A history of William Wellesley Pole at the Royal Mint

'Who not only restored the British coinage to its former brilliancy but instituted a new and more beautiful one’

By The Royal Mint Museum

Royal Mint Museum

William Wellesley Pole medal (1823) by Benedetto Pistrucci and Royal MintThe Royal Mint Museum

When William Wellesley Pole resigned from his role as master of the Mint in 1823, the Mint officers commissioned his protégé Benedetto Pistrucci to design and engrave a portrait medal. The lengthy Latin inscription on the reverse translates roughly as follows: ‘In honour of the noble William Wellesley Pole, Baron Maryborough, for nine years Master of Mint affairs, who not only restored the British coinage to its former brilliancy but instituted a new and more beautiful one, and who, in distributing the coins to all parts of the country, did so with such wisdom that everywhere almost at the same time the old money fell into disuse, being quickly succeeded to the public advantage by the new. He directed the coinage with the utmost judgement and fairness. The officers of the Royal Mint, London, have ordered this medal to be struck as a token of their respect and friendship. 1823’.

William Wellesley Pole (1815) by J. Wright and Charles PicartThe Royal Mint Museum

The portrait medal shows the impact that Pole had as Master of the Mint, and the respect that he earned from his colleagues. The medal inscription concentrates on what they rightly saw as his greatest achievement, the successful masterminding of the silver re-coinage of 1816-1817. The silver coinage was in such a poor state that some critics went so far as to say that nineteen shillings out of every twenty had not been issued by the Mint.

Waterloo Medal (1815) by Royal MintThe Royal Mint Museum

With the coming of peace in Europe after the victories at the battle of Waterloo, the authorities were at last able to turn their attention to coinage reform. Pole oversaw the operation with such energy, resourcefulness and determination that the Mint was able to distribute the new coins in the short space of just two weeks in difficult winter conditions.

Shilling and sixpence of George III (1816/1817) by Royal MintThe Royal Mint Museum

The timetable laid down was extremely tight, and extra staff had to be engaged, new equipment ordered, and working hours increased. The Master kept a close watch over it all and insisted that standards should be maintained despite the pressure. It was a triumph of organisation, and although it was the worst time of year for transport, not one bag or box of coins was lost. As a result of these efforts, by the end of 1817 over £4 million worth of new silver coinage had been issued.

Sovereign of George III (1817) by Royal MintThe Royal Mint Museum

As indicated in the inscription on the reverse of the portrait medal, William Wellesley Pole was not just a business minded man who wanted the Mint to have the most efficient and profitable systems, he also wished the Mint’s coins to have a reputation as being some of the most beautiful. This sensitivity to the artistic nature of designing coins led to some notable contributions from Pole. It was Pole’s decision, for example, to appoint the renowned, although frequently temperamental, Italian designer Benedetto Pistrucci.

Medallic portrait (1826) by C F VoigtThe Royal Mint Museum

It proved to be a wise decision by Pole to appoint Pistrucci, who went on to design the famous St. George and the Dragon reverse design that was to appear on the restored gold sovereign of 1817, and that still appears on the sovereign to this day. It was, therefore, appropriate that Pistrucci should be asked to design the portrait for the obverse of Pole’s medal.

Half-crown of George III (1816) by Royal MintThe Royal Mint Museum

Thus it is clear that Pole meant what he said when he wished the Mint to ‘not only have to boast of the most beautiful and correct Mint machinery in the world, but that we may stand equally unrivalled for the perfect form and exquisite taste of our several coins’. He is said to have paid close attention to the designs for the new silver and gold coins, sending comments for improvements to the engravers.

The New Mint Tower Hill (November 1810) by S. Rawle & J. AsperneThe Royal Mint Museum

Pole is also remembered for beginning the process of reforms that had been in the air since 1780, which were to see the Mint emerge by 1870 as a typical Government Department. These reform ideas put forward by Pole were significant because they targeted a branch of the government that had been ineffective for years. He began by recommending that the post of Warden should be abolished on the death of its current holder, a post he saw as defective.

Coach pass for the horse guards (1814/1823) by Royal MintThe Royal Mint Museum

Pole’s inquiry also focused on rewarding the hard-working public servants, with the suggestion of a wage increase for an array of workers, including the Engravers. As a result of Pole’s inquiry, an Order in Council was made on 17 March 1815, implementing many of his recommendations with further indentures being made in August 1815 and February 1817.

Swann coin cabinet (1970/1990) by Tim SwannThe Royal Mint Museum

Above all, we in the Royal Mint Museum have reason to be grateful to Pole because without him the Museum as we know it today would not have existed. In February 1816, Pole called for its establishment leading from his observation ‘with pain that not only is there no collection of coins in His Majesty’s Mint, but that there is not a single proof’. This frustration that there was no collection which artists could refer to when creating designs led to the institution of a system of setting aside a proof specimen of every coin and medal struck at the Mint, as well as matrices and punches.

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