The Canadian Gold Coinage of Edward VII.
By: MICC Lifetime member #001
After several years of agitation and a couple of actual construction, the establishment that was officially known as “The Royal Mint – Ottawa Branch” opened in that city in 1908, striking the first circulation coins on January 2nd. While one of the main reasons for the Mint’s existence was to convert Canadian gold bullion into coin (thus overcoming the problems such as existed during the Klondike Gold Rush), the entire “gold coin” part of the operation was being soft-pedaled. In part, this was because bankers feared that government gold coin would displace many of their notes in circulation – which would probably have been true to some extent.
But Finance Minister Fielding was adamant that there should be Canadian gold coin. The Canadian dollar was itself defined as being based on the American gold dollar, thus allowing U.S. gold coins to pass as legal tender to any amount. When the idea of the Ottawa Mint was still in the planning stages back in 1901, the U.S. had been approached to see if any future Canadian gold coin might not pass as legal tender there as well, providing it was struck to the proper standards. However, “for sentimental reasons”, the U.S. declined and while American “eagles” circulated in Canada, few if any of the future Canadian gold coins did so in the U.S.
There was also a certain amount of consideration given to the name of any future Canadian gold; one proposed in 1900 was the “beaver” (of “bold and active appearance” with seven stars to represent the number of current provinces). We presume that it was to be applied to the $10 coin as a direct correlation to the American $10 “eagle”, and further presume that any $2.50, $5 and $20 coins (all proposed and legislated for) would have been “quarter-“, “half-” and “double-beavers”.
But none of this came to pass for some time – for the simple reason that the Mint as yet had no refinery. In fact, the original plans drawn up by the parent Royal Mint did not even include one, even though they advised the Canadians it might be wise to reserve ground for a future one. For some reason, Canada held the idea that the coinage might be refined at the Vancouver Assay Office, that nearest the Yukon gold fields, at the time the main source of supply – and even later proposed building the Mint’s gold refinery in the Yukon itself. With all this backing and filling – plus the fact U.S. gold coin was still filling the circulation niche – the Ottawa Mint opened with the refinery no more than a plan, Fielding not even receiving the $30,000 funding until February, 1909, at which time everyone agreed the facility was “urgently needed”.
Canadian sovereign, 1908-C. Closeup shows location of the mintmark and designer’s initials – “B.P.” for “Beneditto Pistrucci”, the design first being used in 1816 on the British 1- and ½-sovereign.
But while no gold coins of distinctive Canadian design appeared with the opening of the Mint, that did not apply to the gold sovereigns. As a branch of the Royal Mint in London, the Ottawa Mint could at any time be called upon to produce coin for use by the mother country – and almost by definition, these would be gold sovereigns. The sovereign was also of legal tender status in Canada, even though at the awkward value of $4.86 2/3, the same as in the U.S. But any such sovereigns struck in Canada probably would not be for circulation here but rather used in international payments by Britain, almost always to the U.S. As well, Canadian gold producers had the right to have their raw bullion turned into sovereigns for a small fee and, even while gold circulation was suspended to the general public during WWI, this right was sometimes exercised – again, for payments (probably) to the U.S. Due to this reason and the fact that Britain was requesting Ottawa to coin South African gold for U.S. payments, we have a steady production of Canadian sovereigns throughout the War – to 1919, in fact – with most years present. Yet, under “suspension of specie”, Canadians spent none of these.
The sovereigns in question were the same as being struck in London at the time, distinguished only by the “C” (for “Canada”) mintmark on the ground. This was not an innovation; the Australian mints of M (elbourne), S (ydney) and P (erth) were already striking these coins with the appropriate mintmarks – and had been as far back as 1871.
But there were problems with the 1908-C sovereign issue, all directly attributable to the lack of a refinery. Fortunately for the Mint Assayer, Ralph Pearson (formerly with the Melbourne Mint), gold shipments received during 1908 were small, totaling only some 219 Troy ounces sent in by the Reddick Mine in the Larder Lake district. In keeping with the regulations, this gold was turned into just 636 sovereigns but then Pearson was forced to refine the gold virtually by hand methods.
This first year of issue sovereign appears to have been produced only in Specimen quality, at the time being a dull matte finish on such coins. Since the cases for the 1908 Specimen Set contains no provision for any denomination larger than the silver 50-cent piece, the sovereigns were not distributed in this fashion. Nor, in spite of the tiny number produced, did many circulate but were widely saved by collectors at the time, a report in the Numismatist from 1909 noting that “The intrinsic value of each piece is $4.86 2/3, although specimens have already sold for $25”. Today, the 1908-C is a genuine rarity, due mostly to its small initial mintage; still, it tends to be more expensive than rare, an example or two almost always available somewhere on the market to those willing to pay the price. Condition-wise, this particular year has a lot in AU-UNC.
In early 1909, regulations regarding the receipt of gold bullion and its treatment were laid down. On paper, depositors could demand payment in gold coin (presumably including half-sovereigns even though none were ever struck – or asked for – in Canada). However, few exercised this option, preferring the convenience of a cheque. Pearson and his Assay Department were relieved at this, since they were then allowed to do the very best they could without a refinery without complaints from the public. The tenders for the refinery were let in July, 1909, with proposed completion for May, 1910 (that deadline would fail to be kept by some six months). In the meantime, the Mint managed to turn out another 16,273 sovereigns in 1909 – again, virtually by hand methods. The completion of the refinery in late 1910 at least relieved some of the pressure in that year, even though only 28,012 were produced that year. In the meantime, the Canadian government was forced to buy all proffered gold bullion but because of the gold-preparation section of the Mint (the Coining Department was set up to turn out 2-million gold coins per year), much of this was being stockpiled, the Mint being forced to borrow money from the Department of Finance to do so. With the operating refinery in 1911, the logjam was broken, over a quarter-million sovereigns struck in that year (even with the new dies for George V held up for several months).
With the refinery under construction, consideration could then be given to a distinctive Canadian coinage, initially the denominations decided to be the same as the U.S.: $2.50, $5, $10 and $20. In 1909, designs began to be made up, Finance Minister Fielding’s idea of a simple reverse of crowned coat-of-arms counterbalanced by more ambitious ideas, the “busiest ” being by Henri Dubois of the Paris Mint, designer of the 1908 Quebec Tercentenary medal.
Above: Two designs by Henri Dubois for the proposed $20 gold piece. Although good examples of contemporary medallic art, the designs would not have worn well in circulation.
In contrast to Dubois’ busy designs, those drawn by the staff at the Royal Mint on the suggestions and instructions of Finance Minister Fielding are almost stark in their simplicity. Shown below is the drawing for the proposed $2.50 reverse; there also exists one for a $10, differing only in that the circle of curlicues was replaced by a wreath of maple leaves in the background. Although perhaps not “high art”, the Fielding designs were much superior in meeting the goals of the Mint “mechaniks”: ease of production and good wearing qualities in circulation.
Royal Mint design for the proposed “2 ½ Dollar” of 1909 according to Fielding’s instructions. The Public Record Office, London, contains an accompanying design for a $10 reverse, differing only in that there is a wreath of maple leaves in the background.
There was considerable discussion regarding the proposed gold coinage in 1909. It was undecided, for instance, whether the obverse should carry the crowned head of Edward as on the Canadian silver coins or the bare head as used on British gold. Although four denominations were initially proposed, both the $2.50 and $20 were dropped – partly for a very unusual reason: Fielding wanted the denominations spelled out and these took too many letters. The Royal Mint, for their part, didn’t like the big-crown/skinny shield since it crowded the field even to splitting the word CANADA. Altogether, it took several months for the Royal Mint and Fielding to come to an agreement of what was technically feasible. But by early 1910, with the completion of the Ottawa refinery expected later that year, it seems that Canada was poised for a coinage of $5 and $10 gold pieces for Edward VII carrying the date 1910 or ’11.
At this point, everything conspired to prevent this. While a Currency Act of May 4, 1910 was passed authorizing a silver dollar as well as $2.50, $5, $10 and $20 gold pieces (just in case there was a future demand), Edward VII died just two days later putting everything on hold awaiting the new master dies and punches for George V. This did not take place for a considerable time, the reason for the delay still a mystery. But as 1910 became early 1911, the refinery now completed, Canada had no new dies. Finally, in February, after threatening to strike 1910-date sovereigns in 1911, the Royal Mint did bestir themselves to the extent that George V 1911 sovereign dies were provided to Ottawa so that they could at least strike these.
As we now know, the dies for the rest of the Canadian coins, 1-cent through 50-cent, did not arrive until that summer and then were found to be “defective” in that they did not contain the words “Dei Gratia” (“By the Grace of God”) in the obverse legends. The lateness of the year forced Canada to legislate these “Godless coins” as legal – and then pass more legislation in late 1911 authorizing the corrected legend as of 1912. In all of this, any new Canadian denominations became lost. We now know that a reverse die was prepared (but never used) for a Canadian 1910 silver dollar; there also exists the obverse die for a “Godless” silver dollar (obviously, 1911). The rare 1911 silver dollar pattern is of the corrected legend, obviously prepared in late 1911.
Modified design for the reverse of the gold $5 coin of 1910. It differs from the 1909 designs mostly in the absence of the crown above the shield. As it actually appeared in 1912 in the reign of George V, the shield was made blockier and squatter, opening the areas for the top and bottom legends.
The death of Edward VII meant that no such gold coins would be struck in his name and the die delay eventually meant that none would appear in 1911 for George V either. But that does not mean preparations were not made for the new monarch. In October, 1911, designs for Canadian $5 and $10 gold coins were submitted and approved (November 8). However, the lateness of the year meant none could be in circulation before New Years and the decision was made to strike these gold coins as of 1912. The Royal Mint Museum, London, does contain a pair of gold patterns of these coins bearing the date 1911.
Therefore, despite all the good intentions, the Canadian gold coinage in the name of Edward VII really consists of just one denomination: the sovereign with the “C” mintmark. But it wouldn’t have taken much for things to have been entirely different.
Previously printed in the MICC Numismatic Journal Vol-01, Issue-09