01 April 2020
In 2015, registered Thames ‘mudlark’, Tobias Neto, was scouring a muddy Thames bank in the heart of London. At some point, he happened upon an unusual-looking piece of metal. Covered in mud, it was flat with sharp corners and had some detail in the centre...
Upon closer inspection, the object turned out to be a military medal: a Victoria Cross bearing the date 5 November 1854. Intrigued, Tobias sent the medal to the Museum of London for authentication.
Here Gloria Winfield picks up the story and recounts the research that went. into solving the mystery of the mudlark’s medal
Two years later, I discovered an article about this find posted on the Museum of London website. The museum concluded that the medal belonged to either Private John Byrne from the 68 Regiment of Foot, an Irishman, or Private John McDermond from the 47 Regiment of Foot, a Scotsman. Both soldiers were among its first recipients, awarded in this instance for valour at the Battle of Inkerman in 1854. This medal was introduced by Queen Victoria and Prince Albert during the Crimean War, and was intended to be awarded to all service personnel regardless of rank for extreme acts of valour.
The research begins
Noticing that John McDermond came from the area where I was born, I resolved in January of 2017 to learn more about this forgotten hero. I had assumed researching him would be straightforward; it was anything but.
My research was slow at first as not much was known about McDermond, and what there was appeared to be inaccurate. I was fortunate to find his attestation papers. Elsewhere, I found his pension details.
A visit to The National Archives (Kew) yielded further information, hitherto unknown, including information that Colonel O’Grady Haly, whom he had saved during the Crimean War, kept a close eye on him.
It took many hours of research before I found John McDermond’s two death certificates, and the birth certificates of his two children. In most other areas, I found myself hitting the infamous ‘brick wall’, beyond which nothing further could be ascertained. His death certificate suggested that he had died 1866 from typhus, and not 1868 which is the date found in print and on many websites.
Further research on my behalf by the Mitchell Library in Glasgow showed he is buried in an unmarked grave in the Eastern Necropolis in Glasgow and not in Paisley. They also provided for me an extract from the ‘Poor Law’ records concerning his wife and children who were refused help and told to return to their place of origin.
More material uncovered
I also uncovered newspaper articles from the 1960s where the County Librarian of Clackmannanshire had produced an article concerning McDermond, telling his story, and appealing for more information about him. There is no indication that he learned any more.
A similar kind of article was sent to me by the Regimental Museum. The museum staff were very helpful, but had limited information on him. However, they did have a painting which depicts the feat for which he was decorated: saving Colonel O’Grady Haly. This was painted by Chevalier Louis William Desanges, a prominent painter of VC heroes. This hangs in the Regimental Officer’s Mess. The National Army Museum also has a similar painting.
2832 Pte John McDermond was born in 1828 in Clackmannanshire. He joined the Army in 1846 and served in the Ionian Islands, Malta, Gibraltar, Crimea, Canada and on Home Service. It was in 1861, whilst aboard ship to Canada (which the regiment was being sent to defend as a result of tensions arising from the Trent affair) that McDermond fell and injured his ankle. Consequently, he was found unfit for duty and made to return in 1862 to Chatham, whereupon he underwent a medical examination and was found to be lame. He was then discharged from the Army.
He was awarded a pension of 9d per day. He returned to Scotland, first to Alloa, the market town of Clackmannanshire where he had family, and then to Stirling, a garrison town nearby where it was arranged he would collect his pension.
Subsequently, he moved to Glasgow, where he had relatives. He lived near the old Duke Street Barracks in Glasgow, from where he would collect his pension. Conditions there were poor, with shared water facilities ideal for the spreading of cholera and typhus which were prolific during the 19th century.
Tragically, his appeal to increase his Chelsea pension to 1/- was granted in July 1866, just one 1 week before his death at the age of 38. Upon his death, his pension was stopped immediately, and his wife Margaret, aged only 20, and his two young children, born in 1864 and 1866, became homeless.
Falling on hard times
Margaret was illiterate and had been a cotton mill worker from an early age. I can find no trace of the family after 1867 when I know she was living with her brother who ran a pub in the East End of Glasgow. She applied for ‘Poor Law’ and was refused at one stage!
Collating and gathering the information took around 15 months and my own family research went on the back-burner. Life after the Army could not have been easy for John. With a young family to support, money problems would’ve been acute. Pension notwithstanding, John would’ve needed to find work, and his injury would’ve made doing so much harder.
However, difficult it proved, John’s civilian life did not last long: he died just four years after leaving the Army. By February 2018 I felt confident again to contact the Victoria Cross and George Cross Association in London and share with them my final research. I argued that this soldier deserved a more fitting tribute than an anonymous plot far from where he had been born.
Their chief executive was most helpful, guiding me through the process. After consideration, the association’s trustees made a generous grant towards the creation and erection of a VC memorial stone for John McDermond. The balance of the monies required came from my family.
During this time, I had also been liaising with the Provost of Clackmannanshire’s office; both she and her staff were extremely supportive and helpful. They informed me that there was a VC Civic Service happening in Alloa, Clackmannanshire, in March 2018 (the very last one scheduled) for a WWI veteran, and that if I could get the stone in place before then, we could participate in this service.
When I explained the circumstances to, Marshalls, who are commissioned to make the VC stones, and are based in England, they worked expeditiously within 3 weeks to ensure that the stone was in place for the service, shipping-out the finished article in record time. Historic Scotland generously sited the stone without charge.
In March 2018, I travelled with my son to Scotland to take part in the Civic Ceremony, during which I unveiled the stone erected in John McDermond’s memory.
Fittingly, for both soldiers honoured that day, Balaclava Company of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, with their mascot Cruachan were present to honour their First World War comrade.
Touchingly, a number of Argyll veterans and dignitaries, and many members of the public, also witnessed the ceremony, which, as is perhaps expected in Scotland, took place in the freezing cold and rain. They showed Pte John McDermond great respect.
I would like to think that this ceremony and the stone which now sits in Alloa helped redress the lack of public recognition for John McDermond. He was lucky in that so many were willing to pull together to ensure he received proper recognition for his efforts. However, others may not be so fortunate. I have been informed by the Minister of Veterans – Scottish Government - that there is no provision for funding memorial stones before WW1. It falls on us, the living, to keep their memory alive so that those who come afterwards may learn from their example.
Tobias Neto has ensured that the medal will be available to the public and is currently at the National Army Museum awaiting a suitable display. Tobias and I continue to research the two men to whom it might’ve belonged. The other possible owner of the medal, John Byrne, committed suicide in Newport Wales in 1879 after a standoff with local police. This happened after he had withdrawn to his home following a dispute with a work colleague, whom he had shot over a perceived a slight against his service record.
In addition to his VC, both John McDermond and John Byrne were decorated many times. Of these, only John Byrne’s Distinguished Conduct Medal is known to have survived, and this can be found at Durham University.
The whereabouts of these medals is naturally of great interest to many. It is not impossible that they were both buried with their medals. It is also possible that circumstances led both men to pawn their medals. Or, perhaps they are waiting in the muddy banks of the Thames, waiting to be discovered.
Images courtesy Gloria Winfield show the medal found by the mudlark, John McDermond VC, and the newly created grave marker