Age of Empire: The Coats Collection of Military Medals

Published on: Author: Harriet Gaston Leave a comment

A staff post by Jesper Ericsson, Curatorial Assistant: Coin Room at The Hunterian.

A leading Scottish industrialist of his day, Thomas Coats (1809 – 1883) made the Ferguslie Thread Works in Paisley world famous. He was also a great collector. Between 1871 and 1882, Coats amassed a significant number of coins, tokens, badges, historical medals and war medals, some 9500 items in all. In 1921, the Coats family offered his 2000 Scottish coins to the National Museum of Antiquities of Scotland in Edinburgh. The remaining 7500 objects were donated to The Hunterian, with the coins and medals arriving in Glasgow in 1924.

This post is about a small collection of 59 military medals. They represent a good summary of the worldwide campaigns undertaken between 1815 and 1874 by the United Kingdom. There are medals to English and Scottish regiments, East India Company regiments, members of the Royal Navy and Royal Marines. Some miscellaneous items, such as French and Turkish examples, also regimental and lifesaving awards, and a rare Arctic Medal, complete the collection.

All were bought on Thomas Coats’ behalf by the eminent Scottish numismatist, Edward Burns (1822 – 1886). Although we do not know who Burns sourced them from, we do know how much he paid thanks to surviving invoices. All 59 medals arrived in Coats’ collection in two waves, the first in October 1876 and the second in December 1878.

However, there is no evidence to suggest that any research has ever been done on the individuals whose names are either engraved or stamped on the edges of most of the medals. So, over the course of the past few months, I’ve been trying to find out more about these soldiers, sailors and marines. Sometimes I’ve drawn a complete blank and uncovered nothing. Other times, fascinating stories have emerged.

The British Army campaigned all over the world during the 19th century, from North America to Africa, and Asia to Australasia. Two major events dominated the 1850’s – the Crimean War (1853 – 1856) and the Indian Mutiny (1857 – 1858). Many soldiers fought in both of them.

One was Private Peter Strachan from Hamilton. Born in 1832, he enlisted at the age of 19 in 1851 and joined the 71st (Highland) Regiment of Foot (Light Infantry). On 7 February 1855, they landed at Balaklava in the Crimea. Part of the Highland Brigade, the regiment was kept in reserve and saw little action save for irregular periods in the trenches. Nevertheless, over 100 men died due to illness. Leaving the Crimea on 22 June 1856, the 71st arrived in Malta six days later.

In January 1858, orders were received to proceed to India for service in the Mutiny. After a long journey, the regiment joined the Central India Field Force, commanded by Major General Sir Hugh Rose, on 30 March. Between 7 May and 20 June that year, the 71st saw action in numerous engagements. Casualties due to battle were light, but dozens of men died of sunstroke and exhaustion due to the fierce summer heat.

Fortunately, Strachan survived unscathed. His discharge record states that he left the Army at the age of 29 in 1861, while the 71st was still in India. In the 1881 Childers reforms, the 71st (Highland) Regiment of Foot (Light Infantry) became 1st Battalion Highland Light Infantry, the famous Glasgow regiment that went on to serve through both world wars.

In recognition of his service, Strachan received three awards: the Crimea Medal, Turkish Crimea Medal and Indian Mutiny Medal (with ‘Central India’ clasp). Unfortunately, the whereabouts of his Crimea Medal is unknown. Edward Burns did not purchase it, so perhaps it lies in a private collection somewhere. Turkey issued their own award to its allies and three variations of the medal were struck. Strachan’s Turkish Crimea Medal is in fact a Sardinian version. This is because large numbers of British examples were lost due to shipwreck, so it was not uncommon for British servicemen to receive ‘foreign’ varieties. Strachan’s two medals were bought by Edward Burns in December 1878 for 1 pound and 5 shillings, the equivalent of around £500 in today’s money.

Coats did not assemble his medals by campaign or regiment, or by surname, as is the habit of many collectors. He appears simply to have wanted examples of military medals issued during his lifetime. In the grand scheme of his collection, 59 medals out of 9500 items is a drop in the ocean. Although I’ve laid some basic groundwork, there is still plenty more work to be done on the stories behind the medals, so that they can shine as they truly deserve to.

The Coats Collection of Military Medals has been added to The Hunterian’s online database. Search for GLAHM:39136 to GLAHM:39194.

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