Mark Smith, medals expert on the BBC Antiques Roadshow, was the guest speaker at the Rector’s annual ‘Black Tie Do’ on 18 November. Following a superb formal dinner in the Masonic Hall, Mark gave a lively talk on his specialist interest, The Story of the Victoria Cross, and gripped our attention in an almost mesmerising manner for over an hour.
Former Curator of the Royal Artillery Museum, Mark’s passion for medals originated as a childhood hobby and became a career. It began when, aged just six, he was given care of his father’s wartime medals, which he carefully arranged on his bedroom shelf; it was his first display of medals. Later, his father bought him a poster depicting every British medal: ‘Let’s collect the lot!’ Mark said enthusiastically, and with his father’s help he almost succeeded. Just one, so rare, seemed beyond their reach: it was the Victoria Cross.
The Victoria Cross, Mark told us, was established in response to overwhelming public opinion. Ordinary soldiers had been somewhat despised; even Wellington had referred to them as ‘the scum of the earth’, and only officers could receive medals. With the Crimean War this all changed. Roger Fenton, one of the first war photographers, and William Howard Russell, war correspondent for The Times, were present at the Charge of the Light Brigade on 25 October 1854. The subsequent photograph and searingly vivid account on the front page of The Times a day or two later mobilised public opinion so powerfully that Queen Victoria inaugurated the Victoria Cross. ‘All my soldiers are brave,’ she said, ‘this medal is for valour in the face of the enemy’, and it was to be awarded to men of any rank. Not only that, but Queen Victoria felt so strongly that the medal must be valued for the deed, not the metal, that she ordered it to be fashioned in bronze.
Particularly moving were the stories of the heroes behind each Victoria Cross, of which Mark had researched over 600 and recounted a few to us. The youngest ever VC was just fifteen. A great many survivors of the action had lifelong injuries, but tragically, of the 1,364 men awarded the VC to date, over 200 have committed suicide from post-traumatic stress, so high was the cost of their courage. Just three men have been awarded the VC twice – not as a second cross, but as a bronze bar sewn to the original ribbon – the extraordinary fact being that they were all cousins!
And, yes, in 1990 Mark did at last manage to buy his own Victoria Cross to add to his collection, and brought it with him for us all to see – a tiny thing held in the palm of his hand, representing so much.
It was a tremendous privilege to hear Mark Smith speak – and if you ever get the chance to hear him, seize the opportunity without hesitation! And thank you, Canon Kevan McCormack, for initiating such a splendid evening – which, incidentally, raised nearly £700 for church funds.
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