Makeshift money: Tokens in the Te Papa collection

Makeshift money: Tokens in the Te Papa collection

Prompted by an enquiry from an independent scholar, history curator Katie Cooper has been researching a series of 19th century tradesmen’s tokens in Te Papa’s numismatics collection. Here she provides a brief history of this fascinating colonial currency.

A shortage of change

In the early 19th century a variety of foreign coins were circulating in New Zealand, brought by whalers, sealers, traders, and tradesmen from all over the world.

British coinage was made legal tender in 1858, although the Colonial Government did not have the authority to strike its own coins. Settlers quickly found that lower denomination currency, needed for day-to-day trading, was in short supply.

Some business owners kept accounts for their customers and offered credit, while others gave change in the form of low value goods such as postage stamps and matches, rather than coins.

Customers mill around outside the general store, around 1878.
Customers mill around outside a general store in Whanganui, around 1878. Harding, William James, 1826-1899 :Negatives of Wanganui district. Ref: 1/1-000309-G. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.

Tradesmen’s tokens

A few enterprising companies hit upon their own solution, and from 1857 they began importing unique tokens which could only be used for purchases in their stores.

Although never legal tender, these tokens were an important component of the circulating currency. In 1874 it was estimated that half of the copper coins in circulation in New Zealand were tradesmen’s tokens.

The tokens, usually issued in penny and half-penny denominations, were inconvenient for customers, as they could not be redeemed in other stores and if the issuer went out of business the tokens became worthless.

For merchants, however, they were a way of encouraging people to return to the store, and an effective form of advertising.

Token design

Most coins gave the name of the company, the location, and an indication of the types of goods and services offered. Some also provided visual clues, such as this token, issued by a Christchurch watchmaker and jeweller, which shows a clock, prize cup and watch face.

Many others depicted justice and fair trade in the form of Aequitas, the goddess of fairness and equity.

On this token, issued by Morrin & Co. of Auckland some time between 1862 and 1875, Aequitas is pictured standing in front of two traders, one Māori and one Pākehā, suggesting equity and egalitarianism in cross-cultural economic interactions.

It’s an ironic choice of imagery, however, for Morrin and Co. supplied provisions to military regiments stationed in Auckland in the 1860s, and thus profited from the New Zealand Wars.[1]

Some tokens provide visual links to Home (Britain) such as these Auckland tokens which are inscribed with an arrangement of thistle, rose, and shamrock, representing Scotland, England, and Ireland.

Others feature symbols that connect them to a particular region, and highlight unique aspects of New Zealand’s flora and fauna.

These tokens from New Plymouth show a waka, kiwi, flax plant and tree ferns, with a mountain (perhaps Mt Taranaki or Paritutu Rock) towering behind.

New Plymouth, with Mount Taranaki in the background, around 1881
New Plymouth, with Mount Taranaki in the background, around 1881. Ref: PA1-q-183-33. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.

This token, issued by George McCaul in 1874, shows the goldfields at Thames in full swing.

McCaul, lured by the promise of untold riches, travelled from Australia in 1861 to try his luck on the Otago goldfields. Having little success he moved on to Thames in 1868, a year after the goldfields opened, and made his money producing pipes, chimneys and colonial ovens for other miners.

Gold mining batteries, Moanataiari Valley, Thames, around 1880.
Gold mining batteries, Moanataiari Valley, Thames, around 1880. Sherring, W W :Photographs of gold mining near Thames and view of the Wairarapa Plains. Ref: PAColl-7395-1. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.

Unique amongst the tokens is the 1874 issue by Samuel Coombes, an outfitter in Auckland and Grahamstown, which is inscribed with his likeness.

Coombes as depicted in Observer, Volume 5, Issue 130, 3 March 1883. He is holding a hose, as he was well known for hosing down the path outside his store to prevent dust.
Coombes as depicted in Observer, Volume 5, Issue 130, 3 March 1883. He is holding a hose, as he was well known for hosing down the path outside his store to prevent dust.

A distinctive New Zealand currency

In all, almost 60 traders issued their own tokens between 1857 and 1881. Their use declined rapidly after 1876 when a large supply of imperial coinage became available, and they were phased out in the 1880s.

New Zealand did not issue its own distinctive coins until 1933: it was the last British dominion to do so.

These 20th century coins, which featured native birds and Māori iconography on one side and the monarch on the other, allowed New Zealand to officially ‘proclaim its individuality to the world.’[2] The tradesmen’s tokens were used as inspiration for the designs.

Objects of interest

Around 1905 the Director of the Colonial Museum donated a number of tokens to the collection, noting that they were ‘palpable evidence of a peculiar phase of national life,’ and would ‘ever remain objects of interest to the collector and the historian.’[3]

More than 100 years later the tokens remain objects of interest, providing insights into 19th century life and commerce. Inscribed into the copper and bronze are images of a young colony: images chosen by businessmen looking to cement their place in the community, the country, and the empire.


  1. Vaughn Humberstone, ‘Merchants Making Money: Biographical Articles on the Issuers of New Zealand Tokens’ (unpublished manuscript), 28. This manuscript includes a biography of each token issuer as well as information on the makers.
  2. Deputy Master of the Royal Mint, 1935-6, quoted in Allan Sutherland, Numismatic History of New Zealand: History Reflected in Money and Medals (Wellington: New Zealand Numismatic Society, 1941), 271.
  3. ‘New Zealand Tokens,’ Grey River Argus, 4 June 1906.

Further Reading


  1. Where would I be able to get a copy of Katie Cooper’s hearth and home book?

    1. Author

      Hi Sharyn. Thank you so much for your interest. My thesis hasn’t been published but I have written a few other blogs on aspects of New Zealand’s culinary history that you can see here, here and here. I am also giving a talk at the Ministry for Culture and Heritage which will be available online. You will be able to listen to it here. Thanks again and best wishes, Katie.

  2. Hi Katie
    Thanks for such an interesting sidelight on colonial trading.
    Looking at the Somerville, Auckland one I think the straggly leaves on the left represent a leek, for Wales. It wouldn’t do to leave Wales out if you have England, Ireland and Scotland!
    Best wishes

    1. Author

      Hi Stephanie
      Thank you so much for reading and commenting. I’m glad you enjoyed the blog. We definitely don’t want to leave out Wales, although on this token from the Museums Victoria collection you can see the detail of the leaves a little more clearly and I do think they’re part of the thistle. Thankfully we have other objects in the collection, like this Royal Wedding Cake Tin, that depict all of the flowers of the United Kingdom!
      Very best,

  3. A very interesting article Katie. I would have assumed we would just have used British coins but not to be! Hard to believe we used to have a quarter penny coin-the farthing. Graham

    1. Author

      Thank you so much for reading and commenting Graham. I’m glad you enjoyed the blog.
      Very best,

  4. What about the milk tokens I remember as a boy (born 1931)? Issued by Wellington Municipal milk Dept?
    Designed to reduce the pilfering of cash left in bottles to pay for the milk. I used to deliver with the horse-drawn carts, rubber tyred, that circulated in Karori.

    1. Author

      Hi Ian

      I wasn’t aware of milk tokens so thank you so much for commenting and sharing your memories. I did a bit of searching on Papers Past and acording to this 1941 article it was a sign of a ‘moral state’ and a ‘civilised country’ that milk bottles and tokens could be put out on the doorstep and not ‘interfered with by marauders.’The theft of bottles and tokens was therefore taken very seriously!

      Thanks for reading.

  5. Hi Katie
    Fascinating. Where would they have been made?
    Minor details re the New Plymouth one – the tall plants look much more like tree ferns than ti trees. And the mountain has either had a large amount of artistic licence – or perhaps it could be Paritutu instead?
    Thanks for the post

    1. Author

      Hi Barbara

      Thank you so much for reading and for your comment. I find them fascinating too! Having had another look at the New Plymouth token I think you might be right, so I have updated the description.
      The makers of some of these tokens remain a mystery, but the ones that we do know about were made by die sinkers and engravers in Melbourne, Birmingham and London.
      There were also very crude zinc tokens made in Nelson by a local tinsmith, which almost certainly predated these ones. You can see one of those here.

      Thanks again for your comment.
      Best wishes,

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