Questionable ‘facts’ about William Coffey

A discovery through the internet that other people had been researching my ancestor sparked off my own interest, which led me to contact the museum at Carlisle Castle and look for published material about Coffey.

Older books yielded little else other than the bare details of his act of valour at Sebastopol in the Crimean War. Further information, such as dates and places for his birth and death, first appeared in The Register of the Victoria Cross (1981, revd. 1988), and then in an article by Brian Clark in The Irish Sword (1986). While Clark gave Coffeys date and place of birth as 26 August 1829 in Hospital, Knocklong, Limerick, Ireland, the Register had given it as 5 August 1829 at Knocklong, Co. Limerick.

The latter date I discovered to have been calculated by Canon W. M. Lummis from a misreading of an army enlistment roll supplied to Lummis by a researcher back in 1971. At enlistment Coffey had given his age as 17 years 10 months, but this was misread as 17 years 111 days, leading to this incorrect date of birth being given in almost every recent book that mentions Coffey. Clarks date seems to be just the result of another miscalculation or a copying error - it too is incorrect.

age WO 67/14

According to both publications, Coffey died on 13 July 1875. However, while family tradition had said that he died in barracks in London, the Register placed his death in Chesterfield, Derbyshire, and Clark then placed it in Sheffield, Yorkshire, some miles to the north. Clark also added the detail that Coffey [s]hot himself in Army Drill Hall. Finally, Ian S. Hallows, in his Regiments and Corps of the British Army (1991), inexplicably gave Coffey a completely different year of death - 1891!

But of more recent publications, the fullest account was given by Nigel McCrery in his For Conspicuous Gallantry: A Brief History of the Recipients of the Victoria Cross from Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire (1990), but this regrettably turned out to make further problems. For example, McCrery tries to be more precise about Coffey’s birthplace, saying that he was born in ‘Conlay Hospital’ at Knocklong. But there was in fact no such hospital at Knocklong! ‘Conlay’ is just a misreading of ‘Emlay’(Emly), the parish which Coffey gave as his place of birth on enlisting, and ‘Hospital’ is nothing other than the name of the nearest town and not a hospital at all! Again, the misreading of ‘Emlay’ goes back to information tentatively supplied to Canon Lummis in 1971 - the researcher in fact admits that he could not ‘read the word before Hospital’.

'Conlay'/'Emlay' WO 67/14

But that is not all that McCrery gets wrong. When it comes to Coffey’s death, McCrery, like Clark, has him die in Sheffield, adding the detail that it took place on City Road, even though Sheffields City Road was at that time known by another name. And so McCrery concludes Coffey’s story by saying that he committed suicide ‘at the Army Drill Hall, City Road, Sheffield’. But though this Drill Hall is another place that never in fact existed, McCrery says that, soon after Coffey’s final discharge from the army, he had been employed there as a sergeant instructor with the Sheffield militia on account of his military experience!

Now William Coffey was certainly buried in Chesterfield, and McCrery recounts how his unmarked grave was discovered by one Margaret Pratt, who then arranged for the setting up of a headstone by the Border Regiment. However, it was also Margaret Pratt who in the late 1960s, together with Canon Lummis, was responsible for beginning proper research into the life of William Coffey. 

After the purchase of the original VC in 1968, the regiment had wished to obtain further information about Coffey’s later career in the army, and it was Canon Lummis and Margaret Pratt who provided details from their researches. Each died, however, with their work unfinished, and it was their notes which ended up providing the regimental museum’s information, as well as basic guides for all subsequent work on Coffey, including Clarks and McCrery’s. 

Margaret Pratt’s notes said that Coffey was married twice, first to Margaret Linch in Scotland and later to a Margaret Dowd in India, making Margaret Dowd the mother of Coffey’s daughter. This was a puzzle in itself because she only had documentary evidence for the first marriage to Margaret Linch. There was no record of this second marriage, although she had been told by a grandson of Coffey’s that Coffey’s daughter was born to William’s second wife. So there would then be a further puzzle: If Coffey married again, what had become of his first wife? My own investigations, however, were to reveal that this putative second wife, Margaret Dowd, never even existed.

Margaret Pratt also provided the regiment with an outline of Coffey’s movements after 1868, according to the pension districts in which he was registered. He lived first in Pembroke in the Cardiff District, before transferring to the Shrewsbury District in 1869 and then finally to the Sheffield District in 1875, the year of his death. These movements helped to give the impression of a man who found himself unable to settle after leaving the army, eventually taking his own life.

Though I have read Canon Lummis’s file at the National Army Museum and the file at the Imperial War Museum, I have not had the benefit of seeing Margaret Pratt’s work for myself, but have seen notes made from it by another researcher, Doug Porter, who also was sadly to die before publishing his work on Coffey. But Doug Porter was able to see that while some of Margaret Pratt’s notes made reference to the story of Coffey’s suicide, other parts of her archive offered weighty evidence against it.

For my own part, the more I looked into the history of William Coffey the more I found myself not only dissatisfied with the telling of Coffey’s story to date, but also very sceptical about the value of my own family’s traditions concerning him.