In a previous article1 I showed how the medal was designed and produced.
The invoices that the Pingo brothers submitted to the Royal Society provide an interesting insight into the costs of producing the medals. First, the brothers charged a fee of 80 guineas (£84) for producing the two dyes required to stamp the medals. Then they charged the Royal Society £6.9s.1d for each gold medal. This amount covered the cost of the gold, £5.18s.7d, and a stamping charge of 10s.6d. For each silver medal they charged the Society 11s.7½d. This amount covered the cost of the silver, 6s.7½d, and a stamping charge of 5s.
The Society charged its members £21 for a gold medal, and £1.1s for a silver medal. The “profit” made from the sale of these medals was used to finance the production of the 500 bronze medals that were needed in order to provide one for every member of the Royal Society. As each bronze medal cost 5s, a profit of £125 was needed from the sale of gold and silver medals to cover the production costs.
In fact nine gold medals were sold to members of the Society generating a surplus of £130. This sum was more than doubled when a surplus of £136 arose from the sale of 291 silver medals. This surplus covered the £84 cost of the dyes with £184 remaining.
The gold medals
According to the archives of the Royal Society the nine members who ordered a gold medal were:
Sir Joseph Banks (President of the Royal Society)
The Prince of Anspach
The Duke of Montague
Mr John Peachy
Mr William Perrin
Mr Joseph Poli
By early 1784 it was found that there were sufficient funds to commission ten more gold medals.
These medals were formally presented to:
His Majesty King George III
Queen Charlotte, wife of King George III
George the Prince of Wales, son of King George III
Louis XVI, King of France
Catherine, Empress of Russia
Mrs Elizabeth Cook (the Captain’s widow)
The Earl of Sandwich, (First Lord of the Admiralty 1771-1782)
Dr. Benjamin Franklin (the US diplomat at the Court of France who acted to provide a safe passage home for Resolution during the war between US and GB)
Dr William Cooke (provost of King’s College, Cambridge)
Mr Joseph Planta (librarian at the British Museum and a secretary of the Royal Society)
A 20th gold medal was paid for by Mr Aubert for presentation to the King of Poland.
The Royal Society retains in its archives the following letter that Mrs Elizabeth Cook wrote to Sir Joseph Banks thanking him for the gold medal which had been delivered to her at the Cook family home in Mile End. We know relatively little about Mrs Cook, and this letter, if it was of her own composition, shows her to have been an eloquent lady.
Mile end August 16th 1784
Sir, I received your exceeding kind letter of the 12th, & want no words to express, in any adequate degree, my feelings on the very singular honour which you, Sir, and the honourable and learned Society over which you so worthily preside, have been pleased to confer on my late husband, and, through him, on me, and his children, who are left to lament the loss of him, and be the receivers of those most noble marks of approbation which, if Providence had been pleased to permit him to receive himself would have rendered me happy indeed.
Be assured, Sir, that however unequal I may be to the task of expressing it, I feel as I ought the high honour, which the Royal Society has been pleased to do me. My greatest pleasure now remaining, is in my Sons, who I hope will ever strive to copy after so Good an Example: and Animated by the Honours bestowed on their Fathers memory, be ambitious of attaining by their own merit your notice & approbation. Let me entreat you to add to the many Acts of Friendship, which I have already received at your hands, that of expressing my gratitude, and thanks, to that learned Body, in such a manner as may be acceptable to them.
Sir, with the greatest respect,
your greatly obliged, &
very humble Servant
Some administrative difficulties
The records of the Royal Society suggest that there were a few administrative hiccups in the paperwork concerning the medals. This was due in part to the long delay between members ordering their medals in 1780, and the production of the medals some four years later. Some members who had put down their name for a silver medal had died whilst waiting, e.g. Dr. Solander. Matters came to a head on 13th January 1785 when the Council of the Royal Society decided to investigate “several instances of neglect in the Clerk”. Mr Robertson, the Clerk to the Society, was asked to attend the next meeting of the Council on 27 January. But when that meeting convened the Council found that Mr Robertson did not attend, instead he had submitted his letter of resignation.
In the months that followed several members came forward claiming that they had paid for their medals but their payments had not been recorded, and, as a result, they had not received their medals. Where such complaints were reported to the Council, the members were authorised to receive their missing medals.
In March 1785 the Royal Society interviewed two candidates for the vacant post of Clerk. The successful candidate was George Gilpin, who had sailed on the Second Voyage as an assistant to William Wales.
It is interesting to note that in 1785 when Mr Robertson handed over the Society’s accounts to Mr Gilpin the number of Captain Cook medals in stock was recorded as:
Four years later in February 1789, another stock-take revealed that the Captain Cook medals still held in stock were:
Further research is continuing to identify who failed to collect their medals and what became of them.
Pingo did not design the medal with a view to allowing the original owners to incorporate their names on the medal. Hence it is usually impossible to trace the provenance of medals that are held by museums, or when one comes up at auction.
However, there are one or two exceptions to this rule. In 1833, when Mrs Cook drew up her will, she kindly bequeathed her gold medal to the British Museum. The museum also holds a gold medal donated by Sophia Banks, the sister of Sir Joseph Banks.
The gold medal that was presented to King George III is still held in the Royal Collection. However, the Royal Collection holds only one gold medal as Queen Charlotte’s property was disposed of after her death. The whereabouts of the medal given to the Prince of Wales is not known.
I have come across only one medal that bears some indication of its provenance. The Mitchell Library, Sydney has a silver medal that is engraved around the edge “Presented by His Grace Duke of Northumberland to Henry Colld. Selby 21 Jany. 1785” (Beddie No. 2793).2
The medal in literature
The general public became aware of the medal only after a short article appeared in The Gentleman’s Magazine for July 1784.
Subsequent references to the Cook commem-orative medal in literature are rare. I have come across only one. In late 1784 James Trevenen, a midshipman on the Third Voyage, accompanied his former captain, the dying Captain James King to the south of France. In December, after Captain King had passed away, Trevenen wrote to his sister, “A copper medal from those of gold struck by the Royal Society in Captain Cook’s honour and given me by Captain King just before he died, as a memento, has also stood me in great stead and given great satisfaction to the curious”.3
I would be interested to hear if any members have come across any other references.
I am grateful to the Royal Society for use of its library and archives, and to the Librarian at Windsor Castle for details of the Cook medal within the Royal Collection. I also appreciate the assistance given to me by Peter Lane of the Numismatic Association of Australia.
The gold medal the Royal Society presented to King George III by is currently on display at the Captain Cook Birthplace Museum, Marton as part of the exhibition “The Many Faces of Captain Cook”.
- Cook’s Log, page 28, vol. 31, no. 3 (2008).
- Beddie, M.K. Bibliography of Captain James Cook RN, FRS, Circumnavigator. Sydney. 1970.
- Lloyd, C. and Anderson, R. C. A Memoir of James Trevenen. Royal Navy Records Society. 1959.
Originally published in Cook's Log, page 12, volume 31, number 4 (2008).