John Abercrombie Knox - The First Victoria Cross

One of the memorials revealed by the clearance of section L of the cemetery, during the Friends workdays, marks the burial place of John Abercromby Knox in 1880, at the age of 10. For the time, sad but unremarkable. But read on ... the inscription continues, "only son of Major J. S. Knox (late Rifle Brigade)".

Although the VC was instituted by royal warrant in 1856, the first awards were backdated for service in the Baltic and the Crimea. The first recipient of the VC was a Royal Navy officer, Lieutenant Charles Lucas, who was given the honour for throwing a live shell overboard in June 1854 while serving in the Baltic. But the Army's first VC action was the Battle of Alma in September 1854, for which six Crosses were awarded - four to the Scots Fusilier Guards and two to the Royal Welsh Fusiliers. One of these went to John Simpson Knox, a sergeant in the Scots Fusilier Guards, who rallied retreating troops and was credited with a major role in turning a potential defeat into victory.

He went on to distinguish himself at the Battle of Inkerman (November 1854), where he took part in the storming of a battery and, single-handedly faced a party of enemy skirmishers. He was honoured again for his bravery when he volunteered for the ladder party for the first assault on the heavily defended Grand Redan, Sebastopol (June 1855), where his left arm was blown away by a cannon ball.

Knox was born in Glasgow on September 30 1828. His childhood was not a happy one so, at the age of 14, he ran away from home and, being tall for his age, enlisted in the Scots Fusilier Guards. He was promoted corporal in June 1846 (whilst still under-age), sergeant in July 1851, and acting sergeant-major and drill sergeant in July 1853. He was still an exceptionally young, but senior, N.C.O. at the time of the Crimean War.

The Bravery of the three Battalions of Foot Guards and, in particular the valour displayed by them at Inkerman, so delighted the Prince Consort, that he offered a Commission in his own Regiment, the Rifle Brigade, to the most deserving N.C.O. Knox was duly selected and commissioned Ensign in the Rifle Brigade, in March 1855, and was promoted Lieutenant the following month.

After the Crimean War Knox was appointed Instructor of Musketry and promoted Captain on the 30th April 1858. He married Miss Louisa Harriet Gale in 1862 and they had seven children, while he served as Instructor of Musketry at Gibraltar and at Portsmouth until June 1872, when he retired from the Army.

He had been recommended for the rank of Major some 11 years earlier the Duke of Cambridge. For some reason, this had been refused but the Duke, on learning of this shortly before Knox's retirement, tried again. The promotion was finally confirmed on the 7th June, and Major Knox relinquished his Commission the following day. He would undoubtedly have been pleased with both the ranking title and that he received the full market value of the commission, £2,500 -a significant retirement "lump sum".

Having left the Army Knox served as Governor of Cardiff Gaol from 1872 until 1886, when he transferred as Governor to Kirkdale Gaol, Liverpool. In October 1891 he was appointed to the Governorship of Hull Gaol, an appointment he never took up, owing to ill-health caused by his wife's recent death, and he retired from the Prison Service in April 1892. Throughout this second career he was noted as a model prisons? official - a stern disciplinarian, he maintained perfect order, but at the same time showed the utmost kindness to the prisoners. It was while Governor of Cardiff Gaol that Knox's son died, to be buried in Cathays Cemetery. And there appears to be one other lasting legacy from this period: it is surely no coincidence that the entrance to Cardiff Prison is in Knox Road?

Major Knox died at home in Cheltenham on the 8th January 1897, and was buried in the Cheltenham Cemetery four days later. The Knox VC was the principal item in a lot which included three other medals, two portraits, a cap badge, a belt plate and a Russian cannonball reputed to be the one which took his arm off. The lot sold for £252,000, more than double the original estimate, at Spink Auction House in London, in April 2010. Lord Ashcroft, the Tory peer, was outbid by an anonymous buyer, to the disappointment of the descendants of Major John Simpson Knox, who had hoped that it could be kept in this country and on public display.

A fortunate coincidence of the auction was that much research for this article had been done and documented in the catalogue which can be viewed at:

The catalogue borrows heavily from Knox's own diaries and letters and includes detailed personal accounts of the actions at Alma, Inkerman and Sebastopol. If you read these, you will be left in no doubt that Major Knox was a remarkable and brave soldier, who was fully deserving of the honours bestowed on him.

Source fcc newsletter 5 pp3-5