The South African
Military History Society

Die Suid-Afrikaanse Krygshistoriese Vereniging

Military History Journal
Vol 2 No 3 - June 1972

First South African born recipient of the Victoria Cross


Joseph Petrus Hendrik Crowe, younger son of Joseph Crowe, Lieut 60th Regt (later King's Royal Rifle Corps) of Ireland, and Classina Magdalena Vermaak, of Vermaak's Military Post, Alexandria district, was born in or not very far from Uitenhage on the 12th January, 1826 and was baptised a month later, according to the N.G. Kerk baptism records of the period. His father bought a house in Uitenhage in the following year.

Whether J. P H. Crowe was born in Uitenhage or not is not so much the point of interest. In the old house at 34 Cuyler Street and, from 1839, in No.2 Caledon Street, he certainly would have spent his boyhood. Formative years these must have been, because the meagre references suggest that he must have been blessed with qualities of personality and integrity similar to those attributed to his brother, Thomas Coenraad. As his brother was taught by that notable pedagogue, Mr James Rose Innes, it is likely that Joseph also learned his three Rs, and much beside, from that same scholarly person.

It is possible that Joseph Crowe served with the local levies, earlier known as Provisional Companies, attached to British regiments such as the 72nd and 78th Highlanders (later 1st and 2nd Bn Seaforth Highlanders) and the 75th Highlanders (later 1st Bn Gordon Highlanders) before being appointed to an ensigney in the 78th Highlanders on the 27th October, 1846, on the recommendation of the successive Governors, Sir George Napier and Sir Henry Pottinger.

Crowe left Uitenhage for India in February, 1847, as an ensign and in 1850 was promoted to the rank of lieutenant. He served with the 78th Highlanders in the Persian Campaign, stormed Bushire and gained the Persian Medal and Clasp. He returned with his regiment to India in 1857, just in time to serve under Major-General Havelock, during his historic march on Cawnpore.

The engagements were bloody, and at times desperate, but Havelock's leadership and the bravery of the red coats steadily raised the sieges of a number of towns. A particularly challenging situation faced Havelock on the 12th August, 1857, on the outskirts of Cawnpore . . . a well defended stronghold at the Busherut-gunge. In the words of a regimental narrator - "Here a redoubt was strongly occupied by the enemy, whence they were firing rapidly on our men. Preparations were made to carry the place by storm, there being no guns at hand to attack it with, and night was coming. Every minute men were falling killed or wounded. All being ready for a charge, with marksmen playing on the place to keep down the fire, the word was given, 'go'. The gallant Highlanders dashed forward, each man trying to be 'first in'. The race was won by Lieutenant Crowe, who outstripped all and, being followed by his men, in less than a minute the place was captured and the enemy scattered or slain."

For the outstanding courage which he displayed in this attack, Crowe was awarded the Victoria Cross, and in the formal terms of the London Gazette, 15th August, 1858, the citation reads: "Joseph P. H. Crowe, Lieut. 78th Regt. (now Captn. in 10th Regt.). For being the first to enter the redoubt at Boorzeke Chowkee, the entrenched village in front of the Busherutgunge, on 12th August. (Telegram from the late Major-General Havelock to the Commander-in-Chief in India. Dated Cawnpore, 18th August, 1857)".

Crowe had found promotion slow between 1850 and 1856 and, therefore, had asked his father for a loan to purchase promotion, this then being the convention. But "promotion cometh neither from the east nor the west . . . but from the Lord Thy God" was the irascible reply! But suddenly fortune smiled: the Victoria Cross, the Lucknow Medal with two clasps, "a year's service for Lucknow" (where he had been wounded) and promotion to a captaincy in the 10th Regt (Lincolnshire Regt), (8th and 18th January, 1858) came out of the blue!

His father, in his Journal, dated 24th March, 1858, - more than eight months after Havelock's commendation regarding the award of the V.C. to Joseph Crowe, and more than three months after the citation appeared in the London Gazette - wrote, "The Bishop of Grahamstown visited Uitenhage, held Divine Service and Confirmation and administered the Sacrament, after which the Bishop came up to me and enquired if I had heard from mv son in India. I said, 'No, my Lord, not for some time . . . when he says 'I have good news for you. He has got the Victoria Cross and has been promoted to the rank of captain for his bravery in India.' I thanked his Lordship for his good news which was entirely unexpected . . . the Bishop on his way to Grahamstown called on my children at Quagga Flat and told them the news of their brother so that the Bishop was first to tell us." By the 20th December, 1859, Crowe was a Brevet Major in the 10th Foot . . . and after further service in India, he was sent to South Africa in 1860.

First photo

J.P.H. Crowe, VC, circa 1862, at Cape Town whilst serving with
the 2nd Battalion, 10th Regiment of Foot (The Lincolnshire Regiment)

For a few months in 1862, he commanded the 10th Foot in Port Elizabeth. He was transferred with his regiment to Fort Beaufort and remained in office there until he left for India on 21st November, 1864. Later he served in the East Indies, China, Japan, the Perak Campaign and elsewhere. On 23rd October, 1875, he was promoted to the rank of Lt-Colonel Commanding the 1st Bn of Foot in which he had served so long.

Ironically, he was due to visit South Africa in 1876 when congestion of the lungs, following on a chill contracted while snipe shooting in the cold bogs of Ireland, carried him off on the 12th April, 1876, in Penge, Surrey.

His overgrown grave in West Norwood cemetery was traced in March, 1957, and is now in good order. The inscription reads:

J. P. H. Crowe, V.C.
10th Regiment
Died 12th April 1876
Lord, I believe

In July, 1957, was added:
First South African born
Recipient of the Cross

Crowe's V.C. and other medals were lost many years ago, in a fire which destroyed "Firlands", Rondebosch, the home of his eldest sister, Mrs. Storr Lister. All efforts to find them failed.

No less than 181 VCs were awarded during the Indian Mutiny (1857-1859) - exactly the same number as in the Second Great War - but the award to Crowe, at the time a comparatively obscure regimental officer, is of special interest because he was the first South African born recipient of the coveted decoration. In 1970 a plaque, honouring his memory, was unveiled in the old house at 34 Cuyler Street, Uitenhage where he spent the earliest years of his life.

Author's Note: I am indebted to Miss Margaret Lister, a grand-niece of J. P. H. Crowe, for her abiding interest and for providing valuable information and to Major (Retd.) E. Jessup, Curator, Royal Lincolnshire Regiment Museum, Sabrano Barracks, Lincoln, who provided data from regimental Records.

Editor's Note: It may interest readers to know that the author is a direct descendant of the V.C.'s father, Lt. Joseph Crowe.

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