Home Nonmilitary action Mullingar’s 1857 Men’s Victoria Cross could soon fetch £500.00 at auction

Mullingar’s 1857 Men’s Victoria Cross could soon fetch £500.00 at auction

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Nearly 165 years ago, an Irish clerk working for the Bengal Civil Service in India risked his life on a daring spy mission to rescue thousands of people trapped by rebel soldiers.

he bravery of Thomas Henry Kavanagh in crossing the lines during the siege of Lucknow won him the first ever Victoria Cross awarded to a civilian – one of only five ever awarded to non-military personnel – and turned him into a 19th century celebrity.

The rarity of the medal – it is only awarded to those whose heroism takes place ‘in the presence of the enemy’ – is the reason why it is expected to fetch almost €500,000 when auctioned next month.

Kavanagh received the medal from Queen Victoria – who leaned from her horse to pin the medal on the recipients – on her return from northern India.

The clerk, who grew up in Mullingar in Westmeath, found himself and his young family trapped in a British residence seat in the town of Lucknow.

The siege of 1857 was a key battle in the Indian uprising against the British East India Company, which ruled India as a sovereign power on behalf of the British Crown.

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The Mullingar man rose to fame in the Victorian era

The Mullingar man rose to fame in the Victorian era

After a few months of siege, the blond-haired Irishman volunteered to disguise himself as an Indian soldier and crossed enemy lines into the town with a local man, aiming to reach a relief force heading to Lucknow.

The pair drove through enemy sentries, forded rivers and narrowly avoided capture after surprising a farmer raising the alarm, before reaching the relief column and guiding them to the besieged town.

Oliver Pepys, auctioneer at London auction house Noonans Mayfair, says Kavanagh’s exploits made him a legend in the Victorian era.

“Kavanagh was awarded the highest honor for undertaking an epic quest to escape the surrounded residence at night, break through enemy lines, make contact with the Commander-in-Chief’s camp, and then use his local knowledge to guide the relief force through the city to the besieged garrison by the safest route.

One of the VC’s youngest recipients was fellow Westmeath man Thomas Flynn, who was a 15-year-old drummer in his father’s regiment – part of the relief force. The wounded youth, from Athlone, received his medal for engaging two rebel gunners in hand-to-hand combat in the same battle where Kavanagh displayed his heroism.

The auctioneer said Kavanagh received his medal from Queen Victoria in a special ceremony at Windsor Castle, before embarking on a speaking tour of Ireland and Britain.

“He became a bit of a celebrity when he came back and wrote a book about his actions,” says Pepys.

Kavanagh proudly wore his medal during his lifetime and dined during his heroic exploits in the British colony. The medal was sold after his death and is only one of two of five civilian medals not currently in a museum.

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Thomas Henry Kavanagh wrote a book about his exploits


Thomas Henry Kavanagh wrote a book about his exploits

Thomas Henry Kavanagh wrote a book about his exploits

“The Victoria Cross is the highest honor in the British honor system,” Pepys said.

“From a medal collector’s point of view, this is the pinnacle. Therefore, the medal normally commands the highest price.

“It has been awarded since the 1850s and is still awarded to this day. Most were awarded during World War I and World War II. Just over 1,350 have been awarded in the past 170 years, so it’s a relatively rare medal and each has a unique story behind it.

The auctioneer explained the history of the medal and the rarity of civilian medals adds to its value.

“It’s really about dressing up and going undercover behind enemy lines. It’s a very moving story – and it’s easier to understand than some of the more technical aspects of warfare.

“There will be many submissions. It is not impossible for a museum to pay for this. But it is more likely to be an individual.

“Medal collectors often buy the story of the man behind the medal. And the story in this case is absolutely first class.

“Estimates are between €350,000 and €470,000. But it is possible that it exceeds the estimate. I wouldn’t be shocked if it sold for over half a million.

The inscription on each VC indicates that the award is given “for bravery”.

The first 111 crosses awarded were said to have been cast from bronze taken from Russian cannons captured by the British during the Crimean War.

While only five VCs have been given to civilians, they include two Irishmen, Kavanagh in 1857, followed by Cork clergyman James Williams Adams, in 1879.