By Jeremy Bostwick – Senior Numismatist & Cataloger, Stack’s Bowers ……
Lifesaving medals are a particularly popular subset of numismatics. As celebrations of the rescuing of one by another, they present importance and a sense of gravity when held and studied.
One such fascinating example will be offered in the Stack’s Bower Galleries September Hong Kong auction—a sale that will be our largest to date for the venue. The obverse of this medal features an etching-like engraving showing the steamer “Zhoushan” in the act of sinking off the coast of Ardrossan Harbor (Scotland). The reverse displays an engraved legend (in both script and block fonts): “Subscribers Medal / PRESENTED / to Wm Breckenridge / FOR HEROIC EFFORTS IN SAVING LIFE / AT THE WRECK OF THE / Chusan / IN ARDROSSAN HARBOUR / 21st Octr 1874,” with decorative scrollwork around. The entire piece is housed within a bezel shaped like a coiled rope, with a life preserver and anchor attached at the top, along with a loop for suspension. Its tremendous appeal and craftsmanship is enhanced by a backstory that is unrivaled with respect to its history and cross-cultural interest.
The iron paddle steamer “Zhoushan” (also appearing in records as “Chusan” [as on this medal]) was launched in September 1874 and was owned by the China Steam Navigation Company. The firm’s agents were Baring Brothers and Company (in London) and Russell and Company (in Shanghai). Her usage, once in China, was intended to facilitate trade between Shanghai and Hankow; this, however, would never come to be. On the morning of 21 October 1874, on her way from Glasgow to Shanghai, she sank in a gale.
The ship had set out for China on 10 October, but a stop at Waterford in Ireland resulted in a defect being detected, causing the planned trip to be scuttled and her to return to Glasgow for necessary repairs. It was upon this return trip that tragedy struck upon encountering tempestuous winds in the Ardrossan Harbor. So close to the coast was this event that hundreds witnessed it from two different piers (Montgomerie and Winton).
William Breckenridge, a local and no stranger to rescue missions, piloted a lifeboat to the windward side of the wreck where she was anchored—the waters still roiling from the gale. Though not nearly everyone who was on the ill-fated vessel (48 crew and five passengers) was rescued, one of those who was saved was the captain’s wife (Mrs. George C. Johnson of Salem, Massachusetts). She would later present this medal to her rescuer, William Breckenridge, along with similar such medals to his crew. This specific mentioning of the present award medal emanates from Breckenridge’s obituary some six years following the “Zhoushan” wreck, appearing in the Ardrossan and Saltcoats Herald editions of 3 & 10 April 1880: “The captain of the “Chusan” perished but his lady, who was saved, presented Breckenridge and his crew with a silver medal each in recognition of their services.”
So revered locally was he that a football match between Seafield (from Ardrossan) and Kilmarnock Athletic took place on 10 April, with the gate proceeds donated to his wife. It is unclear what happened to the medal during the 1880s, but it was clearly on display at the Royal Naval Exhibition, held in Chelsea, West London, opening 2 May 1891. It was included in the exhibition’s guide as item #2555 and as having been lent by a “Mrs. Marsden.”
This fascinating lifesaving medal will be included, along with nearly 6,000 other lots of coins, tokens, and medals, in our upcoming September Hong Kong auction.
To view our upcoming auction schedule and future offerings, please visit StacksBowers.com where you may register and participate in this and other forthcoming sales.
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We are always seeking coins, medals, and paper money for our future auctions, and are currently accepting submissions for our Official Auction of the 2022 NYINC next January and our Hong Kong auction next spring. Additionally, we are continuously accepting submissions for our Collectors Choice Online (CCO) auctions, the next of which will be in October. If you would like to learn more about consigning, whether a singular item or an entire collection, please contact one of our consignment directors today and we will assist you in achieving the best possible return on your material.