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In Search of a Cape of Good Hope Medal

Pierre H. Nortje (March 2024)
Silver medal with the legend reading "HUMANE SOCIETY, CAPE OF GOOD HOPE" dated 1842



On his South African Commemorative Medals website, Professor Michael Laidlaw catalogues a silver medal with the legend reading "HUMANE SOCIETY, CAPE OF GOOD HOPE" with the date “1842”. It was made by W. Warrington, 27 Strand, London.


Laidlaw mentions that a bronze example is in the collection of the Royal Museum Greenwich.  He says “Nothing is known about this early Cape lifesaving society”. This prompted us to do some research on the medal.


The Humane Society


The Royal Humane Society is a British charity which promotes lifesaving intervention. It was founded in England in 1774 as the Society for the Recovery of Persons Apparently Drowned for the purpose of rendering first aid in cases of near drowning. Between 1776 and 1998, the society awarded approximately 135 gold, 1 336 silver and 11 230 bronze honorary medals.


The silver medal was introduced in 1775, the bronze in 1837 and the gold in 1873. The latter is named the Stanhope Medal. However, these medals do not correspond with the Cape Colony medal, as the obverse shows a cherub (an angel-like baby figure), nude but for a flowing cloak, blowing a burnt-out torch.


When the society was started in the 1770s, a reward of 4 guineas was paid to the rescuer and 1 guinea to anyone allowing a body to be treated on his premises. This soon gave rise to a widespread scam among scoundrels: one would pretend to be rescued and the other the rescuer – and they would share the proceeds. So monetary rewards were gradually replaced by medals and certificates.

The Royal Humane Society Silver 1775, Bronze 1837 and gold 1873 medals

Source: The Royal Humane Society 

The Medal Yearbook (2010) lists and describes various other lifesaving medals awarded in Victorian times in Great Britain and its colonies, but none correspond to the Cape Colony medal. Was the latter indeed awarded for lifesaving at the Cape? A clue might be the obverse showing a hand emerging from a cloud, pouring oil from a pitcher into a burning lamp. This corresponds to the society's motto “lateat scintillula forsan” or, “possibly, a small spark may perhaps lie hidden.” However, this does not provide conclusive proof.


The Cape Medal


It seems that not many of these medals were awarded and certainly very few survived. Those that we could find on the internet are few and far between, but some of these show the name of the recipient, and this information might provide a clue as to why the medals were awarded in the first place.


The following medal is in the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich in London. It is the bronze issue, 45mm in diameter and fitted with a ring and blue ribbon. The inscription reads “G. JOHNSON. VOTED. 17 May 1868.” The medal maker is indicated by the initials “W.W.” who we know was W. Warrington of 27 Strand, London.


The word “voted” we find confusing, as it might indicate a political or governmental award of some sort.

Medal in the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich in London.

The museum also has a cast copy of this same medal, shown on the right

The auction firm Christie’s sold a silver medal in 1970 of which the reverse is engraved, “Presented to Capt. H. Wilson for Heroic Conduct, October 1851.” A picture of the medal is unfortunately not shown, but the name of Captain H. Wilson might give us a clue as to why the medal was awarded in 1851.


Two ships that foundered in Table Bay in October 1851 were the Royal Saxon driven ashore in Table Bay near "Riet Vlei" and The Chartley Castle, a British wooden barque of 382 tons, built in 1842 at Teignmouth, and commanded by Captain A. McLean. It was wrecked at Milnerton on 8 October 1851 at night after a voyage from London to Table Bay. However, we were unable to connect either recipient, G. Johnson and Captain H. Wilson, to these ships, if indeed the medals were rewarded for rescuing drowning sailors at all.  


The answer


We eventually found our answer: The following information is given in the Cape of Good Hope Almanac and Annual Register for 1846.


This invariably shows that the Cape of Good Hope Humane Society was indeed a life-saving society based in Cape Town that was “prepared to distribute silver medals to deserving individuals…” It is not known if this indicates that the first medals were only issued from 1846 onwards, despite the society being established in 1842. Bronze medals are also not mentioned in this report but we have evidence that one was awarded in 1868 while a silver medal was awarded more than 15 years earlier in 1851.


As we have said, these medals are scarce and they are very collectable pieces for those interested in the numismatic history of South Africa and the Cape in particular.

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