The Victoria Cross is the highest honour that can be awarded to members of the British and Commonwealth Armed Forces for gallantry in active service. It was instituted by Queen Victoria in 1856 and from that day forwards Hancocks has been exceptionally proud to be the sole supplier of this prestigious award.
“This decoration consists of a Maltese cross formed from the cannon captured from the Russians. The execution of the work has been entrusted by Lord Panmure to Mr. Hancock ”Daily Telegraph March 1st. 1857
The birth of the Victoria Cross
The Victoria Cross owes its inception to the Crimean War which was the first major war to be reported on by media correspondents in the field. The reports by the Times correspondent, William Russell, had brought home to the British public the extraordinary gallantry of the British soldiers and there was a widespread feeling that more should be done to honour their bravery and sacrifice.
At the opening of Parliament in 1854 Her Majesty Queen Victoria acknowledged this when she paid tribute to the soldiers of her “unconquerable Army” and expressed her admiration and gratitude to them. Later that year Capt. G.T. Scobell, M.P. made a formal proposal to the House of Commons,
“…that an humble address be presented to Her Majesty … to institute an Order of Merit to be bestowed upon persons serving in the Army or Navy for distinguished and prominent personal gallantry during the present war and to which every grade and individual… may be admissible.”
Whilst Officers involved in conflict could be recognised via the Order of the Bath, an award founded by George I in 1725, no such award was available to acknowledge the heroic actions of the ordinary British serviceman. An assurance was given by the Government that a new Order was indeed under consideration and, as a result of further questioning on the matter, the Prime Minister gave an answer to the House of Commons on the 19th March 1855 declaring that Her Majesty’s Government fully intended to establish such an Order.
The instituting of such a medal had the full support of both Queen Victoria and Prince Albert and henceforth they were both closely involved with its development. The original Royal Warrant for the Victoria Cross stated clearly that this new award was being….
“…ordained with a view to place all persons on a perfectly equal footing in relation to eligibility for the Decoration, that neither rank, nor long service, nor wounds, nor any other circumstance or condition whatsoever, save the merit of conspicuous bravery shall be held to establish a sufficient claim to the honour.”
Various designs for the Victoria Cross were presented to the Queen which she would return with her comments and amendments. Finally on 5th January 1856 a design was approved with one final alteration. Her Majesty preferred that the motto on the Cross read “For Valour rather than For the Brave as this would lead to the inference that only those are deemed brave who have got the Cross.”
Having approved the design on paper, the first metal proof was submitted to the Queen on February 4th but it was rejected. A revised proof was submitted on the 21st February with more amendments being made. Further proofs were subsequently created until, on the 3rd March 1856, the matter was finalised when the samples were returned, with one having been chosen as satisfactory.
The following day, 4th March, Lord Panmure, Secretary for War to Her Majesty, instructed Mr. Charles Frederick Hancock, to prepare 106 specimens. C.F. Hancock was the founder of the Royal Warrant holding firm of Hancocks & Co. which he had established in 1849. The company produced fine quality jewellery and prestigious items of silver in its own workshops and clearly had both the excellent reputation and the quality of craftsmen necessary to produce this new award. To this day no other company has ever supplied the Victoria Cross, a unique distinction.
The Victoria Cross takes the form of a Maltese cross shape medal made of bronze, the obverse of which has as its main feature the Royal Crown surmounted by a standing lion with a ribbon underneath bearing the motto For Valour. It is suspended from a letter V which supports a bar decorated with laurel leaves through which the crimson ribbon passes. The original Warrant denotes “a blue riband for the Navy and a red riband for the Army.” This was the case until the formation of the Royal Air Force in 1918 when it was decided that all Victoria Crosses would have the same crimson ribbon irrespective of the Force in which the recipient was serving. The reverse of the medal is unique in that each one issued is engraved with the individual details of the recipient. The cross bears a circle within which is engraved the date of the act for which the medal has been awarded and the suspension bar is engraved with the name, rank, number and unit of the recipient. There is no differentiation made between medals awarded to living personnel and those awarded posthumously.
How the VC is made
The bronze from which all Victoria Crosses are made is supplied by the Central Ordnance Depot in Donnington. This metal is cut from cannons captured from the Russians at Sebastopol during the Crimean War. When more Crosses are required Hancocks requests a supply of metal and this is then delivered to them by COD Donnington.
Unlike any other award for gallantry the Victoria Cross is not made in a die. It is not struck, as are coins and many other medals, it is cast. Traditionally it is sand cast in moulds usually containing four specimens at a time. The medals are removed from the sand moulds when the metal has cooled, and then the hand finishing process begins. The suspender bar from which the cross itself is hung, is cast at the same time as the medal and receives the same hand finishing. The obverse and reverse are hand chased even to the minutest detail and the whole medal has a special bronze finish applied at the end of the process. This gives a nice even colour to the medal because the bronze from which it is cast does not have an overall attractive appearance. Typically twelve Victoria Crosses are produced at a time.
The supply of the Victoria Cross
Originally the practice was for Hancocks to manufacture the medals, place the correct ribbons on them and deliver them to the War Office. However, owing to the great number of Victoria Crosses awarded during the First World War this practice was discontinued for reasons of efficiency.
The previous system meant that, when any awards were made, the appropriate number of medals were returned to Hancocks for the necessary engraving and then returned again to the War Office. During the 1914-18 War the time required to produce the Victoria Crosses meant that the engraving was done directly after the manufacturing process was complete. It follows, therefore, that no individual Victoria Cross has ever been made specifically for an individual award, there being a stock of medals held in reserve. From time to time official duplicates have been issued to replace some which may have been destroyed or in other ways lost and such replacements are under the strict control of the Ministry of Defence.
As with other decorations it is possible to be awarded a Victoria Cross more than once. Whilst this has happened only three times in the history of the medal, provision is made for such an event with the creation of an additional Bar that can be added to the existing medal. These abbreviated versions of the suspender bar are attached to the ribbon above the original and the details of the new award are engraved to the reverse.
The first Bar was awarded to Surgeon Capt. Martin Leake, in 1914. The Victoria Cross, to which this Bar was added, was awarded in 1902 for action in the South African War resulting in awards for action in two different wars. He died in 1953.
The second Bar was awarded to Capt. Chavasse in 1917 and was a posthumous award. In this instance the original Victoria Cross was awarded in 1916 thus making it a double award for actions in the same war.
The third was awarded to Capt. Upham in 1942, the original Victoria Cross award being in 1941. To date this is the only instance of a Victoria Cross being awarded twice in the same war to a living recipient. Capt. Upham died in 1995.
The first Victoria Cross is generally accepted as that awarded to Lt. Charles D. Lucas R.N. for acts carried out in 1854. It was decided that the awards would be back dated to 1854 to include all the acts of valour of the Crimean War. Since then a total of 1,358 medals have been awarded to 1,355 recipients…..
1854 — 1914
523 Victorian Cross were awarded
1914 — 1918
628 Victoria Crosses were awarded (two of which were Bars to the V.C.)
1919 — 1939
11 Victoria Crosses were awarded.
1939 — 1945
181 Victoria Crosses were awarded (one of which was a Bar to the V.C.)
1945 — date
15 Victoria Crosses were awarded.
The fifteen most recent awards include 4 for action during the Korean War, 1 for action in Borneo, 4 awarded during the Vietnam War, 2 for the Falklands War, 1 for the Iraq War and 3 for the war in Afghanistan.
There are several cases of the Victoria Cross being awarded to members of the same family. In some cases they have been awarded to a father and son and there are at least two cases of the Victoria Cross being bestowed on brothers.
Lt. F.S. Roberts (later to become Field Marshal Lord Roberts) was awarded his Victoria Cross for action on the 2nd of January 1858. Forty one years later his son Lt. The Hon. F.H.S. Roberts of the Kings Royal Rifle Corps. was awarded his Victoria Cross on the 15th of December 1899. In the case of the Congreve family the Victoria Cross was awarded to Capt. W.N. Congreve of the Rifle Brigade in the same action as Lt. The Hon. F.H.S. Roberts on 15th of December 1899. His son, Brevet Major W. Congreve D.S.O., M.C., also of the Rifle Brigade was awarded his Victoria Cross posthumously for action during the period 6th to 20th July 1916.
During the Indian Mutiny Major C.J.S. Gough of the 5th Bengal European Cavalry was awarded the Victoria Cross for actions on the 15th and 18th of August 1857 and for further actions on the 22nd of January and 23rd of February 1858. His brother Lt. H.H. Gough serving with the 1st Bengal European Light Cavalry was awarded his Victoria Cross for actions on the 12th of November 1857 and the 25th February 1858. The Gough family in fact have a remarkable record because another member of the family, Captain and Brevet Major A.E. Gough of the Rifle Brigade was awarded a Victoria Cross for action on the 22nd of April 1903. The Gough family have thus been awarded three Victoria Crosses.
During the First World War a Victoria Cross was awarded to Lt. R.V. Bradford MC of the 9th Battalion Durham Light Infantry for action on the 1st of October 1916. His brother Lt. Cmdr. G.N. Bradford of the Royal Navy was awarded his Victoria Cross for action on the 22nd and 23rd of April 1918. In each case these awards were posthumous.
Uniquely an award was made in 1921 to the Unknown Warrior of the United States of America and this was laid on his tomb in Arlington Cemetery by Admiral Lord Beatty on the 11th November 1921.
To date no woman has been awarded the Victoria Cross.
Each recipient receives an annual pension of £10,000 tax free.
The first investiture took place in Hyde Park on the 26th June 1857 when 62 Victoria Crosses were presented by Her Majesty Queen Victoria in front of a cheering crowd of 100,000 people. It was usual for the Victoria Cross to be awarded personally by the reigning Sovereign, and this remains so today, however some Crosses were unable to be awarded thus, primarily owing to the difficulties of travel in the 19th Century. In the case of posthumous awards the investiture is made to a next-of-kin of the recipient.