Once Upon a Time . . .

This is the story of an inspirational long-distance runner who won two gold medals in 1908 and the memories rekindled by a detectorist digging in a Northamptonshire field in 2016. 

There are certain events in history that most of us can recollect. Although you may not remember the date, you will know something about the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in AD 79, the devastation that occurred, and the petrified town of Pompeii. The volcano has spewed lava many times since, but not many will remember the eruption of 1906. If that event hadn’t happened, this tale may have turned out a little differently, but like all good storytellers, I must start at the beginning.

The Coales Gold Cross-Country Medal

Preliminary information was relatively easy to determine for the medal was in good condition and marked MIDLAND COUNTIES CROSS COUNTRY ASSOC. 1908. The reverse has SENIOR CHAMPION and the hallmarks showing that was nine-carat gold fashioned by V&S of Birmingham in 1907. The medal was about 3” by 2” in height and weighed 21g.

Justin Owens and his wife Helen live in Coventry, have been detecting for about eight years and are members of the Coventry Heritage Detecting Society of which Helen was/is secretary. They often make the journey from their Warwickshire home to Northamptonshire to detect with the well-established Central Searchers group run by Richard and Gill Evans. It was on one of their digs that Justin found something interesting, which forms the catalyst for this story.

The dig was in the Brigstock area and Justin was wielding his Minelab E-Trac as usual. He tells me that he’d been swinging uneventfully for about four hours and found ‘nothing’ of note. In a deadpan voice he commented, “and then it happened. I suddenly heard a good signal … and at about three or four inches found gold”. 

Although I tried to elicit how he felt at the discovery, Justin was matter-of-fact and calmly stated that he showed it to Richard Evans who confirmed that he’d found a gold medal! And that’s where we really begin! So many column inches have been written about the finding of an object … this account is about what lies behind the find, the research undertaken, the history uncovered by diligent detectorists and a satisfactory conclusion.

Justin and Helen

Team Owen

The common phrase, ‘behind every great man there stands a great woman’, emphasises that Justin’s success depended quite a lot on the support of his wife, a fact which Justin readily acknowledges. Team Owens wanted to know more. As Helen is interested in family history her expertise in genealogy proved to be a bonus.

She found out that the makers of the medal were Vaughton & Sons (V&S) who are integral to this story and can still be found in Birmingham’s famous Jewellery Quarter. They were founded in 1819 and listed as ‘the business
of a Silversmith, Goldsmith and General Manufacturer.’ V&S made prestigious items such as the FA Cup and the 1908 Olympic medals … and the coin found by Justin, of course.

One of her first ports of call was the Cross Country Association who informed her that the owner of the medal was quite famous and, in addition to his running shoes, they had a few framed pictures of him. Helen didn’t stop there. She now had a name! William Coales … and was now on a roll. The Amateur Athletics Association (AAA) also confirmed the name. William was born in 1886 and died in 1960, aged 74 years.

Surprising Discovery-Gold Olympic Medal

A surprising discovery was that William was a long distance runner who competed in the 1908 London Olympics and won a gold medal in the men’s three-mile race team. That was his second gold medal of the year, the first being the medal found by Justin and awarded for opening the 1908 track season with a win in the Midland 10 miles championships, an award which undoubtedly led to his Olympic selection.

William’s Olympic Gold Medal- of 1908 – Courtesy of BNPS

Helen’s mission was now to try and find an ancestor, for Justin wished to reunite the medal with a member of the Coales family. With the help of the genealogy program Ancestry, she found a member of the family still living in the area in which the medal was found.

A confused and perplexed Gerald Coales, grandson of William, answered the telephone call and Justin explained what had happened and what he’d like
to do. They were attending a Central Searchers dig that weekend and arranged with Gerald to return his granddad’s medal, which they did.

Gerald was delighted to receive the medal, but was a little taciturn, although he did say that his granddad was a cattle farmer and lived in Brigstock, close to the find spot. Most of the family still lives in the area and the Olympic medal was eventually in the safe hands of Gerald’s sister.

Mission Accomplished

Well done to Helen for all the research and also to Justin for returning a gold medal to its rightful owners. The quality of being honest and having strong moral principles shows that Justin and Helen are detectorists of complete integrity and I’m pleased and privileged to have been chosen to tell their story.

Hey Mate – what about Vesuvius?

The London Olympics of 1908 should have been the Rome Olympics. In 1906 the Italian organisers were well behind with their preparations so, when Vesuvius erupted in April 1906 it changed matters.

It was with some relief that the Italian authorities announced they would have to devote the resources intended for the Olympics to the reconstruction of Naples and surrounding area. A new venue had to be found.

The City of London was invited by the International Olympic Committee to step into the breach and, despite the short notice, the Games were exceptionally well organised. All stadiums were completed and a shiny new complex known as White City was created.

The official poster of the 1908 Games was designed at a cost of just over £49.00, translating in modern terms to over £4,000 (in contrast to the £400,000 spent on the logo for the 2012 London Olympics.

If the Olympic venue hadn’t been changed, then William Coales may never have been near that field in Brigstock to lose his Midland Association medal. He probably lost it whilst attending his cattle.

Admission. I would never pass module 6 of the archaeologist’s course that deals with imaginative writing. But, you must admit the mere mention of Vesuvius attracted your attention in the beginning and added a little colour to the story … and it did have a connection, if only tenuous!

Originally a version of this blog was published in The Searcher magazine

5 thoughts on “TALE OF TWO GOLD MEDALS

  1. WOW!! That hardly covers it, John.. what a fantastic story; and an even better return.. I am so impressed with the amount of work it took to find an ancestor.

    To find that medal would almost be akin to finding a VC .. or close to it anyway.

    Thumbs up to the Owens clan for the return too


    Liked by 1 person

  2. Interesting story … applaud the effort to track down family … don’t you just love it when people quietly do the right thing .. well done to team Owen

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I enjoyed the gold medal story John, strange that a shortcut didn’t show up on FB here.
    I found this story after scrolling down after reading the button post.


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