Shinplasters of Outback Australia

Peter Symes

This is a story concerning merchant notes and IOUs that circulated in outback Australia some one hundred years ago. The story is told in a peculiar manner. Firstly, there are two newspaper columns, which are followed by a number of letters. Each contributes to the story and there is very little explanation added.

          The newspaper columns appeared in ‘The Sun’, a Sunday newspaper printed in Sydney, Australia, and the columns were written three months apart. The second column came to the attention of John A. Ferguson, a barrister who lived in Sydney and who was, remarkably for his time, a collector of banknotes. Mr. Ferguson wrote a letter to the author of the second column, Mr. Weigh, seeking examples of his notes, and the reply is the third item to be reproduced. Other letters round out this study, giving a picture of how notes issued by merchants in outback Australia created a circulating currency for many years.

          The first article written by ‘The Wanderer’ appeared in ‘The Sun’ dated January 15, 1922. The article contains a small amount of Australian vernacular, which is hopefully self-explanatory. In reading the article, it is worth remembering that the state of Queensland is over three times the size of France and two-and-a-half times the size of Texas.

Queer Money

Out-Back Currency

‘Shinplasters’ and ‘Calabashes’

(By ‘The Wanderer’)

It has been related how, in the ‘good old days’, one of the French Kings, when he ascended the throne, found 80 barons each with a different coinage, which was valueless except in the particular domain over which that baron ruled. However, the French king altered that by establishing a standard coinage.

          This recalls to mind the days, now nearly 30 years ago, when, as a youth, an evil fate drove me into the backblocks of Queensland, away out to the back of sunset.

          In that region of vast distances, where the scattered townships were anything from 200 to 250 miles apart, banks were unknown, and coin of the realm and banknotes were scarcely, if ever, seen. Well do I remember the commotion we caused when our party went into a roadside store, hotel, butcher’s shop, &c., and our treasurer weighed in with a £5 Bank of New South Wales note. When the man of many businesses received the note his eyes bulged, and for a minute or two he was speechless.

          When he recovered his voice he yelled ‘Great God! A — — fiver.’

          It was so long since he had seen a genuine banknote that at first he failed to recognise it. The usual loungers were called in to see the phenomenon. One confessed that it was the first genuine banknote he had seen for 10 years. Another hazarded the opinion that he would sooner expect to see the mythical ‘Oozlum Bird than a real flimsy’. For the several hours we remained there that fiver was almost the only topic of discussion.

          But, I hear someone say, how did they manage if there was no silver or notes? There was a paper money in vogue, with every storekeeper, or publican, or butcher, as the case may be, his own mint. All had their own paper money, variously designated ‘shinplasters’ or ‘calabashes’.

          The ‘shinplasters’ usually ranged from 1s to £1—1s 6d, 2s 6d, 4s 6d, 5s 6d, 6s 6d, 10s, and £1.

Little Gold Mine

          In some cases the £1 note was quite a work of art, a regular ‘Bank of Promise’ affair, but when carried long in the pocket or handled a bit roughly, the notes soon became unrecognisable.

          This currency was perfectly good, as it was all guaranteed. But it was a little gold mine to those who issued it. One storekeeper, in a burst of confidence, told me that it was a poor day when he did not make 7s 6d out of every £1 worth of shinplasters.

          It was simply marvellous how these notes travelled, showing what nomads the average outback Australians of those days were. On one occasion I went into a little store in Boulia to buy a small bottle of ink—price 1d in Sydney but 1s out there. I tendered the storekeeper one of his own £1 notes. In exchange he traded off on me 19 1s ‘calabashes’ and a most heterogeneous collection they made. Burketown, Normanton, Cloncurry, Urandangie, Bedourie, Betoota, Birdsville, Thargomindah, Camooweal, and Windorah were all represented. Just take a map of Queensland and pick these names out. Burketown, in the Gulf [of Carpenteria]; Thargomindah, down towards the New South Wales border.

          They tell me, however, that times have changed out there now, and that Treasury notes are as plentiful as were the old shinplasters. They served their purpose, and it is hard to say how business could have been carried on without them. They were not so bulky as silver, and as one wag remarked, when after a successful ‘spin’ in the ‘school’, he surveyed the formidable pile of paper in front of him, ‘Well on paper it looks as if I an a blanky millionaire, but I suppose it will pan out at about half-a-hundred’. He was only £1 out.

* * * * *

          How far ‘The Sun’ circulated is not known. However, a copy of the paper containing the article by ‘the Wanderer’, or perhaps just a copy of the article, found its way to Mr. W. S. Weigh, a storekeeper from Boulia in western Queensland. He subsequently replied to the article and his reply appeared in ‘The Sun’ on April 16, 1922.

Strange Currency

Storekeepers’ Shinplasters

Better Than Real Money

(By W. S. Weigh)

Having been in business in Boulia, Western Queensland, for over ten years, and having dealt much in money tokens, I was particularly interested in the story of ‘The Wanderer’ in ‘The Sunday Sun’ of January 15. He says he entered a store in Boulia, and bought a small bottle of ink for a shilling and received nineteen one shilling ‘shinplasters’ as change out of a £1 Treasury note. I have never seen a ‘shinplaster’ or ‘calabash’ or ‘blanket’ as the I.O.U.’s out west are variously termed, for any amount less than three shillings, and I have made enquiries from men who have lived in this district, and further west for over 35 years and they all confirm this.

          My firm issues £1 notes payable at a bank in Winton, and also five shilling I.O.U.’s or Shinplasters. Gaffney, storekeeper, Bedourie (140 miles south of Boulia), issues the same, and also a three shilling I.O.U. Other people out west here issue this ‘queer money’ but the number is limited. Every tradesman does not issue his own money.

Rare Treasury Notes

          The nearest bank to Boulia is at Cloncurry, nearly 200 miles away, and although we do occasionally see Treasury Notes, they are no by any means as plentiful as shinplasters. It is absolutely necessary for our business to issue our own notes and I.O.U.’s; we could not carry on without them. Men come in from the surrounding stations with big cheques which they want ‘breaking up’, and we give them our own cheques, notes, and I.O.U.’s; otherwise we should have to carry a very big quantity of Treasury Notes, which would be risky. At race time a storekeeper would probably be compelled to have on hand Treasury notes to the extent of from £800 to £1000, to change all the cheques that are presented to him. Last Christmas, the stores and hotels in Boulia ‘broke up’ cheques amounting probably to over £1000. The nearest bank is 200 miles away, and a moment’s reflection will convince anyone of the necessity for a storekeeper out here to issue his own notes, which after all are merely cheques for one pound, payable to bearer, and drawn on a bank. These notes and I.O.U.’s are freely circulated for hundreds of miles even into the Northern Territory, and there is no trouble, save that possibly sixpence exchange may be charged by an over thrifty business man.

Drinks for I.O.U.’s

          As to this ‘queer money’ being a little gold mine, well, I have proved it otherwise. My firm keeps a careful record of all notes and I.O.U.’s issued, and out of £4000 issued within a certain period, the value of notes and shinplasters which had probably ‘gone bush’ would not pay for the printing and stamp duty. Although money is spent more freely out here than perhaps anywhere else in Australia, shinplasters and notes are not thrown away or burnt because they become dilapidated; they come back to us sometimes almost in ribbons, and oftener than not in pieces and we have to redeem them so long as we can identify the number and the signature.

          In the old days it was a common thing for a man to pay for his drinks by writing his own I.O.U. on a piece of paper, and giving it to the publican to be redeemed later when the man drew his cheque.

          On one occasion a man came in from the bush, and tendered to the hotel keeper a quantity of dingo scalps in payment of his account, and as change he was handed a number of kangaroo ears. At that time, of course, kangaroo skins were not the valuable commodity they are to-day, and the Government then paid a bonus for kangaroo ears as well as dingo scalps.

Local Notes Preferred

          As I have already said, Treasury Notes are not at all plentiful, and this recalls an amusing incident which I personally witnessed. We went into a hotel out west here to have a drink, and the shouter tendered a comparatively new £1 Treasury Note. The publican examined it for a while and then asked, ‘What’s this?’ My friend explained that it was a Treasury Note, ‘but,’ he said, ‘I have a local note here if you would like it better’ and he handed over a local storekeeper’s £1 note. The publican handed back the Treasury Note and taking the local note, said, ‘I know this one is right; I don’t know the other.’

          A few years ago, the hotelkeeper at Bedourie issued shinplasters printed on paper almost exactly the same color as the envelopes in which telegrams were delivered. There was a ‘school’ on in Boulia, and a man who had just received a telegram entered the room while the game was proceeding, and crumpling the envelope up in his hand he through it on the table for a 5s I.O.U., and started to bet. The men when gambling rarely spread out the shinplasters thrown on to the table, and the dummy was accepted in play. The man who threw it in started winning and came away with a few pounds to the good. This was certainly a case of getting something for nothing.

* * * * *

          This article was read by Mr. John A. Ferguson a Sydney barrister and a collector of paper money. With the intention of obtaining copies of the notes issued by Mr. Weigh, he sent him a letter, which in due time received the following reply:

W.S. Weigh & Son

General Storekeepers

Wine and Spirit Merchants, News and Forwarding Agents


6th May 1922

John A. Ferguson, Esq.


University Chambers

167 Phillip Street,

Sydney NSW

Dear Sir,

          I duly received your letter of 16th ultimo and was very pleased to learn that you were interested in my article headed “Strange Currency” which appeared in the “Sydney Sunday Sun” recently.

          As requested, I have much pleasure in enclosing herewith a specimen of each of our local notes, for £1 and 5/- respectively. It is the 5/- IOU which is variously termed “shinplaster”, “calabash” and “blanket”. The £1 order is invariably called a “Note”.

          I also enclose a specimen IOU for 5/- which used to be issued by Lee Bros. of this town, and whose business we purchased in 1914.

          Other issuers of paper currency are –

Mr. G. H. Edwards, The Mayne Hotel, via Winton

Mr. E. A. Hudson, Federal Hotel, Urandangie

Messrs. E. & W. Spencer, Storekeepers, Urandangie

Mr. G. A. Reid, Storekeeper, Urandangie

Mr. –. Watson, Rankine Store, Northern Territory

Messrs. Synott, Murray & Scholes, Storekeepers, Camooweal.

          There may be others beside the foregoing, but we do not know of them. Queensland is such a big territory as you know, and we may not happen to handle some of the paper currency issued in other districts.

          I wish you every success in your laudable object in forming a collection of books, including paper currency, for permanent preservation in Sydney.

                  Yours faithfully,

                          [W.S. Weigh]

* * * * *

          One of the apparent requests made by Mr. Ferguson to Mr. Weigh was a list of other companies who issued similar currency. Mr. Weigh provided six names and Mr. Ferguson duly wrote to each of them and, of the six companies listed by Mr. Weigh, five replied and enclosed notes as requested. (Mr. G.A. Reid was the only person not to reply.) Two of the replies, which give additional insight into how the notes were used, were received from Mr. George Edwards and Mr. George Watson. George Edwards sent three examples of notes issued in his Hotel and General Store, noting in his correspondence that the use of such currency was diminishing with the advent of modern transport. Mr. Edwards observed that only a few years ago (i.e. prior to 1922) the people in outback settlements found themselves weeks from a bank, whereas now that motor cars were available, they were only ‘a days travel’ from the bank.

          The letter from George Watson was as follows:

George Watson

The Rankine Store

Via Camooweal

Sept. 27th 1922

John A. Ferguson Esq.


Dear Sir,

Your letter 11th June to hand and contents noted.

          Herewith please find a specimen of each value of paper currency issued by me.

          I have dated the I.O.U.s the date I established this business & first used them – May 24th 1904, the 10/- I.O.U. has not been in circulation since 1914, as the 10/- Cheque form took its place.

          The cheque forms 10/- & 20/- were first used in this business April 10th 1914.

          You will understand that small change is very scarce out this way, & gold we never see now, the bulk of the business is done with cheques, Stations & Drovers pay all their employees by cheque.

          In this small business during the last three years I have drawn 3718 cheques of amounts from 10/- upwards.

          Our nearest Bank is in Cloncurry 340 miles from here.

          I have sent your letter to Mr. M.C.P. Biondi he issues an interesting currency – he “promises to pay by order on his Bankers” but omits the Bank he is drawing on, consequently all his paper has to be returned to him for Collection.

          There was a Camel Hawker passing here yesterday so I showed your letter to him – he gave me a specimen of each of his paper to forward on to you which I have done under separate cover.

          These are very interesting in as much as they are printed on “crook” paper & if folded up & put into the pocket they would be likely to break & fall to pieces. You will note the Ghan has reinforced them with cloth as he was afraid they would fall to pieces during transit.

          This Ghan is not unlike the old time Publicans in N.W. Queensland who used to issue “crook” paper & then offer up a prayer that they would not be returned.

          Trusting the paper sent you will be of interest.

                  Yours faithfully,

                          [Geo. Watson]

[Postscript] Storekeeper of Anthonys Lagoon, he is N.W. of here about 172 miles and has the choice of Banking either in Darwin or Cloncurry both places over 500 miles from his store business.

If you have not already got them in your collection, I would suggest you write to Mr. R. Smith, Halls Creek W.A.

* * * * *

          George Watson’s recommendation to contact Mr. R. Smith of Hall’s Creek in Western Australia was acted upon by Mr. Ferguson and from late 1922 through 1923 he received shinplasters from Mr. R. Smith of the Kimberly Hotel in Hall’s Creek, along with offerings from E. F. Peel, Storekeeper and Commission Agent, also of Hall’s Creek, Mr. Alick. Scott of Fitzroy Crossing and Mr. K. M. Rhatigan from Turkey Creek. All locales are in the Kimberly region of far northern Western Australia.

          The collection put together in this manner by Mr. Ferguson resulted in fifty-four examples of IOUs, cheques and similar items, all of which circulated as currency in outback Australia. As can be seen by some of the correspondence received by Mr. Ferguson, the use of these items was dying out by 1922 and it is likely that they were completely out of use some few years after he assembled his collection. Amongst the collection of letters from storekeepers who sent him money is a letter from an ‘L. McNamara’, written from Mitchell, in Queensland. The following extract from the letter illustrates issues concerning paper money some years earlier in Queensland:

Yes I have seen many kinds of paper money. Among these were “orders” drawn on station managers or business houses in Sydney & Melbourne. These were all right so long as the said managers were on the stations. When they left or were dismissed these Orders were floating about the country. When we sent them to those on whom they were drawn they were returned saying that as they were not presented during the drawers term of management they repudiated these. So of course who ever took these suffered the loss. To some business people it was considerable. In fact we scarcely knew what paper money to take. Also they became dirty & dilapidated from being carried months perhaps in men’s pockets. It was curious to see the rough attempts of men to preserve & restore them by pasting paper & rags at their backs. I once saw one with a leaf from a bible pasted on it. In fact all paper money (banknotes included) was worn to pieces often before being presented, and many were never cashed. They were often printed on flimsy paper which would not withstand the wear & tear of being carried for months in men’s pockets. Of course when banks were established all this disappeared. As for coin we scarcely ever saw it. There were also many squatters who drew valueless cheques. One instance will show this. A certain squatter sold some sheep to another squatter who paid him in his own valueless cheques. Taking care to have sheep delivered at own yards before presenting these valueless cheques. The vendor of the sheep of course was highly indignant and asked “Have you nothing better than these?” “No” said the buyer. The vendor of course could not refuse his own cheques & had he done so and stressed for the payment in the purchaser’s cheques, they probably would be no better than his own!

          However, by the time this letter was written to Mr. Ferguson in 1923, the use of currency was changing, but not completely changed as can be seen by the acquisition of shinplasters from various stores by Mr. Ferguson. Shinplasters are today rare collectors items, with very few issued notes available for the collector. The items that are available come at a high price and for those who managed to save a note, which did not crumble in the pockets of their grandfather, the time may now be at hand to ‘cash them in’.


          Letters and items from the collection of John A. Ferguson, National Library of Australia (MS 3611 & MS 3622)

          The Sun ‘Queer Money’ January 15, 1922, Sydney, Australia

          The Sun ‘Strange Currency’ April 16, 1922, Sydney Australia

This article was completed in May 2005
© Peter Symes