Thomas Arthur VC (1835- 1902)
Thomas Arthur was one of only four North Devonians who have been awarded the Victoria Cross.
Born in Abbotsham, near Bideford in 1835, to Thomas and Jane Arthur, he appears to have worked as a farm labourer for a short while for a John Beckalick at Parkham, before joining the Army at the age of 18 at Devonport for service in the Royal Regiment of Artillery. He was sent to the Royal Artillery Depot at Woolwich, where he earned the princely sum of one and three pence per day (the equivalent of 6p today) as a gunner. In November 1854, he embarked on HMS ‘Niagara’ from Liverpool, bound for the war in the Crimea.
Conditions in the Crimea were atrocious, and more men were dying from infection, fever, poor sanitation and hunger, than from deaths and injuries sustained in battle, and it was to rectify this situation that Florence Nightingale was famously sent, with 38 nurses to help her. Though she was largely based in Scutari Barracks, she did make two visits to Balaclava, where at one timeThomas was briefly hospitalised.
He was eventually stationed at Sebastopol, where the Russians were dug in at the Quarries.
The 7th Fusiliers attacked the position, and gained it, but Thomas could see that that the infantrymen were running out of ammunition. When night fell he ran, on several occasions under heavy enemy fire, with barrels of ammunition on his head, and at obvious great danger to himself,to keep the infantry supplied. He was said to have thrown the ammunition down at the soldiers’ feet, shouting “Here you are, my lads, fire away!”.
The Quarries were little more than holes in the ground in front of a fort called the Redan, the capture of which was the object of the exercise, and against which the Commander-in Chief, Lord Raglan, threw about a thousand troops, but without success. Only half survived the attack.
It was at this point that Thomas volunteered to form and lead a spiking party, to disable and sabotage the enemy guns, an extremely hazardous operation.
On other occasions, he was seen, lifting up and bringing back wounded officers and men to the trenches.
For all these acts of bravery, he was later awarded the Victoria Cross.
He left the Crimea with his Battery in February 1856, and arrived back in Woolwich in the middle of March.
Uncharacteristically, he took two separate days off without leave soon after his return. He was court-martialled and ended up serving a twenty-eight day sentence in Weedon Military Prison in Northamptonshire.
Fortunately, he was released nine days before he was ordered to march to Hyde Park, where, together with 62 other Crimean War heroes, he was awarded the Victoria Cross by Queen Victoria .
The Victoria Cross was specifically created at this time to commemorate the deeds of those servicemen who had acted with valour under enemy fire, above and beyond the call of duty, and this was the first investiture of its kind. The medals were awarded in strict order of seniority of service and rank. Thomas was the twenty-third, being one of five Royal Artillery members – four officers, and Thomas.
A few days afterwards, on 6 July, he got married to Ann Goddard, from Hornstead in Berkshire.
They had eight children in all, his sixth child, Sophia being born in Bideford in 1876. This was after his retirement from the army in 1874.
He finally settled in Savernake, Wiltshire, where he died, of unknown causes, on 2 March 1902, aged 67. He is buried here in Cadley Churchyard
Proud of Thomas’s exploits and medal, many of his descendants have included the name Arthur in their sons’ name, one relative even calling her daughter Mabel Arthur!
It is well-known that Victoria Crosses are made from the gunmetal of one of two Chinese cannons, used by the Russians and captured by the British at the siege of Sebastopol.
Thomas’s own medal was purchased on 19 July 1902 for £47, purchased again at a later date by the Royal Artillery Institute, and is now displayed at the Royal Artillery Museum, Woolwich, for all to see.
Additionally, from May’s ‘Buzz Word’ –
Following up the extremely interesting piece by Chris Trigger about Thomas Arthur, readers might be interested to learn a bit more about the Abbotsham connection.Thomas was baptised in St Helen’s Church in the village in August 1836. His two elder sisters, Catherine and Fanny had been baptised there in March 1833, but there is no record of his parents, Jane and Thomas, having been married there, so it is probable that they moved to Abbotsham from elsewhere. Thomas’ father appears to have died before his son was born as the Parish register reords the funeral of a Thomas Arthur (s) in 1836. (all the Parish records show the family as Arthurs.) It is possible that Thomas’ mother married again later in life as a Jane Arthur (s) married a John Dinford at St. Helen’s in November 1847.
In St Helen’s Churchyard, by the foot of the cross commemorating the war dead is a small plaque dedicated to Thomas Arthur as one of the first soldiers ever to receive a VC for his valour in war. There is also a small housing development named ‘Arthur’s Lea’ in his momory.
Martin Wilson. (Abbotsham Community Archive).