b. 05/08/1829 Knocklong, County Limerick, Ireland. d. 13/07/1875 Chesterfield, Derbyshire.
William Coffey (1829-1875) was born on 5th August 1829 in the parish of Knocklong, County Tipperary, Ireland. He was the son of a farm labourer, William Coffey and his Johanna (nee Healy). William had two brothers, Timothy and John, who were both born before 1832. William followed his father into the occupation as a farm labourer, but during the 1840s times became increasingly hard in rural Ireland with the outbreak of the Irish Potato Famine. It is believed that the hardship caused by the potato blight caused many Irishmen including young William Coffey to enlist in the Army to escape.
William enlisted at the town of Fermoy in County Cork on 24th November 1846. William joined the 82nd Regiment of Foot (The Prince of Wales’ Volunteers) and he gave his age as 17 years 10 months and he was listed as 5ft 5 inches tall and remarkably for a new recruit, he passed the medical! The following year saw Coffey leave Ireland, never to return, when he was posted to the Regiment’s depot at Devonport. The main body of the Regiment was just returning from Canada. The first three years of his Army career saw him travel around the UK, having posts in Wales, Salford Barracks, Glasgow and Stirling.
By 1853, the 82nd Regiment was preparing to be posted out to India, and William decided to get married prior to the departure. On a period of leave over Christmas 1853, he married Margaret Lynch who was just 16 years of age. She was from County Fermanagh, Ireland and was working as a domestic servant in Stirling where Coffey was based. The plan was for Margaret to travel with William to India, but plans changed as events developed not in India, but on the Crimean Peninsula.
On the outbreak of the Crimean War, William had a choice, either to travel to India with the 82nd, or transfer to another Regiment to go to the Crimea. On April 1st, 1854, William and his brother Timothy both chose to join the 34th Regiment of Foot which assembled in Sheffield. After travelling via Corfu, the Regiment arrived at Scutari on 1st December 1854, and on the 9th December, they took up siege duties at Balaklava.
By March 1855, Coffey was now part of the Siege of Sebastopol, and it was there that he performed the act of the gallantry, which would eventually lead to the award of the Victoria Cross. On the 29th March 1855, whilst in the trenches at Sebastopol, Coffey saved the lives of over 12 men. A live shell landed in amongst the men in the trench, and Coffey, without hesitation, picked it up and threw it over the top. Coffey was then involved in the assaults on the Redan on 4th April, 18th June and 8th September 1855. On 5th October 1855, Coffey was recommended for the Distinguished Conduct Medal (the highest available award for a NCO at the time).
In March 1856, Coffey was promoted to Corporal, and on the 14th May 1856, he was recommended for the Medaille Militaire by the French for the incident on 29th March 1855. Coffey was also awarded the Turkish Medal and Crimean Medal for the Crimean Campaign. Coffey disembarked from the Crimea heading for home on 14th June 1856. On the 16th July, at Aldershot, Coffey was one of the men inspected by the Queen and he was mentioned in her diary as a “Corporal Coffy, who had received two medals for throwing a live shell out of the trenches, and saving his comrades.”
In November 1856, Coffey was promoted to Sergeant, but his greatest honour was about to come. On 24th February 1857, he was one of the first awards of the new Victoria Cross announced in the London Gazette. Coffey was one of the 62 men who lined up in front of the Queen at Hyde Park on 26th June 1857 to receive his VC. The Queen remarked in her diary “I was glad….to give the Victoria Cross…to Corporal Coffey of the 34th, whom I had seen at Aldershot.” By this time, Margaret, William’s wife was pregnant with their first child and news had been received of the outbreak of the Indian Mutiny. On 24th August 1857, William embarked on “The Golden Fleece” for India. Coffey was involved in several actions of the Indian Mutiny most notably at Cawnpore and the Siege of Lucknow, and he received the Indian Mutiny Medal with Lucknow clasp.
When peace was declared in 1859, Margaret came to join William in Fyzabad, though sadly it is believed that his first child, Mary Joanna (born on 6th January 1858) had died on route to India. At first, William and Margaret attempted to live in India before William was discharged on 21st December 1860 at Calcutta. William then began to work on the staff of the Railway Department in Calcutta. His second child, Emma Emilie was then born on 20th January 1861, but life in the railways didn’t suit William, and he re-enlisted on 19th June 1861 with the 75th Regiment of Foot (later The Gordon Highlanders). Interestingly, around this time, it is believed that Coffey had to apply for a replacement for his DCM which he had apparently mislaid. There is also a record that Coffey also had a replacement VC. By 1862, it was likely that the 75th were going to return to the UK, but William wanted to remain in India, so he returned to his old Regiment, the 82nd.
Sadly, William’s home life was full of sadness, as his daughter Emma Emilie, died aged just 1 in February 1862, and their next child, William John Coffey also died in infancy, aged 9 months in November 1863. Sadly, their only child to live to adulthood, was their final child, Margaret, born in January 1865. Sadly, William’s wife didn’t recover from Margaret’s birth, and died aged just 28 in May 1865. William, now left with a 3 month old daughter, chose for her to be adopted and she was adopted by Corporal William Dowd and his wife Mary.
The effects of his wife’s death and the Indian climate began to affect William’s health and he had a spell in hospital in March 1867. In October 1867, a regimental meeting decided that he was “unfit for further service” and should be discharged. In February 1868, William left India and heading back to England. On arrival in England, he was unwell, and immediately was admitted to the military hospital at Netley, near Portsmouth. On 22nd July 1868, his army career was declared over due to chronic bronchitis. This was after over 21 years of service.
Following his discharge from the Army, he moved to Pembroke Dock in West Wales, where an old Army colleague of William’s lived with his wife, Patrick Gainey. On the 7th October 1868, William married Patrick’s daughter, Margaret, at the St Mary’s Catholic Church in Pembroke. Coffey began to work as a baker following his marriage, but soon he had returned to the military and joined the Royal Cardigan Militia. William and his new wife moved to Aberystwyth and he began to train the new recruits as a Sergeant Instructor. On 12th July 1870, he and Margaret had a son, William, but again tragedy struck, and the infant died of TB on 3rd December. William himself was still dogged by poor health and finally discharged again for the final time on 31st March 1875.
The Gaineys had by this time left Wales, and started a new life in Derbyshire, and William and Margaret followed them and began living in a house called Park View, in the village of Stonegravels (now part of Chesterfield). Coffey died at home of dysentery on 13th July 1875, aged 46. He was buried in the Roman Catholic Section of the Spital Cemetery, Chesterfield. Coffey’s medals are held by the Border Regimental Museum, Carlisle.
LOCATION OF MEDAL: ROYAL BORDER REGIMENT MUSEUM, CARLISLE.
BURIAL PLACE: SPITAL CEMETERY, CHESTERFIELD, DERBYSHIRE. RC SECTION, GRAVE 10657
Richard Thompson – Coffey VC Grave in Chesterfield, Derbyshire.
Thomas Stewart – Medal Group at the Royal Green Jackets Museum, Winchester.