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
while the family was returning from India is clearly disproved by both
regimental and church records of her death at Mian Meer. The story of
mother’s death is also contradicted by the fact that Margaret returned
Britain not with the Coffeys but with the Dowds. Equally she seems to
no certain knowledge of how her father died.
It seems likely,
though, that she was told of or overheard, but misunderstood, something
an incident that had taken place at her father’s 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
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,
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
Walsh’s suicide was reported in the national as well as local
Coffey’s 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
Walsh’s suicide and ten at the time of Coffey’s 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 Coffey’s suicide. Sooner or later this was imagined to have taken place at the barracks on City Road, London, where William Dowd had served. Probably Margaret’s 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.