‘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 about a hundred years after his death was the fact that there were two crosses, each one of which was claimed to be his Victoria Cross, though of course only 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 Glendinings 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 Coffeys 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 came 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 Knowless cross was inscribed correctly with ‘Private W. Coffey, 34th Regt.’, the regiments had merely ‘Wm. Coffey, Private’. Hancocks told The Times: ‘We have inspected both the medals and after a close examination we are able to tell that the one in the museum is a copy and the one that Sotheby’s have is the original.’

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.

But even if this dispute over the crosses was resolved, it still left unsolved a further mystery: How and why had the duplicate come to be made in the first place? It was speculated in the press that Coffey had sold his cross and had had a replica made to wear at official functions. Perhaps the damage suffered by the original had even been perpetrated by Coffey himself who, having decided to sell, had made an embarrassed attempt to scratch out his particulars... The Express reported that such a thing had often happened.