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Classical Ode to an Enigma

The Commemorative Medal is one of numismatics most interesting areas. A Commemorative Medal will hold much of the lustre and aesthetic beauty of a coin (often much more so), and they can also be comparatively inexpensive. The appeal can go further than that too – a coin, of course, will speak of history: what happened in the year or geographical region that it was minted; the reign of a particular Monarch; the dominance and fall of an Empire.

With coins, each singular item points to a significant historical age or a period of importance to the individual collector. And of course that can be anything from the Ancient Greek Civilisation to the reign of Charles II of England.

In the case of the commemorative medal, that historical period is vastly refined; all extraneous events whittled away so that the item itself points not to a war or a civilisation or an age, but to just one event, one  moment in time, one commemoration.

If coins are the movie, then the commemorative medal is a photograph.

In 1904, at Cambridge University, John Fraser, the Jesus Professor of Celtic was awarded the William Browne Prize for Classical Odes and Epigrams. This one moment in time may have seemed not all that significant in the greater scheme of things. Respectfully, it was news unlikely to be of much regard for those without a vested interest in Classical Odes and Epigrams, and unlikely to get to the front page of any newspaper outside of Trinity College. It would, however, be the precursor to the recipient becoming involved in truly earth-shattering news. News for which the press are still writing headlines even today.

Lot 3653 in Baldwin’s London Auction 101 – 28 September 2016
Cambridge University, William Browne Prize for Classical Odes and Epigrams, Gold Medal by Lewis Pingo, first struck 1755 and later awarded to John Fraser in 1904. Upon receiving his award, John Fraser joined a famous alumni – it was awarded to Samuel Taylor Colleridge in 1792, and latterly to Enoch Powell in 1932.
Estimate: £800-1,000


It was some years later that John Fraser would work, during WWII, at Bletchley Park with over 10,000 others (including this chronographer’s Great Aunt), surrounded by a blanket of secrecy so complete that were it not for a book published by a former employee in 1974, we may not have known about it at all. Indeed, Churchill called it “the goose that laid the golden egg and never cackled”, and upon cessation of the war ordered all records be destroyed.

The work that was done in Bletchley Park was, of course, to decipher the codes used by the German Enigma Machine – recently brought to life with the film The Imitation Game, with Benedict Cumberbatch as Alan Turing, the gifted but troubled genius.

And if a coin is a movie, then the medal is the photograph – that one moment in time. And it was the moment that Jon Fraser received the William Browne Medal for Classical Odes and Epigrams that made him stand out as one of the country’s finest linguists. It was arguably, these skills that merited his inclusion in one of the most celebrated teams of all time.

And what exactly did John Fraser actually do at Bletchley Park? We may never really know. It has itself become an enigma, the mystery that solved a mystery. It was not until 2009 that the surviving members (John Fraser died in 1945) were honoured for the work they had done, and then only with commemorative badges (because civilians are not allowed to be given military honours).

What we do know is that the staff at Bletchley Park were selected for their linguistic and mathematical prowess. What we can surmise is that attempting to decipher the German transmissions, and working with one of this country’s finest mathematicians was probably a deal more exciting that writing classical odes and epigrams.

But then, no-one ever gave John Fraser a medal for that.

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