An Introduction to the Medals of the Royal Humane Society
by Craig Barclay
Of all the decorations and medals which may be seen adorning the chests of British civilians and service personnel, none has a longer history than the honorary medal of the Royal Humane Society. First awarded in 1776, the medal has, for over 220 years, been used to reward those men and women who have risked all to save the lives of their fellow creatures.
In its early years the Society's medal was presented both for gallantry in saving life and for the successfully resuscitation of those apparently dead as a result of drowning or asphyxiation. Today it is only awarded in circumstances where the rescuer has knowingly exposed him or herself to considerable risk, whilst lifesaving acts involving lower levels of risk are rewarded by the presentation of vellum or parchment testimonials, certificates of commendation or resuscitation certificates. In the face of technological change, the range of acts of gallantry covered has likewise increased to cover such areas accidents onboard aircraft and electrical accidents, in addition to cliff, shipboard and other, more traditional, rescues.
The Large Medal
The Royal Humane Society was founded in April 1774, largely as the result of the efforts of two doctors, William Hawes and Thomas Cogan. At a General Meeting held at the London Coffee House in September 1775, Dr Cogan raised for the first time the subject of the Society's medal, and it was resolved that fourteen of those present should undertake 'to consider of Devices and lay them before the Committee at their next meeting'.
After much discussion it was decided to adopt a design by Dr Watkinson, a member of the Society, for the medal and to employ Thomas Pingo of the Royal Mint to engrave the dies.
The new medals were 2 inches in diameter. On the obverse was modelled the figure of a young boy wearing a very wispy cloak endeavouring to blow life into a dying torch. Around this central motif was engraved the motto LATEAT SCINTILLVLA FORSAN, a rather tortuous piece of Latin which may be translated as 'Peradventure a little spark may yet lay hid.' In the exergue was placed a longer but simpler inscription which translates as 'The society founded in London for the recovery of persons from a state of suspended animation 1774'.
The reverse design took the form of a Civic Crown or wreath, in memory of the reward given by the ancient Romans to those who saved the life of a fellow citizen. Around this was the inscription HOC PRETIVM CIVE SERVATO TVLIT, or 'He has obtained this prize for having saved the life of a citizen.' The centre of the wreath was left plain, to facilitate the inscription of the details of individual recipients.
The vast majority of the medals of this, the first type produced were struck in silver, although 13 gold examples were also produced. By 1824 however the dies were wearing out and it proved necessary to obtain new dies. These were prepared by Benedetto Pistrucci, the Chief Medallist at the Royal Mint, and were in use by the beginning of 1826. Althought the reverse was similar to that of the first version of the medal, the obverse bore a far bolder portrait of a young boy, this time wearing a distinctive billowing cloak. The inscriptions on both faces remained unaltered.
In 1838 Pistrucci's connections with the Society were to be abruptly severed when, following a dispute over the dies for the Fothergill medal, Pistrucci and the Secretary of the Society came close to blows. In the same year, the Society began to award medals struck in bronze.
The year 1837 had also seen the production of a new die for the medal, and whilst no record survives recording who received the contract, Sub-committee minutes of a meeting held in May record the passing of a resolution that 'a New Die for the reverse of the Medallion be struck, in which the motto Hoc pretium cive donato tulit be omitted'. This new variety was to be awarded in silver or bronze to would-be salvors whose efforts proved unsuccessful and, as one might expect, it was awarded in far smaller numbers than its 'successful' counterpart.
By 1850 the Pistrucci dies - which had by then passed through the hands of a number of subcontracters - were showing their age. Accordingly new dies were ordered from Warringtons at a cost of £20, the bill for these being passed for payment in October 1855. The new dies were near-exact copies of those produced by Pistrucci, and were to serve the Society for the next twelve years.
The Small Medal
At the time of its inception, the Society's honorary medal had not been intended to wear. Indeed, with a diameter of 2 inches (51mm), the medal was singularly ill suited to be worn. Nevertheless, by the 1860s it had become commonplace for recipients to fit their treasured awards with suspension loops and, regulations notwithstanding, they were to be found being worn on uniform as well as adorning civilian chests. In 1866 the Society to receive a letter written on behalf of the Duke of Cambridge, the country's most senior soldier requesting that they produce wearable medals which 'should not exceed in diameter that which is now granted for Meritorious Service'.
It would have been a bold body indeed that chose to ignore a suggestion from such a lofty source, and when the General Committee next met on 19 December, it was resolved that the Secretary should seek quotes from six die-sinkers for the production of three new dies. Examples of the 'small' medal of the Society was available for issue as early as the late summer of 1867, and that its issue predated the formal granting in 1869 of permission for the medal to be worn by armed forces personnel when in uniform.
The new medal was 1½ inches (38mm) in diameter and was worn on the right breast when in uniform, suspended from a dark blue ribbon. The suspension adopted for the medal was based upon a scrolled pattern first used on the Sutlej medal of 1846. The obverse of the medal was a direct copy of Pistrucci's design, but the two reverse dies departed slightly from that which had gone before. In both the design was dominated, as before, by a civic wreath.
In the case of the medals awarded to successful rescuers, this was surrounded, as before, by the inscription HOC PRETIVM CIVE SERVATO TVLIT. On the earliest medals, the centre of the reverse was blank to accommodate the engraved details of the rescue for which the medal was awarded. Within months however the dies were modified, the interior of the wreath bearing the embossed inscription VITAM OB SERVATAM DONO DEDIT SOCIETAS REGIA HVMANA, meaning, 'The Royal Humane Society presented this gift for saving life'. Specimens of the small medal with a plain reverse centre are known, but these are extremely rare.
Those medals awarded to unsuccessful would-be rescuers bore no inscription outside the wreath, the interior being embossed VITA PERICVLO EXPOSITA DONO DEDIT SOCIETAS REGIA HVMANA, which may be translated as The Royal Humane Society presented this gift to
, his life having been exposed to danger'. In all cases the name of the rescuer and date of rescue were now engraved on the edge of the medal.
Numerous medals of the small size are of course to be found bearing dates far earlier than 1867. These of course reflect the Society's willingness to issue recipients with replacement wearable medals upon the condition that they returned their larger medallions. The contract for the production of the Society's medals has passed through the hands of several contractors since 1867, but until 1999 the design remained essentially unchanged.
During 1999 however the Society took the decision to greet the new millennium with a redesigned medal. Three leading medallic artists were initially approached, and the decision was ultimately taken to award the contract for the production of new designs to Avril Vaughan, a prominent member of the Society of Numismatic Artists and Designers. Spink & Sons struck the first of the new medals in late 1999, the contract passing thereafter to Thomas Fattorini Ltd. The new current medals retain the familiar 'child and torch' motif on the obverse and the traditional inscription in wreath on the reverse, but they are stylistically quite distinctive.
The highest honour bestowed by the Royal Humane Society is the Stanhope Medal. This may be awarded annually for the most gallant rescue to have been rewarded by the Society or, since 1962, by the Liverpool Shipwreck and Humane Society, or the Humane Societies of Australia, Canada, New Zealand and New South Wales. On occasion however, no award has been made, no rescue in the previous twelve months being judged sufficiently outstanding as to earn the coveted award.
The Stanhope Medal was founded in 1873, in memory Chandos Scudamore Scudamore Stanhope, an aristocratic naval recipient of the Society's silver medal who died of smallpox in Malta in 1871 at the age of 48.
The medal in use today is identical to the Society's bronze and silver awards, except that it is struck in 9-carat gold. Prior to about 1937 however, the Stanhope Medal was suspended from a distinctive plaque-shaped bar, embossed with the date of award and the words STANHOPE MEDAL, whilst the adoption of nine as opposed to 18-carat gold did not occur until 1942.
In 2000 a new award was instituted by the Society. The Royal Humane Society Police Medal is awarded annually to the serving UK police officer whose act of lifesaving gallantry is judged to be the most outstanding of the year. The award of the Police Medal is made in addition to that of the Society's silver or bronze medal, but recipients of the Stanhope Gold Medal may not receive the Police Medal for the same rescue. Struck in silver-gilt, the Police Medal is identical in design to the pre-1999 pattern medal of the Society. It is suspended from a blue ribbon bearing a central gold stripe.
'In Memoriam' Medal
One of the rarest of gallantry awards made by the Royal Humane Society was the 'In Memoriam' Medal, which was only awarded between 1925 and 1937.
The Society had been in the habit of awarding 'In Memoriam' Testimonials to the next-of-kin of would-be rescuers who had lost their lives since the 1890s, but it was not until June 1925 that the decision was taken to permit medals to be awarded posthumously. The experiment did not prove to be successful in the long term, and in February 1938it was deceided to discontinue the award of medals and to revert to the old practice of awarding 'In Memoriam' testimonials.
In the intervening years, a total of six silver and 42 bronze medals had been presented to next of kin. These awards took the form of standard 'Unsuccessful' type medals bearing, as usual, the name of the deceased rescuer and the date of the attempted rescue engraved on the rim.
From its earliest days, the Society had been faced with the problem of rewarding individuals who, in performing further acts of gallantry, earned the Society's medal on more than one occasion. This presented no problems whilst the large medals were still being awarded, as a second medal could be given to the rescuer. After 1869 however, the Society had to contend with the fact that their medals were now being worn on uniform and accordingly proposed to the army that, in future, individuals entitled to a second Royal Humane Society medal should receive instead a clasp to be worn on the ribbon of their existing award.
Clasps were struck both in silver and in bronze. It is worthy of note that silver clasps were issued to holders of silver medals, irrespective of whether the deed for which the clasp was awarded was of silver or of bronze standard. A total of 12 silver and 248 bronze clasps have been awarded. No silver clasps have been awarded since 1917, whilst the last bronze clasp was won in 1950.
Prior to 1867 the Society's medal was not intended to be worn and there was, accordingly, no official ribbon associated with it. That notwithstanding, many recipients had their awards fitted with unofficial means of suspension and, where medals have survived with contemporary ribbons attached, these are generally dark blue in colour.
When the smaller wearable medal was introduced in 1867, the Society formally adopted a 31mm wide navy blue ribbon both for its silver and bronze awards. In 1920 however it was decided to adopt distinctive ribbons for the silver. It was also decided to register the design for the new ribbon, along with the ribbon for the Stanhope medal, with the Parent Office, a process which was completed in August 1921. The ribbon for use with the silver medal was navy blue with narrow white borders and a central stripe of gold, whilst the Stanhope ribbon was likewise navy blue, but edged with black and gold.
The Fothergillian Medal
The Fothergillian medal has its origins in the will of Dr Anthony Fothergill, who bequeathed to the Society the sum of £500, the interest on which was to be used to provide a medal to be presented annually or biennially to the author of the best essay on the prevention of shipwreck, the preservation of mariners, or 'other circumstances left to the Society's discretion'.
Designed by William Wyon, this large medal bore an image of the ubiquitous 'boy and torch' on the obverse, whilst the reverse was decorated with a fine representation of shipwrecked mariners on a raft.
In total, only three examples of the medal were ever to be awarded in gold. The first two were awarded in 1847 to J. Eric Erichson and to Dr Kay-Shuttleworth for their work on the treatment of asphyxia, whilst the final award was made, in 1882 and at a cost of £40.12.6d, to Dr Henry R. Sylvester for his researches into methods of resuscitation. In addition bronze specimens are recorded, and a white metal example, struck from a pattern obverse die and the unfinished and unsigned reverse die is known.
The Swimming Medal
In 1883 the Society established a medal 'for swimming and for a knowledge of the treatment of the apparently drowned'. The medal was struck in silver at 1 1/2 inches in diameter, and bore on the obverse a rather literal interpretation of a lifesaving scene in high relief. Around this was inscribed the motto NARE EST ALIENAM NOSSE SALUTEM (to swim is to recognise the safety of others) in sans serif capitals and a heavily beaded border. The obverse exergue remained blank, to allow the engraved details of the school and date of award to be entered.
The reverse bore the very comprehensive inscription: Awarded/ FOR PROFICIENCY IN/ SWIMMING EXERCISE/ with reference to/ saving life from/ DROWNING. Above this was inscribed ROYAL HUMANE SOCIETY, and below INST: 1774. The whole design was, once again, circumscribed by heavy beading.
In its first year, the medal was only awarded on seven occasions, the recipients being the winners of competitions held at the few leading public schools permitted to compete for the award. In the second year a further five public schools were added to the list of eligible establishments, as were some of HM Training Ships. In the years that followed, the pool of participating schools gradually increased, until the competition was finally abolished in 1948.
Today, the 'In Memoriam', Fothergillian and swimming medals are long extinct, but the Society continues regularly to award silver and bronze honorary medals and, when a worthy case is presented, the Police Medal and Stanhope Gold Medal. Between 1776 and 1998, approximately 135 gold, 1,336 silver and 11,230 bronze honorary medals have been awarded by the Society. In addition, numerous lesser awards, including testimonials both on parchment and vellum, and resuscitation certificates have been presented.