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 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.
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!
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.
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.
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