Rare internment camp currency… and an 80th anniversary

Something special to share with you on the 80th anniversary of the Western Creek internment camp – a penny Nonno Anni kept from his time there. Internees were barred from having Australian currency in the camp so it couldn’t be used to escape, remain at large, bribe guards or others, or for subversive activities. Instead, any money they carried was swapped to internment camp currency.

Minted in Australia during WW2 and officially referred to as tokens, the coins were struck in five denominations – penny, threepence, one, two and five shillings, which couldn’t be used or redeemed outside a camp. Some internees in various camps created their own currency including paper money but the Australian Department of Army distributed tokens such as this one for official camp use. (This penny was struck by R. Arendeen & Sons Pty Ltd in Malvern, Victoria. The coin dies now owned by the Royal Australian Mint.)

At the end of the war, internees could exchange their tokens at the Commonwealth Bank for their equivalent in Australian currency. The tokens were then withdrawn by the government and the majority melted down in 1945, although it’s said, “some were souvenired by officials, army personnel and even prisoners and today they are eagerly sought by collectors of Australiana”.

The Internment Camps five shillings pieces are now considered so rare that many more extremely rare and valuable 1930 pennies appear at auction than these. (If only Nonno Anni had kept one of those rather than a penny! Just joking, of course, a museum or the Australian War Memorial likely its best option.) Both governments and historians consider such coins historically significant as evidence surrounding the internment of those deemed ‘enemy aliens’ in Australia during WW2.

It seems incredible it’s eighty years since March, 1942 when Annibale (Joe), aged only eighteen, saw dozens of Italian men picked up by police while working on farms around the Stanthorpe area. The only reason he wasn’t arrested on the spot too that day being his cheekily having fled from Ingham to avoid internment without notifying authorities of his change of address as required, but once they saw him among the others the game was up and he had to go in. How it must have felt to be taken away in the ‘internee special’ train not knowing where to, then driven around in army trucks for hours in the dead of night to confuse their whereabouts to end up in a camp seemingly in the middle of nowhere surrounded by bushland.

Annibale was always a hard worker so the initial time in the internment camp while in his prime with nothing to do but be detained must have felt like such a waste, even if he accepted it as a consequence of war. And much later, down the track, once given the option to join a Civil Alien Corps forestry work gang, he was happy for something to do during the long, empty days, but it certainly wasn’t for the six shilling a day payment considering he’d earnt 30 shillings a day cutting cane.

One penny – the smallest amount – but to me this eighty-year-old coin is beyond precious, knowing it comes at the cost of him being interned and knowing he once held it in his hand.

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