In early 1856 the Crimean War – fought because of Russia’s desires to gain territory at the expense of the seemingly weakened Ottoman Empire – ground to a halt. The allies (Turkey, Britain and France) and triumphed over the Russian Empire because of superior weaponry and technology such as the international telegraph.
It was a ‘modern’ war, coming as it did between the Napoleonic and the Boer (South African) War and offered lessons for the upcoming Civil War in America. It was also the first war to be reported with photographs, meaning that it impacted the home front in a particularly evocative way. Britain lost 25,000 troops (the French four times that figure) but many were lost not to Russian bullets or steel but to illness.
The Crimean War also saw the minting of a brand new award for gallantry, the Victoria Cross. Supposedly made from bronze smelted from a Russian cannon (the cannon was actually Chinese) the VC continues to be Britain’s highest military honour.
But as with previous (and subsequent) conflicts those that served were given either a service medal or a silver bar to mark their presence at one of the key battles. There were five bars for the Crimean medal (representing the battles of Alma, Inkerman, Azoff, Balaclava, and Sebastopol).
This is the Crimean War medal below:
Of course with tens of thousands of medals needing to be minted someone had a huge task, and it it seems that it also offered opportunities for those with light fingers to profit.
William Henry Sharman was a 33 year-old silversmith who worked for Messrs Hunt & Roskell, ‘the extensive silversmiths’*, at their Gray’s Inn Road factory. In February 1856 (just a month before the final peace treaty officials ended the war) Sharman was called into the manager’s office.
Earlier that day he had been given 200 bars to work on. When he returned them there were five missing. In the office with the manager William Day was a detective sergeant from E Division, Metropolitan Police. Sergeant Smith (16E). Day questioned him and Sharman told him he had handed back all the bars he had been allocated, and so couldn’t account for any ‘deficiancy’.
Day knew that this was a lie because he had personally checked the quantity and he challenged the silversmith. Sharman’s defence collapsed and he came clean. He produced the missing bars from his pocket and was arrested.
The case came before the sitting justice at Clerkenwell and Sharman made no attempt to conceal his guilt, merely throwing himself on the mercy of the magistrate, Mr Corrie.
‘I am guilty’ he admitted, ‘It is the first time I have been in a police court, and if you will be kind enough to deal leniently with me, I will take very good care that such a thing will never occur again. I am very sorry for what I have done’.
No doubt he was but at a time that Britain’s bruised and bloodied heroes were returning home the act of stealing their medals must have appeared particularly callous. Mr Corrie was also quick to remind Sharman (and the reading public) that stealing by employees was a serious matter because it involved a breach of trust. It was, the magistrate told him, ‘far more serious than a thief purloining from a shop window’.
Nor did Sharman have the excuse of poverty he added; the silversmith earned between £1 8s and £1 10s a week and had money in his pocket when he arrested. This was greed and opportunism and Mr Corrie sent him to prison for four months at hard labour. Sharman ‘who appeared to feel his situation acutely’, was then taken away.
Whether he was able to recover from this blow is impossible to say. He was a craftsman so had something to sell when he got out but his reputation was in tatters. As someone that worked with precious metals it is unlikely that anyone that new the truth of his crimes would ever allow him to work with silver in the future.
[from The Morning Chronicle, Wednesday, February 13, 1856]
*the firm, founded in 1843, still exists today