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The history of banknotes in New Zealand

Learn how New Zealand’s banknotes have evolved through history, from our first banknotes issued in 1934, through to the change to decimal currency in 1967 and to the Series 6 and 7 banknotes in circulation today.

The world's earliest banknotes

Records exist of banking facilities in Babylon 4,000 years ago, and there is evidence that the Chinese, Greeks and Romans had banking facilities long before the Christian era.

The first true paper money appeared in China about 700 AD, but several centuries passed before paper was used in Europe.

In 1694, the Bank of England began issuing banknotes. These featured just a few lines of engraved text that promised to pay a specified sum at the bank's premises. The banknote also had spaces for a handwritten date, number, signature and the name of the payee. The banknotes showed the figure of Britannia, but had few other decorative features.

In New Zealand, paper money arrived with the Europeans. Before 1934, the six trading banks had produced the banknotes in common circulation. However, these banks were not obliged to accept each other’s banknotes. In 1924, the trading banks reached an agreement on a standard design.

The Reserve Bank issues banknotes

By the 1920s, there was a general push to set up a central bank that would issue a single national currency. Talk of establishing a Reserve Bank in New Zealand went on through the 1920s.

In 1930, it was finally decided to set up the first Reserve Bank of New Zealand with sole authority to issue New Zealand’s currency. Work to design new banknotes began in 1932 and these were finally issued in August 1934, six months after the start of the Reserve Bank.

New Zealand banknote issues

There have been seven different issues of New Zealand banknotes to date.

The first issue

The first banknote was introduced on 1 August 1934 and signed by the first Governor of the Reserve Bank, Leslie Lefeaux. Thomas De La Rue and Company Limited, London printed the banknotes.

These first banknotes were meant to be temporary as they were designed in a hurry amid heated debate over what they should look like. In the end, they included features of banknotes already in circulation—a Kiwi, the Arms of New Zealand, a sketch of Mitre Peak and a portrait of King Tāwhaio, the second Māori king.

The colours of the original banknotes were similar to the previous trading banknotes. All the notes carried the same design, but different colours distinguished the denominations. Notes of 10/- (10 shillings), £1 (1 pound), £5 and £50 were coloured orange, mauve, blue-green and red respectively. The banknotes were all the same size (7" x 3½").

View images of Series 1 banknotes on Facebook

The second issue

The second series was issued on 6 February 1940.

The design and colours for the 10/- and £50 banknotes were changed. A portrait of Captain James Cook replaced that of King Tawhiao. A green-coloured £10 banknote was also introduced at this time.

These banknotes stayed in circulation until the change to decimal currency in 1967.

View images of Series 2 banknotes on Facebook

Change to decimal currency

Pre-decimal currency was relatively complex. Pounds were divided into 20 shillings or 240 pence. This resulted in 12 pence to the shilling. Guineas were worth slightly more than a pound but were not in common use. People got used to doing the fractions, but it was complex and the system of 100 cents to the dollar was simpler.

In 1963, the government decided to decimalise, with the changeover, dubbed ‘Decimal Currency’ (DC) day, set for 10 July 1967.

There were public discussions over what the new decimal money might be called. Words such as ‘kiwi’ and ‘zeal’ were proposed to avoid confusion with ‘dollar’, which most people at the time associated with American money.

In the end, though, the word ‘dollar’ was selected, and ‘Mr Dollar’ became the symbol of the change.

The introduction of decimal currency to New Zealand

Video 0m:33s

Decimal currency was introduced to New Zealand on 10 July 1967. A great deal of work was required to make the change from imperial currency, including a huge publicity campaign. A series of TV ads introduced the concepts to New Zealand viewers.

Video 4m:16s

This footage tells the story of the distribution of currency for decimalisation on 10 July 1967. $120m of currency, weighing 730 tonnes was sent to nearly 600 bank branches around the country by plane, ferry, truck and train between April and June 1967 as part of ‘Operation Overlander’. Everything went without a hitch and not one cent was lost!

The third issue

The third series was issued on 10 July 1967. These notes all featured HM Queen Elizabeth II on the front.

View images of Series 3 banknotes on Facebook

The fourth issue

The fourth series was issued in 1981, largely as a result of a change in printer.

Previously our banknotes had been printed by Thomas De La Rue and Company of London. In 1979, we put the next year's note order out to international tender. The contract went to Bradbury Wilkinson and Company (NZ) Ltd who had recently built a banknote printing plant in Whangarei.

The change of printer was an opportunity to redesign the banknotes because of the need for new plates to be engraved. The most obvious change was an updated portrait of the Queen.

In the 1980s, it became clear a new banknote was needed between the $20 and the $100 and at the end of 1983 a $50 banknote was introduced.

View images of Series 4 banknotes on Facebook

The fifth issue

In mid-1991, we decided to completely revise the appearance and features of New Zealand banknotes. This was the first complete redesign since the introduction of decimal currency 24 years earlier.

After consulting widely with the public, we issued a new series of banknotes with distinctly New Zealand designs.

View images of Series 5 banknotes on Facebook

The sixth issue

We issued our sixth series of banknotes in 1999. These were printed for the first time on polymer, which had better durability and allowed windows to be included for extra security.

The new series kept the same images and general designs as Series 5, with slight changes to include the window security features.

View images of Series 6 banknotes on Facebook

The seventh issue

The seventh series was issued in 2015 and is currently in circulation. It has the same images and general designs as Series 6, but includes many high-tech upgrades to security features.

For more information see Banknotes in circulation

View images of Series 7 banknotes on Facebook