We celebrated Trafalgar Day only a few weeks ago, and a few days ago a Nile medal, shown below, was sold at Peter Wilson auctioneers, of Cheshire, for £9,000. I thought you might like to know some more about this medal and the association with the battle of the Nile, which took place in the summer of 1798, for the battle has connections with Frank Austen, Jane Austen’s brother.
The medal that was auctioned was a sliver medal, one of the kind awarded to officers. This particular example was awarded to Thomas Atkinson. Mr Atkinson was the Master of H.M.S.Victory at the time of the Battle of Trafalgar. He also served in the Battle of the Nile and this made him eligible to be one of the recipients of the Nile Medal. The auctioneers website gives his history, and I will quote a little from it:
The Nile medal was given to Thomas Atkinson, Master of Nelson’s flagship the Victory. Atkinson joined the Navy at the age of 20 in 1787 and rapidly promoted to Ships Master. In 1797 Atkinson became Master of the Theseus and served under Nelson during a failed assault on Santa Cruz, where Atkinson by family legend is said to have supported Nelson whilst his arm was amputated. The Theseus acted in the Battle of the Nile 1798 where she was fourth ship to round the French van and attack them from an inshore position. In 1799 Atkinson distinguished himself when he helped prevent an onboard fire caused by an accidental explosion at Acre in Egypt which killed the ship’s Captain. In 1801 Atkinson was Master of the St George which performed in the Battle of Copenhagen. Here Atkinson earned written praise from Nelson recommending him as ‘one of the best Masters I have seen in the Royal Navy’.
Before the Battle of Trafalgar Nelson wrote to Atkinson requesting he be Master of the Victory. During the Battle a shot destroyed the wheel of the Victory rendering her without steering, Atkinson went below deck and with the help of John Quilliam steered the ship from the gun room throughout the battle, rigging up ropes so the tiller could be used again from the deck. Before the battle of Trafalgar Nelson promised Atkinson promotion, however this promised couldn’t be fulfilled due to the untimely death of Nelson. Atkinson brought back Nelson’s body from Trafalgar and wrote the full account of his death in the ship’s logbook which was sold by the Atkinson family at Sotheby’s in 1911. In 1809 Atkinson was appointed King’s Harbour Master of Portsmouth, a post he held until his death in 1836. Atkinson is represented (top right beside the signal flag) in the painting ‘The Death of Nelson’ by Benjamin West, 1806, (Walker Art Gallery Liverpool)
Here is a link to that portrait, and here is the Key to it. The Master of the Victory is marked as being figure number 51 ( do click on this to enlarge it: I am having difficulty locating the figure of Mr Atkinson but the key does assure us that he is there!)
The medal was not awarded by a grateful government. No, its design and distribution was the brainchild of Alexander Davison, below. He was a friend of Nelson and his family. He was also the man who was appointed by Nelson as sole prize agent after the battle of the Nile in 1798, after which he made a considerable amount of money . According to the account in the fascinating book, Nelson Purse by Martyn Downer, his impulse to create and award a “thanksgiving medal ” was not wholly philanthropic:
Davison who was eager to cement his relationship with Nelson and to bathe publicly in his friends glory,launched into a truly spectacular round of present- giving. First he arranged for prints to be made after his portrait of Nelson by Lemuel Abbott. Copies were presented to the king, the royal princes, Nelson’s “gallant” captains and the heads of all official departments:” to show them the sense I have of your friendship towards me”. Cheaper versions sold like hot cakes on the Strand.
Davison then proposed a far grander scheme, one which appealed in equal measure to his patriotism, his philanthropy and his self-interest. He approached the government with an offer to pay for medals to be struck for every man- all six thousand of them-who fought in the battle alongside Nelson.This novel and eye-catching idea was attractive to a government keen to make political capital out of Nelson’s victory without setting an expensive precedent for future actions; so Davison’s offer was accepted, on condition that the government was involved in the design of the medal….On the face of it this arrangement seemed to consign Davison to the role of mere paymaster.But it gave the medals valuable official standing while enhancing Davison’s own reputation by publicly binding him closer to government,the fount of his wealth. He hoped too that so extravagant a gesture might purchase loyalty intern fleet the next time a large agency was awarded.
The medals were tone struck by Matthew Boulton
at his famed Soho manufactory in Birmingham
Davison’s original design was full of Masonic imagery. He was a freemason and wanted to included as many references to Freemasonry in the medal as possible, possibly as a means of providing some helpful propaganda for the movement. His original designed was
Obverse: Hope crowned with Oak and Laurel with the Olive Branch in her right hand and the medallion of Lord Nelson supported by her left, as it appears in the design, and her forefinger pointing to his bust.The anchor should appear exactly also as it is sketched; the foot of the figure in a sandal, should also be seen and the drapery to fall in the most graceful manner.Hope should also appear to be standing on a rugged shore…
Davison wanted the reverse of the coin to show the French fleet at anchor on the Bay of Bequeire and the British fleet under sail, advancing to the attack.
Matthew Boulton gave the task of improving on Davison’s sketch to Robert Clevely who was a marine artist in London. It’s interesting to note that there is much dispute about the correctness of the naval scene that was actually engraved. The die of the medal was cut by Boulton’s best engraver, Conrad Kuchler. Here is a gold version of the final medal:
Davison wanted the medal to be produced in five different medals: one for each of the four classes of officers and one for the ordinary seamen. His original order to Boulton confirmed this:
Of 7,000 medals, 25 would be in gold, 150 in silver, 300 in copper gilt, 525 in copper and 6,000 in “bronze” meaning copper applied with Boulton’s special purple-brown “bronzed” finish.
It is interesting to note that as he needed only 15 gold medals for the captions involved in the battle, the other ten were for Davison’s personal use. Eventually the scheme was simplified and after many, many quarrels with Davison about the design Matthew Boulton insisted on a very simple wording on the medal, for, as he tartly observed to his client:
A man may be a Johnson a Pope or a Dryden and yet he many not be a critic in the language of medals.
The wording eventually greed upon was as follows On the Obverse:
EUROPE’S HOPE AND BRITAIN’S GLORY. Above: REAR-ADMIRAL LORD NELSON OF THE NILE.
On the Reverse:
ALMIGHTY GOD HAS BLESSED HIS MAJESTY’S ARMS. In exergue: VICTORY OF THE NILE/AUGUST.1.1798.
Around the edge was inscribed:
FROM ALEXr. DAVISON ESQr. St. JAMES’S SQUARE- A TRIBUTE OF REGARD.
This is all very well, I hear you say in your accustomed manner…but what of Frank Austen? The Battle of the Nile was important for him because his first command, The Canopus, was one of the ships captured from the French in that battle. As we are told in Jane Austen’s Sailor Brothers by J.H and Edith C Hubback:
For a little over a year Francis Austen was Flag-Captain in the Canopus. This ship, which had been captured from the French at the Battle of the Nile, had originally been called Le Franklin, and was one of the best built vessels in the Navy of that day, carrying eighty guns.
This is the order of sailing, written by Nelson, in 1805 for the British Fleet,who were engaged in chasing Admiral Villeneuve across the Atlantic before the Battle of Trafalgar. You can clearly see The Canopus under the command of Frank. This is also taken from my copy of the Hubback’s book