One of the earliest Victoria Crosses ever awarded has been discovered in the mud of the River Thames.
Tobias Neto, a ‘mudlark’ – one of the amateur treasure hunters who search the mud of the Thames when the tide is out – discovered the rare medal in December 2015.
He reported the find to the Portable Antiquities Scheme and research began into who the medal could have belonged to.
“On the December 17, 2015, whilst detecting on my usual area (I prefer not to disclose the area) on the Thames foreshore, I came across what looked at first like a large brooch or medal, about three inches deep.” Tobias explained to Putney SW15.com.
“It was covered in mud. I kept it and carried on detecting. Only when I got home did I realise I had a VC medal in my hands - I could read the writing ‘For Valour’ below the crown.
“Eventually I noticed the date on the reverse: 5 NOV 1854."
The date has allowed Tobias and researchers from the Museum of London to narrow down candidates for the medal’s owner. The medal was awarded for actions in the Battle of Inkerman during the Crimean War. The battle was part of the Siege of Sevastopol, a decisive allied victory in the Crimean War.
A number of VC medals were awarded for the Battle of Inkerman, and the whereabouts of two of those medals are recorded as unknown.
Two men are thought to be the possible recipients of the medal: Private John McDermond, from the 47th (the Lancashire) Regiment and Private John Byrne from the 68th (Durham) Light Infantry.
John McDermond, a Scottish private, saved the life of Lieutenant Colonel O’Grady Haly who was injured and surrounded by enemy while leading a charge against an attacking Russian column. He was invalided out of the Army in 1862. Reports suggest before he died he was in the poorhouse and was then buried in an unmarked grave in Scotland.
The other candidate, John Byrne, was a 22-year-old Irish private. He earned his medal for successfully returning to rescue a wounded comrade under heavy fire after his regiment had been ordered to retire. After returning home from the war, John allegedly shot a man for insulting his VC. He then returned home and when confronted by the police, reportedly took his own life.
Tobias, who discovered the medal, told Putney SW15.com that he believes John Byrne to be the most likely candidate. “I discovered Sergeant John Byrne's burial place and decided to visit his headstone at the St Woolo's Cemetery, Newport, Wales.
“He's been from day one my number-one suspect and that was the main reason of my visit. I've always thought the medal belonged to him.”
The Victoria Cross is the United Kingdom’s highest award for valour. It was instituted by Queen Victoria in 1856 to recognise “those officers or men who have served Us in the presence of the Enemy and shall then have performed some signal act of valour or devotion to their country.”
There have been 1,355 recipients of the Victoria Cross since its institution. Tradition has it that all the Crosses are struck from metal derived from Russian cannon captured at Sevastopol, although recent tests suggest the metal used is Chinese in origin, and not Russian.
But how this particular medal ended up at the bottom of the Thames is another mystery which is yet to be solved.
Photo credit: Museum of London