Mullingar man Thomas Henry Kavanagh became a celebrity in Victorian Britain due to his exploits in Lucknow during the Indian Rebellion of 1857-8.

Mullingar man’s Victoria Cross could fetch €500k

The Victoria Cross won in 1857 by a Mullingar man – the first of only five civilians ever to receive Britain’s highest military honour – is tipped to sell for around €500,000 (£424,000) when it goes up for auction next month.

The Irish Independent has reported that the medal, belonging to Mullingar native Thomas Henry ‘Lucknow’ Kavanagh, has a guide price of somewhere between €350,000 and €470,000, but could go for much more when it goes under the hammer in London next month.

Kavanagh, who was born in Mullingar in 1821, was working in the British civil service in the Indian city of Lucknow at the time of the Indian Mutiny (also known as the Indian Rebellion), a major challenge to the rule of the British East India Company, which erupted in May 1857.

The British garrison came under sustained attack from the rebels in what became known as the Siege of Lucknow. Kavanagh, who was then Britain’s assistant commissioner in the northern state of Oudh, volunteered for a dangerous mission to escort a relieving force of British troops to reinforce the garrison at the colonial Residency in Lucknow.

Through the entire operation, Kavanagh was disguised as an Indian soldier and managed to negotiate the troops’ route past enemy sentries, often behind enemy lines, using his local knowledge along the way.

For his endeavours, Kavanagh was presented with the Victoria Cross by Queen Victoria personally in Windsor Castle, and he became something of a celebrity, writing a book about his exploits (which, unfortunately, mention nothing about his Mullingar origins). His experiences did not come without loss; Kavanagh’s wife was wounded during the siege, and one of their children died.

So how do we know Kavanagh came from Mullingar? ‘Our’s Is A Nice Town’, a column which ran in the Westmeath Examiner during the 1950s and 1960s, provided the answer in 1958.

Kavanagh’s Mullingar ancestry is confirmed in a narrative of the Indian Rebellion based on a collection of diaries, letters and other papers belonging to Edmund Hope Verney, a British naval officer who participated in the suppression of the rebellion. The narrative account was published by a descendant of Verney’s in a book entitled ‘The Devil’s Wind’ in 1956.

“Kavanagh, who was a clerk in one of the civil offices,” states the author, Major-General G. L. Verney, “had been born in Mullingar, Co. Westmeath, thirty-six years before.”

The Examiner columnist, ‘TC’, argues that the fact that Captain Edmund Hope Verney knew Kavanagh means that his papers can be accepted as “irrefutable” evidence of Kavanagh’s Westmeath origins.

‘TC’ continued: “I did once hear old Jimmy McKeough of Austin Friars [Street, Mullingar], the shoe maker and a Crimea veteran, say that Kavanagh was ‘a bit of a clerk who did something in Lucknow and got a medal for it’, but till now I had no idea that the ‘medal’ was the Victoria Cross.

“Jimmy’s understatement can be understood. He was badly wounded at the siege of Sevastopol in 1855 (to the end of his days he carried what he called ‘a silver thatch to his skull’) and he had a supreme contempt, as most ex-soldiers have, for ‘blood thirsty civilians’ who are forever talking and writing about the glories of war.

“In Jimmy’s eyes Kavanagh was ‘a civilian’ so he thought probably that the less said about him or his deeds the better.

“I have ‘a sort of a kind of idea’ that Terry Kavanagh, a very excellent athlete of the very early Peter O’Connor, Mullingar period was a descendant of the non-military VC of the Indian Mutiny, but it is only an idea,” ‘TC’ concluded.

Kavanagh died in Gibraltar in November 1882. The book about his experiences is entitled ‘How I Won the Victoria Cross’.

The medal goes under the hammer at Noonans Mayfair of London on September 14.