Currency Lads.

Joel at Far Outliers has been posting excerpts from Annegret Hall’s In For The Long Haul: First Fleet Voyage & Colonial Australia: The Convicts’ Perspective, and this one taught me a very interesting phrase:

The younger Rope family members were typical of the new generation of free colonialists, commonly known as the ‘currency lads and lasses’. This was the expression used in the colony to describe those who were Australian born with emancipist or convict parentage. This generation grew up in an adult society in which free immigrants often made slights and barbs about their origins – they were ‘the offspring of thieves’ and ‘good for nothings’. But the spirit and energy of this new breed had its admirers. Surgeon Peter Miller Cunningham was optimistic about the ‘currency youth’.

Our colonial-born brethren are best known here by the name of Currency, in contradistinction to Sterling, or those born in the mother-country. … Our Currency lads and lasses are a fine interesting race, and do honour to the country whence they originated. … The Currency youths are warmly attached to their country, which they deem unsurpassable, and few ever visit England without hailing the day of their return as the most delightful in their lives….

The currency lads and lasses were also referred to as Corn Stalks because they were taller than their British counterparts the Sterlings, and they had a distinct way of talking. The children of exclusives saw themselves as the pure bloods of the colony and, if they came from large estates, as the Pure Merinos. Among the colony’s youth, the currency lads stood together and if one was attacked the ‘whole hive sally to his aid’. Interestingly, drunkenness was much less common among the currency youth than their parents or the adult population as a whole.

It would not have occurred to me that currency could be contrasted with sterling in this way. The OED updated its entry on the former just last year, and these are the relevant subsections:

I.3.b. Australian. People of European descent born in Australia, as distinguished from first-generation immigrants. Also as a count noun: a person of European descent born in Australia. Contrasted with sterling (cf. sterling n.¹ A.4b). Cf. sense B Now rare.

1825 A pulley hauley match between two ladies of the fancy; the one a towny, the other of currency worth.
Australian (Sydney) 29 September 3


Australian. Designating a person of European descent born in Australia, as distinguished from a first-generation immigrant (esp. in currency lad, currency lass); of or relating to such a person. In extended use designating anything bred, grown, or built in Australia, as opposed to being imported. Contrasted with sterling (cf. sterling n.¹ A.4b). Cf. sense A.I.3b.
1822 I have shewn this letter to half-a-dozen charming currency lasses, who are delighted with it.
Sydney Gazette 13 September


  1. Nice bit of historical slang.

    Later, some of them became larrikins (historical Australian for gang members) organised in pushes (gangs).

  2. What was the literal distinction that engendered these figurative analogues? Wikipedia “History of Australian currency” suggests the 19C alternatives to sterling were “holey dollars” (punched from Spanish coins) or banknotes (printed by local private banks). Were either of these known as “currency”?

  3. That’s what I’m curious about.

  4. A pulley hauley match between two ladies of the fancy; the one a towny, the other of currency worth.

    Hilarity itself. What are “ladies of the fancy”?

  5. The link is OED’s currency I.3.a:

    † A particular medium of exchange which differs in value from that used for official reckoning, e.g. the depreciated pounds, shillings, and pence formerly used in British colonies. Contrasted with sterling n.1 A.4a, banco n.1 Obsolete.

    1732 I can buy a Beaver Hat here [sc. Boston] for three Pounds Currency, which is but fifteen Shillings Sterling, as good, if not better, than any made at London of a Guinea Value. Letter 20 January in Daily Post-boy 1 May


    1869 At Hamburg banco is worth about 23⅓ per cent. more than currency. American Ann. Cycl. 1865 vol. V. 422/1

    Also cf. Spanish moneda ‘currency’, ‘coin money’.

  6. From GA Wilkes, A Dictionary of Australian Colloquialisms 1980.

    1826 James Atkinson, An Account of the State of Agriculture and Grazing in New South Wales 132:
    In the early years of the Settlement … every trader constituted himself a Banker, and issued his promissory notes, which were denominated currency of various values … When it was required therefore to exchange the Colonial currency against sterling bills … the former was always exchanged at a discount.

    Earliest Australian reference to the term “currency” is 1813.

    Earliest Australian reference to “currency lads” is 1824.

    The use of promissory notes as a type of privately issued banknote was not confined to the Australian colonies. I was struck by a description of the practice in Scotland in a biography of Sir Walter Scott. I suspect it was a product of having Sterling currency based on gold. There was not enough actual Sterling in circulation to support the demand from various business enterprises, and hence privately issued currency filled the need. Periodic financial collapses occurred when there was too much reliance on promissory notes. Of course, in Australia there was the additional problem of distance from British financial institutions.

    However, the Scottish reference did not use the term “currency” for promissory notes.

  7. Were either of these known as “currency”?

    In the early years of the Colony of New South Wales, the term “currency” was used to refer to any money other than pound sterling, which was the only legal tender. Owing to a shortage of sterling, “currency” circulated freely, but was not always accepted – the term carried implications of illegality, inferior quality, and subordination.

    Currency Lads and Lasses — perhaps Hat should amend this post’s title? (Or will that munt the Commented-on list even worse?)

    “whites born in the colony…are…called ‘the currency;’ and thus the ‘Currency Lass’ is a favourite name for colonial vessels,”
    [like this one]

  8. I don’t see any use of the term “currency” outside Australia in this period.

    I was expecting New Zealand would follow suit. There’s John Jones who moved to NZ, but he acquired the name in Sydney. NZ was never a convict colony.

    The use of promissory notes as a type of privately issued banknote was not confined to the Australian colonies. … I suspect it was a product of having Sterling currency based on gold.

    Until 1934, private trading banks issued notes. The first bank notes were issued in New Zealand in March 1840 by the Union Bank of Australia at Britannia, now Wellington, then the New Zealand Banking Company followed in September 1840 at Kororareka, now Russell.
    [followed by list of issuing banks]

    … The discovery of gold in 1861 [Otago gold rush **] encouraged competing banks into New Zealand leading to a variety of note issue.

    [**] So briefly, Dunedin — the nearest city and port — was NZ’s largest city. And most of the prospectors were Irish who’d hopped across from Australia. (Drink was taken.)

    The Currency Lass, a pub in Sydney 1840’s.

  9. A Lady of the Fancy

    Pertaining to the sporting world or prostitution;

    have a game at pully-hawly (v.) (also play at pully-hawly) [colloq. pully-hawly, a rough and tumble, ult. the pulling and hauling of sails]

  10. J.W. Brewer says

    And just to play out the other side of the metaphor, the wiki piece mollymooly linked to says that it wasn’t until the 1850’s that “official” British coinage first began to be minted locally in Australia, so in the earlier decades any such sterling would by definition have been imported from the imperial metropolis rather than being of Australian birth.

  11. Ah, now all is clear!

  12. The mention of pure Merinos reminded me that Merino sheep in Britain were extremely inbred. They were a very valuable Spanish breed, producing heavy, soft wool coats (and a lot of lanolin). Export of them was illegal for a long time. Over the years, a small number had been smuggled out of Spain and Portugal, but the genetic diversity of British and Australian Merinos was quite low. To maintain and enhance the Merino characteristics, they were often “bred in and in”—meaning the wooliest sires were systematically mated with their own female offspring. I have mentioned before that there is a misconception that this inbreeding was responsible for the emergence of scrapie in British sheep.

  13. Rachel Julia says

    There’s a song:

    which contains a mention, incidentally, of the phrase that tripped up Naomi Wolf.

  14. These days, I was told, many Oz families are proud to have a penal colony ancestor. I neglected to ask why. Colorful story, or by now giving a long-term local pedigree, or a past propitious event, being better than an English gaol?

  15. There’s a song

    And a very jolly song it is!

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