Coin Collecting at Cambridge

by Christian Cloke

Home to one of the great coin collections of Europe, the Department of Coins and Medals at the Fitzwilliam Museum (Cambridge University, England) is also a fascinating case study in private and institutional collecting through time.


Fig. 1. Fitzwilliam Museum Main Entrance (after cleaning).

The Fitzwilliam Museum, one of the oldest public museums in England, was founded in 1816 by Richard, seventh Viscount Fitzwilliam of Merrion, “for the purpose of promoting the increase of learning and the other great objects of that noble Foundation” (Hall 1982, 6). Viscount Fitzwilliam’s initial bequest included sheet music, paintings, books, manuscripts, and prints, as well as the money to build the museum itself. Construction began in 1837, and the museum opened its doors in 1848.


Fig. 2. The Fitzwilliam Museum on Trumpington Street, Cambridge, England.

During the nineteenth century, the Fitzwilliam had little money and made few purchases. Thus the museum’s early character came to be shaped predominantly by donations: “its collections display the changing tastes of English connoisseurs since the eighteenth century” (Hall 1982, 6). The late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries brought to the museum a series of influential directors, including Sidney Colvin (1876–1884), the first director; J. H. Middleton (1889–1893), who appealed for bequests from outside sources and first used the museum’s coins in undergraduate lectures; and M. R. James (1893–1908), who donated many coins to the Department over the years.

Although it was during the tenures of these early directors that the museum’s coin collection at last flourished, the university at large had been amassing coins gradually since the sixteenth century. The university collection started with a 1589 bequest by Andrew Perne, Master of Peterhouse (College), which was followed shortly by a bequest of Own Mayfield, then mayor of the city, in 1686 (Pollard 1980, 41). The next substantial donation consisted of numerous Roman coins given by Roger Gale of Trinity College in 1744. Despite extant catalogues of the Perne and Gale collections, “the University took no serious interest in its numismatic collections” before the nineteenth century (Pollard 1980, 41). In fact, nearly all the collections “had fallen into disorder by the early eighteenth century” (Grierson and Blackburn 1986, 393).

Roman coins formed a considerable part of the Perne and Gale bequests, but the colleges and university prior to the mid-1800s had only “a meager and unconnected assortment” of Greek coins, in the words of Churchill Babington, a member of the Museum Syndicate and the University’s Disney Professor of Archaeology (Pollard 1980, 42). A late-eighteenth-century catalogue of the university collections recorded just over four hundred Roman, thirty Greek, sixty medieval English, and one hundred sixteenth- and seventeenth-century continental coins (Grierson and Blackburn 1986, 393).


Fig. 3. Philip Grierson, medieval historian, numismatist, benefactor, and the Fitzwilliam Museum’s Honorary Keeper of Coins since 1949, died on January 15, 2006, aged 95.

This all changed in February 1864, with the £5,000 purchase of Col. William Martin Leake’s considerable collection. Leake (1777–1860), a renowned Greek topographer, provided the university with a collection of Greek coins, gems, and numismatic books out of which a “serious interest in the collecting of coins began” in earnest (Pollard 1980, 43). Babington strongly advocated this purchase, urging also that “the Colleges should deposit their own holdings of coins and medals so that uniform series could be created in the Museum,” in the hope that private gifts would follow (Pollard 1980, 43). On Babington’s advice, the university’s old coin collections (then housed in the university library) came to the Fitzwilliam in 1856, so that at last the core of a Department of Coins and Medals had been created.

During the second half of the nineteenth century, the Rev. W. G. Searle of Queens’ College conducted the first serious research on the collections, “planning a detailed work on European medieval and modern coinage” and donating his own collection of 12,000 ancient, medieval, and modern coins to the Department in 1899 (Grierson and Blackburn 1986, 394). Made Honorary Keeper of Coins and Medals in 1909, Searle immediately began to keep detailed accession registers, continuing to oversee considerable growth in the Department’s ancient collections until his death in 1913. S. W. Grose succeeded Searle, preparing a catalogue of the 1912 bequest of 10,078 mostly Greek coins by J. R. McClean, MA Trinity College. Much of Grose’s work, however, was interrupted due to the First World War, during which few new coins came into the department (Pollard 1980, 47).


Fig. 4. Rev. W. G. Searle.

The museum’s new director, the most influential in its history, kept the Fitzwilliam Museum and its Department of Coins and Medals moving forward during those difficult years. Sir Sydney Cockerell (director from 1908 to 1937) changed the institution radically. Cockerell founded the Friends of the Fitzwilliam in 1909, “the first organization of its kind in the country,” in order to raise funds for purchases; its effects are seen in the accessions registers from this year onward, littered with mentions of the society (Hall 1982, 6).

Indeed, the homegrown element of the collection has always been notable. From the centralization of the university collections in 1856 through the first half of the twentieth century, the lion’s share of growth in the collection was due to Cambridge affiliates. Well-to-do faculty, staff, and students were eager to give back in the typical fashion of nineteenth-century gentlemen and women, their names appearing in the register on numerous accessions. Over the years, coins poured in from such notable donors as Sir John Evans, KCB, DCL (1823–1908), archaeologist and numismatist. One of the foremost British archaeologists of his time, and father of Sir Arthur Evans of Knossian fame, the elder Evans was a distinguished scholar and recipient of an honorary ScD from Cambridge in 1890. Evans made a large donation to the Fitzwilliam of 633 excavated and thirty-five other coins in 1906; his attention to the Fitzwilliam during his last years shows the growing reputation of the institution and its increased efforts to make the coin collection the basis for serious scholarship and teaching.

In 1937 and 1938, the Museum Syndicate asked all of the university’s colleges to deposit their remaining collections in the Fitzwilliam. The museum received coins from Trinity (6,000), St. John’s (1,265 plus 1,235 from the Bromsall collection), Gonville and Caius (1,194), Christ’s (430), and Emmanuel (150) Colleges (Pollard 1980, 42). All the university’s coins now reside in the Department, following the recent deposit of the Lewis Coin Collection in Corpus Christi College, formed by S. S. Lewis (1836–1891), and a collection held by Queens’, which apparently was formed around the turn of the twentieth century (Grierson and Blackburn 1986, 398).

From 1949, Philip Grierson was made the museum’s Honorary Keeper of Coins (a position he held for fifty-six years), conducting extensive research on the collection, particularly the medieval holdings. Harold Mattingly, returning to his alma mater from the British Museum, organized the Fitzwilliam’s Roman coinage from 1950 to 1953, commenting in 1956 that “although the range and quality of Roman collections was admirable they did not warrant substantial publication” (Pollard 1980, 50). On Grierson’s death in 2006, he bequeathed to the museum his renowned collection of medieval European coins and his library. This, together with the earlier acquisitions of Christopher Blunt’s English coins and Bill Conte’s Norman coins, has given the Fitzwilliam the finest collection of medieval coins in existence.

Since 1961, members of the Department have taught from the collection, and of the Department’s modern goals, Pollard (1980, 50–51) writes, “the staff attempt to buy coins in areas of the collection which are subject to use for teaching, are in process of publication, or are simply inadequately represented.” This policy has continued under Pollard’s successors as keepers, Ted Buttrey (1988–1991) and Mark Blackburn (1991–). In the last twenty years, the collection has grown by more than 70,000 items.

Ancient Greek coins remain the largest segment of the collection, now totaling roughly 35,000 pieces. Medieval (22,000 continental, 7,000 from the British Isles) and Roman (25,000) coins are not far behind. The Department’s holdings also include Celtic, Byzantine, pre-Islamic Iranian, Islamic, Indian, Far Eastern, and modern (British, European, and world) coins, as well as coin weights, forgeries, and electrotypes, coin casts, paper money, credit and telephone cards, tokens, jetons, medals and plaquettes, wax models, seal matrices, and seal impressions. In all, the Department holds around 200,000 pieces, in addition to a substantial numismatic library.

The Fitzwilliam’s holdings themselves are impressive, with great potential for future and current researchers. Just as significant, however, is the long-standing tradition and record of the collection, which has coalesced over the years from a variety of sources. It is highly instructive of past collection practices, both private and institutional. The collection’s history traces changing academic attitudes toward coinage and the rise in serious numismatic scholarship at one of the world’s great institutions.


Fig. 5. The first page of Roger Gale’s 1743 catalog.


Fig. 6. The second page of Roger Gale’s 1743 catalog.