadened to include marine projects and welfare payments. Denominations were now: 25¢, 50¢, $1, $2 and $5. They, too, were redeemable upon presentation to the Bank of Montreal. In all, $1,150,862.50 face value were issued in this second series.

Although the notes were originally intended for a rapid turnaround, that was rarely the case. Many – perhaps most – were not redeemed for some time. Being backed as fully as any Newfoundland note, they passed readily from hand to hand as another form of currency and the typical “raggy” condition of those still in existence shows that it was extensive and sustained. Although the last of the Cash Notes were issued in 1914, they continued in circulation for several more years.

The outbreak of the First World War removed much of the unemployment and need for make-work projects in Newfoundland. Of all the colonies, Newfoundland answered the call to a greater extent than most, proportional to her wealth and population, and her casualties were high. Indeed, it may be fairly said that Newfoundland ruined such economy as she had in support of Britain and events during the post-War period show that this largely went unappreciated and unacknowledged.

Meanwhile, in the depths of the War, Newfoundland decided to retire such Cash Notes as still remained in circulation, replacing them with hard coin. If we take the mintage of the 1917 coinage to represent the amount outstanding, it must have been in the neighbourhood of $350,000. Officially, the government was “worried” about the hardship to the common people by the loss or destruction of these notes, many of which were now mere rags. Unofficially, we can suspect that the true motive was to be a profit to the government. The remainder of the sinking fund set aside for their redemption was intact and at this time, Newfoundland could have its coins struck at the Royal Mint on the same terms as did Canada before 1908: total cost being the actual costs of the metal plus some 3% face for the silver and 10% face for the bronze plus shipping. But silver wasn’t much over 50-cents per ounce even yet. Typically, the silver coins would cost only half- to two-thirds face; the cents not much more than 1/3 face. Therefore all the notes could be redeemed in newly-minted hard silver and bronze with as much as half the original sinking fund remaining, a welcome addition to the government coffers.

But when Newfoundland approached the Royal Mint for these coins, the Mint was both overworked and fearful of shipping loss due to German submarines, a loss that would fall on English insurance companies. Therefore, they instructed Newfoundland to contact the Ottawa Mint for this coinage and London would supply the master coining tools to them. As a branch mint, Ottawa at the time was actually under the jurisdiction of the British Treasury and could not refuse this work, even if they had foolishly not wanted to. But they welcomed it. Under certain conditions.

For many years, there had been complaints from the Maritimes and Eastern Canada about the Newfoundland 20-cent pieces, many of which turned up accidentally or otherwise in Canada and were attempted to be passed as 25-cent pieces. Ottawa told Newfoundland that she was quite willing to strike whatever coins she wished so long as Newfoundland made her coinage in exact correspondence to the Canadian – which it already was in value and had been so since 1895. Despite this equality in value, the Newfoundland silver coins were heavier than the Canadian by about 1%, a holdover from the days when Newfoundland had valued the English sovereign at only $4.80 while Canada called it $4.86 2/3. Pleading the need for streamlining the operation in every way possible during wartime, Canada insisted that the proposed coinage be exactly the same as the Canadian in weight, fineness, diameter and denominations as well as the present equal value. Newfoundland acceded to these fairly reasonable demands and had her coinage struck on what was really ready-made planchets for Canadian coins. All this she embodied in an Order-in-Council, effective March 29, 1917.

Newfoundland, Cent, 1917-C

Newfoundland, 25-Cents, 1917-C

Consequently, Newfoundland introduced and declared legal tender a 25-cent piece, leaving Newfoundlanders to take care the older 20-cent pieces were not foisted off on them – after all, the two coins were of nearly the same diameter (23.19mm for the 20-cent, 23.62mm for the 25-cent even though the latter was proportionally heavier). From this time forward, Newfoundland silver coins were also slightly lighter, the 50-cent of 1911, for instance, weighed 11.782 grams while those of 1917 and later weighed 11.664, other denominations in proportion. Even though the 1-cent should have seen little or no change, there was: the tin in its bronze alloy was dropped from four to three per cent and its diameter from 25.53mm to 25.40. All of these changes became permanent except for one: the bronze cent, upon returning to the Royal Mint for striking in 1929, resumed its older, larger diameter – again struck on British halfpenny instead of Canadian cent planchets .

During the period 1917-20, all of Newfoundland’s coinage needs were met by the Ottawa Mint. After that, the Royal Mint took back all such contracts for her own use and, so far as the Ottawa Mint was concerned, she struck (as the Royal Canadian Mint) coins for Newfoundland again only during WWII and its aftermath and did so for exactly the same reasons as had pertained a quarter-century before.

But the Newfoundland coinage of 1917 was the first mintage Ottawa did for a foreign country and, in total, the following numbers were struck:In every case, the small “C” mintmark is found on the coins’ lower reverse: on the cents just above the “UN” of NEWFOUNDLAND and on the silver denominations between the elliptical dot and bottom open curliques.

Interestingly, Newfoundland was not the only British colony that made use of the Ottawa minting facilities during WWI; Jamaica did also and for the exactly the same reason: bypassing the U-boat threat.

At the time, Jamaica used the silver coinage of Britain and only her minor coinage – farthing, halfpenny and penny – was distinctive. In one way, Ottawa’s striking of these coins had difficulties that the Newoundland did not in that they were in cupro-nickel, an alloy with which Ottawa had not worked before. Since the contracts were drawn up early in 1917, before the entry of the United States into the war, this was most easily overcome by ordering the planchets from an American firm, none in Canada (including the Mint) capable of doing so except with great difficulty whereas cupro-nickel happened to be the same alloy as used in the American 5-cent piece. Then the U.S. entered the war and the firm in question immediately switched by federal order to war production causing a delay in the supplying of the blanks to Ottawa, a delay that was overcome only by the direct intervention of the Canadian government. All the coins then had to carry a 1918 date due to this delay. Nevertheless, once the question of supply was ironed out and with the coming of the Armistice in November, 1918, the Jamaicans had more struck in 1919.

In all, the following were coined in Ottawa:

Jamaica Halfpenny, 1919-C 

All three denominations were essentially alike in design,
the mintmark appearing on the obverse just below the date.

As with the other colonial coinages, the Royal Mint took back future production after 1920 or so. Proofs exist of the above 1918 coins even though Ottawa was not equipped to produce such pieces; we must surmise that they were struck from the master dies in London during the preparation of these tools for Ottawa.

Ottawa had to wait until 1937 before she struck any more coins for a foreign country.


Previously printed in the MICC Numismatic Journal Vol-02, Issue-10