The spread of the suicide story


The story was spread beyond the bounds of the family nearly a hundred years after Coffey’s death. Around the time of the sale of Coffey’s VC in 1968, Canon Lummis wrote to The Daily Telegraph in an attempt to find out if anyone could provide information about Coffey. So far little was known about him apart from his transfer from the 82nd to the 34th and subsequent act of valour at Sebastopol, and Margaret Pratt had hazarded the theory that when Coffey left the 34th in 1860 he had emigrated to Australia. All were also under the misapprehensions that a Michael Coffey (in fact from Kilclooney in County Galway) who served with the 34th and died of wounds at Azimghur was William’s brother, and that William’s birthplace was a ‘hospital’. On the latter point, hosts of Telegraph readers were quick to point Lummis in the direction of the town, Hospital, in County Limerick!


But Lummis was also to receive a telephone call in early October from a ‘Mr Gaine’ in London. He identified himself as one of the sons of Coffey’s daughter - he must in fact have been my grandfather - and he told Lummis of the ‘family tradition’ that Coffey had ended his life by suicide. He promised to send this in writing to Lummis but was never heard from again. Lummis also took him to have said that Coffey had entered the ‘service of the City Line’ (which ran ships between Britain and India and elsewhere) but later discounted this, thinking that he had misunderstood what was said over the telephone. Possibly my grandfather had just said that Coffey served at one of the barracks on City Road.


Then on 20 October, my great-uncle, James Gaine, who was living in Newhaven, Sussex, called on Major-General Shears of the Border Regiment at his home in Hove. Shears reported that Gaine ‘never saw his grandfather and could not tell me much about him’. However, Shears was able to learn that Coffey had not emigrated to Australia at all but had instead rejoined the 82nd regiment, if only because this regiment was recorded on Margaret Coffey’s birth certificate, a copy of which her son had taken along with him. But James Gaine also provided Shears - and through him Lummis and then later Margaret Pratt - with three points that would confuse future researchers.


The first of his misleading points was that when Coffey returned from India he was based at a barracks on the City Road, London. The second was that Coffey’s daughter was born to a second wife, a straightforward confusion which helped give rise to the myth of Margaret Dowd. And the third was that Coffey shot himself in his barracks. Of the last point Shears was a little sceptical. He wrote to Lummis that since James Gaine never knew Coffey, the story of suicide ‘must, on his part, have been just hearsay’. An article in the regimental magazine in February 1969 carefully made no mention of suicide and speculated no further than that Coffey was stationed at City Road, London - rather than with the 82nd - because he was there on recruitment duties.  In reality Coffey had of course never been stationed there at all.


Lummis, however, seems to have been more convinced of the suicide story, if only at first. In a letter of 16 November 1968 to the parish priest of Hospital, Lummis wrote that Coffey ‘returned to England, rejoined his old regiment, the 82nd, was promoted Sergeant, and stationed, I believe, in London. Alas, he ended his life tragically by shooting himself in barracks...’ And in April 1969 the journal of the Orders and Medals Research Society published a letter from Lummis, saying that Coffey ‘returned to England, rejoined the 82nd regiment and was quartered in London. He married a second time, and had a daughter (born in 1865) who married a man named Gaine. A son of this marriage, Mr. J. Gaine, of Newhaven, states that William Coffey committed suicide by shooting himself in barracks.’


Next there arose the suggestion that Coffey committed suicide at a military building on the City Road, Sheffield, rather than at one of the barracks on City Road, London. It was made despite the fact that there was no military building on Sheffield’s City Road, which was in any case known at the time by another name. The suggestion seems to have arisen from Margaret Pratt’s investigation of the regimental pension records, which had Coffey resident at the time of his death not in London but in the Sheffield Pension District. Then to account for the presence of a retired soldier in such a building, it was imagined that it was something like a Volunteer or Militia drill hall in which he was employed either as a sergeant instructor or as the caretaker. The stories of Coffey’s employment and death in a Sheffield drill hall seem to have grown quickly from theoretical speculation into firm report!


The regimental pension records would also have provided Margaret Pratt with Coffey’s date of death, and so in June 1969 she obtained a copy of his death certificate. This of course recorded death not by suicide at London or Sheffield, but death by chronic diarrhoea at Stonegravels. And so a note probably by Canon Lummis in the file at the Imperial War Museum reads: ‘He became Sergeant Instructor with the Militia and is reported to have committed suicide at an Army Drill Hall, City Road, Sheffield, but more likely to have died from dysentery ...’ Margaret Pratt herself seems to have been convinced of the evidence of the death certificate, because it was almost certainly she who provided the Derbyshire Times with the information that Coffey died of dysentery, which the newspaper included in articles published on 8 August 1969 and 18 September 1970, with no mention of suicide.


But while the local press in Derbyshire reported death by dysentery at Chesterfield, the local press in Sheffield at first told the alternative story of how Coffey had gone to Sheffield to die, and how this brave man had killed himself in the ‘drill hall of the Sheffield Volunteers’, where he was a sergeant instructor. Max Williams wrote in the Morning Telegraph of the despair of a ‘man who was broken in body and knew no trade but soldiering ... Coffey blew out his brains in an army drill hall in City Road, Sheffield’. The article included other inaccurate details - it said Coffey was on his way to China at the outbreak of the Mutiny; named ‘Margaret Dowd’ as Coffey’s second wife; created confusion about the date of transfer from the 75th to the 82nd; and asserted that none of Coffey’s awards ‘had brought him a penny’, despite the pension that went with the VC and the gratuity that accompanied the DCM.


Although a subsequent article in the Morning Telegraph switched Coffey’s place of death to Stonegravels and identified his manner of death as dysentery, without any mention of suicide, it was the first article, placed in Canon Lummis’s file, that became a major source for nearly all subsequent researchers, including Brian Clark and Nigel McCrery. David Harvey even laboured under the impression that Coffey’s death certificate specified suicide, when it in fact indicated no such thing. In 1999, in his magnificent Monuments to Courage, he wrote: ‘Committed suicide at Army Drill Hall, City Road, Sheffield. Unsubstantiated reference that he died of diarrhoea.’ Then in 2000 Richard Doherty and David Truesdale wrote in their Irish Winners of the Victoria Cross that Coffey ‘[d]ied by shooting himself at the Army Drill Hall, Sheffield’; and in 2004 Max Arthur wrote in his Symbol of Courage: A Complete History of the Victoria Cross that Coffey ‘committed suicide [at] Sheffield, Yorkshire’.


So once the tale of Coffey’s suicide had been made known by his family and was accepted within the Border Regiment and beyond, it went on to appear more than once in print. And still the story of the suicide is the accepted one, though what seems ultimately to lie behind it is the misinformation of a daughter who may never have seen her father since she was two or three years old.