Museum of London Press Release, 11 November 2016
Sunday Telegraph article by Patrick Sawer, Senior Reporter, 21 January 2017

( select to enlarge )

The Museum of London has opened its latest display showing a Victoria Cross discovered on the River Thames foreshore in December 2015 by Tobias Neto who had applied for and was granted a foreshore permit to search the banks of the River Thames.

As required, Tobias Neto reported his find to the Portable Antiquities Scheme and started researching into the decoration in the hope of finding out to whom it was originally belonged.

The Victoria Cross can be pinned down to having been earned at the Battle of Inkermann during the Crimean War ( 1854-56 ) by the date engraved on the reverse of the VC - 5th November 1854. Without the lower ribbon suspension bar, on which the name of the recipient is engraved, it is impossible to ascertain to whom the VC belonged.

However, eighteen awards of the Victoria Cross were made on the 5th November 1854 for heroic acts on the field at the Battle of Inkermann. The location of sixteen of the VCs is known and are held within the public domain. The two remaining Victoria Crosses are 'not publicly held', i.e their location not known. They are the VCs awarded to:

  • Sergeant John Byrne, 68th Regiment ( later Durham Light Infantry )
  • Private John McDermond, 57th Regiment ( later The Loyal ( North Lancashire ) Regiment )

Recent investigation has pointed the River Thames Victoria Cross being the one awarded to John Byrne.

While working as part of an Ordnance Survey team, Byrne became convinced his decoration had been taunted by his work colleague, John Watts. In a fury, the former soldier pulled out a revolver and shot the terrified 18-year-old, wounding him in the arm. Hours later, surrounded by a large crowd and several police officers, Byrne turned the gun on himself and pulled the trigger, taking his own life rather than give himself up.

The inquest into John Byrne's death, following his suicide inside the Crown Inn, in Newport in July 1879 heard that he had probably imagined the insult. Watts denied making the insult and told the Coroner he had simply advised Byrne to put out his pipe while on parade, as the men had previously been instructed by their commanding officer.

John Byrne's troubled state of mind may explain how the Victoria Cross, in which he took so much pride, came to end up in the River Thames mud. A Lieutenant Barklie gave evidence that Byrne had arrived in Bristol the previous October in a state of destitution and looking for work, having spent time in a lunatic asylum in the Straits Settlements - now Malaysia and Singapore - before returning to Britain. It would appear that by the time Byrne arrived in the West country he may have lost or even thrown his prized decoration into the Thames.

A report of the inquest, carried out by the 'Monmouthshire Merlin' and 'South Wales Advisor' of July 1879, states:"When Byrne came to Bristol for his pension Lieutenant Barklie asked him if he knew why he had not had his Victoria Cross, and Byrne seemed rather embarrassed so the question was not pressed".

Private John Byrne was initially buried in an unmarked grave in Wooloo's Cemetery, Near Newport, Monmouthshire. A headstone was later erected over his burial plot.

The full medal entitlement of Sergeant John Byrne, 68th Regiment ( the location of Byrne's other medals is not known ).

  • Victoria Cross
  • Distinguished Conduct Medal ( DCM )
  • Crimea Medal ( 1854-56 )
    • 4 clasps:
    • "Alma" - "Balaclava" - "Inkermann" - "Sebastopol"
  • New Zealand Medal ( 1860-66 )
  • Turkish Crimea Medal ( 1855-56 )

For the award of the Victoria Cross

[ London Gazette, 24 February 1857 ], Inkermann, Crimea, 5 November 1854, Private John Byrne, 68th Regiment.

At the Battle of Inkerman, when the Regiment was ordered to retire, Private John Byrne went back towards the enemy, and, at risk of his own life, brought in a wounded soldier, under fire. On the 11th May 1855, he bravely engaged in a hand to hand contest with one of the enemy on the parapet of the work he was defending prevented the entrance of the enemy, killed his antagonist, and captured his arms.

John Byrne was invested with his Victoria Cross by GOC Ionian, Major General Sir George Buller in Corfu on the 22 July 1857.


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Iain Stewart, 30 January 2017