1939 Royal Visit

The Royal Visit of 1939

By: MICC Lifetime member #001

It wasn’t the first time a Royal had visited Canada; two sons of George III had served in Nova Scotia a century and more before and 1861 marked the major tour of Edward, Prince of Wales, later to become Edward VII. But it was the first time that Canada’s reigning monarch had visited her and all the stops were pulled in welcoming the new and popular royal couple.

Word of the proposed impending visit was first received by Canada in November, 1938 and there was an immediate determination to mark the occasion numismatically. Canada had failed in issuing coronation coin in 1937, it being all she could do to supply regular coin due to the abdication of Edward VIII and the delay it entailed. The government, having suffered some criticism in this regard, was all the more determined that the Royal Visit be properly noted. Consequently, it was determined that both a commemorative silver dollar as well as appropriate medallions would be issued. As early as November 16, 1938, a sub-committee under the chairmanship of the Deputy Minister of Finance, Dr. W.C. Clark, had been formed for the purpose of selecting suitable designs.

The reverse design of the medallion, a map of Canada showing the travel itinerary of the George VI and Elizabeth, was chosen by the Commemorative Sub-Committee at the suggestion of Prime Minister Mackenzie King. Its obverse was to be the conjoined busts of the royal couple as appeared on Percy Metcalfe’s official British Coronation medal in 1937. No competition was called for the designs; rather Emanuel Hahn, the artist/sculptor already responsible for the reverses of the Canadian 10-, 25-cent pieces as well as the regular silver dollar, was charged with the final design and modelling of the reverses for both the medallion and the proposed silver dollar.

Along with all the respect being paid, the Canadian government could not have been unaware of the profit accruing from such issues. Silver stood at a historic low of only 43-cents per Troy ounce and a Canadian silver dollar contained but .6 ounce; as well, there was a major plan for the selling of medallions in both silver and copper/bronze to the public. Oddly, it was H.E. Ewart, master of the Royal Canadian Mint, who was most distrustful of the entire project’s success. From past experience, he judged that there was insufficient time to have all these medallions and coins in place by May, 1939 when the Tour was due to begin. In his estimation, it would require some six months – after the master tools were all prepared – to strike the projected million silver dollars. Perhaps the government thought so as well since they ordered for immediate delivery an up-to-date Taylor & Challen coining press, operating at a pressure of up to 250 tons and capable of turning out 80 to 100 silver dollars per minute.

Original drawing for the Reverse of the 1939 Commemorative Dollar by Emanuel Hahn.
Except for the deletion of his initial in the right field, the finished coin was a fairly faithful reproduction.

But here Ewart had to fend off numerous proposals by the politicians for various unrealistic bells-and-whistles “refinements”. They wanted conjoined busts on the silver dollar as well; Ewart managed to talk them out of that, settling for the Paget obverse already in place. Then they wanted the reverse changed from the proposed Parliament Buildings to the Canadian War Memorial which George and Elizabeth were to dedicate. Their royal cyphers on the reverse background were proposed and rejected as were several alternate, longer Latin inscriptions.

The simplifications as required by the Mint were taken up by the politicians. In the below drawing by Hahn, his initial appears in the right background but this was ordered deleted. Hahn did not exactly comply, noting that while he was willing to alter the size and placement of his initial, it should be somewhere. Only by Ewart’s intervention was the government spared the rather silly statement that no artist’s initials had been allowed before except through oversight. Apparently his initial was removed from his model without his permission and he had to be satisfied with a veiled apology from Ewart, citing decisions made over which he had no control. But when the dollar appeared, everyone knew it was by Hahn, despite the missing initial.

The 1939 Commemorative Dollar. Obverse: by T. Humphry Paget as already being used. Reverse: by Emanuel Hahn following design specifications of the Sub-Committee. FIDE SVORVM REGNAT (He reigns by the faith of his people). The “1” was the idea of Mackenzie King, the only instance where a numerical designation occurs on a Canadian silver dollar.

As the result of around-the-clock overtime, the Mint was able to supply adequate amounts of the new commemorative dollar by the time the royal couple arrived. In all, 1,363,816 were coined in that year and released, not only by the regular banking channels, but through the post office as well. Unusual care was taken in the striking and distribution of these coins, being shipped in tubes of 20 coins each rather than being allowed to clatter around in mint bags. Consequently, this dollar is one of the easiest to find from this era in the top conditions.

Perhaps oddly, after a special press had been purchased to strike them, 1939 was to be the last year silver dollars would be struck until the end of WWII in 1945. As it was, not all the dollars entered circulation; some 150,000 remained in government hands a couple of years later and were melted down.

But the dollar coin was not the only numismatic item released in conjunction with this Tour. From the very first, it was determined that it be commemorated with medals (actually medallions) as well. It was decided that a small bronze one would be presented to every school child in the Dominion and that larger presentation pieces would be struck as well.

For the most part, the design was set by the Commemorative Subcommittee in November, 1938. While Hahn prepared the models for the medals, it appears that from a design standpoint, he added only the coat-of-arms above the reverse map. Canada’s national motto “From Sea Unto Sea” as well as REGEM ET REGINAM CANADA SALVTAT (“Canada Salutes her King and Queen”) appeared around the rim.

Determined to include Queen Elizabeth as well, after being unable to do so on the dollar, the government went to great lengths in obtaining permission from the British government for the use of Metcalfe’s conjoined busts as used on the 1937 Coronation medal. Such permission was granted in December, leaving only the models for the reverses to be done. Even so, Mintmaster Ewart had reason for nervousness, even by December, with a good possibility of a major part of the whole project not being ready by the May deadline. From the first, Ewart sought permission to strike only the limited-number presentation medals and suggested, rather than giving away a huge number of bronze pieces, that the reverse of the 50-cent be utilized to carry the “map” design and thus show a profit to the government. The suggestion was turned down.

Unfortunately, Hahn had never been known for speed and Ewart was almost panicked by the artist’s accurate – but slow – placement of “a few stray islands around Baffin Land”. The tardiness was to conflict with scheduling at the Royal Mint for production of the master tools and it would be nearly the deadline before even two of the three required sets would be ready.

Then another blow fell on Ewart. At a meeting of January 7, 1939, Dr. Clark’s Commemorative Sub-committee agreed that the Mint would also produce silver and bronze medals to be sold to the public through Canada’s twelve thousand post offices.

At this point, the Mint was overwhelmed and the government forced to call in “hired guns”. This was done in the person of Thomas Shingles, a Birmingham-trained engraver who possessed the becoming-obsolete skill of being able to engrave dies directly, rather than requiring the use of the reducing machine. In Striking Impressions, James Haxby notes that Shingles was on the staff of a Winnipeg firm who also struck part of the school-child issue; this would presumably have been Birks, Ellis & Ryrie who are recorded to have indeed struck royal visit medals (of some kind). On the other hand, Robert Willey, in Dictionary of Canadian Medallists, says Shingles was employed by Roden Bros of Toronto after 1937. Willey also writes that Shingles “was asked to copy the obverse die of the Royal Visit school children’s medal of 1939”.

That Shingles’ services were acquired by the RCM in 1939 is established fact (he was made Chief Engraver in 1943 and served in that capacity until 1964). That any of the “official” medals were produced off-site is less certain. That Shingles produced only the obverse dies is also undetermined. Certainly, he produced more than the “obverse of the .. school children’s medal” since all the large presentation medals are by his hand.

With the need to decide what was most important, the government determined that the large presentation medals and the school children’s were. The presentation medals were 2 1/8″ in diameter and produced in the following metals and numbers: gold (8), silver (125) and tombac (649) – that illustrated above is a tombac presentation medal. Using exactly the same designs but in 1″ size, he also cut dies for the school children’s medal. Before the major portion of the last medals was struck, the master tools from the Royal Mint arrived and Shingles’ dies were shelved in preference to the Metcalfe ones. The two different designs may be distinguished by the Shingles bust running right down onto the rim (ref: Haxby).

With the master tools received just in time, and by dint of continued around-the-clock overtime, the RCM managed to breast the flood and supply all the presentation and school children’s medals – as well as enough silver dollars and commercial medals to supply demand.

In all, there were 2,533,943 bronze school children’s medals produced. The commercial silver and bronze medals were of the same design although of slightly different diameters. In fact, the silver diameter is given as “half crown size” ( or 1.272″) and the bronze as “penny size” (or 1.215″). They sold for 50- and 10-cents each respectively but even at these modest prices, not all moved. Using figures for production from the 1939 Mint Report and those of sales from Haxby (in brackets) we have: silver – 183,000 (58,000+); bronze – 417,000 (216,000+).

The King and Queen were given a suitably inscribed silver presentation case containing two gold medals and two specimen (proof?) silver dollars; each of the two Princesses were given the same except that the medals were silver. Prime Minister Mackenzie King received a set of three presentation medals and President Roosevelt one in gold.

It may be of interest to note the numbers of dies used to strike the various pieces: the silver dollar (188 obverse and 104 reverse dies); commercial silver medals (7 obverse, 7 reverse dies); commercial bronze medals ( 20 obverse, 24 reverse); school children’s medal (18 obverse, 62 reverse dies).

Then the festivities ended and the world faced nearly six years of total war.

Previously printed in the MICC Numismatic Journal Vol-02, Issue-03