‘A proud, gratifying day’

Her Majesty the Queen, mounted on horseback and dressed in a scarlet riding coat with a gold General’s sash across her shoulder, was led by a long cortege of distinguished officers from the gates of Buckingham Palace. Victoria was accompanied on the one side by her husband, Prince Albert - appearing for the first time in public with the title of ‘Prince Consort’ - and on the other by Prince Wilhelm, soon to be married to their eldest daughter and one day to be Emperor of Prussia. The rest of the royal party followed behind, as the procession made its way through cheering crowds to Hyde Park for the most impressive military review and the most moving military ceremony London had yet seen.

People had been gathering in Hyde Park since before 7am that morning and were forced, as the day drew on, to wait patiently under a burning sun - the heat only became more and more intense and the atmosphere was close and stifling. A public gallery had been set up, which could hold some 7,000 persons, but demand for tickets was said to have exceeded 20,000, leaving many requests still unopened in their envelopes. On the Queen’s own order, the day had been organised so that as many people as possible could witness it, though in the event anyone who had a view was lucky, and the crowds outside the gallery were in places some thirty to forty persons deep.

The public gallery was almost full by 9am. At 9.30, the troops arrived in their columns, and as each unit took up its position it received a great cheer from the crowd. And then, near to 10am, 62 officers and men, who were that day to receive the newly-created Victoria Cross, marched in a single file across the park to where the Queen was to present their decorations, and there they stood waiting in a single row. ‘Their appearance,’ reported The Times, ‘created a deep sensation, and well it might, for upon a more distinguished band of soldiers the public have never yet gazed.’

The crosses themselves lay on a small table near to the dais from which it was intended that the Queen would make the presentations. The metal from which the crosses were made was in itself valueless, mere bronze reportedly taken from canon captured at Sebastopol (Sevastopol) during the Crimean War. The value of each cross was to come not from any precious material but from the valiant act of the one who was awarded it - on each cross, together with the recipient’s details, were engraved the words ‘For Valour’.

There then came the thunder of the royal salute given by the guns of the artillery, heralding the arrival of the royal party itself. As they approached the troops, the whole force presented arms and lowered colours, and the bands played the national anthem. ‘The effect of this salute,’ said The Times, ‘was grand and impressive beyond all description.’

The Queen noted in her journal that she was pleased to see in command of the troops Sir Colin Campbell, the tried Scottish veteran of nearly fifty years who had recently commanded a division in the Crimean War and was shortly to be in overall command of the largest British army to march in India. The royal party rode slowly down the front ranks of the whole of the long line, and then the Queen made ready to present the awards.   

To some surprise, the Queen did not take her place on the dais but remained on horseback for the entire ceremony. The awards took place simply and swiftly in a mere ten minutes. The recipients passed before the Queen in a single file, and as each recipient advanced, his name and corps were read out, and the Queen leaned down and pinned on him the Victoria Cross, saying only a few words to each. But of the sixty-two to whom she gave the VC that day, she mentioned only three by name in her journal, expressing her particular pleasure at giving the decoration to these three.

The first was Lieutenant Hewett and the second Lieutenant Knox. The reason she made particular mention of them is clear from her own account: the details of Hewett’s valiant act with a Lancaster gun and Knox’s rise from the ranks had brought each one to her attention. But in the case of the third, William Coffey, she gives no clue as to why she singles him out, saying no more than that she had seen him on a previous occasion. She concludes her account of the whole day as follows:

I was glad ... to give the ‘Victoria Cross’ ... to Corporal Coffey, of the 34th:, whom I had seen at Aldershot. - Got back at 12, & stopped for a moment below, with Mama, Aunt Cambridge, Mary, & all the children. It was indeed a most proud, gratifying day.


But what more is there to discover about William Coffey?