Over the past month, the Knowledge & Collections department has been host to Elanor Henry, a member of the Museum and Artefacts Studies Course at the University of Durham. Elanor’s main aim was to gain firsthand experience working in a museum environment, particularly working with collections and object interpretation. We’ll be publishing her blog posts about lesser-known objects over the next few weeks. — John McGoldrick, Curator of Railways
Hello! I’m Elanor Henry, a Masters student on placement here at the National Railway Museum. Over the past few weeks I have been selecting and researching a variety of artefacts from the Warehouse in order to bring to light the human story behind the building and running of the railways.
I discovered this coin quite by accident whilst looking for something completely different. It’s a gold coin dating from the reign of Charles II, and was discovered just over 200 years later, in 1881, by a navvy working on the Hull and Barnsley railway.
If you look at the face of the coin you can see a scratch mark made by the navvy as he tested the coin as gold before passing it onto the engineer.
This episode is neatly summed up by the accompanying note:
“This gold coin (Carolus II) was found by a Navvy while digging the foundations of Beverley Road Bridge during the construction of the Hull & Barnsley Railway. He scratched it with his knife across the head to test it, and then brought it to the Engineer of the line, Mr George Bohn, who gave it to the Chairman, Lt. Col. Gerard Smith.”
The small elephant that we can see embossed beneath Charles’ head tells us that the gold was imported from Africa by the Royal Africa Company.
The Latin inscription on the reverse of the coin reads CAROLVS II DEI GRATIA, which translates as ‘Charles II By the grace of God’. Unfortunately, due to the wear on the reverse side of the coin, we cannot accurately assign a date to it, so must resign ourselves to the period of Charles’ reign: 1660 – 1685 AD.
It is the physical alteration of this coin by the navvy who discovered it that grabbed my attention. In researching the navvies I have come to learn just what little primary evidence we have from the men themselves, and how it is snapshots of time like these that can provide us with an insight into day-to-day life working on the railways.
Whilst the death, danger and drinking of a Victorian navvy may be more appealing to our modern psyche, it is objects like this that speaks of the life of these men, and how it was constructed from the same odd and curious moments that have dominated lives throughout our history.