Coins, Tokens and Historical Medals (1 & 2 December 2020)
Robert Thompson was born in Cardiff on 15 December 1943, the son of civil servants. He attended the local school, Whitchurch Grammar, where he achieved ten O-Levels and A-Levels in Latin, French and History. He enjoyed the three years of compulsory Welsh lessons and always considered himself Welsh, rather than British. He was not interested in sport but, like his father, he enjoyed cycling, and as a young man cycled extensively in Britain and Europe.
Rob’s love of history began early, starting with collecting fossils from the cliffs during seaside holidays. Living in South Wales his imagination was stirred by the numerous prehistoric hill forts, ruins of Roman camps and settlements and the castles built following the Norman conquest, many within easy reach by bike. His interest in coins and tokens also started early and, aged 16, he wrote an impassioned article, published in his school magazine, about the joys of coin collecting. He joined the British Numismatic Society (BNS) in February 1964 and later became a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries. In 1999 he was awarded the John Sanford Saltus gold medal for outstanding scholarly contribution to British numismatics by the BNS.
In 1961 the family moved to Harrow, but Rob stayed on in Cardiff, with his beloved Aunty Kathleen, to complete his A-Levels. She was the family historian who had spent years researching the family history and who later supported and encouraged him in his historical and numismatic research.
Once his exams were finished Rob rejoined the family in Harrow and enrolled at Ealing College to study librarianship, becoming a Chartered Librarian in 1971. He loved books and had already collected his own small reference library, mostly on history, to help his understanding of the coins he had collected and at every historical place he visited he always bought guidebooks. Once qualified, he worked in reference libraries in Brent, Haringey, Shoreditch and Hackney until retiring in 2004. In the late 1980s, after living in several rented homes, he bought a house in Haringey, before returning to the Harrow family home after the death of both our parents in 2001.
Rob became increasingly involved in numismatics over the years, writing papers (some in French or German) and attending many international numismatic congresses, including one in New York in 1973 where he met Mrs Emery Norweb, the wealthy American who had collected 13,000 seventeenth century British trade tokens. The following year Rob was invited to Ohio to view the collection and then agreed to take on the mammoth task of cataloguing it for publication! The tokens were sent over in batches to Robert, who studied them and had them photographed before they were returned to the Norwebs. Thirty-eight years and three generations of Norwebs later, in 2011, the eighth and final volume of Rob’s catalogue of the Norweb collection was published. Rob was assisted with the later volumes by his numismatist friend, Michael Dickinson, and our mother, Dorothy Thompson, was one of those who spent many hours preparing the photographs for the plates. In the years after publication, Rob continued to write numerous well-researched papers and books on innumerable historic themes, some based on his Norweb researches.
As a person, Rob was always quiet, considerate and self-effacing, at least in family circles. He never married but had some long-standing friendships and kept himself to himself, rarely initiating contact, although he was happy enough to talk when we rang him. He used to join my family in Sheffield every year for Christmas, often sitting in a corner with a book open in his lap, quietly observing the goings-on, rather than taking part, but he did enjoy walking with us in the Peak District, although he was becoming a little unsteady in the last few years. He never met his grand-niece, born four months before his death.
As many will attest, Rob was extremely knowledgeable on innumerable subjects and in his work was always accurate, double-checking everything by reference to the sources. His collection of books, which had grown to over 3,000 by the time of his death, were meticulously arranged in library catalogue order and he could always lay his hand immediately on the correct volume to settle any discussion point. Rob sadly died alone on 23 September 2017 and it was only when clearing his home that we realised just how knowledgeable and how well respected he had been, both nationally and internationally.
I first met Robert Thompson in 1963 or 1964, when on a visit to Ian Fine’s Harrow Coin & Stamp Centre with my philatelist Father, who had been given first pick of a collection of Netherlands stamps Ian had recently bought. As a schoolboy coin collector, I was left to pick through ‘the junk’ at one end of the counter while at the other end this man was perched on a stool, quietly working his way through boxes of what I later learnt were tokens. We met up on the odd occasion over the next few years, but it wasn’t until 1969, by which time my collecting focus had moved from coins to tokens, that our paths crossed much more frequently. After accompanying Robert to three BNS meetings in succession as his guest that year, he took me aside and said it was about time I became a member, and he would propose me. From 1970 until his death we met up at almost every Society meeting, more often than not repairing afterwards, with others, to the Society’s usual table at Trattoria Mondello in Goodge Street.
As has been amply covered by his obituarists, Robert was a staunch servant of the BNS, joining the Society’s Council in 1966 and serving two terms as Librarian and one as Director. He also found the time to support his local numismatic societies, in Hayes when under the indefatigable Trevor Squibb, and later Harrow. He was a regular attender, and often a speaker, at the sexennial International Numismatic Congress and the annual Token Congress, quite apart from occasional visits to BANS Congresses and to the French equivalent, the Société Française de Numismatique’s Journées numismatiques, the latter often in the company of Peter Woodhead, Tony Merson and Philip Mernick.
But it is in the field of 17th century tokens that Robert’s name, along with that of Michael Dickinson, will be remembered for decades to come. Exploding many myths of attribution, their SCBI Norweb volumes set an unrivalled standard and Robert’s essay on Bristol civic farthings, published in 1988, is as clear and concise as anything in print on tokens of that era. Likewise, his study of the dies of the 18th century token issuer Thomas Spence, published as long ago as 1969, has never been bettered. One feels sure that he would have been grateful that others have expanded his study of David Ramage senior (†1662), whose token issues Robert first started to collect in the late 1960s and which were the inspiration for much of his later work. This catalogue includes the first part of his 17th century token collection – others parts are scheduled for March and September 2021. I, and many others, are privileged to have known him.