The New Westminster Mint

On Nov. 3, 1861, the Ss. Pacific set sail with gold dust worth $50,000, heading for San Francisco. Here the gold was assayed and made into ingots and coins, but the hard working prospectors and miners had no assurance that they were receiving fair exchange, and in all it was a hazardous business.

In fact the difficulties encountered in mining the gold were only a part of the story. Transporting the gold to market was another, and in 1861 Governor James Douglas set up a gold escort for the miners. It made three trips with uniformed and armed escorts from Quesnel, via Lillooet, to New Westminster. The escort, however, met with failure for the miners would not make use of its services when the government could not guarantee safe delivery of the gold. The miners would either bring the gold themselves or enlist the services of the new Barnard Express.

The governor could also see the value in establishing an assay office to prevent the profits from shipping, insuring and assaying from falling into Californian hands. He also felt it would facilitate the collection of the proposed gold tax and discussed his idea of an assay office with Captain William Driscoll Gossett, treasurer of the Colony of British Columbia, in 1859.

The captain could see a great deal of merit in the suggestion, but thought the office should be established in New Westminster, as it was more accessible to the gold fields, rather than Victoria.

Miners were bringing in gold dust in astonishing quantities, one man bringing in $10,000 for five weeks work. Captain Gossett received permission to have plans drawn for the assay office and enlisted the help from the Royal Engineers. The Royal Engineers, under the command of Colonel Richard Clement Moody, completed the small assay office in May, 1860. In the meantime, officials Francis G. Claudet an assayer, and Frederick Bousfield an assistant arrived from England, along with an operative smelter and assistant smelter. The assay office opened on Aug. 1, 1860.

The office was open from 10:00 a.m. to 4 p.m. except on the days when a steamer was to dock on the Fraser, loaded with eager miners and their gold. The office would open at 8:00 a.m. then.

The first ingots made had no markings on them, but in early 1861 the assay office made ingots stamped with a number, corresponding to a number in the official records, and giving the weight and fineness, along with a government cipher, a crown over the letters V.R. An official certificate was given to the owner, with the weight of the gold before and after melting, stating the fineness and the assaying charges.

For a while business boomed at the assay office, but soon many private assay offices were opened in the province. By the end of 1863, the staff was reduced to one assayer and one smelter. The office finally closed by the end of 1867, and was officially abolished in 1873.

The demand for a mint was growing, and though New Westminster lost its right as the capital, they won the battle for the mint. In 1861, E.G. Claudet, the official assayer, was sent to San Francisco to purchase the necessary coinage machinery. Being somewhat of a shrewd man, Claudet purchased a screw press, a rolling mill, cutting press and other pertinent machinery for $5,085. The machinery was shipped to Esquimalt where the HMS Forward, a gunboat, landed the supplies at New Westminster.

The history of the mint, is one of conflict, flaring tempers and deep discouragement. The governor, once in favor of the establishment of the mint, suddenly changed his mind. Refusing to grant the money to set up the machinery, he told Captain Gossett to store the machinery. Tempers rose, and after much violent protest, Governor Douglas finally agreed to the outlay of the unspent balance of the original Mint appropriation.

Captain Gossett was understandably delighted, and once again called upon the Royal Engineers to assist. When all was in readiness it was necessary to ask Governor Douglas for more, an engineer to run the plant. That was the icing on the cake, and Douglas flatly refused, stating he did not want the mint operating. In a gesture of defiance, Gossett struck off some $10 and $20 gold pieces.

Some of the rarest coins in the world are the $20 and $10 gold pieces struck in 1862 at the short-lived New Westminster Mint. The Treasury Building, which housed the government assay office, mint and land registry office was located where the existing federal post office on the main street, Columbia, in New Westminster, now stands. Both the Mint and assay office were built and put into operation to take advantage of the tremendous finds of gold which were being made in the Cariboo during 1860 to 1861, and to alleviate the shortage of coins.

Because British Columbia had not yet received permission to strike coins, these coins are considered patterns, of which very few are known to exist. There are five of the $20 gold specimens known to exist, but only two are available to collectors as the remaining three are held in institutions. One is in the British Museum in London, England and is “most likely the set Gossett had framed;” another can be found in the British Columbia Archives in Victoria, B.C.; and the last $20 gold coin is in the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce Collection.

Finally, the “rarest of the four coins”, is the $10 gold specimen, of which only three are known to exist. Of those, two are in museums of which one is in poor condition.

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