"The Times" - Saturday, 9 May 1998

Gunner James Collis, holder of the Victoria Cross and a veteran of the Second Afghan War of 1880, has lain for 80 years in an unmarked pauper's grave in South London, with no headstone to acknowledge his act of bravery in the service of his country.

Now, after all these years, the grave of James Collis bears a headstone, resplendent with the carving of his Victoria Cross. A short ceremony was held on 22 May 1998 at Wandsworth Council's Magdalen Road Cemetery to mark the erection of the headstone.

His story is remarkable. He is one of eight VC holders whose medals were forfeited under the authority of the Royal Warrant because each subsequently committed a criminal offence. Gunner Collis was a bigamist who was sentenced to 18 months with hard labour.

In 1895 it was discovered that although he had a wife in India, Collis has married again in England. Under the existing terms of the warrant of the Victoria Cross, the award had to be forfeited in the event of any crime which attracted a sentence of more than six months. He was already suffering hard times and had pawned his Victoria Cross for just eight shillings ( 40p ). The Metropolitan Police who arrested him had to retrieve the VC from the pawnbrokers and the War Office paid the redemption fee.

Gunner Collis was born at Cambridge on 19 April 1856. He enlisted in the British Army in 1872 and first served in the 32nd Regiment, later the 2nd Battalion the Duke of Cornwall's Light Infantry, and later, transferred to the Royal Horse Artillery.

For the award of the Victoria Cross.

[ London Gazette, 17 May 1881 ]. Maiwand, Afghanistan, 28 July 1880, Gunner James Collis, Royal Horse Artillery.

For conspicuous bravery during the retreat from Maiwand to Kandahar when the officer commanding the battery was endeavouring to bring in a limber with wounded men under a cross-fire, in running forward and drawing the enemy's fire on himself, thus taking off their attention from the limber.
James Collis was invested with his Victoria Cross by Lord Roberts in Poona, India, on the 11th July 1881.

At the outbreak of the First World War he enlisted at the age of 58 in the Suffolk Regiment and served with the regiment until August 1917 when he was discharged on medical grounds. On 28 June 1918 he died of a heart attack in a hospital in Battersea at the age of 62

When he died, his coffin was draped with the Union Flag and borne on a gun carriage escorted by a military firing party. At the Wandsworth cemetery he was given full military honours and there was no mention of his crime or the forfeiture of the Victoria Cross. His family, who regarded him as a black sheep, did not attend the funeral even though he had three sons in the Army. Nor was there money for a headstone and he was buried in a mass grave for the poor.

Medal entitlement of Gunner James Collis VC - Royal Horse Artillery

  • Victoria Cross
  • Afghanistan Medal ( 1878-80 )
    • 1 clasp: "Kandahar"


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Iain Stewart, 06 September 1998