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Origins of the Royal Mint Museum

By The Royal Mint    |   Friday, 1 August 2008

By order of the Master of the Mint

The Royal Mint Museum was established in 1816 by the Master of the Mint William Wellesley Pole. In a memorandum of 12 February 1816 he wrote that he had observed with pain that not only was there...

...no Collection of British Coins in His Majesty's Mint, but there is not a single Proof Coin or a single serviceable Matrix or Puncheon preserved in the Office.

It was a matter of surprise and regret that while the Mint had been in operation for 1,000 years no one had seen fit to set aside a collection representative of the coins and medals that had been struck. In 1816, therefore, it was only possible to seek to establish a system that would ensure examples of current and futures issues would be preserved. Pole wanted to guarantee a regular Deposit in the Office of His Majesty's Mint, of a Proof Impression of every Coin and of every Medal which, from this time forth, shall be struck at the Royal Mint; and which may also secure a Deposit of all original Matrixes and Puncheons.... The Mint officers took immediate steps to implement the Master's wishes.

William Wellesley Pole

Pole, who came to the Mint in 1814, was a man of undoubted energy and commitment. Almost immediately, by introducing administrative reforms and by instilling the Mint with a greater sense of purpose, he stamped his authority on the department. He also had an artistic sensitivity which prompted him to reflect that the Royal Mint should not only have the most up to date machinery in the world...

...but that we may stand equally unrivalled for the perfect form and exquisite taste of our several coins.

That it was the determined Pole who was successful in establishing a museum at the Mint is a reflection of his effectiveness and, no doubt, of his wish to provide the Mint engravers with an inspirational source of material to which they could refer when preparing designs for new coins.

Sir Joseph Banks

Pole had good reason to lament the absence within the Mint of a historic collection of British coins and medals and there seemed to be little prospect of collecting together any regular series of older coins except perhaps only from the last few years. But Pole's position as a Cabinet Minister and as Master of the Mint brought him into contact with the President of the Royal Society Sir Joseph Banks, a fellow member of the influential Privy Council Committee on Coin and a man who had warmed to the Master's abilities. He shared Pole's desire to see the Mint set up an historic collection and consequently in August 1818 he donated to the Mint a small private collection of 100 or so coins and medals, together with some books.

Pole was understandably delighted with the gift, telling Banks that...

...they will form an excellent foundation for the Mint to build upon - and I trust they may be the cause of rescuing the Department from the melancholy state of Deficiency in which I am sorry to say it now stands.

Sarah Sophia Banks

Even better was to come later in the year, following the death of Sir Joseph's sister. Sarah Sophia Banks had been an avid collector of items of natural history, coins and books, and in her will she bequeathed her collection to Lady Banks. Whether or not Sir Joseph had to twist his wife's arm, Lady Banks did not long retain her inheritance. In October 1818 Sir Joseph wrote to the Mint:

...in compliance with the wish of Lady Banks I send with this a Collection of Books of Coins and Medals, which were bequeathed to her by my late Sister, Mrs. Banks, and I have to request that the Collection may be preserved in His Majesty's Mint, as a Gift from Lady Banks.

As well as books there were coins and medals, and Pole expressed his gratitude in the warmest of terms. The gifts would enable the Mint to be rescued from the disgrace of having neither specimens of British Coins, or works upon Coins and Medals to guide it in its operations or to stimulate it to exertion or improvement. And he announced his determination that 'to the latest time our obligation to you and Lady Banks may be recorded'.

Lady Banks' gift...

...was a handsome one and it still forms the basis of the pre-1800 part of the Mint collection. Comprising a wide-ranging selection of well over 2,000 coins and medals, it spanned the whole period from ancient British to contemporary machine-made coins. Numerous pieces from overseas were included and the whole collection was supplemented by a very fine array of numismatic books, pamphlets and manuscripts. The coins were of very high quality and several rank as major rarities, notably Thomas Rawlins.

Oxford crown of Charles I and Thomas Simon's Petition crown of 1663, with its magnificent portrait of Charles II. It is difficult to see how else the Mint could ever have hoped to acquire such pieces, and certainly in monetary terms the gift was of exceptional value. Between them, the Banks' gifts went a long way towards supplying the retrospective arrangements which Pole had feared would not be possible.

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