One Man’s Story: The WWI Biography of Private Harry Vincent Brear by Seren Sehota

Here in the Numismatics department we have been working on tracking down the biographies for the recipients of the Great War medals in our collection. The overall drive for this research is to accumulate stories which are representative of World War One universal experiences for the 2014 exhibition. Occasionally this can lead to frustration and bottomless cups of tea, but every now and then we find a man whose story brings to mind the gospel praise of ‘Hallelujah’. Private Harry Vincent Brear, a Rifleman in the Prince of Wales’s Own West Yorkshire Regiment, 2/7th Battalion is a perfect archetype for a soldier in the Great War. In our collection, we have both an Allied Victory Medal and a British War Medal 1914-1918.

British War Medal 1914-1918 given to all officers.

YORCM: CA598 British War Medal 1914-1918 given to all soldiers who entered the theatre of war away from their residences between 5 August 1914-11 November 1918.

Pte. Brear lived a typical Northern life; he was born on the 6th of March 1882 in Halifax, Yorkshire to Harry Randal and Alice Brear seen here.

West Yorkshire England Births and Baptisms 1813-1910 Record for Pte. Brear (Taken from

West Yorkshire England Births and Baptisms 1813-1910 Record for Pte. Brear (Taken from

The 1901 census indicates that Pte. Brear’s father had passed away in the previous ten years leaving his wife and children behind. Pte. Brear married Dottie Susan Grace Chenhall at the age of 23 in 1905. The marriage licence shows that Harry Brear was a jeweller while his wife was a photographic assistant. Until the beginning of the war, Pte. Brear lived a fairly typical life. He was married in his early twenties to an educated woman and had no indication of warfare on his horizon; the life of a jeweller hardly fortells the life of a rifleman.

Marriage certificate from West Yorkshire Non-Conformist Records 1646-1985 (Taken from

Marriage certificate found in the West Yorkshire Non-Conformist Records 1646-1985 between Pte. Brear and Dottie Susan Grace Chenhall. (Taken from

The Census of England and Wales, 1911 indicates that he and Mrs. Brear had two sons, Harry James and John, and lived with his sister, Gladys Irene Brear. A lost child is also indicated but is not unusual for this time, around 20% of children died before reaching their first year. The couple would go on to have two more sons before Pte. Brear left for the Western Front.

Taken from

The 1911 Census of England and Wales for the Brear family (Taken from

Pte. Brear’s enlistment record has been lost along with thousands of others, most likely due to the burning of the WWI records during a German air raid in September of 1940. Pte. Brear’s life up to the war, and his regiment, indicate that he likely enlisted and trained in Yorkshire before being deployed to the continent for duty. Many enlisted in the troops in late 1914 and early 1915, and Pte. Brear was no exception.

The final record found for Pte. Brear was for the medal distribution, displaying his presumed death on the 10th of April 1917. His burial is located in Faubourg-d’Amiens Cemetery, Arras in Nord-Pas-de-Calais, France.

Medal distribution record for the Victory and British medals, as well as the date of death for Pte. Brear (Taken from

Medal distribution record for the Victory and British medals, as well as the date of death for Pte. Brear (Taken from

Faubourg-d’Amiens Cmetery, Arras (Taken from

Faubourg-d’Amiens Cemetery, Arras (Taken from

The records for Pte. Brear end here at his death at almost 35 years of age echoing his father’s early demise. In total during the Great War, 10 million soldiers died, about 1 million of whom came from the British Army, and half a million of those died in France and Flanders. Pte. Brear’s life is an excellent example of the typical soldier. He was born to a normal Yorkshire family, became a jeweller as an adult before marrying a woman of similar age and starting a family. Everything changed in August of 1914 when there was a call to arms which Harry Brear dutifully reported for in order to fight and die alongside over five hundred thousand of his fellow compatriots.

By examining the life of Rifleman Harry Vincent Brear, the broader themes for the First World War become quite clear. Most men who enlisted came from non-military backgrounds and lived normally, creating their own families and following professional aspirations. When Prime Minister Herbert Henry Asquith declared war on the German Empire in early August 1914, millions of British lives were overturned. Men from all over the country signed up for warfare, abandoning their families and their careers for the Western Front, some of whom never returned.

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Coins, Cheese and Charles I

‘An army marches on its stomach’ – Napoleon Bonaparte

The challenges of feeding an army were well known to Napoleon and we can imagine that they were equally relevant 150 years earlier when Charles I was engaged in war with Parliament during the English Civil War. How (and what!) the soldiers were fed is demonstrated in a number of fragmentary receipts which are within the Trust’s collection.


Gold Unite of Charles I (click for larger image)

These receipts were found as a part of the enormous Breckenbrough hoard. This hoard contained over 1552 silver coins in addition to 30 gold coins. One of the coins, a gold ‘Unite’ of Charles I is illustrated above. The hoard represents a huge accumulation of wealth, more than many would have seen in a lifetime. It was put it into the ground during the unrest of 1644 when Parliamentarian forces were active in Yorkshire, possibly in the period immediately before the Battle of Marston Moor. In a period before the advent of banks, a pot in the ground stuffed full of coins represented one of the more secure ways of burying your wealth.

Receipt for purchase of 10 1/2 stone of Cheese from 'Woodall Field'

Receipt for purchase of 10 1/2 stone of Cheese from ‘Woodall Field’ (click for larger image)

Hoards of civil war coins are not particularly unusual. We have others, such as those from Grewelthorpe and Middleham in our collection. What marks this hoard as very unusual is the fact that four fragments of paper were concealed alongside the coins. These fragments record the fact that John Guy, the ‘deputy provider general’ for the Royalist forces, had requisitioned 12 stone(!) of cheese to feed Charles’ army. These are dated to 17 January 1643 although this would be January 1644, as we would reckon it, given the different way we calculate dates. The date is visible at the top of each receipt and you may just be able to make out the curvy ’1643′ on the image below.

Receipt 2

Receipt for purchase of 1 1/2 stone of Cheese from ‘Brekenbrough’ (click for larger image)

So why would you include receipts alongside your coins? Well, it is perhaps best to think of them as ‘IOU’s. The king had taken the cheese to feed his army but had not yet paid for it. Whoever buried the hoard would have been able to claim payment for this whenever Charles won the war. The receipt were thus valuable commodities and were saved alongside the coins. Now we know that Charles did not win the war but it is likely that whoever buried the hoard did not think that they would be leaving it there for any length of time. It is likely that they were killed during the Civil War’s fighting and could not go back and dig up their wealth, leaving it to be found in modern times.

The grand total of 12 stone (about a medium size person) of cheese and the enormous pile of coins suggest that there was significant wealth in the region during the Civil War. Much of it was lost, gobbled up (literally or metaphorically) by competing armies or hoarded in the ground never to be seen again. The receipts show the human side of this war and also that cheese could be as valuable as coinage!

Receipt 1:
Dat’ 17 January 1643
Rec’ from Woodall Feild 10 stone
1/2 of Cheese for the use of

John Guy
Providere [gen]erall

Receipt 2:
dat’ 17 January 1643
Rec’ from Brekenbrough 1 stone
and 1/2 stone for the use of

John Guy deputie
Providere generall

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Travel Money

I have been working on a display which takes that loose change from your pocket and turns it into something much bigger over the past few months. The Yorkshire Museum has been host to a ‘travel money’ display featuring modern coins left by visitors from around the world. I have blogged about it previously  but the basic idea was that we asked visitors for a coin from their home country, if they were from overseas, or for locals to leave a coin from their holidays. The idea being that by adding all of these coins onto a large world map we would emphasize York’s connections across the planet.

The response has been excellent with over 200 coins from 72 different countries/states added. If you would like to see the list of places that we had a coin from then there is a list at the bottom of this blog but we covered over a third of all of the countries in the world. The display was also very nicely covered by a couple of newspapers who took the excellent photograph you see below.

Andrew Woods, curator of numismatics, with a coin from Hong Kong at the Yorkshire Museum

Travel Money display, with curator thrown in for good measure. Image is copyright York Press

The display was also noticeable for the range of countries represented. I was surprised at the breadth of places that came to be represented on the map. Everywhere from Kazakhstan to Costa Rica, by way of Ghana and Fiji, was present. This all occurred within two months of the display being launched.


Travel Money display in its final state (click for larger image)

It is also noticeable that the distribution of the coins quite closely mirrors human settlement and economic development. This is (crudely) visible if you compare the coins on our map with the stunning NASA map of light pollution from earth. You see similar concentrations in Europe, the East coast of North America and much of the Asian sub-continent. This was never something we set out to consider but it highlights the ability of a simple object such as a coin to tell those really big stories.

world at night

Nasa image of the earth at night (click for larger image)

Finally, as the display has come down today it is only fair for me to say a big ‘Thank You!’ to all those who left us a coin. We, quite literally, could not have done it without you.


Coins from the following countries were present at the end of the display:

Canada, USA, Mexico, Cuba, Cayman Islands, East Caribbean States, Barbados, Costa Rica, Venezuela, Argentina, Ecuador, Peru, Brazil, Chile, Falkland Islands, Iceland, Ireland, UK, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Spain, France, Netherlands, Switzerland, Germany, Austria, Czech Republic, Poland, Slovenia, Croatia, Hungary, Serbia, Malta, Greece, Bulgaria, Romania, Lithuania, Latvia, Ukraine, Turkey, Cyprus, Israel, Morocco, Egypt, Ghana, Ethiopia, Angola, Tanzania, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa, Russia, Kazakhstan, Pakistan, China, Japan, South Korea, Macau, Hong Kong, Thailand, Vietnam, Nepal, Malaysia, India, Philippines, Singapore, Australia, New Zealand, Fiji, Mauritius and the Maldives.

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Yorkshire Gold

Visitors to the Yorkshire Museum will have seen two Iron Age torcs (rings) on display. Adam Parker wrote about them recently and noted how we are trying to raise the £30,000 to keep them in the region. In his blog Adam, wrote about how rare Gold is in the region during the Iron Age. This is something that is very obvious when we look at where Iron Age coins are found.

Gold Iron Age Coin

Gold Iron Age Coin

In the period before the arrival of the Romans, Britain used a precious metal coinage.  The coins are quite unfamiliar to us today as they very seldom have a king, or queen’s, head on them. They also do not normally have any writing on them. More common are fairly stylised depictions of animals. In the image above, you may be able to see a horse with a triangular pointy nose on the left of the coin.

Map of Iron-Age tribes producing coins (C) Chris Rudd (

Map of Iron-Age tribes producing coins © Chris Rudd

The coins were usually made of gold or silver and they are quite large, some weigh up more than 5 grams! However, the coins were not produced by a national king but were instead made by many of the smaller tribes who existed at the time. You can see all of the different kingdoms in the map above. This map also makes it clear that coinage was not produced north of the Humber. This is likely to reflect a lack of gold in northern areas.

Map of Iron Coins on Portable Antiquities scheme database

Map of Iron Coins on Portable Antiquities Scheme database

You can see the shortage of gold when the places that coins are found are shown on a map. This map plots all of the data on the Portable Antiquities Scheme database which records finds made by members of the public across all of England. Again it is notable that the finds of gold Iron Age coins are largely restricted to the south and east. This is also reflected in York Museums Trust’s collection as we have only a very small number of Iron Age coins. The majority come from a single hoard, found in the East Riding and are visible as a part of our After the Ice exhibition. (A sneak peek is visible on the York Press’ website).

In sum, the torcs really are very unusual. That amount of gold was quite exceptional in this region at the time. So, if you are looking to see something truly special, please come to the Yorkshire Museum and take a look and, while you are at it, pop up to the top floor and see a very unusual coin hoard at the same time!

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Lava Coins

Every now and then an unusual object pops up in the stores. My science colleague, Stuart Ogilvy, recently showed me the below which is a coin set into lava. The coin has been pushed into the lava while it was still semi-molten but not hot enough to melt it. Further details about lava and coin are below (Science is written by Stuart and numismatics by me).

Dos centimos coin in lava

Dos centimos coin in lava

The lava is likely to come from Mount Vesuvius which is probably the most famous volcano in Europe. It lies 9 kilometres to the East of Naples. It is a stratovolcano 4,203 feet high and one of a string of volcanoes which form the Camanian volcanic arc. Due to its sub-crustal geology it has different volcanic rocks to several of the others. It is famous for having caused the destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum in 79A.D.

Vesuvius from Portici by Joseph Wright of Derby

Vesuvius from Portici by Joseph Wright of Derby

Garden of the Fugitives

Garden of the Fugitives, Pompeii

The volcano is a famous tourist destination and is visited by thousands every year. As a major part of the tourist industry in the area, many souvenirs are sold relating to the volcano. Everything from postcards to rocks and minerals. In the past when the volcano has erupted a curious type of souvenir was sold. Before the lava had cooled completely and was still relatively plastic a coin would be pressed into it. The resultant “lava coin” was then sold as a memento.

Dos Centimos coin

Dos Centimos coin

We have two examples of these in the collections. This example has a coin in it that can be identified as a Dos Centimos coin from Spain. Around the edge it is possible to read ‘QUINIENTAS PIEZAS EN KILOG’ and ‘DOS CENTIMOS’. This gives the denomination (two cents) and also notes that there should be 500 coins to one kilogram. The central image is a lion standing with its paw resting upon a shield.

The coin was struck in 1870 for the Spanish Provisional Government of 1868-73. This coinage immediately preceded Spain becoming a republic in 1873 and it is significant that the coin does not feature a king’s head, instead using an animal image. The coins were issued for only a short time and, as political circumstances changed, were soon replaced by other designs.

These coins were struck in very large numbers; over 115 million were issued in a very short time. They were made of bronze, were of light weight and low value; representing the everyday currency of the majority of those in Spain. They were of such low value that it is unlikely that they circulated beyond Spain itself. To find one at Vesuvius in southern Italy is quite unusual.

We will never know who pushed the coin but it seems possible that it may have been a souvenir for a Spanish visitor in the late-nineteenth century.  As far as holiday mementos go, it is certainly the most exciting I’ve ever seen!


A Numismatic World Tour

Every year, the Yorkshire Museum plays host to visitors from all around the world. Similarly, local people visit a number of exotic places. Take a walk through the middle of York on a busy day and you will probably bump into people who have visited every continent and some of the most far flung places on earth. Our new ‘Travel Money’ display is designed to emphasize these links by considering an everyday symbol of this, the small change that you bring back in your pocket or purse.

Numismatic World Map

Travel Money world map

Having been on holiday, returning with a handful of small change is something common to many people. The coins provide a link back to the sunny beaches or exciting history of foreign lands. If you are visiting York then the chances are that, in much the same way, you will have a small number of coins from home with you, providing a link back to something familiar. We will be demonstrating this with our display which mounts coins from all over the world onto a large map. We are asking for donations from visitors – a coin from a trip or home – which we will then add to our map. This will build a picture of where people have come from and York’s connection to the rest of the world.

Numismatic Map (Europe)

European coins

The other purpose of this display is to highlight the enormous variation amongst coins around the world. Coins are used in every country on the planet but they are very different across various parts of the world. Some coins from Norway have holes in the centre, those from the Middle East have Arabic writing while those from Hong Kong are almost spiky to the touch. Putting them next to one another highlights the diversity of what many people consider to be quite mundane objects. It also shows how beautiful they can be. Certain countries have really lovely coins, I particularly like the 50c piece from Australia with Kangaroo holding a crest (see below).

Australian coins

Australian coins

The display is an interactive one and relies upon visitors leaving a coin or two. I have been really pleased at the reaction so far. When I have been adding coins, the interest and generosity of people has been inspiring. In an hour yesterday, I had Chinese, Spanish and Australian coins given to me to add to the display. It was a lot of fun to add them while the visitors were watching. They could see their contribution making a difference before their eyes.

If you would like to come and take a look, or have some coins from your travels, then come to the Yorkshire Museum. The small change in your pocket has the potential to show York’s links around the world.

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