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The Victoria Cross

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The Victoria Cross

The Victoria Cross, the highest award for valour in the British and Commonwealth armed forces, has been produced by the same company, from the same bronze and to same exact detail since it was first issued in 1856. Here we recall brief stories about two of New Zealand's recipients.

James Crichton’s Victoria Cross

James Crichton’s Victoria Cross

Auckland War Memorial Museum - Tāmaki Paenga Hira.

The highest award

The Victoria Cross (VC) is the highest recognition for valour 'in the face of the enemy' that can be awarded to members of the British and Commonwealth armed forces of any rank in any service, and civilians under military command. It is also the highest award in the British Honours system.

The VC was first issued on 29 January 1856, recognising acts of valour during the Crimean War of 1854-1855.

Medal details

The medal takes the form of a cross pattée, 1.375 inches (35 mm) wide, bearing a crown surmounted by a lion, and the inscription "FOR VALOUR". This was originally to have been "FOR BRAVERY", until it was changed on the recommendation of Queen Victoria, who thought some might erroneously consider that only the recipients of the VC were brave in battle. The medal, suspension bar and link weigh about 0.87 troyo ounces (27g). The ribbon is crimson, 1.5 inches (38 mm) wide.

Cast from the bronze of captured canon

All VCs are cast from the bronze cascabels (the closed end of a muzzle-loading cannon) of two cannon of Chinese origin that were captured from the Russians at the siege of Sevastopol; although during the First World War metal from guns captured from the Chinese during the Boxer Rebellion was also used. However, a 2006 book on the VC’s history by historian John Glanfield calls this account into question, arguing that it is unlikely, and impossible to prove, that the metal used for the VCs really does come from these cannon.

The barrels of the cannon in question are stationed outside the Officers' Mess at the Royal Artillery Barracks at Woolwich. The remaining portion of the only remaining cascabel, weighing 358 oz, is stored in a vault by 15 Regiment Royal Logistic Corps at Donnington. It is estimated that approximately 80-85 medals could be cast from this source. A single company of jewellers, Hancocks of London, has been responsible for the production of every VC awarded since the medal's inception.

Charles Heaphy, VC

Draughtsman, artist, surveyor, explorer, soldier, public servant (1820-1881)

Charles Heaphy was born in London, England, probably in 1820 and came to New Zealand with the New Zealand Company. Over the next twenty years he was employed variously as a draughtsman and surveyor, working in many parts of the country, but also executing a series of watercolour portraits and landscapes. For some time his only source of income being a few commissions to execute portraits of acquaintances, some contract survey work and paid militia service.

In 1847 he moved to Auckland and was appointed to the Survey Office as a draughtsman; eventually becoming provincial surveyor. During 1859 Heaphy enrolled in the Auckland Rifle Volunteers, being commissioned lieutenant in August 1863 and was later appointed 'Military Surveyor and Guide to the Forces'.

On 11 February 1864 Heaphy, under intense fire, went to the aid of a wounded soldier, at Waiari, near Te Awamutu; after some agitation on his part, this led to his becoming the first member of an irregular unit to be awarded the Victoria Cross, at a parade held in Auckland on 11 May 1867.

Heaphy's career after this time continued to alternate between surveying, painting, goldmining, and other government posts, including a short period as Member of the House of Representatives for Parnell.

James Crichton with his Victoria Cross and other medals.

James Crichton with his Victoria Cross and other medals.

Auckland War Memorial Museum - Tāmaki Paenga Hira.

James Crichton, VC

Miner, cable-layer, soldier (1879-1961)

In 1914, as the world prepared for war, thousands of men in Scotland enlisted for military service. But across the world, in the countries of the British empire where Scottish emigrants had settled, thousands more joined up. Men of Scottish birth and kin became part of the armed forces of Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. There were Scottish reserve regiments in New Zealand, but Scottish identity emerged only informally in the New Zealand Expeditionary Force of 1914-18.

One man who identified strongly as a Scot was Private James Crichton, 2nd Battalion Auckland Regiment. Crichton served at Gallipoli and later on the Western Front. During the 'Hundred Days' offensive in 1918, he was awarded the Victoria Cross for "conspicuous bravery and devotion to duty".

He swam a river, crossing an area swept by machine-gun fire to deliver a message; [and] although wounded and under close fire by machine-guns and snipers, he removed fuses and detonators from a mined bridge.

- Citation upon receiving Victoria Cross following action at Crevecoeur on 30 September 1918.

Crichton was an Ulster Scot, born in Ireland. His family migrated to Scotland, where he went to school and worked as a miner in West Lothian. He joined the British army and served in the South African war with the Queen's Own Cameron Highlanders. Later work as a cable-layer took him to Canada, Australia and finally New Zealand.

James Crichton kept a full record of his war service including his medals, Cameron Highlanders badge, portrait and service book together with a sizable collection of photographs, documents and news-clippings relating to his WWI service and decoration. The collection was presented to Auckland Museum by Crichton's two daughters Velda and Hazel Crichton in 2001.

Cite this article

MacFarlane, Kirsten. The Victoria Cross. Auckland War Memorial Museum - Tāmaki Paenga Hira. First published: 4 June 2015. Updated: 7 August 2015.

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