b. 02/1814 Ticknall, Derbyshire. d. 26/06/1864 Jullundur, India.
John Smith (1814-1864) was born in Ticknall, Derbyshire in February 1814, the sixth of eight children. He followed his father’s and uncle’s profession as a cordwainer (maker of boots and shoes). At the age of 22, driven probably by boredom, unemployment or a family dispute, he accepted a Recruiting Sergeant’s drink and a shilling and was on his way to the Honourable East India Company Depot at Chatham to start his 18 month engineering training. In 1839, he endured the 6 month sea voyage to India and joined the 3rd Company, Bengal Sapper and Miners. Soon he was promoted to Sergeant and took part in the First Afghan War of 1841 and the Sutlej Campaign of 1845-1846. It was during this campaign that he met Lieutenant Duncan Home (later VC) for the first time. He remained in the Punjab for a number of years working on a variety of civil projects.
He was serving at Roorkee, a town on the banks of the Ganges Canal, when news of the outbreak of the Mutiny at Meerut broke. Colonel Baird Smith quickly organised boats to carry several hundred loyal sappers and infantrymen under the command of Captain Fraser, and the 70 miles to Meerut. The reaction to their arrival was hostile, Fraser was killed and many fled to join the mutineers. All that remained in Meerut were John Smith and 45 NCOs and privates, and 124 Indian sappers. Two weeks later, Smith’s party joined Archdale Wilson’s column on its way to join the Delhi Field Force.
On the morning of 14th September 1857, the party approached the Kashmir Gate and Smith’s duty was to bring up the rear, and see none were left behind. Lieutenant Salkeld passed through the temporary outer gate with Sergeants Carmichael and Burgess, but four of the natives stopped behind and refused to go in. Smith had to put down his bag and threaten to shoot them. At this point, Salkeld appeared and wanted Smith to shoot the men as time was running short. When two of the men went through the gate, Smith lowered his gun. Shortly afterwards there was a premature explosion which threw Smith into the ditch, narrowly escaping death. Smith then set about checking the survivors. Burgess was mortally wounded and unable to be helped, but Salkeld was alive, though severely wounded. Smith bound his wounded thigh and arm and made him as comfortable as possible. He then fetched a stretcher, now in short supply, and ordered Hawthorne to remain with Salkeld until he was safely carried to the field hospital.
Sergeant Smith then assisted in clearing the debris away from the Gate. The door that had been blown up was intact and was dragged and laid across the damaged bridge so that the British guns could be pulled into the city. After the recapture of the city, he joined Brigadier George Barker’s flying column, which was on the march for the next 18 months.
Smith was gazetted for the VC on 27th April 1858, two months before the announcement of Home and Salkeld’s VCs. This would indicate that there was a little hesitation about posthumous awards. There is no information on when Smith was presented with his VC. Smith sadly died aged 50 of dysentery on 26th June 1864 at Jullundur and was buried in the Artillery Cemetery. He left his medals to his wife, and their whereabouts remained a mystery until his Victoria Cross came up for auction on 18th November 2020. The medal sold for a hammer price of £155,000 to Lord Ashcroft. A memorial was unveiled to him in Ticknall in May 2014.
LOCATION OF MEDAL: LORD ASHCROFT GALLERY, IMPERIAL WAR MUSEUM, LONDON.
(SOLD FOR £155,000 ON 18/11/2020)
BURIAL LOCATION: ARTILLERY CEMETERY, JULLUNDUR, INDIA.
Dix Noonan Webb – Image of the John Smith VC Medal.