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Before Harold Holt saw cents, there was a right royal runaround en route to dollar we call our own

Australia's decimal currency celebrates its 50th birthday this week, but it nearly had another name altogether.

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This week marks a momentous Australian anniversary. Fifty years ago this weekend — on February 14, 1966 - we switched our currency from the venerable colonial pound to the shiny, freshly minted Australian dollar.

It was a bright new day for a bright new country, the first step, many hoped, on the road to entirely severing the mother country's apron strings.

Half a century later we don't think twice about the name on the money in our pocket but for a while what it was to be called was front page news.

And there was a right royal bump in the road on the way to the dollar's eventual dominance.

In April 1963, Prime Minister Robert Menzies announced that pounds, shillings and pence were to be ditched in favour of decimal coinage.

In the wake of this bombshell, the whole country had an opinion about what the new money should be named.

How the one royal note might have looked

Another design for the one royal note had an indigenous theme. Photo: Reserve Bank of Australia

The kwid, the champ, the deci-mate and even the hughes were among hundreds of names suggested.

There were other, more tempered possibilities — the austral and the emu had their supporters — but one name was the standout, the obvious and best choice, and on June 5, 1963, Treasurer Harold Holt revealed all.

Our currency would be, he told Parliament and an expectant nation, the royal.

Holt said that after a "close and careful examination", not one of the other possible contenders had been able to beat it.

None "would be fully acceptable to the public", he said.

Sheep, and lots of 'em, were the stars of the 20 royal note

Sheep, and lots of 'em, were pencilled in as the stars of the 20 royal note. Photo: Reserve Bank of Australia

According to the Treasurer, they lacked "such desirable attributes as brevity and pleasing sound".

Royal was a dignified, distinctive name, Holt said, with the advantage of emphasising Australia's link with the Crown.

These ties went deeper with the minor denominations. The royal was divided into 100 cents, with the coins named after their pre-decimal predecessors — the crown (50 cents), the florin (20 cents) and the shilling (10 cents).

The public, Holt said, would get used to the idea of the royal once the novelty had worn off.

He was dead wrong.

The five royal note, bedecked with native flowers and dams on the Snowy River.

The five royal note, bedecked with native flowers and dams on the Snowy River. Photo: Reserve Bank of Australia

Across Australia the royal met with almost unanimous disapproval and scorn.

The Labor leader, Arthur Calwell, said the name was a product of "antiquated thinking".

A poll in The Sun a few days later found 95 per cent of Victorians were against it, while the leader writers of The Age thundered: "It is obvious that the government has misjudged public opinion on this matter."

The letters pages were filled to bursting, with many newspaper readers echoing an M. Davoren from Mount Waverley, who called the royal an "insult to the Australian people".

Another, (Mrs) Gertrude McNair of Kew, wrote: "I think I am expressing the sentiments of most of my neighbours in deploring what must be widely regarded as a disastrous and laughable choice."

Sir Robert Menzies (right)-ushers in the new, Mr Harold Holt (left),after the resignation statement to the Government parties meeting  yesterday 21/1/66.

Sir Robert Menzies hands over the reins of power to Harold Holt in January 1966.

There were a few voices in its favour ("Good on the royal," wrote an R.W. Eddolls. "The very word has a noble and romantic air") but, noble or not, most of the country, from shopkeepers to business and union leaders, hated it.

Some blamed Menzies' royalist sympathies for the choice.

Graeme A. Hood from Flemington wrote: "When the sentimentality of a Prime Minister takes precedence over the wishes of the people one begins to wonder just what sort of government we have."

Notes of note

Despite the carping, designs for the new money were planned over the next few months.

No stamp or coin sketches were made but the Reserve Bank tried out some options. Mostly based on the look of the existing Australian pound notes, the royal family featured explorers such as Flinders and Cook, indigenous art, flocks of sheep and, of course, the Queen.

Meanwhile, the public debate — and the rising tide of antipathy — continued. The matter reached such a fever pitch that Holt's wife, Zara, received death threats.

James Cook was to have bee the face of the 10 royal note.

James Cook was to have been the face of the 10 royal note. Photo: Reserve Bank of Australia

One read: "Next time the hoax will not be a hoax and it will be the real thing if you do not try and persuade your husband, Mr Harold Holt, to change the name of our new decimal currency to something more topical than royal." The letter was signed: "Sincerely Yours. From 25 very loyal Australians."

Another, somewhat presciently, said: "Mrs Holt, your ignorant arrogant husband will leave you a widow in the near future."

The Treasurer, not known to possess a strong regard for his own personal safety, dismissed the letters as the work of cranks and said he wouldn't take threats seriously.

Nevertheless, the royal was sinking fast and, by July, Holt knew the gig was up. On the 24th, according to secret documents released in 1993, he told his cabinet colleagues that the royal had been a terrible mistake.

They toyed with a few other ideas: the austral rose again, briefly, until Mr Holt quashed it on the grounds of pronunciation. The Australian drawl, he warned, could easily reduce "14 australs" to "40 nostrils".

The "government parties" discussed the matter over the next few weeks, but the royal was dead in the water. On September 18, Holt rose in the parliament to announce that Australia's decimal currency would be the dollar. The royal was to be quietly forgotten.

There was general rejoicing, with many echoing Victorian Opposition Leader Clive Stoneham, who called it "a triumph for common sense".

But though the royal (and the crown, florin and shilling) was dead, the choice of the dollar to replace the pound did not gain mass approval.

Leonie Sterling from Burwood told The Age: "I feel so let down [that] I want to cry."

Matthew Floinders was another English sailer to who might have featured on the royal notes.

Matthew Flinders was another English sailor who might have featured on the royal notes. Photo: Reserve Bank of Australia

An L. Cunnington of Gardenvale was more cutting: "So now it is the dollar. What a dreary race of copyists Australians are." Nonetheless, the final choice had been made, and the dollar it was and has remained.

Holt's brief spell as prime minister began in January 1966.

Three weeks later, on February 14, 1966, the pound was consigned to history and Australia's currency — bedecked with a royal's visage but not named in her honour — became the dollar.

An earlier version of this story ran in Money in April 2013. 

If we had our chance again what would you call our currency?