Part 3: 1904-1936

The immediately preceding period of the Society’s history could quite simply be designated the ‘ Evans era’, but the period between the granting of the Royal Charter in 1904 and the celebration of the Society’s centenary in 1936 cannot be defined in a single phrase. From a survey, however, of the Society’s activities and particularly of the articles, principally by its Fellows, published in the Numismatic Chronicle this period emerges as on of the most crucial and important. It was a period which saw the disappearance of the last vestiges of antiquarianism, the establishment and development of new numismatic techniques, and the emergence of a galaxy of numismatic scholars whose work not only gained for numismatics acceptance as an auxiliary discipline in historical and other studies, but also continues to exert an influence on modern numismatics. Part of the fascination of reviewing this period is to observe, the post eventum knowledge of their later achievements, the first appearance in Society affairs and the first contribution to its publications of a succession of such figures as Milne, Seltman, and Robinson on the Greek side, Mattingly and Sydenham on Roman, and Walters, Lawrence, and above all, Brooke on British. These observations are in no way intended to diminish respect and regard for earlier scholars whose often pioneering work has been reviewed in earlier chapters; for the numismatists of the first three decades of this century had the good fortune to be able to build on the sound foundations laid by their predecessors, as all of us do. This assessment, granted, may be somewhat coloured by sentiment on the part of those of us older Fellows whose good fortune it has been to have known some of these influential figures.

The furore of the events of 1904 – the great schism resulting in the formation of the British Numismatic Society, and the granting of the Royal Charter to this Society -very quickly subsided. A good deal of the credit for this must be assigned to the majority of those active in setting up the new Society who yet continued to be Fellows and to support this Society’s activities. The smooth progress of the Society undoubtedly owed much to the continued paternalistic direction of its affairs by Sir John Evans whose presidency lasted until his death on 31 May 1908 in his 85th year. The event, coming as late as it did in the Society’s year, precipitated a minor crisis, for Evans had indicated his willingness to serve a further year as President, and his name had accordingly been placed on the ballot list. At a special meeting of Council held on 5 June a resolution expressing the Society’s grief at the President’s death was ordered to be placed in the minutes and sent to Lady Evans. It was also agreed that Sir Henry Howarth, one of the Vice-Presidents, should be nominated as President. At the Annual General Meeting on 18 June there was no presidential address, but, instead, Barclay Head read a lengthy memoir of the late President.

Howorth was something of a reluctant President, and he and Head in 1910 endeavoured to persuade Grueber to take on the presidency, but Grueber refused on the plea of his duties as Keeper of Coins in the British Museum , and his preoccupation with the final stages of his Catalogue of Roman Republican Coins. Eventually in 1914 Howorth was succeeded as President by Sir Arthur Evans who, unlike his father, served only the more conventional term of five years. These were the years of the First World War but the Society appears to have carried on much as before with its meetings and its publications, except that a number of younger Fellows who had begun to be active as speakers disappeared from the Proceedings while they were on war service, and the Chronicle shrank from a volume of some 500 pages in 1914 to one of about 250 pages in 1919. Council minutes, indeed, reflect nothing of the circumstances of these years except for one occasion, when, in January 1918, Council passed a resolution to be sent to the Prime Minister with copies to the major newspapers protesting against a government proposal to requisition the British Museum for the use of the Air Board. Evans’s Presidential address in 1915, however, is strongly coloured by the violent anti-German feeling which gripped even the intelligentsia of the country. In most of his addresses Evans contented himself with a survey of the happenings of the year, but eschewed a review of papers delivered and printed, preferring to use the opportunity to present a numismatic paper published subsequently as an article in the Chronicle.

The new President elected in 1919 was Sir Charles Oman, Chichele Professor of Modern History at Oxford , Member of Parliament for Oxford University , and author of The Coinage of England (1931). Though his plurality of office prevented his attending every meeting he was far from a titular President, and certainly used to the full his position as a Member of Parliament to represent the view of numismatists particularly on the question of the reduction in the fineness of the silver coinage to 50 per cent in 1920.

The next president was Percy Webb. Webb had, of course, made his mark in the numismatic world with his work on the coinage of Carasusius and Allectus and as author of Roman Imperial Coinage, V, but he had also been the Society’s treasurer since 1906. The Society already in 1930 must have been thinking ahead to its centenary which fell due in 1936, and to the international numismatic congress to be held in London to mark the occasion, and it was probably Webb’s administrative abilities that recommended his election. There is unfortunately a gap in Council minutes between April 1931 and April 1943, for, presumably, the Minute Book then in use was one of the casualities in the fire which destroyed the Coin Room of the British Museum in April 1941.

In 1920 rising costs, particularly those of publication, compelled the Society to raise its subscription, which had stood at one guinea since the foundation, to two guineas and to increase the life subscription to thirty guineas. Council decided that this new rate should apply only to Fellows elected after the alteration, but appealed to existing Fellows voluntarily to double their subscription. Sad to relate only 64 Fellows agreed, 29 refused, and the remainder were silent.

In 1931 the Society for the first time honoured a woman numismatist with the award of the medal to Miss Helen Farquhar for her work on the medals of the Tudor and Stuart dynasties.

Of all the Society’s activities in any period of its history what remains its momentum aere perennius is the Numismatic Chronicle. The status and reputation of the Numismatic Chronicle was now such that it attracted contributions not only from our own Fellows but from other eminent scholars from the numismatic world at large. This had happened earlier to a small extent, but now the trend increased, and, happily, has continued down to our own day. Quantity is not the same as quality, but Fellows of the day were the fortunate recipients of a series of the most substantial volumes in the series, except for the later years of the First World War, and Fellows still enjoyed the luxury of receiving a part of the Chronicle four times a year, though they were then faced with the problem and expense of binding each annual volume. From 1904 until his death Sir John Evans continued to be one of the editors, together with Head, Grueber, and Rapson. Grueber continued to be the editorial main-stay until 1912, assisted by Oliver Codrington and George Hill. On his retirement Grueber was replaced as an editor by George Brooke, and the next editorial change came only in 1921 when, on Codrigton’s death, John Allan joined the editorial board. In 1931 Stanley Robinson replaced Hill, and after Brooke’s death Harold Mattingly was appointed an editor to complete the editorial team of Allan, Mattingly, and Robinson which functioned right down to 1949.

As the Society’s centenary approached, Council decided that this event could best be marked by holding an intentional numismatic congress under the aegis of the International Numismatic Commission to take place in London from 30 June to 3 July 1936 . Such an international congress was long overdue, for the sequence of congresses at Brussels in 1891, at Paris in 1900, and again at Brussels in 1910 had been interrupted by the First World War and never resumed. Either an international congress at that time was not such a complex affair as it now is, or an earlier generation possessed greater energy, ability, and confidence than our generation, for it was only in February 1935 that an organising committee was set up.

Take place the congress did and on the announced dates and was attended by some 270 participants. The meetings were held at University College, London, and the congress was opened by Sir George Macdonald, President of the Society, and President of the Congress. The congress numismatically was a great success we can well judge from the many excellent papers published in 1938 in the volume of Transactions, and from the accounts of participants.

The dinner to celebrate the Society’s centenary was a successful occasion and was held on July at the Mayfair Hotel, and attended by 134 guests. The list fortunately is published in full in the Proceedings for 1936, and reads like a Who’s Who of the numismatic world of the day, and the Proceedings also record the scene at the centenary dinner.

Apart form the volume of Transactions there are two further physical mementoes of the congress: the first the congress member’s badge with, as its main motif, the St. George and the Dragon of the George noble of Henry VIII, and a centenary medal. This medal, struck in silver, used as its obverse the Tres Monetae type of the Society’s award medal, and as its reverse a wreath enclosing the inscription VOTIS C MVLTIS CC in four lines, with below, the mint-mark PLON, a design suggested by Mattingly.


The medal celebrating the RNS centenary in 1936 (BM1936,1210.1)

The centenary marked a very definite milestone in the Society’s history. Though the Society’s Fellowship in 1936, something short of 300, was not much more than double the original membership on the formation of the Society, its record over the hundred years enshrine the name of many who had made an international reputation in our field, and the successive volumes of the Numismatic Chronicle had established its reputation as one of the prime vehicles for numismatic publication. As the reverse of the centenary medal was intended to record, the Society could look back on a century of accomplishment, and, adorned, as it was in 1936 with a galaxy of talent unequalled in its history, could look forward with confidence to its next century of activity.