John McGovern was born on May 16 1825 in Templeport, County Cavan, Ireland, and was a labourer by trade.
He enlisted at Limerick for the East India Company’s service for ten years on November 18th, 1845, and sailed for India in the troopship Cressy, where he arrived on September 11th 1846.
McGovern was always in trouble until he won the Victoria Cross. This tempestuous Irishman served in the Burmese War (1852-53), receiving the medal with clasp for Pegu. He again saw active service in the Indian Mutiny and received the medal with clasps for Delhi and Lucknow.
During the Indian Mutiny he really won the Victoria Cross twice over, as at the Battle of Narnoul, on December 16th, 1857, three Sepoys took refuge in a small turret, and there was much difficulty in dislodging them.
Orders were given to the sergeant-major to do this. Private McGovern was standing near when this order was given, and volunteered to go himself, and went up the staircase. The sergeant-major was then told to send at least half a dozen men, but replied, “Never mind, sir; he’ll be no loss.” McGovern heard this, and determined to do the work himself. He mounted the narrow staircase and reached the top of the wall, where the sepoys were waiting for him. They fired at once, but McGovern, jumping down a couple of steps, escaped unhurt, and then, before they could reload, shot the man in front, and rushing upon the other two, bayoneted them without giving them time to recover. It is thought that McGovern was thirty two years old at the time of winning the Victoria Cross.
John McGovern’s Victoria Cross was gazetted on June 18th, 1859.
John McGovern, No. 95 Private, 1st Bengal Fusiliers. Date of act of bravery, June 23rd, 1857. For gallant conduct during the operations before Delhi, but more especially on June 23rd, 1857, when he carried into camp a wounded comrade under heavy fire from the enemy’s battery at the risk of his own life.
Afterwards McGovern was a changed man, and did not get into trouble for drinking and fighting in camp, etc., as he had done before. He wouldn’t disgrace the Victoria Cross. He transferred to the 101st Fusiliers on the 1st Bengal European Fusiliers being transferred to Her Majesty’s service in 1861, but remained local in India. When one of the officers asked him if he meant to go into the line or remain local in India, McGovern replied that he was going to stay in India. His arm being badly wounded some time before.
2) I am indebted to Bruce Gall of Canada, for the following excerpts from an article on John McGovern. Bruce wrote the article for a neighbourhood newsletter. The article compliments McGovern’s biography from the history of the Munster’s.
By the time McGovern died of pneumonia at the age of 63, he had worked in Hamilton as a dockworker, clerk, messenger and peddler. But he is remembered today for the’V.C.’ inscribed on his gravestone.
Born in County Cavan Ireland, John McGovern enlisted in the East India Company on 18 November 1845 at the age of 20. On his arrival in India, he was posted to the 1st European Bengal Fusiliers. This unit was not part of the British Army, but part of a private army under the auspices of the East India Company.
The majority of troops under the command of the East India Company were sepoys – native Indian troops. In 1857, a deteriorating relationship between the Company and these soldiers, coupled with a wider discontent over the control exercised by the East India Company, was brought to a breaking point by the introduction of the Pattern 1853 Enfield Rifle. The cartridges for these rifles were rumoured to be greased by the fat of animals sacred to the Hindu and Muslim soldiers. The resulting mutiny and general uprising began in May of 1857 and lasted until mid-1858. Known in the west as the Indian Mutiny, the Enfield Rifle problem masks deeper issues, and the resulting conflict is perhaps better considered a rebellion.
One of the first actions of the disaffected Indian troops was to take control of Delhi, and to proclaim Bahadur Shah II, a descendant of the Mughal dynasty, as Emperor of India.
Regiments of the Indian Army manned by European soldiers, including the 1st European Bengal Fusiliers, were called in to retake Delhi. It was during this siege of Delhi, on 23 June 1857, that John McGovern rescued a wounded comrade while under fire. For this action, he was awarded the Victoria Cross, the British Commonwealth’s highest military decoration for bravery. This was not the first time that McGovern was cited for bravery. He had previously received a medal for bravery for his actions during the Second Anglo-Burmese War of 1852-53. Nor was it he last – on 16 December 1857 he single-handedly attacked and overcome three snipers at Narnoul.
As hostilities wound down in 1858, British Parliament put an end to the authority of the East India Company, and India came under the direct control of the Crown. By 1861, McGovern’s regiment came under the control of the British Army, and was designated the 101st Regiment of Foot (Royal Bengal Fusiliers) – later the Royal Munster Fusiliers. Shortly after, in1862, he was discharged bearing the scars of his 17 years of active service, and’ one of his arms was almost useless from wounds’.
After his discharge, McGovern returned to Ireland, where he married Rosanna. They moved to Hamilton in 1863 and were to have four sons and four daughters.
While living in the North End of Hamilton, a later Hamilton Spectator article relays that’…his doings were a never failing source of joy and anxiety to his friends. Many the time; an old north-ender said, he would enter political meetings and heckle the speakers until other unrecorded heroes talked of throwing him through the door. He loved argument and debate for the fun of it all.’
In September 1879, he surprised neighbours and acquaintances during a visit to the city by new Governor of General, John Douglas Sutherland, the Marquis of Lorne. While the Marquis and his wife, Princess Louise, Queen Victoria’s youngest daughter, were travelling through the City, there were met along the route by McGovern. As the carriage drew level with him he pushed his way to the front and swept up his cane in front of his face as an officer would salute with his sword; the procession was immediately stopped and McGovern was requested to step over to the carriage so that the Princess could shake his hand. Both she and the Marquis had recognised the Cross pinned on his breast’. Apparently McGovern’s past was not known to all – he was better known for his hard living and boisterous personality.
Among those who met McGovern during his Hamilton days was Frank Crofton, then a resident of Hamilton. Writing in 1946, Mr.Crofton writes –
He was about 5 ft. 8′ and weighed over 200 lbs. In saying this, I judge that when he was young and on duty he must have been a husky and powerful man.’
McGovern’s last home was on Ferrie Street in Hamilton. When he died in 1888,’thousands’ attended his funeral at St. Mary’s Cathedral in Hamilton – his coffin decorated by his hard-earned medals. Following the funeral, he was interred at Holy Sepulchre Cemetery, where today you can visit his final resting place, his marker engraved with a representation of the Victoria Cross – and the initials V.C. inscribed under his name.
Fate of McGovern’s Medals.
McGovern (sometimes spelled McGoveran or McGauran) was awarded the Victoria Cross for his actions in June 1857. Two years were to elapse before this was officially announced in the London Gazette on 21 June 1859. The Gazette announcement says the Victoria Cross was awarded –
For gallant conduct, during the operations before Delhi, but more especially on the 23rd of June 1857, when he carried into camp a wounded comrade under a very heavy fire from the enemy’s battery at the risk of his own life.
It was another year before McGovern was to physically receive the Victoria Cross on 10 July 1860.
His medals’ appeared’ at least twice in public in Hamilton. He wore the VC in public during the 15 September 1879 visit by Princess Louise. And at his funeral, it is reported that –
…on his coffin reposed the hero’s cross and medals’.
It gets a little murky after this. One source suggests that his –
…Cross, medals, and discharge papers were pawned for a few shillings.
At some point they were put up for public auction and bought by for eighty pounds by the officers of his old regiment – the Royal Munster Fusiliers.
A note has also been found that says his Victoria Cross was at one time in the collection Colonel Littledale, of Cheltenham, and was eventually auctioned for 68 pounds on 25 November 1910.
A Hamilton Spectator article in 1938 states that after his old Regiment, the Royal Munsters, were disbanded in 1922,’the medals and the little cross are in the army’s safekeeping, in the Old Land…’. They ended up with the Royal United Services Institution – until 1966, when they were acquired by the National Army Museum in Chelsea, London, UK. They are still in the possession of the National Army Museum, where they are not currently on public display, but can be viewed by appointment’.
Now Aidan Finn, who founded The Burlington Post newspaper in 1965, is looking for any of McGovern’s descendants. He is planning to hold a service in the cemetery next spring.
Any readers who are related to McGovern or aware of any of his relatives are asked to call Aidan in Caledonia at 905-765-3131 or Bay Observer reporter Denis Gibbons at 905-632-6101.