Our last ‘Things’ session of the term – and the final to be held in the old home of CRASSH before its move to a shiny new building on the University’s Sidgwick site – brought together two national experts on coinage – Dr Catherine Eagleton of the British Museum and Dr Martin Allen of our own Fitzwilliam Museum. Rather than dry presentations touching on Smithian silver quantities and the money supply, our curatorial duo delivered a fascinating pair of papers which romped between entrepreneurship, politics, monarchy, greed, partnerships, networks, exploration, and more. Dr Allen introduced us to Matthew Boulton (1728 – 1809), the man recently re-made famous for appearing on the new £50 note with his partner James Watt, but whom, among numismatists and historians of money, is better known as ‘the most famous figure in the history of money production’. In Birmingham’s Lunar Society he palled around with figures including Erasmus Darwin, Joseph Priestley, Josiah Wedgwood, and Joseph Banks. His mechanisation of minting – using the steam-powered engines he brought to prominence with Watt –revolutionised coin production in the U.K., after his long solicitations of Westminster finally yielded contracts to mint the coin of the realm.
From Dr Eagleton we heard the fascinating story of Sarah Sophia Banks (1744–1818), sister of Sir Joseph and a near-fanatical collector of coins and medals. After presenting the woman and her collection – the subject of Dr Eagleton’s current research, based on the portion of the collection which remains at the Museum, and soon to be presented in a book about Sarah Sophia’s life – we learned how Banks used networks to amass her vast, meticulously catalogued survey, with help from characters ranging from Sir Joseph to her agent Dryander, and ultimately to Boulton, who agreed to send her one copy of everything produced by his mints. The overriding purpose of the coin and medal collection, Dr Eagleton postulates, was to create a catalogue of and testament to the royalty of the globe, ‘the world in one room’, in a turbulent time for crowned heads.
Discussion topics ranged from the problems of counterfeiting (less than a year after coins from Boulton mint began circulating, Banks sent him a fake she had discovered), to the contents of our subjects’ library (Boulton had read Smith; Banks seemed unconcerned about the economic aspects of the coinage). I am certain you will enjoy listening to the podcast of ‘Money’, available here.