Sharples notes that 'This token type is a pattern for an issue which was never placed into circulation.' (Sharples, 1993)
There is no record for a business under this name, located Williamstown, in Victorian Directories between 1851 and 1870. There are, however, separate listings for a Thomas Mason and a Benjamin Culley in that suburb. Thomas Mason appears first as a 'Waterman' in an 1851 directory, but it is not until 1857 that both men are listed. In that year Mason was listed as a general dealer, and Culley as a clothier and draper, both in Nelson's Parade, Williamstown. Both men continued their businesses in Williamstown into the 1860s. John Hope's research presents a more extensive review of the directories, and a number of anecdotal stories about the tokens:
There are mysteries surrounding these exceptionally rare tokens. Four pieces are known to exist. Various stories relate to the production, transportation, disposal and disappearance of these pieces. Also, there was uncertainty concerning the identity of Mr Mason. Early official and commercial directories do not positively link Mason and Culley in business. Benjamin Culley is recorded at two Williamstown addresses (Nos. 4 and 40 Nelson Place, presumably his business and home addresses). He was a draper and clothier.
Some five Masons were listed as living in the area:
Alfred, 3 Nelson Place, publisher (from 1855).
George, 24 Nelson Place, fruiterer.
Thomas, 1 Nelson Place, Waterman (1851).
Thomas, 64 Nelson Place and (home) Dover Road, Auctioneer and Commission Agent.
Thomas, Lighthouse Keeper (about 1846 to 1857).
Of these, Thomas Mason, Lighthouse Keeper is identified as Benjamin Culley's partner. Arriving in the Colony at the age of 17, he was first a shepherd and later the lighthouse keeper at Williamstown, a respected local merchant, the first Post Master, the first Registered Auctioneer, a Magistrate, a Member of the Legislative Assembly, and three times Mayor of Williamstown. It is possible that several of the above directory entries relate to the same person.
It is difficult to seek the truth from the many stories that surround this token. Among them:
3000 tokens were made in England.
All were melted down in England, except for a dozen or two kept by dealers.
They were all lost at sea
They did arrive in Australia, but only after tokens were banned, so, 50 or more were said to have been dumped down a well in Williamstown.
Two were sent to Australia as samples.
There are, however, a few relevant anecdotes:
From a letter written by Alfred Chitty: '…the ship was wrecked on the voyage out and none arrived here, I have a letter from (unclear) stating this. I wrote to him some twenty years ago and he replied 'I suppose these two are specimens the makers kept.'
Mason and Culley tokens seem to have been first offered for sale in England before Australian collectors were aware of their existence. Dr. Andrews, in preparing his 1921 publication, found he had to use a rubbing for the illustration in his Plate No. 30. One of the tokens was purchased for 5 (pounds) in 1972 at a street stall in Portobello Road, London. It was then sold to Spink & Son who auctioned it. It sold for $13,000 to prominent collector Ken Downie, who kept it as a duplicate after he was able to acquire the better Roger (unclear, poss. 'Rusitzka') piece.
In the book Port of Many Prows on Williamstown's history, it is mentioned that 'The partnership of Thomas Mason and Benjamin Culley was dissolved on 1 November, 1854.' (Other than on the tokens themselves, there is little other evidence that this partnership existed). Noted collector Gilbert Heyde at one time owned several of these tokens, two of which were sold in his auctions, in 1973 and 1974.
A specimen (about EF [Extra Fine condition]) was bought for $40,775 at auction in 2004.
Sharples, J. (1993). 'Catalogue of Victorian Trade Tokens' in Journal of the Numismatic Association of Australia, Vol. 7, December, p.77.
Hope, John (2005). 'Mason & Culley', unpublished MSS, 3 pps.