So who was William Coffey?

So, in conclusion, what is there to know about William Coffey? He was an Irishman who entered a traditional occupation at a time of famine, death and disease. He soon excelled in his chosen career. He then married his first wife in Scotland and their plan was to make their life in India. But Coffey chose to go to war in the Crimea, where he proved himself not just a soldier of very good character but one of distinguished conduct and the highest valour. He sufficiently impressed Queen Victoria for her to describe him in her journal as a ‘gallant & promising young soldier’ and to single him out for mention in her personal account of the first awards of the Victoria Cross at Hyde Park.

Eventually Coffey and his wife were together in India, as they had originally planned, though their experiment with civilian life was short lived. When the opportunity came to return to Britain, they chose instead to remain in India where Coffey regained his former rank in the army. Only one of their children seems to have lived to adulthood, but shortly after her birth it was her mother who died. After his daughter was adopted, Coffey fell ill and was invalided back to Britain.

Once he had been finally discharged from the army, he found his way with the help of his friend, Patrick Gainey, whose daughter he married. Again civilian life was shortlived, when Coffey joined the militia. He died, however, before he had lived a full seven years as a pensioner, and his place of burial was forgotten until the summer of 1969 when Margaret Pratt, then in possession of Coffey’s death certificate, was able to locate his overgrown grave at Chesterfield. On 8 August the Derbyshire Times led with the following story:

Tucked away in a quiet corner of Spital cemetery is an unmarked pauper’s grave. Only a number in an ancient, leather-bound register identifies it as the final resting place of a man called Coffey, who died penniless and wracked with sickness almost a century ago. Yet Private William Coffey was probably the greatest war hero Chesterfield has ever known.

Coffey’s ‘broken health’ was attributed to ‘his years of military service ... overseas in extremes of climate’, and Canada and Africa were mistakenly added to his record of service in the Crimea and India. It was said that the reason why he had settled in Chesterfield was unknown - the connection with Patrick Gainey, who in fact lay in the same cemetery, was as yet undiscovered.

The Times followed up this local report a few days later by saying that Margaret Pratt was ‘trying to interest Parliament in authorising the provision of gravestones for forgotten winners of the Victoria Cross’. The Times went on:

Lately she has discovered at Chesterfield the unmarked grave of Private William Coffey who fought in the Crimean War and won every award for gallantry open to a private soldier, including the Victoria Cross. Coffey was discharged from the Army medically unfit and died penniless.

That Coffey died penniless was another detail taken from the Derbyshire Times and was presumably deduced from the fact that his body was buried in an unmarked public grave. Whether or not Coffey was really penniless when he died is something we cannot know - burial in a public grave was hardly unusual - but the contrast of an unmarked grave with the honour paid to Coffey during his lifetime certainly made an impression.

This disparity became the theme of a song written by Graham Cooper in October 1969 and performed by The Lonesome Travellers, of which he and Doug Porter were members. ‘Private William Coffey’ was also recorded by the Scottish folk group, Drinker’s Drouth in 1984, and was heard live as recently as 2003 at the Chester Folk Festival, Folk North West Magazine recording that Yardarm had performed an ‘acapella rendition ... of the great Graham Cooper song of the forgotten Crimean War hero "[Private] William Coffey" '.  

Click here to play


My name is William Coffey,

in Chesterfield I lie.

My grave is plain above me,

and no headstone do you spy.


O'er my head the grass grows long,

Seasons come and go;

I fought for Queen and country,

Now nothing left to show.


It was in the year of fifty-five

in the far Crimean land,

at Sebastopol on one March day

the Border Boys did stand.


The action being hot, me lads,

round trenches filled with mud,

when a lighted shell came through the air

and landed where we stood.


I little thought of my own life

and grabbed the shell with hands

that neither trembled, stayed nor stood

awaiting no command.


I threw the shell o'er the parapet then

as far as it would go,

and saved the lives of my comrades

from the devil's dreadful blow.


They put two stripes upon me arm,

and I went to meet the Queen;

in London town in Hyde Park fair

we made a pleasant scene.


Victoria gave to me her Cross.

These words were written on:

For Valour, lads, is what it says

on the medal made of bronze.


And after I had given all

a man has power to give -

my courage and my body strong

and my whole will to live -


you leave me lie in a pauper's grave,

no headstone there to tell

of Private William Coffey - dead! -

he served his country well.

The grave, however, did not remain unmarked for long, and a headstone was supplied for it under the aegis of the War Graves Commission, paid for by the Border Regimental Association. A church service in Coffey’s memory was held on 13 September 1970, at which not only representatives of local branches of the Regimental Association but also the Mayor of Chesterfield and other local dignitaries were present. The service was led by Ven. T. W. I. Cleasby and beforehand prayers were said at the grave by Mgr E. J. Atkinson, Vicar General of the Catholic Diocese of Nottingham, with the assistance of the local Catholic clergy. A wreath was also laid on the grave by the president of the Border Regimental Association, Brigadier T. Haddon CBE, and the grave is now maintained in perpetuity by a sum provided by the Chesterfield Corporation.

In this way the fact that Coffey’s grave had lain unknown and neglected for nearly a century was made good. As the Derbyshire Times put it: ‘His grave now stands as a tribute to his valour.’ I have made this written memorial to William Coffey to make good the fact that so little has been known about him and so much misinformation spread about him. I have written for everyone who wants to know the truth about William Coffey, and especially for the sake of his descendants, who have had unreliable traditions passed down to them; but also for the sake of those, like the Border Regiment, who have had these misleading traditions unwittingly passed on to them; and finally for the sake of those who, like Doug Porter, sought the truth about Coffey but were unable to complete their researches.

Gravestone

Photograph by Doug Porter

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