The Royal Mint Museum contains some 12,000 medals, dating mainly from the beginning of the 19th century. Particularly impressive is the series of campaign and service medals produced since the Battle of Waterloo in 1815, but commemorative and prize medals are also well represented and there is a good collection of official medals for Coronations and Royal Jubilees. In addition, medals relating to Royal Mint personnel and more generally to the history of the Royal Mint form a strong and important aspect of the collection.
Though British medals predominate, overseas medals are also present and there is a nice group of European art medals of the early 20th century.
Browse highlights of the medal collection below.
The original design for the China Medal of the early 1840s, by William Wyon, depicted a crowned British Lion standing over a defeated Chinese Dragon. As would be expected of Wyon, it was undoubtedly attractive but the suspicion has always been that officials were worried about the offence that might be caused to the Chinese by showing the Dragon in such a symbolically vanquished manner.
The medal in this form was never issued and the unmounted specimen in the Mint collection is one of the few of this original type that has survived. An alternative version was prepared for the medals as subsequently awarded, also designed by William Wyon, with a less controversial arrangement of a trophy of arms.
Early in the reign of Elizabeth I, in the aftermath of the debasements inflicted on the coinage during the reigns of Henry VIII and Edward VI, a recoinage was undertaken that was aimed at restoring faith in the fineness of the coins. It subsequently came to be regarded as one of the greatest achievements of her long reign and a commemorative medal was struck to mark the occasion, a rare silver specimen of which is in the Royal Mint Museum collection.
The obverse bears a bejewelled effigy of the queen and on the reverse a seated figure of Justice is depicted within a similar floral border to that which frames the portrait of Elizabeth I. That the queen took the trouble to visit the Royal Mint in the Tower of London on 10 July 1561 can perhaps be taken as evidence of the personal importance she attached to the reform.
The fine portrait medal illustrated here by William Wyon is of Sir Joseph Banks, the famous naturalist and President of the Royal Society. Having a medal of Banks in the Royal Mint Museum has a special relevance because it was through his generosity that the Museum became the beneficiary in 1818 of a small collection of coins and medals that he had put together. But much more significantly, the association with Banks led to the gift of 2000 coins from the collection of his late sister Sarah Sophia Banks.
Sarah Sophia’s coins were shared between the British Museum and the Royal Mint Museum, in accordance with the wishes of the family. It therefore becomes difficult to determine purely from the medal’s reverse inscription, PRESENTED COLLECTION OF COINS TO NATION 1818, which particular act of generosity was being commemorated. Banks was deeply involved in the reform of the coinage and in the relocation of the Royal Mint to new premises on Tower Hill, making him a key figure for the organisation at that time and one justifiably represented in the Royal Mint Museum.
The Royal Mint Museum contains a charming group of medallic portraits of seven of the children of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. They appear to have been made in 1850 and therefore do not include the two children who were born after that date.
The skilfully-executed portraits are the work of Leonard Wyon, a member of the extremely talented family of engravers whose name is so well known to numismatists. The son of William Wyon, he was actually born in the Royal Mint in 1826 and, though he never succeeded his father as Chief Engraver, he enjoyed an active association with the Mint that was to last until his death in 1891. These particular portraits, however, were not commissioned by the Royal Mint and little seems to be known at present about the circumstances in which they were prepared, but for some reason the dies have survived in the Royal Mint Museum, along with single-sided bronze impressions roughly the size of a half-crown.
Corresponding reverse dies also survive, showing the name of the Prince or Princess and the date of birth.
Victoria Adelaide Mary Louisa: Born Nov 21 1840
The eldest child of Queen Victoria, known to her family as Vicky, was named Princess Royal in 1841. She married Prince Fredrick William of Prussia at the age of 17 and became Crown Princess of Prussia in 1861.
Albert Edward: Born Nov IX MDCCCXLI
The eldest son of Victoria and Albert, known as Bertie to his family but he was later to become King Edward VII of Great Britain.
Alice Maud Mary: Born April 25 1843
Princess Alice was known as the care giver to the Royal family and nursed both her Grandmother and Father through their last illnesses. Alice was married to Prince Louis of Hesse and moved to the small territory where she continued her charitable work founding the Alice-Hospital in Darmstadt in 1869.
Alfred Ernest Albert: Born August 1844
Alfred or Affie to his family entered into the Royal Navy as a midshipman at the age of 14. A mere 8 years later he was promoted to Captain and in 1867 he became the first member of the Royal family to visit Australia. He married the Grand Duchess Maria Alexandrovna of Russia in 1874 and inherited the Duchy of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha in 1893.
Helena Augusta Victoria: Born May 25 1846
A lively young child who enjoyed riding and boating Helena later took over as her mother’s unofficial secretary after the marriage of her sister Princess Alice. Her marriage to Prince Christian of Schleswig-Holstein cause some controversy within the Royal family but his having no official duties abroad allowed Helena to remain close to her mother. Helena was devoted to nursing using her Royal status to promote organisations such as the Royal British Nurses' Association.
Louise Caroline Alberta: Born March 18 1848
Princess Louise was an able sculptor and artist. She married John, Marquess of Lorne, the heir to the Duke of Argyll in 1871 and moved to Ottowa with him 7 years later when he was appointed Governor General of Canada. After the couple’s return in 1883 they took up residence at Kensington Palace where Louise would remain until her death in 1939 at the age of 91.
Arthur William Patrick Albert: Born May 1 1850
At an early age Prince Arthur developed an interest in the Army was commissioned as a lieutenant in the Corps of Royal Engineers on 18 June 1868. He had a long and distinguished career as an Army Officer serving in South Africa, Canada, Ireland, Egypt and India.
The Royal Mint Museum has an Abyssinia Medal of 1867-68 named on the reverse to R A Hill, Chief Coiner. The medal is of interest because of its association with a well-known Royal Mint official, someone who, as head of production for 30 years during the second half of the 19th century, was an important figure in Royal Mint history.
But the medal is also interesting from another point of view. With the Abyssinia Medal the name of the recipient was stamped in relief on the reverse, which required the making of special composite dies with detachable centres. This particular specimen, named to the man responsible for achieving this technical feat, may well have been a trial piece to see if this unusual method of production would work.
That the medal collection of the Royal Mint Museum should be dominated by the United Kingdom will perhaps come as no great surprise but the collection also contains a sizeable number of overseas medals and these include many on the theme of overseas mints. There are visit medals, medals depicting mint buildings and of particular interest are those which focus on minting machinery.
At the centre of this oval-shaped medal or plaque, from the Paris Mint, is the commanding presence of a screw press, the same ornately decorated press that was used on official Paris Mint postcards over 100 years ago. Celebrating on medals the art of making coins has a long history and it is entirely appropriate that a museum devoted to furthering knowledge of this art should have a good and growing collection of such medals.
The unusual uniface piece illustrated here is a trial design by Humphrey Paget for the Second World War Defence Medal. A symbolic shield protects Big Ben from flames and bombs, and the time is set at 9 o'clock, the hour when people listened to the radio for news of the war.
Feeling that it contained some of his best work, Paget himself was particularly pleased with the design but he was in competition with other artists, among them Percy Metcalfe and Harold Wilson Parker, and in the event he lost out to a conventional heraldic design by Wilson Parker. This uniface trial of Paget's design has only recently been purchased by the Royal Mint Museum and, given the importance of the Defence Medal, as well as the Museum's long-standing interest in the work of Paget, it was a particularly worthwhile addition to the collection.
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In 1978 a previously unnoticed draft Grant of Arms to the Royal Mint was discovered.
Percy Metcalfe’s distinctive art deco style seems strikingly modern in the context of other artists working for the Royal Mint at the same time.
The Royal Mint Swimming Club, had its first committee meeting 120 years ago on 4 August 1897, when the Mint was still located at Tower Hill in London.