Skip to content


The Shape of the Economy

John Ash succeeded Thomas Harrison as the Australian Note Printer in 1927 and oversaw the printing of a new series of banknotes, known as the Ash Series. First issued between 1933 and 1934, the new banknotes sought to improve the currency's resistance to counterfeiting. Ash had developed expertise in security printing with two decades of experience working for Thomas de la Rue, London, printers of stamps and banknotes.

A special watermark was created to increase the security of the new series. Shaped as a medallion, the watermark showed the profile of Edward, the Prince of Wales. A new portrait of the King was also introduced, depicting him frontally rather than in profile as he had appeared in the prior banknotes of the Harrison Series (1923-1925).

The back of each denomination contained an individual vignette that reflected a sector of the country's economy. The wool and agricultural industries were represented, as they had been in the first series of the nation's banknotes (1913-1914), and they were joined by manufacturing and commerce. By the early 1930s, manufacturing and distribution services had each risen to be approximately 20 per cent of the economy

Edward, the Prince of Wales, visited the Commonwealth Bank of Australia head office, Martin Place, on 16 June 1920, with the Governor-General, Sir Ronald Munro Ferguson (foreground), and the Bank's Governor, Denison Miller (in dinner suit, second from the left of the Prince).

Reserve Bank of Australia Archives, PN-002046.

The Ash series introduced a watermark that portrayed Edward, the Prince of Wales. It became a source of special interest when the first banknotes were issued.

‘One of the first acts of most of the recipients of the new notes was to hold them up to the light to look through the oval space, or ‘window’, as it is termed, to see the water-mark profile of the Prince of Wales.’

‘The Prince in the Window’, The Argus, Melbourne, 18 July 1933.

Photograph of Edward, the Prince of Wales, used as the basis for the watermark.

Reserve Bank of Australia Archives, NP-003095.

The new series no longer carried a government promise to redeem the banknotes in gold coin but specified that they were legal tender in the Commonwealth and its Territories. As stated previously, with the Commonwealth Bank Act of 1932, Australian banknotes were not convertible into gold and the Bank was not required to keep gold reserves.

The prominent British sculptor, Paul Montford, contributed to the design of the new series. Recognised for his sculptural works on the exterior of Melbourne's Shrine of Remembrance, Montford was commissioned to produce relief sculptures that formed the basis of the banknotes' vignettes. His sculptures were translated into wash drawings by Frank Manley, the artist and engraver for the Commonwealth Bank's Note Printing Branch.

Paul Montford working on a bas-relief sculpture for the Shrine of Remembrance, Melbourne.

‘The Sculptor and the Kid’, The Herald, 10 June 1932.

Paul Montford, bas-relief sculpture for the pastoral scene.

Reserve Bank of Australia Archives, PN-005832.

Manley accentuated the sculpture's three-dimensional qualities with deep shadows and touches of illusionism. A sheep in Montford's pastoral scene, for example, stands forward from the frame as if entering the viewer's space to escape branding and Manley preserves this visual conceit in his drawing.

Whereas the printing of the previous series of Australian banknotes had been criticised for its poor definition, the sculptural basis of the Ash Series clarified the banknotes' imagery. During a period of record unemployment, the scenes emphasised the strength of the human figure in gestures of labour, evoking classical, heroic qualities in their poses. The sculptural forms suggested stability in the turbulence of the Great Depression and imparted a sense of solidity to paper currency.

Frank Manley, wash drawing for the pastoral scene of the £1 banknote.

Reserve Bank of Australia Archives, NP-003175.

Explore the series of Pocket Guides