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The medals of Soho near Birmingham - The Board of Agriculture

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coinsandmedals

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Here is another sneak peek of a new NGC custom registry set that I am working on. Please feel free to share anything related!

Collecting the medals struck at the Soho Mint introduces quite a bit of variety. Although I likely would have admired the artistry of the piece, I find it unlikely that I would have taken the time to procure it for my collection. Beyond the societal level impact of agricultural science, my general collecting interests are unrelated, and as such, this piece would not have normally garnered a second glance. Nonetheless, it was struck at the Soho Mint, and Küchler engraved the dies, and therefore it deserves a prominent position in my collection. It is interesting to note that Pollard (1970) attributes this medal as being struck in 1793, but more recent research by Tungate (2020) indicates that it was struck in 1797. The Board of Agriculture ordered medals in September of 1797, and Sinclair (the president at the time) requested that specimens in copper, silver, and gold be sent for inspection. Tungate (2020) notes that a bill of over £44 was sent to the Board of Agriculture on October 7th, 1799. This bronzed copper specimen has retained its original silver-lined brass shells and inscribed wrapper. It appeared as lot 227 of the 2002 Moton & Eden sale of the James Watt Jr. Collection. At the time, it sold for £260. Tungate (2020) indicates that only 74 of these pieces, across all metals, were reportedly struck. It appears that Matthew Pier Watt Boulton (i.e., Matthew Boulton’s grandson) retained the dies upon the Soho Mint's demise in 1850, but no other information about their whereabouts is known (Vice, 1995).

Historical Context: I initially had some difficulty obtaining information about the Board of Agriculture. It appears most of the digitally available information pertains to the National Agricultural Society, still currently in operation. At the time, I did not realize how closely the two were related. The modern society owes its very existence to some degree to the original Board of Agriculture. This short narrative aims to familiarize readers with the historical context that gave rise to the medal presented and reiterate the cautious tale of unchecked egos and unrealistic ambitions. The two later facets were undeniably the eventual downfall of the Board of Agriculture.

Although some degree of controversy once existed about who deserved credit for establishing the Board of Agriculture, it appears that this argument has essentially been put to rest in modern times (Clarke, 1898; Mitchison, 1959). Our story begins just before the idea for a Board of Agriculture became more than a fleeting fantasy. In April of 1793, the Kingdom was suffering from a currency shortage, and the government seemed to have few ideas of how to remedy the issue. Sir John Sinclair made a simple suggestion to issue temporary low-value exchequer bills in a total of £5,000,000 to temporarily relieve the shortage. Mitchison (1959) noted that Sinclair had already arranged for several bankers to send the money requested before the legislation had even moved beyond the preparation stage. This set up a nice quid pro quo situation in which Pitt found himself in the debt of Sinclair (Clarke, 1898; Mitchison, 1959). Sinclair, eager to call in his favor, floated the idea of establishing a Board of Agriculture. Pitt's understanding was that Sinclair was naming his price, and thus backed the proposal for the creation of such a board. With the help of Lord Melville, the idea was sent before the house for approval to formally present to the King. As reproduced by Clarke (1898), the proposal read:

"That an humble Address be presented to His Majesty, entreating that His Majesty would be graciously pleased to take into his Royal consideration the advantages which might be derived by the public from the establishment of a Board of Agriculture and Internal Improvement: Humbly representing to His Majesty that, though in some particular districts, improved methods of cultivating the soil are practised, yet that, in the greatest part of these kingdoms, the principles of Agriculture are not yet sufficiently understood, nor are the implements of husbandry, or the stock of the farmer, brought to that perfection of which they are capable: That his faithful Commons are persuaded, if such an institution were to take place, that such inquiries might be made into the internal state of the country, and a spirit of improvement so effectually encouraged, as must naturally tend to produce many important national benefits, the attainment of which His Majesty has ever shown a most gracious disposition to promote; and, in particular, that such a measure might be the means of uniting a judicious system of husbandry to the advantages of domestic manufacturing industry, and the benefits of foreign commerce, and consequently of establishing on the surest and best foundations the prosperity of his kingdoms : And if His Majesty shall be graciously pleased to direct the institution of such a Board for a limited time, to assure His Majesty that his faithful Commons will cheerfully defray any expense attending the same to the amount of a sum not exceeding £3,000."

The proposal was supported by many, as was customary further discussion was tabled until a second meeting held on May 15th, 1793. It appears, however, that by the next meeting, a large body of opposition had taken hold of the house, and Sinclair's proposal would be put to the test. Clarke (1898) lists some of the most boisterous members of the opposition, which included arguments that other societies such as the Society of Arts already performed the objective of the new board. The merits of this argument could be examined, but in reality, the potential of the proposed Board of Agriculture would far extend any mutual interest with the Society of Arts. Nonetheless, the Society of Arts had been established for over 40 years and by now was self-sufficient and therefore not reliant upon government funding. This led to a suggested amendment of the proposal that essentially eliminated the need for government funding (Clarke, 1898). Of course, this would have spelled doom of the Board of Agriculture, as the money provided by the government would at times be the only thing sustaining the board, and as we will soon see, without any government assistance, the board could not survive. Luckily the proposed revision was rejected, and the original proposal was overwhelmingly supported by a vote of 101 to 26. The newly formed Board of Agriculture and Internal Improvement was provided a royal charter.

In Sinclair's haste to get things going, he inadvertently pissed off one man of considerable influence, Lord Chancellor Loughborough. Before the business of the new Board of Agriculture could begin, the Great Seal had to be affixed to its charter; however, Sinclair had already arranged for the board's first meeting to occur on August 22nd, 1793. He sent the Royal Charter to be sealed the day before with a note explaining his hope that the process would be done quickly, citing the meeting scheduled for the next day (Clarke, 1898). Aggravated by Sinclair's disregard for the duty of his office, Lord Loughborough took his time sealing the charter. The charter was not sealed, or at least Sinclair was not made aware it had been sealed until the afternoon of August 23rd, 1793, which required that the first meeting be postponed. The Royal Charter stated that the board was to be made of sixteen officers and thirty ordinary members. In addition, the board could appoint any number of honorary members as they needed, but the rights of these members were to be limited to attending and voting within general meetings on all matters unrelated to the internal structure of the board. The lowest class of membership consisted of corresponding members, which could include foreigners, who had no right to attend or vote in meetings. An annual meeting was to be held around March 25th, during which new officers would be elected, and five ordinary members would step down to allow five honorary members to be promoted. Usually, those who attended the least number of meetings were asked to step down (Clarke, 1898; Mitchison, 1959). All votes were to be cast by ballot and counted after each vote commenced. It appears this practice was employed throughout the lifespan of the Board of Agriculture. By March 18th, 1800, honorary members were granted the right to debate on all matters unrelated to the internal structure of the board, and it appears that such memberships reached a peak of over 500 by 1809 (Clarke, 1898). Although several notable changes were made to the powers associated with the presidency, the overall structure endured.

The Board of Agriculture held its first meeting on September 4th, 1793, upon which the session was adjourned until January 23rd, 1794 (Clarke, 1898; Mitchison, 1959). It was during this period that set the board on a collision course that would take years to correct. The president, Sir John Sinclair, had an idea to send surveyors to all parts of the Kingdom to write reports upon the agricultural activities and best practices employed. In theory, that would not have been a terrible idea. Sinclair, however, acted in haste and set surveyors about their business without first consulting the other members or setting strict terms of the employment of the surveyors, nor the terms of publishing their findings (Clarke, 1898). During his first address, Sinclair made his plan clear to the other members, and it was eventually settled upon, but even if the other members objected, it was too late to halt what was already in motion. The cost of producing and subsequently printing the reports was extraordinary, and despite multiple complaints from those in charge of the board's finances, the damage had already been done. By May 11th, 1795, the board was in debt to the tune of £5,863 with only £200 in funds available on hand. If not all of it, most of this debt was incurred by Sinclair (Clarke, 1898). A resolution was eventually passed in March of 1797, limiting the president's powers to access funds held by the board, which undoubtedly was an effort to keep this madness from occurring in the future.

Sinclair's reports were almost all received by July of 1795, but they were mostly in poor order (Clarke, 1898). The lack of coherent structure and the considerable variation in the quality of the reports made them all but useless. The reports hurt the board's reputation and, in some instances, roused suspicion about its intentions. One such incidence, as it relates to tithes, is well recorded as causing a rift between church leaders and government officials, which translated to tension between the board and all parties involved (Clarke, 1898; Mitchison, 1959). This tension would continue to cause issues for the board until its eventual demise. In short, the reports by large were a failure, and the cost of printing them far exceeded any revenue they generated. In 1796 the board decided to forego printing the remaining reports unless they merited special attention. In its place, they published "Communications", which aimed to disseminate the collective knowledge of the board. Of course, Sinclair added his own flair to the project and took no less than 82 printed pages to detail how the board came about (Clarke, 1898). During Sinclair's tenure as president, the board did influence several essential acts of parliament, such as the legislative action that shifted the responsibility to maintain proper weights to local magistrates. This reduced the ability of unethical traders to take advantage of the poor by ensuring they received the fair amount of product they paid for. Clarke (1898) detailed that perhaps the most crucial development was the report made of Joseph Elkington's methods of draining wastelands. Without the action of the Board of Agriculture, his knowledge would have undeniably been lost upon his death as he made no effort to write about his practices. Despite all of the advances made, Sinclair left the board in deep debt.

A new president was elected in 1798, John Southey Somerville, and his quick thinking eventually resolved the financial issues of the board. When he took office, the board was £420 in debt with an anticipated incoming expense for services rendered that amounted to an additional £1692 (Clarke, 1898). He proposed that all printing, except for that done to publish the communications be seized, and that no less than £400 of the yearly government grant of £3000 be put aside to pay off debt each year until it was resolved. Seizing to print Sinclair's reports amounted to a saving of £1000 per year. He further proposed that the savings should be used to offer premiums (i.e., prizes) for essays of "discoveries and improvements in the most important and leading points of husbandry", which was adopted by the Board on May 25th and 29th of 1798 (Clarke, 1898). This system of annual prizes would become a permanent fixture of the Board of Agriculture, and by 1800 there were no less than 23 prizes offered for essays on a host of topics. These prizes were intended to be honorary awards of little financial significance, so it is not surprising that gold and silver medals were the original source of recognition. As time went on, monetary rewards were associated with the medals, and in some instances, the entire prize was monetary (Clarke, 1898). Nonetheless, the medal depicted here is of the general design employed by Küchler at Mathew Boulton's Soho Mint. The essay's provided useful material that allowed the board to fulfill its primary task of disseminating knowledge about best practices. In short, the annual prizes proved an effective tool to generate new material that the board could then, in turn, publish and sell to others. 

The annual prizes would serve a critical role in late 1800 and early 1801. The price of wheat had skyrocketed. This provided a large amount of motivation to convert otherwise fertile grasslands into wheat farms to turn a handsome profit on the temporarily high prices. The consequences of doing so were not well understood. The Board of Agriculture played an important role in what would have otherwise been a national catastrophe had the majority of the grasslands been converted. On December 17th, 1800, the board offered prizes totaling £800 for related essays, further supplemented by an additional £800 provided by parliament (Clarke, 1898).  Over 350 essays were submitted, which gave rise to a report on June 19th, 1801, presented to the Lord's Committee laying out the recommended course of action (Clarke, 1898). as it turns out, converting the grasslands to produce wheat was detrimental to the soil and caused enough destruction to make its conversion back to grasslands nearly impossible. As Clarke (1898) argued, this undoubtedly played a crucial role in saving some of the most bountiful grasslands in the world.

As useful as the Board of Agriculture could have been, the government largely dismissed it, and its somewhat peculiar status made many question its true intentions. This is very clear when considering the general dismissal of the board's recommendation to avoid what they predicted would be a massive food shortage in 1800. The board recommended that the government import large quantities of rice from India through the East India Company, but the government ignored their pleas (Clarke, 1898). The food shortage of 1800 eventually became so widespread that the government decided to act, but they were too late, and by the time the rice had arrived, the issue was resolved by a large crop yield in 1801. In all, the failure of the government to heed the warning of the board is estimated to have cost upwards of £2,500,000 (Clarke, 1898). Throughout the remaining years of the board, they worked diligently to influence the passing of an enclosure act, but the rift between them and the church made this all but impossible (Clarke, 1898; Mitchison, 1959). The government already dismissed the board out of hand, and with the influence of the church against them, they truly stood little chance of being effective in their efforts.

The Board of Agriculture hit an era of prosperity, and by 1819 they had a positive balance of over £2,000. The yearly government grant was soon to be applied for, and for reasons not entirely clear to me, the board decided only to request £1,000 of the usual £3,000 grant (Clarke, 1898). This lapse of judgment would prove nearly fatal for the board as the government soon decided to withdraw any consideration of further government funding. Without the annual influx of the government grant, the board's financial situation became bleak. In part, this was due to their inability to scale down their scope of activities within the means of their available funds. They continued to offer hefty prizes for related essays and spent large sums of money organizing exhibits. To offset these costs, the board opted to raise money through donations and subscriptions. This practice was later extended to the general public, who could become an honorary member with the endorsement of two existing members. This privilege came with a subscription fee of £2 and two shillings per year or twenty guineas for life membership (Clarke, 1898). From contemporary documents, it appears this was initially a success, but by May 24th, 1822, it was clear that some form of government grant would be needed to maintain the board. Although the leadership petitioned parliament, they were not granted any further support of a notable amount. Eventually, plans were made to dissolve the board, and it was decided that relevant documents should be relinquished to the Record Office in the Tower. In addition, the remaining balance of the board minus the expenses paid to publish any worthy work were turned over to the board to the Chancellor of Exchequer. This amount summed to just over £519 and was relinquished just before the board's final meeting on June 25th, 1822 (Clarke, 1898).

As noted by Clarke (1898) and Mitchison (1959), the Board of Agriculture fell victim to many shortcomings that eventually led to self-destruction. Perhaps the greatest of which was the board's inadvertent quarrel with the church of England over a perceived threat to tithes, which in turn led to friction between the church and government. This friction between the two harbored a great deal of intense ill-will between the board and both church and government officials (Clarke, 1898). It is little wonder why the board was never able to secure additional funding, much less influence a sweeping reform of the enclosure act. Nonetheless, the board of agriculture did impart several notable influences on the current state of agricultural science. If nothing else, it laid a solid foundation for the Royal Agricultural Society of England. The latter would continue the work of the former, expanding upon their research while also avoiding the same pitfalls that led to the demise of its ancestor. There is so much more to this story, and the information provided above is only a tiny portion of the fascinating history surrounding the Board of Agriculture and its members. I encourage those interested in learning more to seek out the publications I have cited repeatedly here.

1649813033_1793BoardOfAgricultureMedal48mmPollard6ExJamesWattJr.WithShellsandWarpper.thumb.jpg.dc50e400b4486eea20627c25793e2bd4.jpg

Obverse: The obverse design depicts King George III facing right. Unlike Kuchler's usual renditions, the King is neither draped nor armored, but instead, the bust is truncated with the initials "C. H. K." appearing at the undermost portion. The King's hair is short, with several small locks of hair falling closely behind his neck and a large lump of hair appearing just above his ear. Resting upon his head is a crown of laurel tied together by a knot with two bows and two loose ends. The second bow is partially obscured by the first, but both extend behind the King's head toward the rim. The two loose ends fall behind the neck, one of which closely adheres to the curve of the truncation and partially rests below it. A large wave of hair partially obscures the laurel crown just below the three uppermost leaves. The legend "GEORGIUS III · D : G · MAG · BR · REX." appears near the bust of George III. This legend is contained within a neatly formed circle of tiny beads. Between the innermost rim and the beaded circle is an open wreath. The left-hand side is a laurel branch, while the right appears to be wheat. The two branches are tied at the bottom center of the medal by a knot with one big bow and two loose ends. The loose end on the left wraps around the front of the laurel branch, while the right wraps behind the wheat branch to the front. The inner beaded circle and wreath are superseded by a piece of partially rolled parchment, upon which the legend "BOARD OF AGRICULTURE ESTABL'D · 23 · AUG · 1793 ·" appears. This is contained within a relatively wide and raised rim, which shows numerous rust spots indicating that this die was improperly stored for some time before being reused.

Reverse: The reverse of this medal depicts an allegorical figure designed to represent agriculture. She stands in the center facing right and wearing a loose-fitting gown draped over her shoulders, which extends to her sandaled feet. In her right hand, she holds some tool that is not immediately identifiable to me. Her left hand rests upon a spade partially dug into the ground with a snake coiled around it. Resting upon her head is a winged cap. She stands upon a piece of land at the foreground with small pieces of grass protruding through, upon which "C · H · KÜCHLER . FEC·" appears on the exergual line. In the immediate background, a plough appears to her left, and two tools, one of which is a scythe, appear to her right. I am not sure what the second tool is, and it appears Boulton was also unsure as he asked Küchler, "What is this ball intended for?" in his notes upon the initial design (Tungate, 2020). It is worth noting the distant background appears to depict two very different farming landscapes (i.e., the flatlands and a mountainous region). Immediately above and wrapping around the inner portion of the rim is a blank ribbon partially rolled on each end. In exergue, the word "VOTED" appears in the upper right corner. These two areas were left initially blank so that the medal could be engraved with the winner's details; however, as noted by Pollard (1970), a significant degree of variation occurred in how this was executed. This is contained within a relatively wide and raised rim, which shows numerous rust spots indicating that this die was improperly stored for some time before being reused.

Edge: Plain – although it appears some medals were engraved with the winner's details (i.e., name, titles, and what it was awarded for).

Size:  48mm

Notes: Interestingly, a single bronzed copper specimen resided in the James Watt Jr. Collection. We know that Sinclair requested that specimens in copper, silver, and gold be sent, but it seems unlikely that many copper or bronzed copper pieces would be struck. These were prize medals commissioned on behalf of the Board of Agriculture, meaning that the quantity struck was under the careful control of Boulton at the board's request. We know from other contemporary accounts that Boulton refused to sell copies of commissioned pieces, even to his most esteemed collectors (Pollard, 1970). Given other contemporary information, it is likely safe to assume that this medal was 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 missing from his collection of Soho Mint wares. The Board of Agriculture seized to exist in mid-1822, which coincides nicely with Watt Jr.'s tenure as Master of the Mint. Given that this medal was not struck in gold or silver, it seems unlikely that it was ever meant to be issued, suggesting that it might have been a one-off piece struck later to fill a hole in an otherwise remarkable collection. This would also account for the numerous rust spots throughout the obverse and reverse designs.

References:

Clarke, E. (1898). History of the Board of Agriculture 1793-1822. London: Royal Agricultural Society of England.

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

Mitchison, R. (1959). The Old Board of Agriculture (1793-1822). The English Historical Review, 74(290), 41-69.

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://merl.reading.ac.uk/collections/royal-agricultural-society-of-england/

https://www.library.wales/discover/digital-gallery/printed-material/gwallter-mechains-reports-for-the-board-of-agriculture

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