This month, our Director/Curator, Lynda Powell has chosen a hand coloured photograph of Corporal John Lyons – the first Green Howard to be awarded the Victoria Cross.
John Lyons was born in 1823 in Carlow, County Carlow in Ireland. He was a painter before he, and his younger brother, joined the regiment in 1842. While he was recognised as an excellent soldier and twice promoted he was also court martialled three times for drunkenness. The photograph is reputed to have been taken after his death in 1867.
During the Crimean campaign Lyons fought with great tenacity at the Battle of the Alma and showed great skill as a marksman at the Battle of Inkermann. However his greatest act of bravery occurred on the 11th June 1855 in a trench near Sevastopol. During a Russian artillery barrage a live shell fell into the trench. Lyons immediately picked it up and threw it out saving the lives of over twenty men. His actions led to the Commander in Chief awarding Lyons £5 which he spent on white bread and a bottle of cognac.
In 1856 Queen Victoria allowed a new award, the Victoria Cross, to be instituted. Lyons was the only man nominated by the Regiment to be retrospectively awarded the Victoria Cross. On the 26th June 1857 Queen Victoria personally presented Lyons with his Victoria Cross.
Almost immediately after receiving his Victoria Cross Lyons left for India with the regiment. Four years later he was sent home to England suffering from muscular aches and pains. He was discharged from Netley Hospital on the 6th December 1862 having been found unfit for military service on the grounds of, ‘chronic rheumatism attributed to long service and exposure overseas.’ Lyons returned to Ireland and died on the 20th April 1867 aged 44 years.
Victorian post mortem photography
The invention of the daguerreotype – the earliest photographic process – in 1839 brought portraiture to the masses. It was far cheaper and quicker than commissioning a painted portrait and it enabled a family to have an affordable, cherished keepsake of their dead family members. The photographer often tried to make the recently deceased look like they were in a deep sleep. Children were usually shown on a couch or crib, while adults, like Lyons, were more commonly posed in chairs. As photographs became more commonplace the need to have post mortem photographs fell out of fashion.
Acquiring the photograph
The photograph was purchased by Major M L Ferrar, who recalls in his book, ‘Bygone Days’, ‘ When I was garrison adjutant of Dublin in 1897, an old pensioner who appeared to be in very poor circumstances came into my office at the Castle and said that he was David Lyons and brother of John Lyons, that he too had served in the Crimea and been wounded at the Redan. At the same time he took from his pocket a coloured daguerreotype in a pretty gilt frame, showing his brother in uniform wearing his Victoria Cross and Legion of Honour. He asked me to accept it, which I did, making him at the same time quite happy with half a sovereign…’ Ferrar later presented the photograph to the 1st Battalion and in time the photograph became part of the museum collection.
We have photographs of all eighteen men who were awarded the Victoria Cross while serving with the regiment, but this photograph is the most unusual. The fact that it is a post mortem image has a certain macabre interest, but it also shows that this tough Irishman had returned home to a family who wanted a photograph to remember him by.
I like the fact that his medals are randomly pinned to his chest – this isn’t his relatives being ignorant of dress regulations but is indicative of a period before rules were introduced. Serendipity is the great friend of the museum curator and clearly when Lyons’ brother arrived at Dublin Castle it was the greatest piece of luck that the museum’s great collector, Major Ferrar was on duty. This photograph of Lyons is now on show in our Crimean case. It is a beautiful object in its own right but it is the story of the Regiment’s first Victoria Cross, of a rogue, brave Irishman and the lucky acquisition of this gilt edged daguerreotype which makes it one of my favourite objects in the museum.