Noonans sell Campaign Medal of recipient of Victoria Cross who was imprisoned for Bigamy

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Noonans sell Campaign Medal of recipient of Victoria Cross who was imprisoned for Bigamy
The important Second Afghan War medal awarded to Victoria Cross winner Gunner James Collis.

LONDON.- A campaign medal with a fascinating past far exceeded expectations when it sold for a hammer price of £95,000 at Noonans in a sale of Orders, Decorations, Medals and Militaria on Wednesday, June 21, 2023. The important Second Afghan War medal awarded to Victoria Cross winner Gunner James Collis, “E” Battery “B” Brigade, Royal Horse Artillery has been estimated to fetch £15,000-20,000 but after a fierce battle between bidders, it sold for almost five times its pre-sale estimate. It was part of the Collection of Simon C. Marriage who passed away earlier in 2023.

As Oliver Pepys, Auctioneer and Medal Specialist (Associate Director) Noonans commented: “This medal awarded to Gunner James Collis, who had been struck off the VC Register, and was later re-instated made an impressive price and attracted a lot of attention from medal collectors who competed in the room to purchase it.”

James Collis was born in Cambridge on 19 April 1856. He enlisted into the British Army in 1872, After the fearful disaster at Maiwand, on 27 July 1880, a retreat was made to Kandahar. The road became blocked by masses of fugitives, and the sufferings of the wounded were increased by terrible thirst. The conduct of James Collis was most noticeable, for, time after time, he went into the villages on the road to procure water for them, running the greatest risk in so doing, by reason of the bands of Afghans who hovered around, attacking our disorganised soldiers whenever an opportunity presented itself. His finest act took place at the bend of a road through a narrow defile. A body of Afghan cavalry bore down upon the gun carriage he was guarding and directed a hail of bullets on the wounded, who had been placed upon the limber. In order to draw their attention from the helpless men, Collis sprang to the side of the road and returned the fire of the pursuing horsemen, making himself their target, and by his heroic act the limber was dragged round the bend of the road and the wounded saved. Later on he again distinguished himself by volunteering to carry a message from the beleaguered garrison to General Dewberry, entrenched some distance off. This he successfully accomplished, though fired at by the enemy on both legs of the journey.

His Victoria Cross was presented to him on Poona Racecourse by Lord Roberts on 11 July 1881.

After being discharged from the army, Collis joined the Bombay Police in India in 1881, rising to the rank of inspector. Furthermore, in March 1882, Collis married Adela Grace Skuse, a widow, in Bombay. In 1884 Collis returned to the UK and in 1887 he re-enlisted in the army, this time joining the Suffolk Regiment. He returned to India in 1888 as part of his service but in 1891 was invalided home suffering from rheumatic fever, returning without his wife. At some point he met - and in 1893 married - Mary Goddard, who was apparently unaware that he had a wife in India.

In 1895 his deception was discovered, and Collis was convicted of bigamy and sentenced to 18 months’ imprisonment with hard labour. Later that year his V.C. was declared forfeit for his crime under the original statutes of the Royal Warrant of 1856. However, by this point, having already fallen on hard times, Collis had pawned his Victoria Cross for just eight shillings. The decoration was retrieved by police for the same sum of eight shillings from a pawnbroker’s shop for the Crown on the instructions of the Home Office. After leaving prison he settled in Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk, and pursued several jobs but in 1914 after the outbreak of the First World War he re-enlisted in the Suffolk Regiment, aged 58, as a drill instructor. Dogged by poor health he was invalided out of the army on medical grounds in August 1917. Collis died at Battersea General Hospital in London on 28 June 1918, aged 62.

At his funeral at Wandsworth cemetery, his coffin was draped with the Union Flag and borne on a gun carriage escorted by a military firing party. He was given full military honours but there was no mention of his crime or the forfeiture of the Victoria Cross. His family, who regarded him as a black sheep, did not attend the funeral even though he had three sons in the Army. Nor was there money for a headstone and he was buried in a mass grave for the poor.

A headstone was erected over his burial plot in May 1998. Two years later after his death, Collis’s sister Hannah Haylock petitioned the War Office on behalf of the family for the forfeiture to be cancelled. George V was sympathetic to the family’s wishes but Winston Churchill, then Secretary of State for War, opposed the reinstatement. He believed that because Collis had pawned his medals, he placed little value on them. Furthermore, Churchill noted that the family had not kept in contact with Collis, and it was only 25 years later that they had decided to raise their grievance with the authorities. Yet the King and others won the day on the wider issue and Churchill approved amendments to the rules relating to the V.C. which stated that henceforward only “treason, cowardice, felony or any infamous crime” should lead to forfeiture. The King also insisted that Collis’s name should be inscribed, along with all the corps’s other V.C. recipients, on the Royal Artillery Memorial in Woolwich, south-east London.

His Victoria Cross first appeared for sale in Colonel Gaskell’s collection at Glendining’s on 23 May 1911. It was next sold at Glendining’s on 10 June 1938, when it was bought by Colonel Oakley. After his death it was owned by his daughter who resold it at Sotheby’s on 21 March 1979, when the V.C. was together with a renamed Afghanistan campaign medal. For the next 34 years, it was held in private ownership until it was purchased by the Ashcroft Trust in 2014 and is now on display at the Imperial War Museum, still with a renamed campaign medal. The original campaign medal awarded to Collis was never the subject of forfeit and was sold at Christie’s in July 1990.

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