b. 19/04/1856 Cambridge. d. 28/06/1916 Battersea, London.
James Collis (1856-1918) was born on 19th April 1856 in Cambridge. Little is known of his early life prior to his enlistment with the Royal Horse Artillery. He rose to the rank of Gunner and served in the Second Afghan War. His life changed on the 28th July 1880 when he was involved in the retreat from Maiwand to Kandahar.
On that day, the officer commanding the battery was trying to bring in a limber with wounded men on it under heavy fire. Without hesitation, Gunner Collis rushed forward and drew the enemy fire on himself and away from the officer, allowing him to continue his work. Collis was recommended for the Victoria Cross and was gazetted on 16th May 1881. He received his medal later that year on 11th July 1881 from Lord Roberts VC at Poona Racecourse, India.
After being discharged from the army, Collis joined the Bombay Police in India in 1881, rising to the rank of inspector. Furthermore in March 1882 Collis married Adela Grace Skuse, a widow, in Bombay.
In 1884 Collis returned to the UK and in 1887 he re-enlisted in the army, this time joining the Suffolk Regiment. He returned to India in 1888 as part of his service but in 1891 was invalided home suffering from rheumatic fever, returning without his wife. At some point he met, and in 1893 married, Mary Goddard who was apparently unaware that he had a wife in India.
In 1895 his deception was discovered and Collis was convicted of bigamy and sentenced to 18 months hard labour. Later that year his VC was declared forfeit for his crime under the original statutes of the Royal Warrant of 1856, which created Britain and the Commonwealth’s most prestigious gallantry decoration. However by this point Collis had already pawned his VC for a mere eight shillings (40p) having apparently hit hard times.
The decoration was retrieved by police for the same sum of eight shillings from a pawnbroker’s shop for the Crown on the instructions of the Home Office. After leaving prison and settling in Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk, Collis pursued a number of jobs but in 1914 after the outbreak of the First World War he re-enlisted in the Suffolk Regiment, aged 58, as a drill instructor.
However he was dogged by poor health and he was invalided out of the army on medical grounds in August 1917. Collis died at Battersea General Hospital in London on June 28, 1918, aged 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. A headstone was erected over his burial plot in May 1998.
Two years later after his death, Collis’s sister Hannah Haylock petitioned the War Office on behalf of the family for the forfeiture to be cancelled. George V was sympathetic to the family’s wishes but Winston Churchill, then Secretary of State for War, opposed the reinstatement. He believed that because Collis had pawned his medals he placed little value on them. Furthermore, Churchill noted that the family had not kept in contact with Collis and it was only 25 years later that they had decided to raise their grievance with the authorities. Yet the King and others won the day on the wider issue and Churchill approved amendments to the rules relating to the VC which stated that henceforward only “treason, cowardice, felony or any infamous crime” should lead to forfeiture. The King also insisted that Collis’s name should be inscribed, along with all the corps’ other VC recipients, on the Royal Artillery Memorial in Woolwich, south-east London.
The location of his VC was unknown between 1896 and 1938, when it was sold at Glendinning’s Auction House, London to Colonel Oakley, himself a recipient of the Military Cross in the Great War. After Oakley’s death, it was owned by his daughter who resold it at auction in 1980. For the next 34 years, it was held in private ownership until it was purchased by the Ashcroft Trust in 2014. It is now displayed in the Imperial War Museum.
LOCATION OF MEDAL: LORD ASHCROFT GALLERY, IMPERIAL WAR MUSEUM, LONDON
BURIAL PLACE: WANDSWORTH CEMETERY, LONDON.
James Collis lay in an unmarked grave for 80 years until Wandsworth Council held a ceremony in 1998 where this headstone was laid in his honour.
Cemetery Plan courtesy of Kevin Brazier SECTION 51, GRAVE 295
James Collis' medals pictured on the Lord Ashcroft Collection website having been acquired in 2014 in a private sale.
Wandsworth Town Hall
RA Chapel, Woolwich