A MEDAL was found amid the mud of the Thames just before Christmas 2015, and it could well be the first Victoria Cross to be awarded to a member of the Durham Light Infantry.
“It was found on the foreshore,” says Kate Sumnall, the Finds Liaison Officer at the Museum of London. “There’s sand down there, there’s stones, there’s a great deal of rubbish, there’s all the archaeology remains of boats and fishtraps and dragways, there’s clay pipes, medieval pottery and Roman pottery all exposed by the Thames as it goes in and out.”
And among the debris, detectorist Tobias Neto found a VC inscribed on the rear with the date, November 5, 1854 – which was the day Pte John Byrne rescued a fallen colleague from in front of Russian guns at the Battle of Inkerman.
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Byrne, an Irishman, was a member of the 68th Regiment of Foot, which had been raised by Major-General John Lambton of Lambton Castle in County Durham from 1758. Lambton was the MP for Durham City from 1762 to 1787, so even though the regiment didn’t become known as the Durham Light Infantry until the Army reforms of 1881, it had a very strong link with the county from its earliest days.
The VC was instituted after the Crimean War, of which the Battle of Inkerman was a part, to recognise men of all ranks who showed the “most conspicuous bravery, or some daring or pre-eminent act of valour or self-sacrifice, or extreme devotion to duty in the presence of the enemy”.
The medals themselves were cast from the bronze of two cascabels – or cannons – captured from the Russians at Sebastopol and melted down. Even today, VCs are made from the same metal from the cannons and by the same company, Hancocks, which was Queen Victoria’s favourite jewellers.
When the Museum of London received the found medal, its first task was to ensure that it was not a forgery. It did this by comparing the composition of its metal to that of the bronze from the captured cannons (the captured cannons, incidentally, may have originated in China, so the composition of their metal is highly distinctive).
“We can’t yet say 100 per cent,” says Kate. “There’s room for error but it probably is a genuine VC.” The results of X-ray Fluorescence tests on the metal are due soon which, hopefully, will increase the certainty.
Queen Victoria awarded 111 VCs to men for their bravery after the Crimean War had ended. If a man had been especially brave on two or more occasions, both dates were noted on his citation – even though only one date was inscribed on his medal.
Kate’s research has found that during the Battle of Inkerman, there were 22 acts of bravery that were rewarded with VCs dated November 5, 1854.
Of those 22, ten VCs are in public collections and ten more are in private collections, which means that two are missing. John Byrne’s is one of them; the other belongs to Pte John McDermond, of the 47th Regiment of Foot, who rescued a colonel at Inkerman.
Therefore, it looks like there is a 50-50 chance that the found medal belongs to Byrne. But how could it have ended up in the Thames?
“I have been trying to place one of those two men in London and I haven’t really come up with a satisfactory explanation,” says Kate.
The Queen handed out the first VCs in Hyde Park on June 26, 1857, but Byrne was abroad with his regiment and was presented with his VC on July 22, 1857, by Major-General Sir George Buller on the island of Corfu.
However, Byrne’s life was troubled – his story was told more fully in the special DLI supplement which appeared with The Northern Echo on Tuesday. In 1872, after 21 years’ service, he left the Army and joined the 2nd North Durham Militia, probably at Gilesgate. He lasted just a couple of months before being booted out for “insubordination and highly improper conduct”, probably involving drinking, and the next seven years of his life are lost in a haze.
But in 1879 he resurfaced in Newport in south Wales, working as a labourer. On July 10, he arrived for work ten minutes late, became embroiled in an argument with a 19-year-old lad whom he claimed had insulted his VC and so he shot him in the shoulder. Byrne – who may in modern terms have been suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder – returned to his lodgings and shot himself fatally through the mouth.
SAD SUICIDE: How The Northern Echo of July 16, 1879, reported the death of Sgt John Byrne
Such a story was well reported nationally – even The Northern Echo carried a lurid paragraph. “In one of the newspaper accounts of his death, it is said he threw the medal on the landlady’s table, which suggests he had it with him immediately before he committed suicide,” says Kate.
However, she continues: “I have made contact with a researcher in County Cork who is looking into Byrne and there’s a family history that he got into a fight in a pub in London and allegedly struck a man. The man fell back, struck his head and subsequently died, and in remorse Byrne threw his medal into the river. How much can that story be trusted?”
Is it just spooky coincidence that the family story – perhaps set in Byrne’s hazy days when he might have been in London – foresaw the discovery of a medal in the Thames, or was that one newspaper right that Byrne had the medal with him at his death?
“And then there’s a third option,” says Kate, suddenly. “After the medal featured in our exhibition, someone got in touch with me to tell me about Anthony Palmer, a private in the Grenadier Guards, who had his medal stolen in a bar brawl in London and requested a replacement from Queen Victoria, which she granted.”
Palmer, whose VC is in the Guards museum, won his medal at Inkerman for bravely attacking a sandbag battery and saving a major. Could the one in the mud be connected to him, or could it belong to our man Byrne?
“It may be that we never know,” says Kate. “It is a mystery, and it may remain the mysterious VC.”
Therefore, the only medal that was definitely owned by Byrne is the New Zealand campaign medal which is now in the DLI Collection and which features in the new exhibition on Palace Green, Courage, Comrades and Community. Byrne fought with the regiment against the Maoris at the Battle of Te Ranga on June 21, 1864, when an opponent grabbed his rifle and set about him with an axe. Sgt John Murray had to hack his way through eight Maoris to rescue him. Murray received a VC for his bravery, and Byrne the Distinguished Conduct Medal.