The Nile medal
A mystery in the John Alexander Ferguson collection
20 November 2014
Do you fancy you have the mind of an above-average sleuth, or of a superior cryptic cruciverbalist or a forensic criminologist, or even all of the above?
Could you then offer an explanation for a connection within the National Library of Australia’s collections between Jane Austen, the French warship Franklin, a British seaman of the eighteenth century, Alexander Davison of London, Felicia Hemans, and a building in Burwood Road, Burwood, Sydney in 1926?
To establish the several connections, one needs to start looking among the nearly 32,000 items in the John Alexander Ferguson Collection in the National Library of Australia.
Item A4000225X in MS 3200, Box 72 is a copper-coloured bronze medal struck to celebrate Horatio Nelson’s outstanding victory over the French at the Battle of the Nile (or Aboukir Bay) in August 1798.
A newspaper clipping from the Sydney Sun of 8 December 1926 reports that this medal was found under the verandah plate of a house in Burwood Road, Burwood being demolished by a Mr E. Preston. The article speculates (incorrectly) that the medal belonged to a naval officer. No further details are given.
What more can we say about the medal?
Firstly, we can surmise that the medal was purposely placed under the base plate of the house in the folklore tradition whereby money and (originally religious) medals with a personal value were secreted in places as talismans of future good health and wealth.
As to the identity of the original recipient of the Battle of the Nile medal, we have no lead. As a bronze example and thus the lowest of the order of merit, it would have been presented to a seaman or a marine. In the light of the singular success of Nelson at the Nile, subsequently described as 'the apogee of naval warfare in the age of sail', Nelson's prize agent Alexander Davison petitioned King George III for permission to have struck medals for all participants in the battle. At a personal cost of £2000, some 7000 medals in gold, silver, copper-gilt and bronze suspended from a blue ribbon were awarded according to rank. As the bronze medal had little monetary or other value, sailors often discarded them or gave them away, thereby making the provenance of this medal extremely difficult to establish.
What about the Jane Austen connection? Back to the Battle itself. Nelson captured nine French ships which, refitted in England, were renamed and became part of the Royal Navy. One of these French ships was the Franklin, refitted and renamed HMS Canopus, and was placed under the command of Captain Francis (Frank) William Austen, brother of Jane Austen. As for Felicia Hemans, she wrote the celebrated poem Casabianca - better known by its first line 'The Boy Stood on the Burning Deck' - as a memorial to Captain Louis de Casabianca and his young son, still on duty on the flaming deck of the Orient as the massive French ship sank at the Battle of the Nile.
From the History of Burwood Municipality (1794-1974), we know that with the advent of cars in 1910, verandah posts were no longer needed for tethering horses and became an inconvenience, so the municipality required their replacement with cantilevers. Also, as old horse and carriage trades were replaced by more industrial-type skills so more garages were required, resulting in the new construction and the demolition and refurbishment of existing premises. In this same period, the municipality encouraged the replacement of older wooden-framed houses with brick dwellings, especially as local brickworks had been established. Finally, in seeking to link Mr E. Preston to Burwood, we may have a clue from the name 'J.J. Preston' on the Burwood War Memorial, 1914-1918.
This is an unfinished story. Whether it can progress will depend on what sources we can find to answer our questions. Other leads are possible: land titles, building permits, municipal records, sales data perhaps from the local brickworks for a new building on the demolition site, British Naval records, AWM records… If we can progress the story further it will be exciting, but no less exciting than the story so far, namely, that the medal was even spotted during the demolition by E. Preston and that it is now making new history in the Library’s collections.
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