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James Gorman, VC - His Life in the Royal 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 (nee 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 a apprentice.

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 15 x 32 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 was Admiral Horatio Nelson's Flagship at Trafalgar.

At the completion of six months training on board the HMS 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.

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 5ft 2in tall, with blue eyes, light brown hair and a ruddy complexion. It was recorded that he had been vaccinated against Smallpox.

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.

The Naval Brigade had been formed at the request of Lord Raglan who had asked the Navy for assistance. At first the sailors only worked around the camps in a non combatant role then as more of the Soldiers were either killed or wounded they were replaced by the Sailors.

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 Inkermann, Russell quoted Lushingtons 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".

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 once again distinguished himself when he rescued Captain Lushington after Lushington had been surrounded and unhorsed by enemy troops. Gorman badly wounded was returned to the Albion on 12 December 1854 where his left leg was amputated. Gorman remained onboard the Albion while Reeves and Scholefield stayed ashore until September 1855.

On the 7 June 1856, James Gorman, Thomas Reaves 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. 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 Inkermann & Sebastopol and the Turkish Crimea Medal, which had been presented to him by the Sultan of Turkey.

He left HMS Albion with a "Very Good Conduct" when he was disposed at Fisguard 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 Blackwall on the Thames in 1855.

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.

After two weeks ashore Leading Seaman James Gorman re-enlisted from the Chatham Volunteer's for duty on the 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 ton. It was one of the first ships of the Royal Navy to become part of the Australia Station of the Royal Navy.

On 26 May 1857 Gorman was awarded a Good Conduct Badge and then 21 February 1858 he was made Captain of the Afterguard. During the time he served on 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.

The HMS Elk was one of the first ships of the Royal Navy to become part of the Australia Station of the Royal Navy 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 5ft 5in in height.

On the 1st Day of September 1860 he was presented with a Bible and a book of common prayer by his sincere friend Richard Watson.

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.

© Harry Willey, August 2009

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Robert Curran
borclaud @ tpg.com.au