The Mint with a Pole Part 2 – The Waterloo Medal
Take a look at Wellesley-Pole’s unique Waterloo Medal
- The first medal issued by the British Government to all soldiers present at an action.
- The first campaign medal awarded to the next-of-kin of men killed in action.
- The first medal to be individually inscribed
But how did the Waterloo Medal come about?
Survive this and get an individually inscribed medal!
On 28th June 1815, Wellington suggested ‘giving the non-commissioned officers and soldiers engaged in the Battle of Waterloo a medal.’ His brother Wellesley-Pole interpreted this as an opportunity for the Royal Mint to ‘show the world that this country is as superior in her [arts], as she has lately been proven to be in the skill and valour of her arms’. Accordingly on 11 July, he wrote to the Royal Academy inviting designs for two proposed medals.
One in Gold, of the largest size…will probably be given to each of the Sovereigns in Alliance with the Prince Regent, to their Ministers and Generals…The other… of small size to be given to every Officer and Soldier … who was present at the Battles
Wellesley-Pole was caught up in the euphoria of the victory against Napoleon and his impatience to get underway was immediately apparent. He restricted the design competition to the larger medal after mint employee Thomas Wyon put forward a cameo of the Prince Regent, copied from Sir Thomas Lawrence’s famous painting, which was approved for the smaller medal. Wellesley-Pole was so impressed that he promoted 23-year-old Wyon to Chief Engraver on 13th October. It was a typically bold move, showing his readiness to support those he believed in, even if it made him unpopular.
A list of Waterloo participants was meticulously compiled
At the end of August, Wellesley-Pole detailed how the operation was to be coordinated. He had already sent a flurry of letters to the regiments asking for a comprehensive list of eligible soldiers. He also incentivised Mint staff by offering £100 prize money for finding a way to modify milling machines to allow the edges of medals to be individually inscribed. The level of detail of Wellesley-Pole’s instructions provides a fascinating insight into his methods.
The Moneyers’ work begins tomorrow morning (31 Aug) …and if the Rolling and Cutting continue without intermission for 10 hours each day, Sundays excepted…The Cutting may be finished on Monday night (4th Sept). The Blanks will begin Milling on Monday morning (4th Sept); they will be finished ready for annealing on Thursday evening (7th September). The annealing will be done on Friday the 8th Sept…There must be six sets of Marking Machines made for Lettering the Medals – 18 Sets of Letters are wanting for the Machines… When the two Machines are at work the Lettering may be completed in 30 days, viz at the rate of one piece a minute, for each machine working 10 hours a day. The six sets of Marking Machines will be ready for working on the 11th September. Supposing we begin to letter on Monday the 12 Sept, the Lettering may be finished by the 20th October….Mr Wyon will be ready with his Dyes by the 10th of Oct. If we work 8 Presses at the rate of a Piece per minute for each Press (working 10 hours a day) the Forty Thousand Medals will be struck in Ten days, and be ready for delivery on the 9th of November.
He demanded total commitment from all concerned. It is almost like a team talk.
I rely upon the…the utmost exertions… to complete the work. The whole grace of the distribution of the medals would be lost if any unavoidable delay was to take place in their issue; and, in the very perfect state of the machinery of the Mint, no excuse could be allowed to us by the public in such an event. You will be so good as to let it be generally understood that…no branch of the manufacture is to relax its efforts under an idea that it will be ready before any other branch is prepared to carry forward the work. Every person is to act as if the whole measure depended upon his individual exertions.
Wellesley-Pole was a great believer in teamwork
Progress was delayed after a fire at the Mint in September, then a late decision by the Prince Regent to strike the medals in silver instead of bronzed copper. The Bank of England received a request for 60 thousand ounces of fine silver on 19th January 1816, and incredibly the finished product was ready to ship by 3rd March. Wellesley-Pole wrote
I propose packing the Medals in Boxes marked on the outside so as to specify the Corps or Regiment to which the Medals within may belong; and there will be packed in each Box a copy of the List transmitted … The Name of each Officer and Man is impressed upon the edge of the Medal destined for him, and care will be taken to pack the Medals in the order in which the Names stand on the several Lists…I am in hopes that we shall be enabled to deliver finished Medals… at the rate of about 1000 per day from this time forward.
In all, just under 40,000 medals were awarded, with the vast majority sent out without fault in quality or individual inscription. Such a monumental logistical achievement was to prove a trial run for what was to follow at the Royal Mint under Wellesley-Pole.
Another project successfully signed off by Wellesley-Pole
After the work was finished, Wellesley-Pole ordered 50 individually-inscribed medals as gifts to Ministers, senior Mint officials and friends. Everything was transparent and above-board: ‘The Deputy Master of the Mint will be so good as to pay the expense of these Medals and charge it to [my] private account’.
Yet Wellesley-Pole’s hard work met with some controversy as Peninsular War veterans felt justifiably aggrieved that those who were present at Waterloo—many of them raw recruits, who had never seen a shot fired in anger—should receive such a meaningful prize; while they, who had served the whole war, received nothing beyond a Parliamentary vote of thanks. If you know anything about Wellesley-Pole at this stage, such understandable yet also unfair criticism is about par for the course.
So Wellesley-Pole’s administrative brilliance and innovative team-building ethos at the Mint was once again subsumed by suspicion and hostility that seems to have dogged his entire career.
Never could this be better demonstrated than in Part 3 where Wellesley-Pole joins forces with another unpopular firebrand, namely Benedetto Pistrucci…
 Gurwood J., Wellington Supplementary Dispatches, (10 Volumes – London: Murray, 1871)
 British Library Manuscripts Add.MSS 39791