The rise of the suicide story

But if Coffey died in this way at Stonegravels in the vicinity of Chesterfield, how did the story of his suicide at Sheffield originate and gain such wide credence?

Coffey’s only surviving daughter would seem to be the source of this account of his death. However, Margaret seems to have had little contact with her father. When William left India, Margaret was three years old and had been adopted by William and Mary Dowd. She may not even have seen her father since his move to Kasauli to convalesce nearly a year before. Margaret then remained with the Dowds and travelled with them when the 82nd left India for Aden (today in the Yemen, but then governed as part of India) in 1869 and arrived in England in 1870.

At first she lived with the Dowds at Cambridge Barracks in Portsmouth. Then, at the end of May 1871, her stepfather was appointed as a drummer in the Royal London Militia, which was based at the Finsbury Barracks on City Road, London. After Dowd died of tuberculosis at their home in Tabernacle Square in 1873, Margaret’s stepmother married a local shoemaker named Edward William Wood. At the age of sixteen, in 1881, Margaret was living with her stepmother and new stepfather in Castle Street, again in the City Road area. She had found work as a maker of Valentine’s cards, almost certainly with the Brown family who were neighbours and worked as ‘fancy stationers’.

Margaret married William Mortimer Gaine in 1889, giving her occupation as ‘fancy stationer’ and her father’s name as ‘William Coffey VC (deceased)’. So she certainly knew her father’s name, that he had been awarded the Victoria Cross, and that he was dead. But what more did she know about him? Perhaps very little. She did not inherit his VC or his medals - if Coffey had not sold them, they would surely have been inherited and sold by his widow. Perhaps Coffey’s daughter never even had a photograph of him - no photograph was handed down in her family, as far as I know, and so it may be that no photograph of Coffey survives at all.

Her story of her mother’s death at sea while the family was returning from India is clearly disproved by both the regimental and church records of her death at Mian Meer. The story of her mother’s death is also contradicted by the fact that Margaret returned to Britain not with the Coffeys but with the Dowds. Equally she seems to have had no certain knowledge of how her father died.

It seems likely, though, that she was told of or overheard, but misunderstood, something of an incident that had taken place at her fathers barracks in Aberystwyth in the June of 1874. Among the other staff sergeants was an Irishman named Thomas Walsh. He was about the same age as William Coffey and had also given twenty-one years service in the army, including at Sebastopol and in India. Walsh had joined the Royal Cardigan Milita on 15 February 1873 as a sergeant, but proved unable to fulfil his duties on account of addiction to alcohol.

On 5 June 1874 Walsh was arrested, while, unknown to him, steps were being taken to arrange for his discharge. The next morning, another sergeant saw a stream of blood under his door. He knocked and, when there was no answer, entered and found Walsh lying dead on the floor with a rifle between his legs with its muzzle pointing at his head, which was shattered on one side and covered in congealed blood. The sergeant ran to fetch help, which came in the form of the Quartermaster Sergeant and William Coffey.

According to the Aberystwyth Observer, it was Coffey and the Quartermaster Sergeant who after ascertaining that life was utterly extinct, communicated the melancholy intelligence to the adjutant ... and to the police authorities. An inquest was held that afternoon, which returned a verdict of suicide under temporary insanity. A Catholic funeral service was held that evening, where the coffin was followed to the grave by the staff-sergeants and a few of their wives. Walsh himself had been unmarried.

The story of Walshs suicide was reported in the national as well as local press. Coffeys daughter and her stepmother may also have heard about it through contact with the Royal London Militia, with whom William Dowd had served until his death in 1873. It may have been that Margaret, who would only have been nine years old at the time of Walshs suicide and ten at the time of Coffeys death, had somehow become confused, and believed that her own father had killed himself.

But however Margaret came to believe that her father had taken his own life, her children and grandchildren learned from her the story of William Coffeys suicide. Sooner or later this was imagined to have taken place at the barracks on City Road, London, where William Dowd had served. Probably Margarets children confused stories about her father and her stepfather. And so Coffey’s descendants came to imagine that he had served in the barracks where William Dowd had served, and they believed that it was there that he had taken his own life. It was only later that the scene of the suicide was transferred again, this time from London to Sheffield.