The names Lipman Street and Levy Street are among the few remaining local reminders of one of Wellington’s earliest entrepreneurs and philanthropists – Mr Lipman Levy. But the money he made – that is, had manufactured – keeps his memory alive and these days changes hands internationally.
Lipman Levy owned two town acre sites between Kent Terrace and Brougham Streets, including what is now the site of the Embassy Theatre. In the 1860s and 1870s much of his estate comprised an attractive ornamental garden, complete with a pair of real-live storks. Mount Victorians of the era are said to remember the-man-with-the-garden, which suggests that Lipman and his wife Sarah may have allowed locals into their prized garden.
Lipman’s business career was very successful. He was on the boards of several large companies such as the Wellington Gas Company and Wellington Trust Loan and Investment Company, and had diverse interests ranging from gold mining at Makara (the Erin Go Bragh mine), shareholding in the Patent Slip, membership of the Philosophical Society and many other civic and Hebrew congregational interests.
His house in Kent Terrace was built in 1876 by Mr Jas Lockie and designed by Mr W C Chatfield. The Evening Post praised the new house in its Friday, 2 June 1876 gossip column (but wrongly said it was in Adelaide Road)…. “It is fitted with a number of unusual appliances, including a high pressure steam boiler in the kitchen, by which hot water is supplied through pipes to all parts of the house, high and low…also notable are the handsome gaseliers (i.e. gas lights)… the architect …has succeeded in producing a building not only of remarkable excellence, but also wonderfully cheap, considering the style in which it is carried out”. “Wonderfully cheap”? Certainly seems like it. Lipman’s house cost £1650 (around $3,300). According to the British National Archives Currency Converter, that’s now equivalent to about £76,000 or $152,000. So, Lipman got a state-of-the- art (1876) house built in Mount Victoria for $152,000 of today’s dollars – excluding GST.
Most people can earn money but few can literally make it, legally. That’s usually considered to be forgery or counterfeiting. But when copper coins were in short supply the New Zealand Government tolerated businesses issuing their own coins. These coins were penny and half-penny tokens (worth about 0.8 and 0.4 cents apiece) and 46 businesses nationwide did this for about 20 years, starting in the late 1850’s. These token coins were outlawed in 1897.
Since the manufacture of a copper penny coin cost less than half its face, Lipman could make at least 100% profit paying out the token in change and also get the margin on the goods sold. So, Lipman issued token coins, probably by the tonne, yet only a few years later these were worthless and scrapped by the tonne for their copper content. But not all vanished.
In 2007, a rare type of Lipman Levy penny sold for $A3,200 (that’s $NZ4,500) in Sydney (Noble’s Sale 85, Lot 526). Lipman could not have foreseen that one of his penny tokens (worth less than the equivalent of a cent) could become nominally worth more than his Kent Terrace mansion house cost.
Lipman died at his home in Kent Terrace on 27 January, 1880 aged 57, and his wife, Sarah, died a few months later. The estate – including the house and 30 sections – was initially offered for private sale for £9000 but there were no takers. New Zealand was in the middle of a business recession and the 15 December, 1881 Evening Post report noted “The sale is the first large sale of a building and sections since the depression set in three years ago”. It went on to state the hope that the sale result would boost real estate and business confidence. The estate was subdivided and the two streets at right angles were apparently named Lipman and Levy by the auctioneer,T Kennedy Macdonald & Co, and as part of the extensive marketing of the land sale.[Information originally published in MVHS newsletter 57, Aug 2011]