History of the Victoria Cross
The Victoria Cross (VC), the highest award for gallantry, was instituted in January 1856 but was made retrospective to 1854 to cover the Crimean War. The first VC was awarded to C. D. Lucas on 21 June 1854, Mate on HMS Hecla during the Crimean War.
Of the 1355 VCs awarded to date (June 2004), 119 have been awarded to personnel of the Royal Navy, Royal Naval Reserve, Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve, Royal Marines, Royal Naval Air Service and the Fleet Air Arm. The last naval VC was awarded in 1945.
The medals are cast in bronze taken from one of the Russian guns captured during the Crimean War. The medal has the Royal Crest in its centre and underneath a scroll bearing the words 'For Valour'. The date of the act of bravery is engraved on the reverse side of the cross and the recipient's name is engraved on back of the clasp. Originally the ribbon was blue for the Royal Navy and red for the Army, but with the inception of the Royal Air Force in 1918, the ribbon was changed to red for all services.
VC holders (A–H)
Rear-Admiral Charles Lucas 1834–1914, Crimean War
The first naval Victoria Cross was awarded to Charles Lucas while serving as a Mate on HMS Hecla in 1854. On the outbreak of the Crimean War with Russia in 1854, the British Fleet under Admiral Napier was sent to the Baltic in March of that year with orders to bombard the coastal fortresses, one of which was Bomarsund guarding the entrance to the Gulf of Bothnia.
Captain W H Hall, commanding the Hecla, sailed her, accompanied by two paddle steamers, through the narrow channel to Bomarsund and commenced bombardment of the fort where the Russians were sheltering. During the action, a live shell from an enemy battery landed on the deck of the Hecla, its fuse still hissing – Charles Lucas with what was described as 'great coolnes and presence of mind' ran forward, picked up the shell and threw it overboard whereupon it exploded on hitting the water. Due to Lucas's quick thinking no-one was killed or seriously injured. He was immediately promoted to Acting-Lieutenant and his Victoria Cross was gazetted in the first list of 24 February 1857. His was, therefore, the first act of bravery to qualify for a Victoria Cross. The medal was presented to him by Queen Victoria on 26 June 1857.
Charles Lucas was born in Ulster in 1834 and entered the Navy in 1848, rising to the rank of Rear-Admiral on the retired list in 1885. He died on 7 August 1914 at Great Culverson near Tunbridge Wells and is buried at Mereworth near Maidstone.
The Museum also holds the following medals awarded to Rear-Admiral Lucas:
- India General Service Medal Bar Pegu 1852
- Baltic War Medal 1854–55
- Royal Humane Society Life-saving Medal
Vice-Admiral Sir William Nathan Wrighte Hewett 1834–1888, Crimean War
William Hewett was also awarded the Victoria Cross for services during the Crimean War. In 1854, he was serving as Acting Mate on HMS Beagle but was commanding a Naval Brigade that was manning a battery at Sebastopol. With a Lancaster gun Hewett fought off the Russians who were advancing towards the battery until the Russians retreated. He had received an order from his commanding officer to fall back but apparently shouted: 'Retire? Retire and be damned! Fire!'
It was for this exploit and for further bravery during the battle of Inkerman, that he received the Victoria Cross.
William Hewett entered the Navy in 1847 as a First Class Volunteer and rose to the rank of Vice-Admiral in 1884. He retired from the Navy in 1888 and died the same year. He is buried in Highland Road Cemetery, Portsmouth.
The Museum also hold the following medals awarded to Vice-Admiral Hewett:
- Crimean War Medal
- Turkish Crimean Medal
- Crimean Medal 'Al Valore'
- India General Service Medal
- Ashanti Medal 1873–74
- Egypt Medal 1882
- Khedive Star 1882
- Order of Mejidieh 4th Class
- Legion of Honour 5th Class
Captain Sir William Peel 1824–1858, Crimean War
Captain Peel was awarded the Victoria Cross for three separate acts of gallantry during the Crimean War. He too was present at the siege of Sebastopol commanding a Brigade when a live Russian shell landed among the Brigade's ammunition wagon. Peel picked up the shell with the fuse fizzing and threw it over the parapet – the shell burst as it left his hands. He was present at the battle of Inkerman, 5 November 1854 where he helped some officers of the Grenadier Guards retreat by warning them of a Russian advance, and finally on 18 June 1855 he led the first scaling party to attack the fortress of the Redan at Sebastopol where he was severely wounded.
William Peel was born on 2 November 1824, the third son of the Prime Minister, Sir Robert Peel. He entered the Navy in 1838 as a First Class Volunteer and died in 1858 from smallpox having been wounded at the Second Relief of Lucknow during the Indian Mutiny. He had been awarded a CB in 1855 and was created a KCB in 1858.
Boatswain John Sheppard 1817–1884, Crimean War
In 1855, Sheppard planned to paddle into Sebastopol Harbour by night, fix an explosive with a time fuse to the hull of a Russian warship and then escape – he had invented a type of canvas duck punt for this purpose. He made two attempts without success but was mentioned in despatches and gazetted for the VC in 1857.
John Sheppard is first recorded in the Navy in 1840 as an Ordinary Seaman. He retired with the rank of Boatswain First Class in 1870. He died 17 December 1884 and is buried in Padstow Cemetery.
The Museum also holds the following medals awarded to John Sheppard:
- Medal for Conspicuous Gallantry
- Baltic Medal 1854–55
- Crimean Medal, one bar Sebastopol
- Badge of the Legion d' honneur
- Sardinian Medal 'Al Valore Militare'
- Turkish Medal for the Crimea
- China Medal, bar Canton 1857
Captain Thomas Young 1827–1869, India Mutiny
Lieutenant Young took part in the Relief of Lucknow on 17 November 1857. Lieutenant Young was commanding a group of sailors in the Naval Brigade from HMS Shannon who were attempting to breach the walls of the Shah Nujeff mosque. The mosque was being held by the mutineers who caused heavy casualties among the sailors until only Lieutenant Young and Able-Seaman Hall, a member of one of the gun crew were left, the rest being killed or wounded. Lieutenant Young took the last gunner's place and between them, he and Hall loaded and fired the gun. The mosque was finally captured three hours later. Both Young and Hall received the Victoria Cross.
Captain Young was born in 1827 and entered the Navy c.1840. He was promoted Captain on 11 April 1866 and died in Caen in France where he is buried in 1869.
The Museum also holds the following medals awarded to Thomas Young:
- Crimean War Medal
- Turkish Crimean Medal
- Order of Medjidie, 5th Class
- Indian Mutiny Medal, bar Relief of Lucknow
Petty Officer John Harrison 1832–1865, India Mutiny
John Harrison also won his Victoria Cross at the Shah Nujeff mosque in 1857. At the time he was a Leading Seaman serving with the Naval Brigades when volunteers were asked for to climb a tree near the mosque in order to reconnoitre the enemy's position and to try to dislodge the mutineers who were throwing grenades down upon the gun crew of the Naval Brigades. Harrison, a Lieutenant and an Able Seaman volunteered. They succeeded in this dangerous mission but the seaman was killed and the Lieutenant, Nowell Salmon, who was also awarded the VC was wounded in the thigh.
John Harrison was born in 1832 and entered the Navy as a Boy Second Class in 1850. He was promoted to Boatswain's Mate and Petty Officer in 1858. He was discharged from the Navy in 1859 and died on 27 December 1865.
The Museum also holds the following medals awarded to John Harrison:
- Baltic Medal 1854–55
- Crimean War Medal 2 bars Azoff, Sebastopol
- India Mutiny Medal Bar Lucknow
- China Medal
- Turkish Crimean Medal
VC holders (I–Z)
Able-Seaman Edward Robinson 1838–1896, Indian Mutiny
At Lucknow on 13 March, some sandbags on top of earthworks caught fire. Able-Seaman Robinson, despite being under heavy fire from the enemy, jumped up and extinguished the fire. He was severely wounded and knocked unconscious but was dragged back to safety. He was awarded the Victoria Cross in 1858.
Edward Robinson was born in 1839 and entered the Navy as a Boy Second Class in 1852. He was invalided out of the Navy in 1858 and died in 1893. He is buried in Old Windsor Cemetery
The Museum also holds the India Mutiny Medal with Lucknow and Relief of Lucknow bars awarded to Edward Robinson.
Petty Officer Thomas Pride 1835–1893, Shimonoseki, Japan
In 1864, the Japanese decided to close the Shimoneseki Straits to foreign shipping and any ships that tried to sail through the straits were fired on. HMS Euryalus led an international squadron out to Japan to bombard the Japanese batteries. On 6 September Thomas Pride was one of two colour sergeants accompanying Midshipman Boyes from the Euryalus in carrying the Queen's Colour into action against the enemy. They kept the flag flying although they were under heavy fire which killed the other colour sergeant and severely wounded Thomas Pride. Both Boyes and Pride were presented with the Victoria Cross in Portsmouth on 22 September 1865.
Thomas Pride was born in 1835 and entered the Navy in 1854. He was discharged from the Navy in 1866 and died in 1893. He is buried in Branksome, Dorset.
The Museum also hold the following medal awarded to Thomas Pride:
- China War Medal 1857–1860
Captain Ronald Neil Stuart RNR, 1886–1954
Lieutenant Stuart was serving on the Q-ship HMS Pargust in 1917 when the ship was attacked by a U-boat. Q-ships posed as defenceless merchant ships (they were in fact fitted with concealed armament) to tempt U-boats to the surface to attack; sometimes a 'panic party' was employed to deceive the U-boat crew into thinking the ship was being abandoned, when some of the crew would leave the ship, a few disguised as women, carrying a stuffed parrot for added verisimilitude. While the U-boat closed in to attack, the remaining crew on board the Q-ship would open fire.
On 7 June 1917, a U-boat fired a torpedo at the Pargust. A panic party was sent away and the U-boat closed in. When she was about 50 yards from the Pargust, her commander gave the order to fire and the submarine was blown out of the water. The Victoria Cross was awarded to the whole ship: the men were allowed to nominate one officer and one rating by ballot to receive the medal and Lieutenant Stuart and Seaman William Williams were chosen.
Ronald Neil Stuart was born in 1886 and was the son, grandson and great grandson of seamen. His father was a master mariner and the family lived in Liverpool where Stuart attended Shaw Street College. He went to sea as an apprentice in 1902 on board the barque Kirkhill and later joined the Allan Line which was taken over by Canadian Pacific in 1915. Stuart became a probationary Sub-Lieutenant Royal Naval Reserve in 1914 and was promoted to Lieutenant in 1916. He commanded the destroyer HMS Opossum and in 1917 was awarded the United States Navy Cross while commanding the Q-ship Tamarisk. He had come to the aid of the US destroyer Cassin after she had been torpedoed by a U-boat towing her back to harbour. Stuart was promoted Lieutenant Commander RNR in 1918.
After the war, he returned to work for the Canadian Pacific Line but still remained an officer in the RNR and was promoted to Captain in 1935. He retired from CPR in 1951 where he had risen to the rank of Commodore in 1934. He became general manager of the company from 1938 until his retirement. Captain Stuart died in 1954.
The Museum also holds the following medals awarded to Captain Stuart:
- Distinguished Service Order
- Reserve Officers' Decoration
- 1914–15 Star
- British War Medal
- Victory Medal
- George VI Coronation Medal
- Elizabeth II Coronation Medal
- Navy Cross USN awarded to Captain Stuart.
Rear-Admiral Claude Congreve Dobson, 1885–1940
In 1919, months after the end of WWI, Great Britain was officially still at war with the revolutionary regime in Russia. On the 18 August, Dobson led eight fast Coastal Motor Boats from a base in the Gulf of Finland on a daring raid into Kronstadt Harbour where they sank two Bolshevik battleships and a submarine depot ship. For gallantry on the 'Scooter Raid' as it was called, Commander Dobson and one of his Lieutenants, Gordon Steele, were both awarded the Victoria Cross.
Rear-Admiral Dobson was born in 1885 and entered the Royal Navy in 1899 and served until his retirement in 1935. He was promoted to Rear-Admiral on the retired list in 1936 and died in 1940.
The Museum also holds the following medals awarded to Rear-Admiral Dobson:
- Distinguished Service Order,
- 1914–15 Star
- British War Medal 1914–18
- Victory Medal (with oak leaf for Mention in Despatches)
- Coronation Medal 1937
Able-Seaman W A Savage, 1912–1942
William Savage was awarded the Victoria Cross posthumously for his part in the St Nazaire Raid of 1942. The citation read:
For great gallantry, skill and devotion to duty as gunlayer of the pom-pom in a Motor Gun Boat in the St Nazaire Raid. Completely exposed, and under heavy fire, he engaged positions ashore with cool and steady accuracy. On the way out of the harbour he kept up the same vigorous and accurate fire against the attacking ships, until he was killed at his gun.
London Gazette 21 May 1942
William Alfred Savage was born in 1912 and worked for a brewery until he was called up in 1939. He joined the Navy and was rated Able-Seaman a year later.
The Museum also holds the following medals awarded to Able-Seaman Savage:
- Atlantic Star
- 1939–1945 Star
- War Medal
- John Winton, The Victoria Cross at Sea (M Joseph, 1978) 355.134.22(42)
- Register of the Victoria Cross (This England, 1988) 355.134.22(42)
Naval Victoria Crosses in other museum collections
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For general research help see:
- Research guide A2: Principal records for maritime research at the National Maritime Museum
- Research guide A3: Tracing family history from maritime records
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