The George Cross was instituted on 24 September 1940 by King George VI. At this time, during the Blitz, there was a strong desire to reward the many acts of civilian courage. The existing awards open to civilians were not judged suitable to meet the new situation, therefore it was decided that the George Cross and the George Medal would be instituted to recognise both civilian gallantry in the face of enemy action and brave deeds more generally.
The medal was designed by Percy Metcalfe. The Warrant for the GC (along with that of the GM), dated 24 September 1940, was published in the London Gazette on 31 January 1941.
The GC replaced the Empire Gallantry Medal (EGM); all holders of the EGM were instructed to exchange their medals for a GC, a substitution of awards unprecedented in the history of British decorations. This substitution policy ignored holders of the Albert Medal (AM) and the Edward Medal (EM), awards which both took precedence over the EGM. The anomaly was rectified in 1971, when the surviving recipients of the AM and the EM became George Cross recipients and were invited to exchange their medal for the George Cross. Of the 64 holders of the Albert Medal and 68 holders of the Edward Medal eligible to exchange, 49 and 59 respectively took up the option.
Since its inception in 1940, the GC has been awarded 416 times, 413 to individuals and three collective awards to Malta, the Royal Ulster Constabulary and the National Health Service. There have been 165 original awards including both collective awards and 251 exchange awards, 112 to Empire Gallantry Medal recipients, 69 to Albert Medal recipients and 70 to Edward Medal recipients. Of the 162 individuals who received original awards, 86 have been posthumous. In addition there were four posthumous recipients of the Empire Gallantry Medal whose awards were gazetted after the start of the Second World War and whose awards were also exchanged for the GC. All the other exchange recipients were living as of the date of the decisions for the exchanges.
The most recent award of the George Cross to an individual was to Dominic Troulan, a retired British Army officer and ex Royal Marine, who received the medal for his actions during the 2013 Westgate Shopping Mall terrorist attack in Nairobi, Kenya. He was the first civilian recipient of the GC in 25 years after the posthumous award to Stewart Guthrie, a New Zealand police officer in 1992. His citation appeared in the London Gazette on 16th June 2017.
On 5 July 2021, on the 73rd anniversary of the founding of the NHS of the UK, Queen Elizabeth II announced in a personal handwritten message that the four NHS organisations of the United Kingdom would be awarded the George Cross. It was reported that the award was recommended by the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson. The conferral of the award followed an 18 month period in which the health service has been at the forefront of the fight against the coronavirus pandemic in the UK.
The message read:
“It is with great pleasure, on behalf of a grateful nation, that I award the George Cross to the National Health Services of the United Kingdom. This award recognises all NHS staff, past and present, across all disciplines and all four nations. Over more than seven decades, and especially in recent times, you have supported the people of our country with courage, compassion and dedication, demonstrating the highest standards of public service. You have our enduring thanks and heartfelt appreciation. Elizabeth R.”