MEDALLING IN HISTORY
0NE MAY WONDER how an otherwise sane person can spend a great deal of time and money accumulating little silver medals with brightly coloured ribbons given for some often obscure naval or military action a hundred years or more ago. Yet, to Dave Holmes of Cowes who has been bitten by the bug, the collecting of British campaign medals makes a most interesting and rewarding pastime. As Dave, whose antique shop, Lady Hamilton's is known to many in the town, says, 'every medal has a story to tell and is in fact a little piece of history itself and a material link with the past glories of our country'.
To him — and to many other serious medal collectors — the appeal lies largely in the reward that a little research into the medals yields. 'Let us assume', he suggested, 'that you have in your possession a Crimean War medal that has been in the family for generations, and that the medal has among others the clasp or bar Balaklava. If you hold it in your hand and turn it on end so that the bottom edge is facing you, you will be able to read the name of the man to whom it was presented. Let us say it was given to T King, 4th Lt Dragns, which will have been impressed into the medal. From this piece of information alone, it becomes evident that great-grandfather Tom King could have taken part in the historic Charge of the Light Brigade, as the 4th Light Dragoons were in action on that occasion. But one can delve deeper into the history of Tom King by consulting the Public Records Office in London in order to discover whether in fact he really did ride 'into the valley of death'. For a modest sum, the PRO would have turned up and supplied you with a photostat of the information that Private Thomas King, born in Buckingham served 12 years in the 23rd Royal Welsh Fusiliers; that he had enlisted in the 4th Light Dragoons in September 1851; that he had been taken prisoner in the Charge of the Light Brigade at Balaklava and that after being repatriated in September 1855, he had been invalided out of the army in 1863!
The example Dave had given was not in fact fictitious butreferred to a medal which was recently sold at Sothebys for £750.
A medal collection can take many different forms: it can be a general collection or a highly specialised one. Before making a decision as to what type of collection to go in for, it is as well to do a little reading. The medal collector's bible is 'British Battles and Medals' by Major L L Gordon. Practically all information the novice medal collector could want can be found in this work, and, says Dave, 'I could not do without my copy'.
His own collection is a general one that covers over 100 years of our history from the 'Glorious First of June' (1794) to the Third War with China (1900). The period covers the Napoleonic Wars at sea and on land in the Peninsular and the Low Countries (Waterloo), the Crimean War, the Indian Mutiny, the Boer War and numerous other campaigns throughout the world. Although many collectors specialise in medals given to only one of the services, his collection covers both the army and the navy. His aim —although he has a long way to go yet — is to form as near as possible a complete collection of examples of every campaign medal from the start of the Napoleonic Wars to the end of the reign of Queen Victoria.
Other forms which a collection might take are: one service only medals; medals to a specific regiment; medals for specific campaigns; medals to officers — and so on. There is no limit to the forms a collection can take. 'A collection of medals of the Boer War', Dave suggests, 'makes an interesting study at a comparatively low cost in these days of rapidly rising prices, and they could be a sound long-term investment should they ever need to be sold. Although monetary gain should not be the reason for forming a medal collection, it certainly helps to know that good items more than keep pace with today's rapid inflation. One of the country's leading dealers offered for sale in 1967 a naval General Service medal with bar Trafalgar, an Indian Mutiny medal with bars of Lucknow and Defence of Lucknow, a Waterloo medal, and a Military General Service medal for the Peninsular Wars with five bars at £175 for the four items; today, these medals would fetch £775.
Apart from their interest and intrinsic value, such collections can be a most attractive addition to the decor of your home and, if presented nicely, will be acceptable to the most feminine of creatures. It is possible to purchase ready-made albums with plastic pages to accept your medals. One can also, of course, store a collection in a series of trays or fitted drawers but, however convenient this may seem to be, it is not the best solution. Medals have been tucked away in drawers for too long but if they are worth collecting, they are worth displaying. What better way of displaying your collection than by providing a suitable frame and showing the medals as an attractive and colourful wall picture? Dave's collection of Victorian Campaign Medals is mounted in a Victorian picture frame bought for 50p and modified and restored. He has built the rear of the frame up with some strips of soft wood to make it deeper, and provided a removable rear panel which, covered in deep red doeskin, makes a very attractive backing. It is a simple matter to arrange the medal collection attractively and to attach the medals with easily removable drawing pins. A piece of card cut to just a little narrower than the ribbon will give a nice sharp edge to the top, and any ribbons that are unduly tattered can be replaced quite inexpensively. He however favours medals that are uncleaned and bearing their original ribbons.
It is necessary to point out that if buying medals at auctions or from dealers, only pieces that are 100 per cent genuine should be considered. A medal that has had the recipient's name erased or been re-named is relatively valueless as a collector's item.