Australia's first bank note
Australia's first bank note. Image: Westpac Group Archives

As the Australian Museum gets ready to reopen following a 15-month renovation, the Museum’s treasures are being prepared to be back on public display. One of these invaluable items is the First Bank Note issued by the Bank of New South Wales (now Westpac). Watch this video to see the bank note get re-installed in the Westpac Long Gallery so that it can be viewed again by the public when the Australian Museum reopens on 28 November.

As an archivist I often come across ordinary things with extraordinary stories. The First Bank Note issued by the Bank of New South Wales (now Westpac) is one of those items that in and of itself is quite unremarkable, yet is utterly captivating because of its journey over almost 200 years, and what it represents.

The note’s history stems from its issue on 8 April 1817 - the first day of operations of the nation’s first ever bank, the Bank of New South Wales. Established by Governor Lachlan Macquarie, and a group of Sydney traders and merchants, the bank was formed to provide economic stability for the people of New South Wales. Authorised to issue paper currency such as this note, the Bank enabled future planning and growth, built on certainty, security and trust.

Designed and printed locally on the same press used to print the daily newspaper, the first note reflects the tools available in Sydney at the time. Each of the first ‘batch’ of notes was hand numbered. It’s the earliest known surviving note, and displays the number ‘55’, implying that 54 notes were filled in and issued just before this one was issued on 8 April.

The note’s issue on 8 April is one of the only details we know about it, what happened after that is informed speculation. The note was found in Scotland, leading some to surmise that it was taken ‘home’ by Governor Lachlan Macquarie himself as a memento of his time in Sydney. The more likely explanation is that it was traded for goods to a merchant with links to London markets in the 1820s, fell out of use because of the distance between Sydney and the United Kingdom, and eventually found its way into a collector’s hands.
The note came back to Westpac in 2014, when it was purchased at auction from the United Kingdom. It was described as being ‘excessively rare’ – an apt description for a small piece of simple paper that was designed to have a short, finite ‘life’.

Whatever its journey, this note is unique, and truly an iconic representation of the link between Westpac and the establishment of the economy as we know it today.

Kim Eberhard, Head of Historical Services for Westpac

This blog was originally published on 16 December 2015 and has been updated on 24 November 2020 to include a new video on the history and re-installation of the bank note following the Australian Museum’s major transformation.