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date: 29 September 2020

Courage and popular heroism in the Oxford DNB, c.1850–2000free

  • Philip Carter

John Crawford (1775–1831)

by D. Orme, pubd 1797

Between the institution of the Victoria Cross in 1856 and its civilian equivalent, the George Cross in 1940, Britain witnessed a significant expansion in the concepts of heroism and the hero. The effect broadened heroism beyond an association with great men, as conveyed in Thomas Carlyle's On Heroes and Hero-Worship (1841) with its study of the hero as divinity, prophet, poet, priest, man of letters, and king, and a focus on world figures including Dante, Shakespeare, Cromwell, and Napoleon. On Heroes remains one of the period's leading accounts of the subject, its author's interest in the 'character of greatness' and 'the History of Great Men' becoming topics of wide-ranging discussion. But Carlyle's attachment to what his contemporary Samuel Smiles described as the 'strong man' was not shared by all, including Smiles, who in Self-Help (1858) offered a broader definition of heroism inclusive of industrialists and missionaries like Josiah Wedgwood and David Livingstone or, more generally, those who embodied Smiles's core principle of self-improvement. In subsequent decades definitions expanded further, reflecting a greater willingness to identify heroes with specific acts of bravery, to commemorate those capable of such deeds, and—given its value at a time of mass democracy and conscription—to celebrate the potential for heroism across society. Just who was chosen for recognition continued, of course, to heed the quality of a life lived, with courage and self-sacrifice regarded as expressions of exemplary conduct. But increasingly, to quote G. F. Watts, a leading advocate of this new vision, it was in the 'deeds of its people' that suitable and plentiful examples were to be found.

Saving lives

It is possible, of course, to identify instances of the acknowledgment and reward of civilian heroism before the late nineteenth century. In April 1774, for example, a group of sixteen men, led by the physicians William Hawes, Thomas Cogan, and John Coakley Lettsom, established in London the Society for the Recovery of Persons Apparently Drowned, subsequently renamed the Royal Humane Society. The society—one of the first to promote the novel phenomenon of resuscitation—recorded and rewarded conduct that led to the saving of life. In its early years the society's motive was less the reward of heroism than an interest in different forms of resuscitation and a desire to reduce deaths from drowning. At first those who rescued and brought victims for treatment received a monetary reward, a practice that was superseded by the awarding of medals due to fears of exploitation and its deleterious impact on members' finances. The society first awarded a medal, in place of money, to one Mr Powny in June 1775.

Grace Horsley Darling (1815–1842)

by Harold Perlee Parker, 1838


In addition to philanthropic institutions like the Royal Humane Society, town corporations also struck medals on an ad hoc basis to acknowledge the courage of local residents. One such recipient was Jack Crawford, an ordinary seaman in Admiral Duncan's flagship, Venerable, during the battle of Camperdown (1797). Under heavy fire Crawford successfully restored Duncan's squadronal flag to a prominent position after the ship's mainmast had been destroyed. On landing in his native Sunderland Crawford was presented with a silver medal 'for gallant service', which he later wore when invited to follow the coffin at Lord Nelson's funeral. In addition to his medal Crawford received a small annual pension, met George III, and had a Norfolk public house named in his honour.

While Crawford's rewards were relatively modest, those of a fellow north-east hero, the lighthouse keeper's daughter Grace Darling, were—commensurate with the national reach of her story—far more extensive. This owed much to the fact that Darling's heroism—the rescue, with her father, of nine sailors shipwrecked off the Farne Islands in September 1838—coincided with the rise of a national press eager for remarkable and uplifting stories such as this. In the months after the rescue Darling became a figure of celebrity, the subject of paintings, verse, and commemorative pottery, and the recipient of numerous honours from the government, public subscription, and the Royal Humane Society, which presented father and daughter with a specially struck gold medal. Four decades later the society instituted a formal gold medal, known as the Stanhope medal (named after Chandos Scudamore Scudamore Stanhope, 1823–1871) to be awarded annually for an act of outstanding courage with the intention of saving life. The medal, which remains the society's highest honour, was first awarded in 1874 to the merchant seaman Matthew Webb for his unsuccessful attempt to rescue a man who had fallen overboard.

George Frederic Watts (1817–1904)

self-portrait, 1864

© Tate, London, 2004

A year later Webb gained recognition for heroism of a different kind when he became the first person to swim the English Channel. During the crossing passengers on a passing steamer are said to have roused him with verses of 'Rule Britannia'. Having finally emerged from the water, Captain Webb displayed a modesty that the British expect of their heroes, dismissing his fatigue as 'similar to that after the first day of the cricket season'.

Heroes remembered

Darling's and Webb's courage was acknowledged and celebrated almost immediately, in part on account of their survival and of their deeds being widely publicized. That we remember others, however, owes more to the later intervention of third parties who campaigned for recognition of actions that went under-reported or unnoticed. Such interventions could come long after the event. In 1818, for example, the novelist Walter Scott discovered the historic honours of Scotland (the crown, sceptre, and sword of state) that had lain forgotten since 1707. During the 1650s the honours had been housed in Dunnattor Castle, Aberdeenshire, where they had been at risk of seizure by Cromwell's army. That they remained in Scottish hands was thanks largely to Christian Fletcher, a local minister's wife who smuggled the regalia from the castle and kept them hidden until the restoration. Fletcher was assisted by others, but her prominent role went unrecorded in public commemorations until Scott's discovery, which led him to reconsider her part in the event. Over the nineteenth century Fletcher duly emerged as a subject in guidebooks, popular histories, and genre paintings by David Wilkie, and in 1912 as an examplar of courage celebrated by Agnes and Sir Robert Baden-Powell in their handbook for the recently formed Girl Guides. Other acts of intervention were more immediate responses to courageous acts overlooked. The sinking, on 30 March 1899, of the channel steamer Stella resulted in the deaths of 112 passengers and crew, including the ship's stewardess Mary Rogers. Initially Rogers' actions received just a paragraph in the official report of the disaster. However, survivors testified to her bravery and self-sacrifice in securing their rescue and in refusing to enter a lifeboat to prevent it capsizing. In so doing Rogers's conduct epitomized the recently established, and much lauded, principle of ‘women and children first’, attributed to Alexander Seton for his evacuation of a stricken steamship, the Birkenhead, in 1852. That it was a female steward who had followed Seton's code prompted the women's rights campaigner Frances Power Cobbe to take up the cause. Rogers's dutiful life and courageous death were subsequently recorded with a memorial fountain in her home town, Southampton, verse by the poet laureate, Alfred Austin, a stained glass window (which also featured Grace Darling) in Liverpool's new Anglican cathedral, and a tablet in George Frederic Watts's recently erected Memorial to Heroic Self-Sacrifice in the City of London.

Watts, a prominent artist and advocate of social reform, had first proposed a commemoration for everyday heroes, initially envisaged as a statue to Unknown Worth, in the mid-1860s. This came to nothing and twenty years on he tried again, prompted in part by reports of the death of a London servant, Alice Ayres. In the early hours of 24 April 1885 fire had broken out in a shop in Southwark. Ayres, attempting to rescue her nieces from the rooms above, sustained injuries from which she died soon after. Her selflessness, courage, and early death evidently moved many local residents: her funeral was attended by hundreds of mourners, a public subscription led to the erection of a monument over her grave, and she became the subject of commemorative verse and illustrations.

Wallace Henry Hartley (1878–1912)

by unknown photographer, 1912 [the band of RMS Titanic: John Frederick Preston Clarke, Percy Cornelius Taylor; Georges Alexandre Krins, Wallace Hartley, William Theodore Ronald Brailey; Jock Hume, John Wesley Woodward]

© Illustrated London News Ltd / Mary Evans

Two years later Watts wrote to The Times proposing a public memorial to the 'heroism of everyday life' to mark Queen Victoria's golden jubilee, and cited Ayres as an example of the civilian heroism he wished to see remembered for the good of the nation. Watts's memorial was at last unveiled in Postman's Park, north of St Paul's Cathedral, in 1900. It took the form of a cloister decorated with ceramic tablets, initially designed by William De Morgan, each of which commemorated a person who had died in the act of rescuing others. Alice's tablet was installed two years later and by 1938—on the death of Watts's widow, Mary, who maintained the memorial—fifty-three tablets had been installed marking the acts of sixty-one 'heroes of humbler life'.

Edwardian ideals

A common attribute of those named in Postman's Park was an exemplary, if often unremarkable, life cut short by actions indicative of generosity, dignity, and compassion—Watts's intention being the recovery of overlooked displays of courage by people obscured by their low social status. This too was a founding principle of a contemporary benefaction, the Carnegie Hero Fund, and the Carnegie medal, established in North America in 1904 by the Scottish-born steel manufacturer Andrew Carnegie after an industrial accident in Pittsburgh. In sharp contrast two further disasters, Robert Scott's failed expedition to the south pole [see British Antarctic expedition] and the loss of the Titanic, both in spring 1912, were events of international significance. And yet the actions and character of those selected for commemoration highlighted similar themes—of selflessness, nobility, and consideration—typically associated with late Victorian and Edwardian notions of the gentleman. Confirmation of the deaths of Scott's party reached London in February 1913, and was marked with a memorial service at St Paul's, a public subscription that raised £75,000 and led to the creation of the Scott Polar Research Institute, and the erection of Kathleen Scott's statue to her husband in Waterloo Place, London, in 1915. Public commemorations of the expedition were not confined to its leader, however. Following the discovery of Scott's journals particular attention was also paid to Laurence Oates, whose decision to quit the party in the hope that those remaining could advance more quickly, had been described by Scott as 'the act of a brave man and an English gentleman'. It was a definition and judgement with which many now agreed.

Commemorations of Scott and Oates came soon after those for selected crew members who perished with the Titanic on 15 April 1912. Of those remembered in the coming days and weeks particular attention was paid to the ship's seven musicians and their leader, Wallace Hartley. Survivors reported that the orchestra had played throughout the evacuation in order to allay passengers' fears, with certain observers maintaining that the hymn 'Nearer, my God, to thee' had been played as the Titanic made its descent. The precise details of the ship's final minutes have since been debated by survivors and historians. However, as victims who clearly acted courageously and benevolently, and were in no way responsible for the disaster, Hartley and his fellow musicians served both to highlight the heroism of many ordinary passengers and crew (notably in observing the principle of ‘women and children first’) and to prompt questions over the seemingly less dignified conduct of some superiors, most notably Joseph Bruce Ismay, owner of the White Star Line. Likewise the Titanic's master, Edward Smith, though cleared of blame by the inquiry, proved a less reliable subject for commemoration. Today there are more than twice the number of memorials to Hartley and his musicians worldwide as to Captain Smith, whose statue in Lichfield (also by Kathleen Scott) bears no reference to the disaster.

Medals for gallantry: war and peace

The heroism displayed in landmark disasters like the loss of the Titanic prompted numerous public and commercially sponsored reactions: from monuments and plaques to postcards, sheet music, and newspaper special issues.

Mir Dast (1874–1945)

by unknown photographer, 1915

reproduced with the permission of Leeds University Library

This blend of personal philanthropy and commerce had long been a feature of heroic commemoration, as seen in the financial rewards distributed by founding members of the Royal Humane Society or the lucrative trade that developed in Grace Darling souvenirs. These, however, were not the only means of record and remembrance and from the 1850s onwards the state—with a range of nationally recognized medals and citations—increasingly supplemented civil society in rewarding heroism in what, by the 1910s, had become an era of total war involving conscripts and civilians.

Since its institution in 1856 the Victoria Cross, Britain's highest award for acts of military bravery in warfare, has been a notably democratic honour. According to its royal warrant the medal recognized 'conspicuous bravery', its award being open to 'all persons on a perfectly equal footing' with reference to 'neither rank nor long service'. In keeping with this principle the first recipient, Charles Davis Lucas (who received the medal in 1857 for actions in the Baltic in 1854) was a mate in the Royal Navy. Other honours during the 1850s and 1860s (years in which there was a noticeably higher proportion of awards than for later campaigns) went to Able Seaman William Hall, Ensign Richard Wadeson (both 1857), and Private Samuel Hodge (the first West Indian recipient, in 1866), with the largest share going to junior officers. To modern audiences the VC's inherent democracy is perhaps most evident from notable citations for First World War combatants, among them the Indian jemadar Mir Dast; the piper Daniel Laidlaw; Noel Chavasse, the sole double recipient of the war; the airman Albert Ball, and the sixteen-year old sailor John Travers Cornwell who, following his death at Jutland in 1916, was upheld as an example of 'lofty and honourable conduct' for British schoolchildren. Having survived their particular acts of heroism, Mir Dast and Daniel Laidlaw gained further recognition of traditional and more modern kinds—Mir Dast receiving the order of India, and with it the Hindi title of bahadur or ‘hero’, while Laidlaw, widely known as the Piper of Loos, participated in two early war films commemorating his and his comrades' conduct during the battle. Others, by contrast, did nothing to court publicity. The stretcher-bearer William Coltman, another holder of the Victoria Cross and the war's most decorated other-rank soldier, went so far as to avoid his own welcoming parade and quietly resumed his former life as a municipal gardener.

John Travers Cornwell (1900–1916)

by unknown photographer

In a conflict as encompassing as that of 1914–18 the award of official decorations often ran in tandem with national or local acts of public remembrance. In addition to a posthumous VC John Cornwell's heroism was marked with a set of penny stamps, a commemorative day in elementary schools, and the installation in the Imperial War Museum of the gun at which the boy sailor was stationed when killed. Others acts of heroism—those that caught the national mood but did not receive official recognition—continued to be marked by public art, as in the case of Edith Cavell, the nurse executed by the Germans in 1915, or John Simpson Kirkpatrick, the ‘man with the donkey’ at Gallipoli, who are respectively commemorated with statues in St Martin's Place, London, and in Canberra and South Shields. For many others, hymns like Sir John Arkwright's 'O valiant hearts' (1917), which likened fallen servicemen to knightly heroes, and the tomb of the Unknown Warrior, installed at Westminster Abbey in 1920, became personal and national memorials to unknown deaths and unrecorded acts of courage.

Official recognition of heroism was not, of course, restricted to members of the military. Ten years after the Victoria Cross came the Albert Medal, providing civilians (as well as servicemen in certain circumstances) with an equivalent, though less prestigious, award 'for gallantry in saving life'. Recipients with entries in the Oxford DNB include the Manchester boatman and multiple life-saver Mark Addy—one of the few recipients to be awarded a first-class distinction (in 1878), the medical officer Edward Atkinson, and the polar explorer Tom Crean, who received his medal for a rescue in the early stages of Captain Scott's expedition. 1922 saw the institution of an additional civilian award, the Empire Gallantry Medal, of which an early recipient was the Norfolk lifeboat coxswain Henry Blogg, who, as the holder of seven gold and silver medals of the Royal National Lifeboat Institution, remains the institution's most decorated sailor.

In September 1940 the Albert and Empire Gallantry medals were replaced with the George Cross, which became, and remains, Britain's highest award for bravery by a civilian or by a military person where the VC is not applicable. Introduced by George VI to acknowledge civilian courage on the home front, especially during air raids, the first recipient was Thomas Hopper Alderson, a Yorkshire ARP warden honoured for 'sustained gallantry, enterprise and devotion to duty' after attacks on Bridlington in August 1940. As recognition of military as well as civilian conduct, many of the George Cross's first recipients—among them the Special Operations Executive officers Odette Hallowes, Violette Szabo, and Arthur Nicholls—were active in theatres of war, though others, like Alderson and the Liverpool munitions worker Arthur Bywater, were honoured for home duties. Bywater's award recognized his part in clearing a fire-damaged factory of 12,000 primed fuses in February 1944; seven months later he took part in the removal of a further 4000 bombs for which he was awarded the George Medal (also instituted in 1940), so becoming the only civilian to receive both awards.

(Barbara) Jane Harrison (1945–1968)

by unknown photographer

Since 1945 notable recipients of the George Cross, civilian and military (and all posthumous), have included the railwayman John Axon, whose actions were also remembered in a pioneering radio documentary; the air steward Barbara Harrison, who died saving passengers from a burning plane in 1968, and who remains the only woman to have received the medal in peacetime; and the army officer Robert Nairac, for service in Northern Ireland. Among the servicemen who received the Victoria Cross during the Second World War, in which fewer medals were awarded than in 1914–18, were the double recipient Charles Upham, the air force officer Guy Gibson, and leading seaman James Magennis, with later holders including Kenneth Muir (Korea, 1951) and Ian McKay (Falkland Islands, 1982).

Modern commemorations

More than two hundred years after the formation of the Royal Humane Society national interest in heroism and heroes is as marked as ever, if perhaps for different reasons. The current popularity of historical biography and of regional history in search of ‘local heroes’, together with a broader focus on celebrity, may account for some of this interest. Modern commemorations tend to carry less religious and moral purpose than those of the late Victorian and Edwardian period, being largely respectful and deferential attempts to preserve or promote historical understanding of notable individuals. Recent examples have included newly commissioned monuments and statues, museum displays, books, and public art recalling the conduct of, among others, Jack Crawford, Mary Rogers, Alice Ayres, and Barbara Harrison. Similarly a new gallery dedicated to the history of the Victoria Cross and military heroism more generally opened at the Imperial War Museum, London, in 2010. However, while modern commemorations may be less didactic, they remain on occasions—notably following the death of Diana, princess of Wales—no less sentimental (and for some no less mawkish) than past episodes that fused the grief of loss with a celebration of heroism.

Established forms of commemoration are also being revisited. In June 2009, for example, a new tablet (the first since 1938) was unveiled at the Watts memorial in Postman's Park. Attendance at and respect for the annual armistice ceremonies are likewise increasing, compared both with relatively low levels of support in the 1960s and 1970s and with services a decade ago. This current interest in heroism, and especially that of ‘ordinary’ people in war, owes as much, of course, to current circumstances as it does to historical events: a country once more involved in significant military conflict, and a public who in 2009 observed the deaths of Bill Stone, Henry Allingham and Harry Patch—the last surviving servicemen of the First World War.


  • J. Price, ‘“Heroism in everyday life”: the Watts memorial for heroic self sacrifice’, History Workshop Journal, 63 (2007), 255–78
  • P. Parker, The last veteran: Harry Patch and the legacy of war (2009)
  • G. Watts, ‘Another jubilee suggestion’, The Times (5 Sept 1887)


  • D. Orme, etching, pubd 1797, NPG, BM [see illus.]
  • H. P. Parker, portrait, 1838, Grace Darling Museum, Bamburgh, Northumberland [see illus.]
  • G. F. Watts, self-portrait, oils, 1864, Tate collection [see illus.]
  • group portrait, 1912 (the band of RMS Titanic. John Frederick Preston Clarke, Percy Cornelius Taylor; Georges Alexandre Krins, Wallace Hartley, William Theodore Ronald Brailey; Jock Hume, John Wesley Woodward)), Mary Evans Picture Library, London; repro. in ILN (27 April 1912) [see illus.]
  • photograph, 1915, U. Leeds, Brotherton Collection [see illus.]
  • photograph, IWM [see illus.]
  • photograph, British Airways Museum, Hounslow, Middlesex, Heathrow Airport [see illus.]
Imperial War Museum, London