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SEAMAN JAMES GORMAN VC
Harry Willey ©2008
Reproduced here with the kind permission of Harry Willey. [This is essentially the same article which appears at the website Spectacle Island History under the title “James Gorman, VC”. However, the version here below has been very mildly edited. TM, webmaster.]
I have spent considerable time over the last 29 years researching the life and service of James Gorman VC.
Assisted by other historians, I am now convinced this is the full and true story.
This lengthy research was required to correct stories (written by historians over the past one hundred and twenty five years) using a mixture of information on the lives of three men named James Gorman who had served in the Royal Navy between the 2nd March 1848 and 21st August 1860.
The writers of these previous stories were further mislead when James Devereux of Southwark (born Suffolk, 1819) claimed that he had joined the Navy as James Gorman and had been awarded a Victoria Cross for his actions at Sebastopol.1
My research has confirmed that James Devereux was an impostor, who following James Gorman's departure for Australia successfully convinced his family and the British press that he was James H. Gorman VC. Of the other three named James Gorman, while two were discharged from the Navy in disgrace the third, about whom this story is written, was awarded a Victoria Cross for his courageous devotion to duty at the Battle of Inkermann on the 5th November, 1854.
James Devereux may have believed that he was entitled to a Victoria Cross. He may have even deserved it and been recommended for it. It is possible he was, as he claimed, at Sebastopol under the command of Midshipman William Nathan Wrighte Hewett (later Vice Admiral) on the 26th October 1854 and had participated in the action for which Hewett was awarded a Victoria Cross. The one thing is certain is he was not James Gorman VC.
Despite never producing his medals, Devereux's story convinced successive historians in the UK from the 1880s until 1979, that he was the recipient of the Victoria Cross. An Australian Publication 'They Dared Mightily' first published the truth about the Devereux fraud in 1986.
The current edition of 'The Register of Victoria Cross' has finally printed the correct details and deleted any reference to Devereux.
The following facts are recorded in regard of the service of the two other James Gormans. AB Wm. Gorman served on HMS Shannon and was eligible for the Indian Mutiny Medal 1857-1858 with the Lucknow Clasp. In 1862 he was discharged from the Navy in disgrace.
Seaman James Gorman, while serving on HMS Woodcock in September 1857, had been wrongly paid the VC Pension awarded to James Gorman VC. Seaman James Gorman was imprisoned in Hong Kong in 1859 before he was discharged in disgrace.2
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His Life in the Navy
Captain of the Afterguard James Gorman VC was born in Islington, Middlesex, on 21 August 1834. His parents were Patrick James Gorman, a Nurseryman, and his wife Ann (née Furlong). Patrick and Ann had married at St Martin in the Fields Church, Trafalgar Square, Westminster on 23 November 1829. Aged thirteen years, James was one of the first intake of two hundred boys to be accepted into the Royal Navy as an apprentice.3
He was assigned to HMS Victory as a Boy Second Class, 2 March 1848. The 2,164 ton Victory, her keel laid at Chatham in 1759, was completed and launched at Chatham, 7 May 1765. She remained afloat for over 150 years. Victory carried 104 guns, 30 on the lower gun deck and 15x32 pounders on both sides. She was 227 ft in length and had a beam of 52ft and a draught of 25ft. Her crew consisted of over 800 men, only a tenth of these were used to sail her, the rest were used only in battle. HMS Victory was described as the largest and finest ship ever built and had been Admiral Horatio Nelson's Flagship at Trafalgar.
At the completion of six months training on board the Victory, Gorman was transferred with sixty nine other apprentices to HMS Rolla. A paddle wheel and sail tender to Victory, she was a 231 ton 'Cherokee' Class 10 gun brig sloop that had been completed in 1829 in Plymouth Dockyard. HMS Rolla cruised in the channel until the youngsters were declared fit to serve aboard regular naval vessels.4
Impressing his instructors, Gorman, was kept beyond his allotted time on HMS Rolla to act as an instructor for the second intake of apprentices. At the completion of this duty he was appointed to HMS Dragon for a few weeks before joining the Howe, where he stayed until 12 July 1850.
After a short stay on the floating barracks Queen, James joined HMS Albion as a Boy First Class on 13 July 1850. His service records show that at that time he was 5 feet 2 inches tall, with blue eyes, light brown hair and a ruddy complexion. It was recorded that he had been vaccinated against smallpox.5
James was promoted to Ordinary Seaman 2nd Class 13 May 1852 and, two months later, to Able Seaman. It was with this rank that Gorman served as a member of the Naval Brigade in the Crimea. The Brigade, consisting of 1,020 officers and men from Her Majesty's Ships Albion, Britannia, Bellerophon, Diamond, London, Queen, Rodney, Trafalgar and Vengeance, were placed under the Command of Captain Stephen Lushington of the Albion.6
The Crimean War was the first engagement where newspaper correspondents were allowed to accompany the troops and report first hand from the battlefield to London Newspapers. Reports by William Howard Russell of The Times were favoured by readers who believed them to be the most graphic. In describing the Battle of Inkerman, Russell quoted Lushington's own words, “The battle commenced at half past seven on a cold misty morning and was a determined attempt by the Russians to force the British from the heights above the town of Sebastopol, a long day of heavy fighting followed and the Russians were eventually driven back.”7
This brief and understated quote does little to describe one of the bloodiest and confusing battles ever fought by the British, whose soldiers, outnumbered four to one, engaged in desperate hand to hand fighting till they finally repulsed the Russians.
It was when a lightly defended British position appeared to be overwhelmed by the Russians, that James Gorman and his comrades performed their own desperate act of bravery.
Russell reported the determination of the five sailors from the Albion who, as the Russians advanced up the Careenage Ravine inflicting heavy casualties on the British, were ordered to withdraw and leave the wounded. They replied that “They wouldn't trust any Ivan getting within bayonet range of the wounded.”
The five sailors then mounted the defence works banquette. With the help of the wounded soldiers lying in the trench below them, who were reloading rifles and passing them up, they were able to keep up a continual and rapid rate of firing. This drove the enemy back three times when they were within 40 yards of the wounded soldiers. The Russians finally fell back and gave them no more trouble.
Victory did not come cheaply. Two of these brave sailors, Thomas Geoghegan, who had just returned from being treated for wounds he had received at Sebastopol, and John Woods were killed during the battle.
During the following week James Gorman again distinguished himself bringing Captain Lushington to safety after Lushington had been surrounded and unhorsed by the enemy troops. Gorman was badly wounded during this act of bravery. He was returned to the Albion on 12 December 1854 where his left leg was amputated. Gorman then remained onboard the Albion while Reeves and Scholefield [the other two of the original Inkerman five] stayed ashore until September 1855.
On the 7 June 1856, James Gorman, Thomas Reeves and Mark Scholefield were recommended by Sir Stephen Lushington to Queen Victoria as being worthy recipients of the Victoria Cross. On the 24 February 1857 their names appeared amongst the 82 whom the Queen had conferred this very special honour.8
The Queen investured Thomas Reeves with his decoration at the inaugural presentation in Hyde Park, London, 26 June 1857. On the same day two Victoria Crosses were dispatched through the War Office to be presented to Gorman and Scholefield who were both serving in the Second Opium War against China. 61 of the first 85 Victoria Crosses were awarded to Officers.
Gorman had already received his Crimea Medal with Clasps for 'Inkerman' & 'Sebastopol' and the Turkish Crimea Medal.
He left HMS Albion with a “Very Good Conduct” when he was disposed to the Fisgard on 5 January 1856. The following day he signed on HMS Coquette as an AB. HMS Coquette was a 670 ton wooden screw steam gun vessel of 200 horsepower, carried four guns and had a top speed of 10.8 knots; she had been built by Green of Blackwall on the Thames in 1855.9
On 17 March 1856, Gorman was transferred to Haslar Hospital in Gosport, Hampshire, where he was hospitalised for six weeks with rheumatism. When discharged from the hospital on 2 May 1856 he returned to HMS Coquette and was discharged from Her Majesty's Service three weeks later.10
After two weeks ashore Leading Seaman James Gorman re-enlisted from the Chatham Volunteers for duty in HMS Elk when the sloop was commissioned at Chatham. HMS Elk was a brig sloop of 12 guns having been built at Chatham dockyard in 1847; she was 105 ft long and 482 tons. It was one of the first ships of the Royal Navy to serve on the new Australia Station.
On 26 May 1857 Gorman was awarded a Good Conduct Badge and then on 21 February 1858 he was made Captain of the Afterguard. During the time he served in HMS Elk he took part in operations in the Canton River at the taking of Fatchan and Canton from 28 December 1857 to 5 January 1858. For this service, he was awarded the Second China Medal with the Canton Clasp.11
The HMS Elk was one of the first ships of the Royal Navy to become part of the Australia Station and while Captain of the Afterguard James Gorman VC was serving on her she was to visit Australia on three occasions. Those occasions were Sydney 31 December 1858 and then during January 1860, and a stay in Melbourne in March 1859. James Gorman VC was Paid Off at Sheerness, 21 August 1860, his 26th birthday, at which time he was recorded as being 5 feet 5 inches in height.12
Farewelling Kate Padmore, who he had recorded as his next of kin, James boarded the 755-ton Fairlie at Plymouth for the voyage to Australia on 7 January 1863.
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His Life in Australia
The life of James Gorman VC in Sydney is well recorded. On arrival he resided first at 259 Kent Street, from where he could look out over the busy wharves of Darling Harbour, then the centre of Sydney's maritime industry, now the home of the National Maritime Museum. James found work almost immediately as a Sail maker.13
He moved to a dockside house in Sussex Street and it was while residing there he met twenty year old Marianne (Mary Ann) Jackson. Mary Ann had arrived in Australia with her parents Robert and Elizabeth Jackson and her siblings onboard the ill-fated Beejapore from Methwold, Norfolk in January 1853. Fifty six passengers died during the voyage including Marianne's youngest sister. A further 62 died while in quarantine. Thirty two year old Elizabeth Jackson was hit by a horse and cart and accidentally killed, four days after being released from quarantine. Two weeks later her youngest daughter who had been born during the voyage died.14
On November 10 1864, James and Marianne were married at St Philip's Church, Sydney. While residing at 259 Kent Street the following year, their daughter Annie Elizabeth was born.15
In 1865 Henry Parkes, the Colonial Secretary of New South Wales, told parliament that only one third of the school age children in the state attended school. He believed there were many hundreds roaming the streets that were illiterate.
With the support of the Premier James Martin QC, Parkes succeeded in having legislation passed which empowered the police to place homeless boys found vagrant or begging in the streets in the growing number of 'ragged' schools and orphanages. By doing so Parkes and Martin hoped to clear the Sydney streets of destitute and neglected boys and provide them with an education.
When Parkes learnt that Robert Towns the owner of merchant ships and whaling vessels wanted to sell the Vernon, he persuaded the Government to purchase it for use as a training ship. Constructed at the Blackwall shipyard in London in 1839 the Vernon, owned by Mr Green, had been contracted to transport 370 government migrants to Brisbane. It had a crew of 44 and was also to carry 400 ton of general cargo. The Vernon was impounded upon arrival in Brisbane in 1864 and sold to Robert Towns to repay debts incurred by the Captain following a mutiny during the voyage to Australia.
Marianne Gorman, aged twenty three years, died of a fever in July 1866 and was buried in the Devonshire street cemetery. On 17 April 1867, Parkes employed James Gorman VC as drill master and gunnery instructor on the Nautical School Ship Vernon. His duties were to teach the boys all facets of cutlass and rifle drill in addition to gunnery practice which included the aiming and firing at movable targets.16
The boys, the majority of whom were children of widows, or women who had been deserted by their husbands, came from all parts of the state and were required to attend school each day in addition to learning a trade, seamanship, carpentry, tailoring or shoemaking.
With James living on board the NSS Vernon, Annie Elizabeth was cared for by her uncle William Coates who had a butcher's shop in Kent Street, and his family.17
In 1869, while still acting as gunnery instructor, James was appointed as Master at Arms in Charge of the lower deck, making him responsible for the discipline and welfare of the 135 boys onboard. He told a select committee of Parliamentarians that he believed the younger boys would be better served if they were given more schooling, recreation and rewards for good behaviour in place of the continual scrubbing of the decks they were required to do daily. He maintained that from 4.30am till they went to bed at 8.00pm the boys did not have a half-hour to call their own during the whole day.
Questioned about his disability, James was asked, “Did you not come on shore in the ship's boat?” He replied that he “…could not land in the usual place from the ship's boat as it was too difficult for him and when leaving the NSS Vernon he had to be taken by a waterman to Circular Quay.”18
In 1872, now Sail Maker and Officer in Charge of the lower deck, he was reportedly pleased that many of his suggestions had been implemented improving the life of the boys. Some of his charges were as young as 23 months when assigned to the Vernon.19
The annual reports from the Superintendent James Seton Veitch Mein of the NSS Vernon to the Colonial Secretary show that James Gorman VC was liked and well respected by both the other officers and the boys.
In his 1873 annual report Mein wrote: “of the Scarlet Fever that had been in the ship for several months, and that at present we are quite clear of sickness. The great attention and care of the sick by Mr James Gorman, that was specially reported and commended earlier, I think is worthy of notice again here, for it was no doubt due to his skilful nursing that many of the boys recovered so quickly. It affords me great satisfaction to be enabled to state that no death has taken place during the last twelve months.”
The following year the Superintendent again reported on the health of the boys: “There was one death during the year by accident, the second fatal accident since 1867, there were less colds and sore throats than any other year due to fumigating the lower decks, The Officer in Charge of the Lower deck, Mr James Gorman VC, is a careful and expert hand in the use of this remedy and preventative; he deserves every praise for the care of the sick.”
Due to the lack of experienced staff and the Government's attempt to lower the cost of running the establishment, the ship was without officers to look after the boys in the sick bay, or to instruct them in the art of sword, gun and sail drill. Gorman's concern for the welfare of the boys saw him voluntarily continue these duties in addition to his appointed duties. This kept him fully occupied from 6am to 9pm each day.
On Monday 1 April 1878, James Gorman VC was promoted to the position of Second Mate with a salary of 130 Pounds Sterling per year. He retained this position as third officer of the NSS Vernon until 7 June 1881. When disappointed that the Vernon was no longer teaching nautical skills to the 188 boys onboard, he transferred to the Ordnance Department, taking up the position as the foreman of the magazines on Spectacle Island for a yearly salary of 175 Pounds Sterling. Spectacle Island was the first official naval stores complex in Australia and its powder magazine, which was built in 1865, is still in use today.20
During the time James Gorman VC served on NSS Vernon 1130 boys were received in the ship. These boys were trained and educated for a minimum of two years. Aged twelve years or over, the boys were apprenticed to the Colony's settlers as farmhands or servants or to factories and businesses as labourers. They remained on the books of the Vernon until released on their eighteenth birthday. At this time many stayed in the employ of those who had employed them, some as partners.
Six weeks after moving to Spectacle Island, on 20 July 1881, James married thirty-five year old Deborah King, who then lived with him and his daughter in a stone cottage on Spectacle Island.21
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On 15 October 1882, aged 47 years James Gorman VC suffered a severe stroke. Three days later with his wife and daughter at his bedside he died.22
His funeral was held on 20 October 1882 with a grave side service taking place in the Church of England section of the Balmain Cemetery in Norton Street, Balmain. Among the large crowd of mourners were the officers and a strong detachment of the boys from the NSS Vernon. A firing party comprising of the boys gave the usual naval salute.23
In 1901, as the building of Sydney's Central Station encroached on the Devonshire Street cemetery, the remains of those buried there were moved to other cemeteries. James Gorman's daughter, now Mrs Annie Elizabeth Cairns, obtained an exhumation permit that allowed her to bury her mother's remains in the grave of her father, James Gorman VC.
The Headstone erected on this grave (plot 10053) was destroyed by the Leichhardt Council in 1944 as Balmain Cemetery was transformed into 'Pioneers' Memorial Park'.
The inscription on the headstone had read:
James Gorman VC
Late Spectacle Island, also
15 years NSS Vernon.
Died 18th Oct 1882. Aged 47 years.
Awarded VC brave deed, first VC. June 21st. 1854.
VC instituted Jan. 29th.1856. 24
A Memorial stone archway, dedicated as “a lasting tribute to the pioneers of the district” was erected at the Norton Street entrance in 1944. Just inside the entrance there is a monument erected as a memorial to the fallen soldiers of Leichhardt in World War One. After the Second World War, the names of servicemen from Leichhardt who died in that conflict were added.
There are three individual plaques for Victoria Cross winners. On the front of the memorial there are two plaques. The first is in honour of World War One VC recipient Private William Matthew Currey who attended Leichhardt School. He was awarded a Victoria Cross for his actions at Peronne 1 September 1918. The other is for Leichhardt-born World War 2 VC recipient Corporal John Bernard Mackey who received a Victoria Cross for his actions that cost him his life at Tarakan, North Borneo in 1945.
On the northern side of the memorial there is a plaque recording that the then Governor of New South Wales, Sir Walter Davidson, KCMG, had unveiled the memorial on 9 April 1922, when the monument stood in its original position in the grounds of the Leichhardt Town Hall on the corner of Marion and Norton Streets.
Above this, there is a plaque, probably added when the memorial was relocated in 1949, bearing the inscription:
JAMES GORMAN VC.
5th NOVEMBER 1854.
BATTLE OF INKERMAN.
LEST WE FORGET.
On November 11, 2001, a plaque in memory of Seaman James Gorman was attached to the Balmain War Memorial in Loyalty Square, Balmain.
Gorman outlived his Inkerman companions. Thomas Reeves, born in Portsmouth in 1828 was an apprentice baker when he joined HMS Victory, aged seventeen and a half in August 1846. He joined HMS Albion was a ordinary seaman in September 1850 and was one of the Ship's Yeomen of Signals at the time he was awarded his VC.
Thomas had volunteered for a further ten years service in April 1856 but was discharged in June 1860, when only thirty two years of age, classified 'Aged and infirm'.
Thomas Reeves died of consumption in August 1862 at Portsea and was buried in a pauper's grave at the Portsea Island General Cemetery. This area that was later declared as open space known as Mile End Gardens is now the car park for the Portsmouth Continental Ferry Port. A memorial was erected in 2001 to mark his grave. His Victoria Cross and service medals were auctioned by Spinks in 1986 for 11,000 Pounds Sterling.25
Mark Scholefield, the eldest of the three surviving participants in the action at Inkerman, was born in Middlesex in April 1828, and joined the navy as a Boy Second Class in 1846, serving in Tortoise. He joined HMS Albion as an Ordinary Seaman in October 1850 and like James Gorman was paid off from Albion in January 1856. He went out to China in HMS Acorn where he was Quartermaster and Petty Officer when he died at sea in February 1858. His medals were sold at auction by Glendinning's in May 1965, for 1,200 Pounds Sterling.
The two seamen from Albion who did not survive the action at Inkerman were Thomas Geoghegan AB, and John Wood AB. Wood, who was 38 years of age, was buried near the 3rd Division camp. The muster book of HMS Albion held at the Public Records Office at Kew, reveal that 29 men and boys died on board the ship during the months of October and November 1854.
James Gorman VC may have only lived a short life but it was a life full of purpose and caring for others. His thirteen years in the Royal Navy was followed by what to me was his greatest achievement, years of great work on NSS Vernon, which changed the lives of so many boys destined to a future of hopeless misery and shame, into lives full of promise.
The success of the NSS Vernon becomes evident by the records that show that within 25 years of being discharged from the ship, slightly over one percent, were charged with any wrongdoing. The remainder became respectable and industrious citizens.
The last word on James Gorman VC goes to James Pickering the shoemaking instructor on NSS Vernon, who is quoted as saying, “He was always among the boys, a terror to the bad boys, he was regarded with affection by the good boys who would not do anything to displease him. In fact he had only to speak and all was peace and quietness.”26
© Harry Willey. August 2008.
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1. 'Sad Death of a Hero', The South London Press, Saturday, 4 January 1890. ▲
2. ADM171/29; Officers and Men who are entitled to Indian Medal and clasps as stated; PMG16/10. Victoria Cross Pensions for Conspicuous Gallantry; Born, Waterford, Ireland, 7.1.1829. Joined Woodcock from Dauntless, 13.3.1857. Imprisoned Hong Kong and discharged 15.2.1859, Woodcock muster shows him still in prison 20.9.1860. ▲
3. ADM38/7844 HM Ship Coquette, Description of Seamen 30 November 1855 to 17 July 1860; BDM, Page 47 Entry 517; New South Wales Legislative Council 1868-69, Report from the Select Committee on The Training ship Vernon, with Gorman's evidence p.p.24/34. ▲
4. The Muster and Description books for the Victory; New South Wales Legislative Council 1868-69; op. cit., pp.24/34; O'Byrne's Naval Annual for 1855. ▲
5. New South Wales Legislative Council 1868-69; op. cit., p.p.24/34; ADM38/2378 HM Ship Albion, April-June 1851; Albion Muster Book; ADM38/7489 HM Ship Albion 29 May 1850 to 5 January 1856, Description of Seamen. ▲
6. ADM38/7844 HM Ship Coquette, Description of Seamen 30th November 1855 to 17th July 1860; ADM171/24 1854-55- Crimea War Medal Roll of the Naval Brigade; John Winton, 'Able Seaman James Gorman VC; was he, or was he not , an Aussie?' Seascape, No 24, April 1989. ▲
7. Andrew Lambert & Stephen Badsey, 'The War Correspondents, THE CRIMEAN WAR' ▲
8. Supplement to 'The London Gazette' published Tuesday, February 24, 1857. ▲
9. Hans Burk, 'Navies of the World', 1859; 'The Navy List', 1858. ▲
10. ADM171/24 1854-55 Crimea War Medal Roll of the Naval Brigade; ADM171/26-Turkish Crimea War Medal; ADM38/7489 HM Ship Albion Descriptions of Seamen, 29 May 1850 to 5 January 1856; ADM38/7844 HM Ship Coquette, Description of Seamen 30 November 1855 to 17 July 1860; Muster for HM Ship Coquette. ▲
11. ADM38/3275 Muster for HM Ship Elk 1 April 1858 till the 30 June 1858; ADM171/30 The Second China Medal; ADM171/32 The Canton Clasp. ▲
12. ADM38/8028 Pay List for HM Ship Elk, 6 May 1856 to 21 August 1860. ▲
13. 1866 Sands Directory. ▲
14. Shipping Records for Beejapore, arrived Sydney 5 January 1863. 117 passengers died either on the voyage or in quarantine at North Head. ▲
15. Marriage registered in NSW, No. 942. ▲
16. Australian Almanac 1869. ▲
17. Sands Directory. ▲
18. Minutes of Evidence taken before The Select Committee on the Training Ship Vernon, p64. ▲
19. Australian Almanac 1872/73; Minutes of Evidence taken before The Select Committee on the Training Ship Vernon p 32. ▲
20. Blue Book; Australian Almanac. ▲
21. Marriage Registered in NSW No. 943. ▲
22. Deaths Registered in NSW No 2039). ▲
23. The Sydney Mail, Saturday October 28, 1882. p744. ▲
24. Letter from Town Clerk, Leichhardt Council, to The Hon Secretary, Society of Australian Genealogists, 17 July 1944. ▲
25. Navy News, HMS Nelson (Portsmouth), London, December 1998. p2. ▲
26. Minutes of Evidence taken before The Select Committee on the Training Ship Vernon p38. ▲
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