Part 1: 1836-1874

John Lee, Founding President of the RNS

The Medal of J. Lee, founding president of the RNS in December 1838 (BM.2009,4044.39), made by A.J. Stothard

There is only the occasional indication that anyone in the ancient world took any interest in the coins of earlier periods, and although in the medieval period and especially in the later middle ages there are signs of greater interest in the coinage of the ancient world, it is only from the Renaissance onwards that anything remotely resembling our definition of numismatics can be detected. In the sixteenth and early seventeenth century cabinets of coins, especially Roman, began to be formed by princes, prelates, and great nobles, and a good number of such collections were recorded in published catalogues, frequently with attached commentary. In the early sixteenth century begins also numismatic discussion and investigation, exemplified by Guillaume Budé’s De asse et partibus eius in 1514 and Andrea Fulvio’s Illustrium Imagines in 1517. The history of the development of numismatics, as far as the classical series are concerned, has, of course, been most admirably documented in the first part of Babelon’s Traité des Monnaies Grecques et Romaines. Numismatic scholarship as it relates to the coinage of our own country is outlined and discussed in the preface to the third edition of Ruding’s Annals of the Coinage of Great Britain and its Dependencies, published in 1840. The interesting subject of earlier numismatics in this country is one that requires, and merits, separate investigation, but from the point of view of the Society, it can be classed as ‘pre-history’.

Our Society was in fact founded as the Numismatic Society at a general meeting held on 22 December 1836 . In retrospect it is clear both that there was a need and a desire for such a body and also that the general circumstances were propitious for such a venture. The later eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries brought great changes in the economic and social fabric of this country. The increased wealth generated by the Industrial Revolution and a greater spread of education created a class equipped with the means, the leisure, and the knowledge to indulge in intellectual and cultural pursuits. The Royal Society originally was concerned with all fields of study, and in the days of Newton , the astronomer and antiquary met at the same table, but eventually the historical and the natural sciences divided. In time this basic division proved inadequate. A decade or so before the foundation of our Society separate societies for natural sciences such as astronomy, geology, and zoology had been established, and on the side of the humanities a separate Royal Society of Literature took over that side of activity from the Society of Antiquaries. It was this latter society which had provided a forum and means of publication for earlier numismatists, through the part played by the Gentleman’s Magazine over this period in reporting and recording new finds, and communicating details of interesting coins in private cabinets should not be forgotten. Numismatics, however, was only one of several aspects catered for by the Society of Antiquaries, and in the 1830s, numismatists began to feel, just as their colleagues in the natural sciences had felt a little earlier, that it was impracticable to obtain the requisite time and attention for their special interest in a mixed institution. On the practical side a factor which undoubtedly contributed to the feasibility of founding such societies in this particular period was the growth of the railway system which made it possible for members from a much wider area to attend and take an active part in the meetings of such societies.

One can only guess at the preliminary discussions and correspondence which must have preceded the two meetings of ‘the friends of Numismatic Science’ as they are termed in the records, fortunately preserved as entries preceding the minutes of the eventual Council of the Society. The first meetings, held on 26 June 1836 at 5 College, Doctors’ Commons, Lincoln’s Inn, the home of Dr. John Lee, proposed that on some future evening the friends of Numismatic Science should assemble and be formed into a body to be called the Numismatic Society, that Capt. William Henry Smyth be requested to act as President and that Mr Akerman and Mr Cullimore be nominated Secretaries.

The earliest minutes of the Society record that ‘a meeting of the Friends of Numismatic Science was held in the apartments of the Royal Astronomical Society, Somerset House, on Thursday evening, the 22nd of December, 1836 . Dr Lee, having been called to the chair, made a few observations on the views and intentions of the promoters of the Society which the friends of Numismatic Science had now assembled to originate.’ A number of resolutions were unanimously carried: that the Numismatic Society be formed with an annual subscription of one guinea, due on 1 January each year; that Dr. Lee be requested to accept the office of President, and additionally that of Treasurer; that Akerman and Cullimore undertake the office of Secretaries; and that the members of Council should be Edward Hawkins, C.F. Barnwell, Capt. W.H. Smyth, Sir Henry Ellis, Thomas Burgon, William Wyon, and W.D. Haggard. It was further agreed ‘that any gentleman who may be desirous of becoming a member, shall signify the same to one of the Secretaries before the 26th of January next; and that after that period the admission fee be one guinea, and the election be by ballot’. Finally it was agreed that the first ordinary meeting of the Society be held on Thursday, 26 January 1837 . The first list of members of the Society published on the occasion of the first anniversary meeting in June 1837 contains the names of 132 members.

A survey of the records suggests that the real father of the Society was John Yonge Akerman. He was one of the moving spirits in its foundation, became one of its secretaries on its formation in 1836 and remained active in the Society until 1860. He was the author of a number of books on numismatics and many articles, and, more importantly, began in 1836, largely at his own expense, the periodical which eventually became the Numismatic Chronicle, one of the bases on which the repute of this Society as a learned body was established.

The original members whose common interest in numismatics brought them together to found the Society had a wide range of backgrounds. From the very beginning, the Society began to build up the international connection which remains today one of our traditions. The Proceedings, and the first list of members published in 1836, show that the Society had already elected as Associates seven eminent foreign numismatists, but the category of Honorary Members was created only somewhat later.

On its formation the Society was denominated simply the Numismatic Society. In 1838 council appointed a committee ‘to prepare a code of Laws’, and by May this code had been drawn up and entitled ‘The Institutes of the Numismatic Society of London’ and by this title the Society was known until the granting of the Royal Charter in 1904. The Institutes were accepted with some small amendments by Council in June 1838 and they were ordered to be published. In essentials the rules adopted then continue to govern the Society’s activities and form the basis of the Charter and Bye-Laws drawn up in 1904.

The history of our periodical is not without its own interest. Although it has always been associated with the Society, it was originally not the Society’s property but was produced as a private venture, in the main organised, financed, and edited by Akerman. The first two volumes covering the years 1836 to April 1838 were entitled the Numismatic Journal but from June 1838 onwards the title was changed to the Numismatic Chronicle. These volumes included shortened versions of the transactions of the Society, but, for the years 1836 to 1839 only, the Society published in addition extended versions of the transactions under the title Proceedings of the Numismatic Society. Council in December 1839 laid down conditions for the continued association of the periodical with the Society:

  1. that members may be furnished with the Numismatic Chronicle on payment of an additional nine shillings;
  2. that the publishers be expected to supply a sufficient number of copies of reports of the proceedings for the supply of members;
  3. that the connection of the Society with the Journal continue only so long as it is conducted by one or other of the officers of the Society. The arrangement was continued until 1858 when in December Council resolved that on completion of the XXth number the Society should take over the Numismatic Chronicle which would be entitled the Numismatic Chronicle (New Series), and that John Evans be appointed editor.
The Numismatic Journal

The Numismatic Journal, Vol. I, front page (1836-1837), featuring the portrait of J.H. Eckel

Very properly quite a high proportion of time and space is seen to have been devoted to the British coinage. The British coinage was, at the beginning, in the forefront of interest, and a paper in the first volume of the Numismatic Chronicle by Thomas Burgon ‘On a mode of ascertaining the place to which Ancient British coins belong’ deals with the necessity for exact recording of find-spots as an essential basis, the principle on which John Evans’s great work a little later was grounded.

This is the merest sketch of what was achieved in papers read or published, but from the more detailed survey on which the sketch is based, it is possible to attempt a summary answer to the question posed at the beginning of this section. In essence much of the Society’s early activities has a certain antiquarian and dilettante flavour, but some of the very early contributions are distinguished by depth of knowledge, attention to detail, and critical acumen. Those, fortunately, were the qualities which persisted and developed so that many of the contributions were not only frequently a first statement of some series or problem, but have continued to provide, by and large, a valid basis for subsequent research and development. By the end of this period it can be said with reasonable justification that numismatics had developed into an acceptable scientific discipline.