Recently Kitco News published an interesting article about a hoard of sunken gold coins to be recovered from a shipwreck later this summer. What follows is the story of a ship, an adventure, and a treasure. Let’s start with the Kitco article, which notes that salvage efforts are getting ready to begin:
Another season of shipwreck salvage operations is kicking off with Endurance Exploration Group1 in the spotlight this year as the company prepares to salvage £10,000 in gold coins from a 154-year old site.
After two years of research, the company announced, in a press release, Tuesday, it is moving forward with its mobilization plans and expects to start salvage operations between July and September.
Since 2013, Endurance has been surveying a wreck off the New England coast, which is believed to be the S.S. Connaught. The 380-foot iron-hulled side-wheel steamer sunk … on its way to Boston from St John’s Newfoundland, the second leg of its journey from Galway, Ireland.
– Neils Christensen, Sunken Gold Coins To Be Recovered Off Of New England Coast This Summer, Kitco News, 19 May 20152
The S.S. Connaught sank on 9 October, 1860, after a leak sprung and a fire broke out during a storm. She was a brand new ocean liner at the time, having been launched earlier that year at Jarrow on Tyne, in northeast England. The ship departed Galway, Ireland, on 25 September, 1860, bound for Boston and carrying 50 first-class passengers, 417 steerage passengers, and a full crew of 125. En route to Boston, the Connaught put in at St. Johns, Newfoundland, where she “was quietly loaded with £10,000 in gold coins, possibly bound for a visiting member of the royal family.” There’s a great article from io93 about the ship’s sinking and the daring rescue of her crew and passengers by the brig Minnie Schiffer, which was accomplished without loss of life. A contemporary Richmond Dispatch article4 reported that the British government was so gratified by the rescue that it awarded a gold chronometer to the Minnie Schiffer’s captain, a valuable telescope to the mate, and £10 to every member of her crew.
Anyway, to move on to the next part of our story, the “visiting member of the royal family” could only have been 18-year-old Prince Albert Edward (later King Edward VII), more familiarly known to family members as “Bertie.”
Bertie’s Big Adventure
Canada had wanted Queen Victoria to visit since the Crimean War, and invited her to visit Montreal in 1860, for the opening of a railroad bridge across the Saint Lawrence5 to be named after her; then the longest bridge in the world. Having no interest in an Atlantic crossing, Victoria declined the invitation and instead decided to send the heir to the throne, Bertie, who was then on vacation from Oxford. Bertie was not known as a brilliant scholar, particularly by the Queen, and some of his not-so-private hijinks had landed him in both the newspapers and in royal disfavor. Victoria’s husband Albert, the Prince Consort, just so happened to be casting about for ways to demonstrate the monarchy’s relevance, and the invitation led him to a solution that would both increase visibility of the royal family and get Bertie out of town: a Royal Tour of British America and the United States.6 It was to be the first royal visit to the United States since the American Revolution.
Bertie arrived at St. Johns, Newfoundland, on 23 July, 1860, and toured several cities in Canada and the United States. After his last stop, a 3-day stay in Boston, he traveled by train to Portland, Maine, where he departed for England on 20 October. Given this last stop in Boston, it is plausible that the gold coins aboard the S.S. Connaught were intended to arrive in Boston in time to settle debts incurred during Bertie’s visit. And debts there surely were: while some of his stops in Canada were contentious, Bertie proved to be wildly popular in the United States, and he was greeted by cheering crowds at every stop. Bertie loved ballroom dancing, and while in New York, so many guests thronged a ball thrown in his honor that the temporary dance floor collapsed!7
While Bertie’s first tour was a success, it actually amounted to not much more than a series of balls and parties, and foreshadowed his years to come. It would be over forty years before he ascended the throne as King Edward VII in 1901, at the age of 60. During the intervening years, lacking any political authority, he continually reprised the rather empty ceremonial role he played during his first tour, visiting India in 1875 and attending this or that grand opening or dedication ceremony. Unfortunately, having shed the chaperones of his teenaged years, some of his subsequent travels gained him a reputation as a lush and a playboy, and you can research details about that for yourself.
What sort of coins might be in the S.S. Connaught’s cargo? I imagine gold American eagles and half-eagles were exchanged pretty freely over the Canadian border for sovereigns and half-sovereigns, at least before the Civil War, but I am of the opinion that most of the coins are likely the latter. The contemporary story by The New York Times, an American newspaper, reported that the Connaught “had £10,000 in gold on board, Government money,”8 which suggests the coins were British pounds rather than American dollars. The British pound (£1) equaled one gold sovereign (or two half-sovereigns) in 1860, so £10,000 in gold coins adds up to quite a lot of gold sovereigns! In U.S. dollars, the 1860 exchange rate was $4.77 to £1, so the coins were worth $47,700 then. Five years later, at the end of the U.S. Civil War, war debt and the printing of so many greenbacks would debase the U.S. dollar to $7.90 to £1! And as long as we’re discussing debasement and changes in value, it’s worth noting that £10,000 in 1860 would have the same relative value as about £840,000 today, in terms of purchasing power.
From a numismatic standpoint, an important consideration in the potential value of what might be recovered is the fact that the Royal Mint conducted a very large recoinage during 1842-1845. The recoinage withdrew £14,000,000 of light gold (i.e., older gold coins that were worn to the point that they were too light), which amounted to about one-third of the total gold in British circulation at the time. Another £500,000 of light gold per year was removed after 1845.9
The upshot is that many of the gold coins that went down on the S.S. Connaught may have been minted not long before she sank, and are almost certainly Victoria shield sovereigns and half sovereigns. The years involved, 1838 to 1860, include some of the most rare and sought-after sovereign variants: the 1838 and 1843 Narrow Shield variants, the 1841 low mintage key date year, the 1848 First Young Head, and the 1859 Ansell, to name a few. Finding more examples of these would be welcome to collectors, of course, but in the instance of the narrow shield varieties, if a significant number of them is found, it may cause some revision in thought about whether they were patterns; or were a design in general use, most of the examples of which were destroyed during normal recoinage.
Keep your eyes peeled for progress updates on the salvage later this summer: the recovery of up to 10,000 shield sovereigns from the S.S. Connaught may rival the recovery of the cargo of the R.M.S. Douro,10 and has the potential to turn the market for gold Victoria shield sovereigns upside down!
- Endurance Exploration Group, Inc., http://www.enduranceexplorationgroup.com/
- Neils Christensen, “Sunken Gold Coins To Be Recovered Off Of New England Coast This Summer,” Kitco News, 19 May 2015. http://www.kitco.com/news/2015-05-19/Sunken-Gold-Coins-To-Be-Recovered-Off-Of-New-England-Coast-This-Summer.html
- George Dvorsky, “Wreck Of The S.S. Connaught Discovered Off The Coast Of Boston,” io9, 3 October 2014. (The illustration of the launch of the S.S. Connaught, originally from the Illustrated London News, is from this article.) http://io9.com/wreck-of-the-s-s-connaught-discovered-off-the-coast-o-1642205479
- The Daily Dispatch, “The brig Minnie Schiffer,” Richmond Dispatch, by Cowardin & Hammersley, 3 December, 1860. http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A2006.05.0160%3Aarticle%3Dpos%3D74
- Wikipedia, “Victoria Bridge (Montreal),” not dated. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Victoria_Bridge_%28Montreal%29
- J. Castell Hopkins, F.S.S., The Life of King Edward VII, W.E. Scull, 1910 (Project Gutenberg). (The illustration of ‘Bertie’ visiting Canada is from page 57.) http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/25112
- Robert C. Kennedy, “On This Day: The Imaginary and the Actual Prince,” The New York Times Company and HarpWeek, 2001. (The dance floor collapse anecdote.) https://www.nytimes.com/learning/general/onthisday/harp/0922.html
- (No author cited), “DREADFUL ACCIDENT AT SEA,” The New York Times, 10 October 1860. http://www.nytimes.com/1860/10/10/news/dreadful-accident-sea-burning-steamship-connaught-passengers-crew-mails-all.html
- Michael A. Marsh, The Gold Sovereign. Cambridge, the Jubilee Edition, 2002, page 28.
- bigjarofwasps, “The true story of the RMS Douro,” Gentlemen’s Military Interest Club, 11 March 2005. http://gmic.co.uk/forums/topic/418-the-true-story-of-the-rms-douro/
- The “Latest from America” cartoon from Punch, November 10, 1860, can be found at the House Divided Civil War Research Engine at Dickenson College, http://hd.housedivided.dickinson.edu/node/31338.
- Photo of the 1860 sovereign is by the author.
John, are there forecasts on how the newly-discovered cache could impact the current value of British gold coins minted in the decades prior to the sinking?
That’s a good question that I don’t really have the answer to, and one I hinted at in the last paragraph. So far I haven’t seen any speculation about the potential impact.
The R.M.S. Douro cargo “included sovereigns of Victoria from 1838 to 1881, and 10,000 were cataloged as collectable coins, of which around forty of these were key dates and major varieties.” (Marsh) Because the S.S. Connaught cargo will only include sovereigns from 1838 to 1860, it of necessity cannot shed any light on any variants produced afterwards (e.g., the 1863 “827” sovereigns), or the use of reverse die numbers, which began in 1863.
But for the earlier years, discovering more of the rare variants may cause some revision in thought about their significance. There is also the possibility that new varieties may be discovered. Who knows? Maybe an 1840 coin will turn up! 😮
Regardless, the appearance of new variants and/or significant numbers of known varieties is sure to spark interest in shield sovereigns, and in this case, a sudden new supply may actually yield increased demand!
Thanks for your comment!