Part 4: 1936-1976

The celebration of the Society’s centenary in 1936 marked the end of an era, but, though thoughtful observers must have seen how events in the world at large were tending, not even the most percipient could have foreseen how the immediate years ahead of war and its aftermath would alter the world. The surprising fact which emerges from a review of the period now being considered is the way in which the Society has persisted, and maintained its aims, and has even been able to enlarge its activities. At the end of the review it may be possible to assess how, in a world which has changed so much from the first hundred years of the Society, the Society has still been able to continue to flourish.

The Society continued to be somewhat peripatetic. Since 1919 the Society had leased rooms from the Royal Historical Society at 22 Russell Square, but when the lease ran out in 1937 it proved impossible to renegotiate at an acceptable figure. Temporary refuge was found with the Royal Anthropological Society at 51 Upper Bedford Place, but in 1938 new quarters were found at 21 Bedford Square, accommodation shared by the British Numismatic Society, and housing the joint libraries of the two Societies. There the Society was to remain throughout the war years.

Council minutes and the shifts to which the Society had to have recourse can be gleaned from the minutes of ordinary meetings, and from the annual presidential addresses. Because of travel difficulties meetings of the Society were restricted to every second month, and because of the blackout the meetings were held in the afternoon at 2 p.m. All of this affected adversely the attendance at meetings, and in any event many of the younger Fellows were absent on war service. The Society was also largely deprived of its traditional support from the Coin Room of the British Museum, for on the outbreak of war the coin collection had been evacuated to the country, and was accompanied by a certain number of its staff. In his presidential address in June 1940 Sydenham alludes to this in a sentence which is susceptible to double entendre. ‘The virtual closing of the Coin Department of the British Museumat any rate the removal of the coinshas temporarily suspended research which to many of us is extremely pleasant, and, we venture to believe, useful’. The meetings of the Society, though limited, never failed to be held, and were attended by those who could, and papers were read by those who were available, for it was not possible to make up an annual programme in such uncertain times. For practical reasons, also, membership of Council was continued essentially unchanged, except that in 1942 Harold Mattingly succeeded Sydenham as President.

Inevitably the times had affected the Society’s fortunes, and in his presidential address in June 1944 Mattingly stressed that the Fellowship had sunk to 206, compared with a peak of 312 in 1906. Amongst steps taken to recover the position was the Society’s participation in the preliminary discussions in October 1943 about the formation of a new Council for British Archaeology, and the promotion of numismatic meetings organised by the Society outside London. The first of these was held at Oxford in February 1944, followed by others at Cambridge, and at Maidstone in May of that year. The end of the war in 1945 saw a considerable growth of new local numismatic societies, and to further interest, and after considerable discussion and co-operation between our Society and the British Numismatic Society, the first of what were termed ‘Coin Days’ was held in London in June 1947. The active part which our Society played as largely due to the enthusiasm of the then president, Harold Mattingly, and the momentum was maintained under his successor, Humphrey Sutherland, who was one of those active in the ultimate creation in 1952 of the British Association of Numismatic societies of which he became the first president.

The Society’s difficulties over premises were not at an end. The lease of the rooms in Bedford Square expired in early 1945, and the Society found the proposed renewal terms prohibitive. A temporary extension was arranged but with restricted facilities, which resulted in the joint libraries of our Society and the British Numismatic Society being housed in the residence of the Secretary, John Allan, in the British Museum. Eventually at a special meeting in September 1947 the proposal that the Society should hold its meetings in the rooms of the Society of Antiquaries was. Two years later arrangements were made to house the joint libraries in the Warburg Institute, at that time were occupying part of Imperial College in Kensington, and subsequently when the Institute moved to new premises in Woburn Square it continued to extend its generous hospitality to the libraries.

The post-war years brought a considerable extension of the Society’s efforts both directly to further numismatic study and to further interest in numismatics. Some of these resulted form the initiative of the Society itself, but others are owed to the generosity of individual Fellows who furnished the Society with the means of prosecuting specific ideas. The first of these was the creation of the Marshall Memorial Fund. In 1945 the Society received from Lieut. W.S. Marshall, a young collector who was killed during the war, a bequest of his collection of coins and numismatic books to be sold to provide a capital sum to be invested to produce an income to be used to promote interest in coins amongst young people, chiefly by the provision of books. Over the years a considerable range of suitable titles have been, accordingly, distributed to school libraries in both the public and private sectors. In 1953 one of the Society’s very senior Fellows, Dr. F. Parkes Weber, established a prize of £10 to be awarded by the Society for a numismatic essay, with an age limit for competitors of 21. Dr Parkes Weber initially provided the prize on an annual basis, but subsequently presented the Society with a capital sum to be invested to produce an annual prize from the income, and at the same time the Society undertook to provide for each winner an electrotype copy of the portrait medal of Dr Parkes Weber. The first award of this prize in 1954 was to Michael Metcalf (later, President of the Society), for an essay on ‘Coinage in the North Balkans in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries’. In 1962 our Fellow Professor J.F. Lhotka gave to the Society a capital sum to provide, in memory of his father, an annual prize of £20 for the book or article in English adjudged to be the contribution in the previous two calendar years likely to be of the greatest use to beginners in numismatics.

From the side of the Society itself came the proposal to publish in addition to the Numismatic Chronicle a series of monographs. The idea was first mooted in early 1947 when the sum of £200 was allocated as a nucleus of the fund to produce what eventually became the Society’s series of Special Publications. The first title in the series, J.D.A. Thompson’s Inventory of British Coin Hoards A.D. 600-1500, was agreed on in 1952, and was eventually published in 1956. Since then many more titles have been published. The principal non-classical volume in this series was the publication of the papers and discussions of the symposium on methods of chemical and metallurgical investigation of ancient coinage, organised by the Society in December 1970. For the publication of this volume the Society received generous support from the International Association of Professional Numismatist’s Research Fund. The Society, together with the British Numismatic Society, also played an active part in the discussions with the British Academy in 1953 which eventually resulted in setting up the committee which has organised the publication of the Sylloge of Coins of the British Isles, a series which now amounts to twenty-four volumes.

Another innovation of the Society was the addition of a second annual periodical, Coin Hoards, in 1975. The purpose of this periodical is to produce an early notice and listing of hoards of all periods wherever they occur, as well as a certain amount of wider consideration and discussion of some hoards. The initial conception of this series is owed to Dr M.J. Price who assumed the burden of editorship. A more recent activity has been the setting up of a Scientific Research Committee, following the suggestion by Dr L.H. Cope. The function of this committee, in broad terms, is the assembly of information on work done on any scientific aspect concerned with coinage, the execution of a number of scientific projects related to coinage, and the publication from time to time of a volume concerned with these topics.

These new activities, however, have not been at the expense of what have, traditionally, been the Society’s two main functions, the holding of meetings to transact business and read papers, and the publication of the Numismatic Chronicle. Though the difficult war-time years somewhat restricted the first of these functions, the tradition was maintained, and happily not a few of those who had added lustre to the Society’s proceedings in the immediate pre-war years were able to continue after the war and set a standard for a new generation. The Numismatic Chronicle similarly never failed to appear during the war though the publication of the volumes suffered inevitable delay and marked reduction in size. The pre-war team of editors, Allan, Mattingly, and Robinson continued unchanged until 1950 when Allan resigned and was replaced by John Walker. An attempt was made after the war to revert to the practice of issuing the Numismatic Chronicle in parts throughout the year, and it was produced in two parts instead of the previous four parts up till 1951, but from 1952 onwards, for reasons both of cost and practicability, the Numismatic Chronicle has appeared as a single annual volume. At the same time the green paper cover which had persisted more or less unchanged since 1860 was replaced by a blue cover with much simplified lettering. The next innovation was the production of our periodical in a hard back binding in dark red, and for a time the volumes continued to be available in paper covers for those who preferred to bind their own copies, but shortly this new facility had to be dropped. In 1970 advantage was taken of the beginning of a new series to enlarge the format of the periodical slightly to provide a more acceptable page size and a larger plate size. The triumviral editorship of the Numismatic Chronicle continued for some years after the war with C.H.V. Sutherland replacing Harold Mattingly in 1953, and G.K. Jenkins and R.A.G. Carson taking over from Robinson and Walker in 1964. In 1966, however, new editorial arrangements were made with the appointment of a single editor responsible for the whole volume but with the support of an editorial committee consisting of an adviser from each of the major fields of coinage and medals.

In the period under review a survey of the contributions to the Numismatic Chronicle shows editorial policy continuing to try to be as catholic as possible in the coverage of the major fields of coinage, but in practice the majority of articles deal with Greek and Roman coinage or with the Oriental series, while the British coinage is less well represented except in the matter of hoard reports, with only occasional papers on European medieval, modern coins, and medals. It is, however, the case that more recent volumes reflect a wider range of interests than those at the opening of the period.

Medal created to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the Royal Numismatic Society and the holding of the Tenth International Numismatic Congress, 1986 (by Robert Elderton.)