‘William Coffey would be astonished...’
William Coffey (or Coffee) was my great-great-grandfather. I first learned about him and his Victoria Cross from my aunt in the 1970s. What she told me she said she had heard in the 1930s from her grandmother, William Coffey’s daughter, that is, my great-grandmother, Margaret Coffey. When Margaret Coffey married William Mortimer Gaine in 1889, she was living in London on the City Road, but she had been born far away in India, where her father had served in the army.
Shortly after Margaret was born, her mother died at sea while they were returning to Britain. Or so the story went. After their return she was to lose her father too when he became insane and took his own life by shooting himself in the head at his barracks in London. Or so the story went. Margaret was brought up by a stepmother with whom she had a difficult relationship. She did not inherit her father’s VC, and her descendants were to learn nothing more of him until 1968, when his name was once more brought to national attention.
What made Coffey so newsworthy
hundred years after his death was the fact that there were two
each one of which was claimed to be his Victoria Cross, though of
one of them could be the original. The Express announced that
William Coffey would be astonished, if he was still alive, to hear the fuss that is being made over his VC, 113 years [sic] after Queen Victoria presented it to him. But, on the other hand, he might have expected a rumpus over his ‘other’ VC - the copy.
In September Sotheby’s had announced the sale of ‘A VC won by Pte. Coffey of the Border Regiment’. This surprised the Border Regiment because, as far as they were concerned, they had been displaying Coffey’s VC in their museum at Carlisle Castle for nearly ten years. After it had been in the collection of Lt.-Col. James B. Gaskell of Roseleigh, Woolton, Lancashire, it had been sold together with Coffey’s various medals at Messrs Glendining’s Rooms in London on 23 May 1911. It was then sold to a private collector for £76 in July 1925, and had passed, together with the set of Coffey’s medals, into the hands of the Officers’ Mess of the 1st Battalion The Border Regiment. It was hanging on the wall of an Officers’ Mess ante-room at Barnard Castle in Yorkshire in 1959, when it was removed for display at the regimental museum at Carlisle.
The cross on sale at Sotheby’s belonged to a Miss Gladys Knowles of Birstall, Leeds. Her father had bought it in 1901 in a damaged condition - Coffey’s particulars were slightly defaced - from Ninnes the Jeweller on the High Street of Hythe, Kent. After both her father’s and brother’s deaths she had decided to sell it through Sotheby’s, and was herself ‘flabbergasted’ when told by Sotheby’s that the Border Regiment had produced its cross. The question was: Which was the original Coffey had received from the Queen?
Sotheby’s and the Border Regiment
to an agreement that both crosses would be sent to Hancocks, the London
jewellers who made and still make the Victoria Cross. Hancocks then
examined the two side by side, with the assistance of infrared
photography. The result, according to The
Scotsman, was that ‘the Border medal had "flaws" in the faded inscription and
composition’. The Liverpool Daily
Post reported that while Miss Knowles’s cross was inscribed correctly with ‘Private W. Coffey, 34th Regt.’, the regiment’s had merely ‘Wm. Coffey, Private’. Hancocks told The
Times: ‘We have
both the medals and after a close examination we are able to tell that
in the museum is a copy and the one that Sotheby’s have is the
The museum employed the services of Spink as its agent, and in October purchased what was now believed to be the original, perhaps motivated, according to The Times, by a spirit of ‘if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em’. The Daily Mirror spoke fancifully of the auction as a ‘battlefield’, informing its readers of a ‘brief and lively skirmish’. No more than £200 had been expected as the final bid, but the bidding, which opened at £20, rose at £20 a second and the original cross was sold to the museum for £320.