First Victoria Cross awarded to a civilian up for auction

·2-min read
Victoria Cross close up - Noonans/BNPS
Victoria Cross close up - Noonans/BNPS

In 1860s Britain, the name Thomas Henry Kavanagh would have stirred a frisson of admiration and national pride among those who heard it. Today, he is barely remembered.

Yet, when his Victoria Cross goes on sale next month, it will likely fetch more than double the usual price paid for examples of Britain’s highest gallantry award.

That’s because Kavanagh, an Irishman from County Westmeath, was one of just five civilians ever to receive the medal, which can only be granted to individuals whose heroism takes place in the face of direct enemy fire.

Thomas Henry Kavanagh sepia photograph - Noonans/BNPS
Thomas Henry Kavanagh sepia photograph - Noonans/BNPS

Kavanagh’s act of bravery came at the Siege of Lucknow, during the Indian Rebellion, known at the time as the Indian Mutiny. In the present day, the conflict is often portrayed as the thwarting of a nascent Indian anti-colonialist movement, but at the time it was considered a heroic triumph against a barbaric, atrocity-prone enemy.

The siege and Kavanagh became emblematic of this view.

In May 1857, Kavanagh, an employee of the Bengal Civil Service, was trapped with fellow Britons and pro-British Indians in the British Residency colonial quarter of Lucknow, which rebel sepoys had laid siege to.

A first relief force suffered heavy casualties and failed to reach those trapped in the Residency.

When a second force finally arrived in November, they had no knowledge of how to reach the hundreds trapped in the colonial quarter, nor knowledge of what had gone wrong with the first attack.

Kavanagh volunteered to be the messenger, disguising himself as a sepoy and sneaking out alongside a local man to head across the city and reach the relief force commanded by Sir Colin Campbell.

Kavanagh dressed as a sepoy - Noonans/BNPS
Kavanagh dressed as a sepoy - Noonans/BNPS

The two men mixed with rebel forces, blagged their way past enemy sentries and forded across rivers and swamps to reach Campbell. He then guided the relief force into the city and to the Residency.

The moment of his disguising was later immortalised in a painting by Louis William Desanges which now hangs at the National Army Museum in Sandhurst.

Kavanagh was widely feted in Britain for his actions, becoming known as “Lucknow Kavanagh” and being invited to tour Windsor Castle.

Mark Smith, an expert in medals at A. H. Baldwin & Sons auction house, told The Telegraph that it was the rarity of a civilian Victoria Cross that gave the medal its worth. While Kavanagh’s medal is expected to fetch up to £400,000 at auction, most sell for a fee of around £180,000 to £250,000.

“He is one of just five civilians, out of 1,358, so his is a rare story,” said Mr Smith.

The medal goes on sale at Noonans Mayfair on September 14.