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The medals of Soho near Birmingham - The Westminster Fire Office

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coinsandmedals

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So far, most of the medals I have presented have been the work of one of Soho's most prolific engravers, Conrad Heinrich Küchler. Luckily, a lot of the original correspondence relating to those pieces has been detailed in numerous publications and online databases, which has served to further my investigation. The same cannot be said for this medal, as it was engraved by a less well-known yet still influential Soho engraver, John Phillip. Given the lack of digitalized contemporary documents and nearly no mention of the piece in published works, I decided to focus my efforts on a different tool, auction catalogs. Scouring auction archives and dealer inventories that I have at my disposal led to an interesting discovery. Across these sources, no less than three different engravers were credited for the obverse and reverse dies! The gentleman I purchased the medal from indicated that it was the work of G.F. Pidgeon, but a well-respected auction house suggested Lewis Pingo. Yet, another stated the engraver was I. P. with no further elaboration. It appears, however, that all but perhaps the last, which is due entirely to lack of elaboration, is incorrect. Tungate (2020) details the chronological order of the numerous coins, tokens, and medals struck at the Soho Mint. She often reports known mintages and engravers. In this instance, she credits John Phillips for the Westminster Fire Office piece, but she classifies it as a token and notes that the piece is dated 1803 but was struck in 1811. I find this somewhat odd, as the piece does not imply any exchange of goods or services upon surrender, suggesting it is not a token but, in fact, a medal. Furthermore, the current piece and all of those I have since examined are not dated 1803. Nonetheless, I gave her suggestion that John Phillip engraved the die full consideration, as I did with all the others. The piece is signed "I. P." on both sides, which I soon discovered was, in fact, the initials used by John Phillips to mark his work. This is evident when examining other pieces engraved by him and produced at the Soho mint. With that mystery solved, one is only left to ponder the date provided for their manufacture, 1811. This point is significant as it relates to the silver-lined brass shells, but I will save that tidbit of information for the "notes" section below. 

Historical Context: This medal was purchased well before my intent to create this set, but the simplicity of its design paired with the silver-lined-brass shells, original wrapper, and the provenance linking it to the James Watt Jr. Collection made this piece irresistible. I had no idea what the Westminster Fire Office was, much less why they commissioned medals to be struck the Soho Mint. As with every other piece in this collection, I sought to understand its history and why it came into existence. A quick internet search was all but a flop, but it did lead me to an interesting book published in 1952 by E. A. Davies, which detailed the formation of the Westminster Fire Office. Most of the information obtained and subsequently shared here originated from this book. I aim only to hit the highlights, but copies of the book can occasionally be found online if you find yourself intrigued.

Founded in 1717, the Westminster Fire Office is one of the oldest and most distinguished English intuitions that offered fire insurance to building owners. As Davies (1952) argues, the Great Fire of London in 1666 brought about a wave of destruction that left countless people with virtually nothing. The wounds inflicted by this horrible event were still felt some 50 years later, and the current system to provide aid was insufficient. At the time, the King would authorize small amounts of aid, deemed "King's Briefs", which were under the control of local clergy and parish councils. The process was slow and rarely approved, making this antiquated system all but useless. To address the growing issue, several organizations came about in the 1680s that essentially offered insurance to those in need who could afford the initial costs.

Our story begins with the Hand-in-Hand Office, which held its first meeting at Tom's Coffee House on November 12th, 1696 (Davies, 1952). Members operated the Hand-in-Hand Office for the sole purpose of protecting themselves from undue damage in the event of a catastrophic fire. The office was founded by roughly a hundred members from both Westminster and the City of London. The general membership appointed directors for two-year terms, and although they ran most of the day-to-day operations, their power was always in check by larger group membership which held a meeting twice a year. By January of 1699, Tom's Coffee House, located in Westminster, became the Hand-in-Hand Office's official headquarters, and all general meetings were initially held there until 1701 (Davies, 1952). As membership continued to increase, the original location was not deemed appropriate, and a larger venue in Westminster was adopted for a short period. Unappeased by the move, those who resided in London pushed for the meetings to be held in the city, but this would exclude those who resided in Westminster. A compromise was reached, allowing the general meetings to occur in London from Christmas to Midsummer and Westminster for the remaining portion of the year. This did little to appease the members from the city, and eventually, a new office was established in London. This would prove to be the demise of the importance of the Westminster office, and it was effectively closed by February of 1714. The new office would serve as the official meeting location. This placed a significant burden on those from Westminster, resulting in their loss of influence as they could not attend as many meetings. Seemingly betrayed, several members of the Hand-in-Hand Office set to correct the issue and met to establish the Westminster Fire Office at Tom's Coffee House in 1717.

The founders wasted no time establishing the new organization, and by June of 1717, they were soliciting subscribers. The members agreed that the Westminster Fire Office would come to exist if they could raise enough subscriptions to seed the company with no less than £2000, which they had little trouble securing (Davies, 1952). Several documents were drafted detailing the general structure, policies, services offered, and all other inner workings of the Westminster Fire Office. As detailed in those documents, insurance policies were only to cover buildings, not their contents. Furthermore, homes made of timber were twice as expensive to insure relative to those made of stone or brick. Coverage was offered in seven-year terms, at a rate of 12 Shillings per £100 of building value, as assessed by the appointed surveyor. Those seeking membership were required to pay their dues upfront, which consisted of the above-mentioned cost dependent upon the building's value, a small few for the Office badge affixed to their building, and the necessary processing fees imparted by the government. Once paid, they were required to sign a Deed of Covenant that bound them to their membership. The Westminster Fire Office was designed to split any financial loss due to fire damage across members. This was done by reducing the dividend afforded to members at the end of their seven-year contract. To this extent, a membership could have little direct risk to the individual but came with a great deal of protection. These terms seem to have been very agreeable as, by the end of June, there were roughly 150 subscribers paying dues totaling £2,860 (Davies, 1952). The founders once again met at Tom's Coffee House on July 30th, 1717, to draft the Deed of Settlement to officially establish the Westminster Fire Office.

The first general meeting of the newly established Westminster Fire Office took place just three weeks later. During this meeting, the first directors and "inferior officers" were appointed, and it was established that general meetings should occur in April and October of each year. The directors, however, were expected to meet weekly and perform a host of additional duties with an annual salary. These coveted positions often went to men of significant influence and wealth, which was likely for the best as the exceedingly meager salary was unlikely to attract anyone else. Directors could serve a maximum of two consecutive years, and new directors were appointed in the general meetings held in October of each year, during which no more than four were eligible for reelection. Upon serving, they were not eligible to run again until two years had passed. This process would be closely adhered to for nearly two hundred years. It interesting to note that a directorship was a position of honor, with little compensation and an enormous responsibility. For instance, directors were required to assess any fire damage done to insured buildings, no less than three were required to inspect a building requiring more than £1000 in coverage (this required a vote at the general meetings), and they were required to be present at all fires to direct the fire brigade. All of this, of course, is on top of the administrative duties of their office but afforded them no additional pay. In other words, being a director required a lot of dedication but offered little in return beyond prestige.

The one duty that stuck out in my mind required that directors be present at every fire within the area, even if the Westminster Fire Office did not insure the building in distress. This might seem odd at first, but at the time, no public fire department existed in the area. Instead, fire brigades were established by the different Fire Offices and were conducted entirely by each respective organization (Davies, 1952). When a fire broke out, the brigades from all companies were dispatched, and they often worked together to put out fires. This practice ensured that damage was kept to a minimum and further secured the safety of the other uninflected buildings insured. Although some of these organizations were driven by pure profit, they all provided a much-needed public service. Serving on one of these brigades as a waterman or foreman also afforded many advantages. Perhaps the greatest of which was being immune to forced military service (i.e., press-gangs), granted by the Act of 1707 (Davies, 1952). Each organization was required to register the members with the Office of Admiralty, and this, paired with their distinctive uniforms and office badge, would render them immune to press-gangs.

The Westminster Fire Office adopted its badge on September 3rd, 1717. The design by Roger Askew, one of the early directors, was relatively simple. The portcullis was adopted from the coat of arms of the City of Westminster, while the feathers were a tribute to the Prince of Whales (i.e., King George II). Davies (1952) notes that the soon-to-be King expressed great support for the Westminster Fire Office and even insured six of his properties within the first year of their establishment. Proud of the newly established office badge, members ensured it was used at nearly every possibility. Large cast lead renditions were made and numbered to denote the houses under the protection of the office, but perhaps the essential function it served was to distinguish the members of the company's fire brigade. Although the names of the waterman were registered with the Office of Admiralty, the badge served as an immediate symbol to denote their immunity to forced conscription. Furthermore, the badge allowed the waterman to identify the director on the scene charged with commanding them. As time went on and the success of the Westminster Fire Office afforded several expansions of the Fire Brigade, directors were no longer required to be on the scene of every fire. Nonetheless, the organization steeped in tradition continued to issue badges to directors. By the early nineteenth century, the Westminster Fire Office started issuing gold medals to directors as a token of appreciation for the level of dedication required to perform the duties of their position, especially in consideration of their minimal compensation.

In the end, the Westminster Fire Office was exceptionally successful, and by 1757 they secured over 20,000 policies totaling more than £7,000,000 worth of insured property (Davies, 1952). This is even more impressive when one considers the limited scope of their operation at the time. As the organization continued to grow, there was an obvious need to make a few changes to the original charter. These changes were voted upon within the general meetings and, if adopted, were put in place somewhat informally. It wouldn't be until 1805 that the Deed of Settlement was amended to formalize previous changes, allow for the appointment of up to 24 directors, and extended the range of eligibility to all of England, Scotland, and Wales (Davies, 1952). As time went on and social services become more centralized, the Westminster Fire Office found themselves no longer in need of their fire brigade. After over 115 years of dedicated service, the Westminster Fire Office Brigade was dissolved in 1833. The changes enacted in 1805 eventually gave rise to field offices across England, Scotland, and Wales. For instance, A Westminster Fire Office branch was operating in Birmingham by 1886 (Davies, 1952). Eventually, the smaller organizations such as the Hand-in-Hand Society and the Westminster Fire Office found themselves outmatched in a world full of corporate conglomerates and were subsequently absorbed by the latter. In the case of the Westminster Fire Office, they were offered a generous buyout by the Alliance Insurance Company Limited. Although many longstanding members objected on the grounds of tradition, they gave in to reason, and the Westminster Fire Office was incorporated on March 12th, 1906 (Davies, 1952). Part of the terms put forth allowed the Westminster Fire Office to continue operations much like before, but under the constitution drafted by its new parent company. It appears that the organization was still running at the time of publication, as a list of directors for the year 1952 is provided early on in the book. The Author, A. E. Davies, is listed as the Manager and Secretary.  

 

107383643_1800WestminsterFireOfficeMedalWithWrapperandShellsEx.JamesWattJr.Lot26540mm.thumb.jpg.1338cb79e7e568fe04385f7ed1f1f94c.jpg

Obverse: The Westminster Fire Office was steeped in tradition. In fact, tradition was the only reason why these medals were commissioned. As such, it seems fitting to adhere to the general practice of using their badge on nearly all things officially associated with them. The obverse of this medal depicts the portcullis in the center, with sharply pointed spearheads on the ends. In keeping with the simple but elegant design style of the Soho Mint, the engraver John Phillips delicately balanced the need for simplicity with perhaps unnecessary detail. For instance, individual rivets are incorporated in the design of the portcullis at every naturally occurring joint. On either side, the portcullis is attached to a draw chain intersected by a mount with additional excess chain falling freely to either the outer side. As noted in the introduction, the portcullis was adopted from the arms of the City of Westminster. Immediately above and centered is an ornate crown with three large feathers protruding from the center. The feathers were supposedly a nod to the would-be King George II, who expressed interest in promoting the newly formed Westminster Fire Office. The lower pointed tips of the portcullis rest upon a platform with the word "ESTABLISHED" inscribed at the center. The date "MDCCXVII" appears below and supersedes the engraver's initials "I P.". The obverse legend appears at the inner portion of the innermost rim and is dived by the primary device, with "WESTMINSTER" appearing on the left and "FIRE OFFICE" on the right. The slightly raised inner rim that contains the legend is restricted within a wider rim of greater relief.

Reverse: An oak wreath is depicted on the reverse consisting of two oak branches tied in the middle by a ribbon with a single loop and two loose ends. The loose end on the left drops down and is wrapped around the end of the right branch, while the right loose end flows down and then behind the end of the left branch. The engraver's initials "I · P ." appear below between the two loose ends. Fifteen oak leaves and eighteen acorns (two of which are incomplete) appear on the left branch, while sixteen leaves and seventeen acorns (two of which are incomplete) appear on the right branch. Although most of the leaves are detailed enough to include the veins, several appear devoid of detail, suggesting the die was lapped. The second cluster of leaves from the bottom on the left is an excellent example of this. The center of the medal is left intentionally blank to allow the name of the recipient to be engraved. This particular medal is not engraved, which supports the idea that it was never meant to be issued. Like the obverse, all of this is contained within a slightly raised inner rim, superseded by a substantially wider rim of greater relief.

Edge: Plain

Size:  40mm

Notes: Researching this medal provided some beneficial information pertaining to the Silver-lined brass shells produced at the Soho Mint. Initially, it was thought the death medals issued by Matthew Robinson Boulton in memory of his father in 1819 were the first recorded pieces with the shells. I recently discovered a Westminster Fire Office Medal, struck in gold and issued to Henry Robins Esquire, who served as a director in 1816 and 1817. This particular medal is described as retaining the original red leather case of issue and the fitted copper shells. This medal was likely produced well before 1819 and therefore brings to question the time frame initially applied to the silver-lined brass shells. Of course, there is no way of directly proving this without examining either a receipt of the order placed by the Westminster Fire Office or the Soho archives in Birmingham. Both are not available online, and I doubt I will have the time and funds needed to cross the pond to investigate the issue within the foreseeable future.

Another interesting point that should be made details the fate of the dies used to strike these medals once the Soho Mint was dismantled and sold at auction in 1850. Vice (1995) mentions that several dies used to strike medals were returned to the original entity that commissioned their production. In this case, it appears that one pair of dies for the Westminster Fire Office Medal were returned to them. I have yet to find any source that details what happened to the dies after that point. It is, however, worth noting that the current specimen is struck in copper and bronzed. To the best of my knowledge, no other bronzed specimen exists.

Given that this piece is seemingly unique in that regard, I assume this was likely produced at the Soho Mint under the careful direction of James Watt Jr., who was an avid collector. It is no secret that he would sometimes use old dies to produce a piece or two that was missing from his collection of Soho Mint wares. Given that this medal was not struck in gold, it seems unlikely that it was ever meant to be issued, suggesting that it might have been a one-off to fill a hole in the otherwise remarkable collection of James Watt Jr, who was the Mint Director at the time. Morton and Eden auctioned off this piece and the rest of the Watt Jr. Collection in November 2002. It is recorded in their catalog as lot number 265 and realized a whopping £225. If only I had a time machine! In full transparency, a bronze example of a slightly different version of the Westminster Fire Office Medal resides in the British Museum (MG.1321); however, this piece at best seems to be derivative of the piece struck at the Soho Mint. I have included the link to this piece in the "interesting links" section.

References:

Davies, E. A. (1952). An Account of the Formation and Early Years of the Westminster Fire Office. Glasgow: Robert MacLehose & Co. Ltd.

Tungate, S. (2020) Matthew Boulton and The Soho Mint: copper to customer. Worcestershire: Brewin Books.

Vice, D. (1995). A fresh insight into Soho Mint restrikes & those responsible for their manufacture. Format Coins, Birmingham, 3-14.

Interesting links:

https://coins.ha.com/itm/great-britain/world-coins/great-britain-westminster-fire-office-gold-proof-medal-1717-1817-pr63andnbsp-deep-cameo-pcgs-/a/3051-30817.s?ic4=ListView-ShortDescription-071515

https://www.britishmuseum.org/collection/object/C_MG-1321

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