Sim Comfort, an American living in England since the late 1960’s, is an internationally known expert on British naval edge weapons from the Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars. He has published several well received books on this subject, as well as a gorgeous reprint of the 1817 edition of The Naval Achievements of Great Britain 1793-1815 by James Jenkins. In addition to this important work, he has since the early 1970’s had a side interest, collecting named examples of the naval medals struck by Matthew Boulton of the Soho Mint in Birmingham. This includes, among others, the Davison Nile, Earl St. Vincent’s, and Boulton Trafalgar medals. The result of this lifetime pursuit is now described in exquisite detail in his new book. In my opinion it is his finest yet, and bound to be a key reference work for the foreseeable future.
Collecting these unnamed, but contemporarily unofficially named, medals is not easy. Yes, of course one can relatively easily acquire specimens of many of these medals, at least in the silver, bronze, or the copper-gilt variety – the gold versions are usually much more elusive and certainly more expensive to acquire. To form a collection of named medals with genuine provenance is a lot harder and takes a lot of experience. Sim Comfort has acquired this experience from his many years of pursuing these interesting medals. His journey is truly fascinating, and is now documented in full in this new book. The book is logically laid out in two sections, the first part describes the background material on Matthew Boulton and the specific numismatical description of the seven naval medals he created. The second part is a detailed description of the named pieces in the collection and the men behind the medals.
Matthew Boulton and the Soho Mint
Matthew Boulton was one of the most successful pioneers of modern industrialization in Britain, his contributions are perhaps best know in the public through his collaborations with James Watt on the application of the steam engine in mining and manufacturing. The book describes in detail how Birmingham was the perfect place for industry in the early 18th century, and how it provided a excellent environment for entrepreneurs and businessmen like Boulton and Watts. One activity lead to another, and so it happened that Boulton built the Soho factory outside Birmingham, an integrated manufacturing facility complete with housing for the workforce. It would later incorporate the Soho Mint. Becoming a coiner and medalist was not without its problems, but Sim explains the fascinating story of how everything progressed in logical steps. One gets the clear impression that among his many activities, being a medalist was closest to Boulton’s heart, and it’s hard to put down the book because one wants to know what comes next.
The first naval medal and also the first medal produced by Boulton, was struck in 1772, it was the Otaheite medal (meaning O Tahiti ), also know as Resolution and Adventure. It was carried on Capt. Cook’s epic voyages to the South Pacific, meant as a token of friendship, to be given to such new people who may be found on a voyage of discovery. It was officially sanctioned by the Crown, and is believed to be the only British medal of this kind. We get a fascinating review of the early explorations in the Pacific, which puts this interesting medal in context.
Several other medals followed, and we learn how gradually the striking problems, like die faults etc. were ironed out. By 1793 the Soho Mint was well established and Boulton had with the arrival of the German engraver, Conrad Heinrich Küchler (~1740-1810), secured the artistic talent. Küchler would be the die maker for five of the seven famous naval medals he and Boulton would produce. In total, their partnership resulted in 33 medals and Küchler was also the die maker for several British coins which were struck at Boulton’s Soho Mint via contract with the Royal Mint and the East India Company.
Then follows a detailed historical and numismatic descriptions of the seven naval medals, including their designs and the significance of the symbolism used. All very well told, and a great reference section for specific details. I list them here for the record:
- The Otaheite or Resolution and Adventure Medal (BHM 165)
- The St. Eustatia Medal (BHM 230)
- The Glorious First of June Medal (BHM 383)
- The Davison Nile Medal (BHM 447)
- King Ferdinan IV Medal (BHM 479)
- Earl St. Vincent Medal (BHM 489)
- Matthew Boulton’s Trafalgar Medal (BHM 584)
This section is rounded out with a very interesting account of the activities of the Irishman Robert Day (1836-1914). Day was a prominent member of the Cork Historical and Archaeological Society, an avid medal collector, and in Sim’s words … undoubtedly the greatest forger of medals ever!. Around 1910 when the Hailes roll of Naval General Service Medal 1793-1840 (NGS) was published, Robert Day would choose names from the roll and create various Orders of Merit or Rewards for Gallantry for these men. These medals were produced from old school medals and engraved either by himself or an accomplice with great engraving skills. Examples of these are Capt. Hardy’s “Reward of Merit” and Capt. Plenderleath’s (49th Foot at Copenhagen 1801) “Reward for Gallantry” and various other such tokens of appreciation – always issued to men on the NGS roll. Sim’s argument for the fakery is simple and based on statistics, he has come across many of these medals during his many years of collecting. He argues very convincingly, that the odds for finding this many reward medals to men on the NGS roll is highly unlikely and essentially statistically impossible. Day’s fakery also moved into Regimental and Volunteer Medals, but does not appear to have spread into faking the naming of Davison Nile or Bolton Trafalgar medals.
The Collection of Named Medals
It is in this section we learn about the amazing collection of named Bolton’s naval medals formed by Sim Comfort during the past 47 years. Sim chose to focus on the Davison Nile, St. Vincent’s, and the Bolton Trafalgar medals. He does not explicitly say why, but presumably because these three were the only medals distributed among the men, and therefor the only ones subject to private naming. Having said this, there are examples of all seven Boulton naval medals in the collection.
It is here, that the depth of the collection becomes apparent. I think I can say without reservation, it is the finest collection of named Davison Nile and Bolton Trafalgar medals ever assembled. There are named Davison Nile medals for all the ships in Nelson’s fleet, furthermore some of the ships are represented with several medals. There are two Davison Nile medals in gold, the one Nelson presented to Capt. Hardy of the Mutine, on behalf of Davison. Hardy was not made a post Captain till after the battle and did not qualify for a Small Naval Gold Medal, since he was only commanding a gun-brig and not a ship of the line. Nelson remedied this by giving a spare Davison gold medal to Hardy. The second gold medal is believed to be the one meant to have been presented to Ralph Miller of the Theseus (Miller was killed at Acre shortly after the battle of the Nile), which Sim convincingly argues was kept by Nelson himself. Eventually this medal found its way back to Davison who assisted Lady Hamilton after the death of Nelson. Since these medals are unnamed, there will of course always be a level of uncertainty regarding who they really belonged to. However it is an indisputable fact that the two gold medals were among the 25 originally struck at the Soho Mint. There are also several named silver medals, as well as original Soho Mint gilt-bronze medals. Interestingly, a couple of medals are named to women in addition to the man, presumably a ‘sea wife’. The service history of all of the recipients is presented for all the medals. All this helps building a fascinating picture of the men in Nelson’s fleet and how their lives evolved. Particular engraving styles are identified and point to some medals having been engraved onboard the ships. It is a fantastically useful resource for a new collector who may want to start collecting these fascinating medals.
The section on the Bolton Trafalgar medals is also extremely impressive. All the important ships at Trafalgar are represented with several named medals, only a few ships appear to be missing. The medal was stuck in tin for distribution among the Trafalgar fleet, some of these were later silvered and cased by the recipients. Presentation examples were later struck in silver, silver-gilt, copper-gilt, copper-bronzed and tin. There are examples of all the different kinds in the collection, some are naturally not in best condition since tin oxidizes heavily if not protected, but all tell interesting stories about the man, with the same details as presented for the Davison Nile medal. Sim has also here been able to identify engraving styles which point to the same engraver in some cases. As for the Davison Nile, every medal is lavishly illustrated with supporting images of the ship, its captain or even portraits of the recipient in some cases.
The book concludes with some interesting thoughts on the life as a sailor in the Royal Navy during this prolonged and hard conflict. Sim has looked at the life of the men in his collection who fought at Trafalgar and received Boulton’s medal, thirty-three in total. Almost half of the men did not last until the end of the war ten years later. Seventeen men and officers were discharged in good health, one man Ran, four who were Discharged Dead – all Able Seamen. It seems all fell out of the tops and drowned. One officer died at sea, likely from a fever in the West Indies. Three men could not be traced. And finally seven men were discharged as Unserviceable – not fit for shipboard duties. Life in Nelson’s Navy certainly took its toll. This book brings us a lot closer to these men and what they endured, their named Bolton’s medals are all we have today to remind us of their lives. I highly recommend it.
The book with its 412 pages is beautifully produced, case bound in quarto format, and printed on thick Munken Arctic matt white 90 gsm paper, it is a signed limited edition of 500 copies only. Richly illustrated with generally excellent color photographs throughout, a few of the photos of the Boulton’s Trafalgar medal could perhaps have better lighting, but this is really a minor complaint. A very useful index of ships, men, and topics is also included. The book is not inexpensive at £125, but it is well worth it in my opinion. It contains a wealth of information that is not readily available elsewhere (or in many case anywhere else at all). Any serious collector of British naval medals from the period should not be without it. The book can purchased from Sim Comfort’s website: simcomfort.co.uk or from Amazon.
While I have known Sim Comfort for many years, I have not received, and nor will I – any economic or other benefit from the sale of this book. The book was not given to me, I purchased it with my own money. And the opinion expressed here is entirely my own.
- Laurence Brown, British Historical Medals 1760-1960 (BHM), Seaby 1980.