Sergeant James Firth V.C. (1874 - 1921)

 

Name James  FIRTH
Rank Sergeant
Force 1st battalion The Duke of Wellington's Regiment
VC won Boer War, 24 February 1900
London Gazette 11 June 1901
Born Jarrow Durham 15 January 1874 (see notes)
Died 29 May 1921, Sheffield
Grave Burngreave Cemetery, Sheffield
Location
of VC
The Ashcroft Collection

On 24th February, 1900 at Plewman's Farm, near Arundel, Cape Colony, South Africa, Sergeant Firth picked up and carried to cover a Lance-Corporal who was lying wounded and exposed to heavy fire. Later in the day, when the enemy had advanced to within a short distance of the firing line, Sergeant Firth rescued a second lieutenant who was dangerously wounded, and carried him over the crest of a ridge to safety. He himself was shot through the nose and eye while doing so.

The actual citation reads, "At Plewmans Farm near Arundel, Cape Colony February 24th 1900, Sergeant Firth gained the Victoria Cross for two acts of bravery and devotion" "Lance Corporal Blackman had been wounded, and was lying not more than one hundred yards from the enemy, who were keeping up a severe hail of fire on all around" "Sergeant Firth scorning the bullets aimed at him and his brigade, advanced to the stricken corporal and carried him to the cover of their own lines". Shortly afterwards, second Lieutenant T H B Wilson fell dangerously wounded, in spite of the proximity of the Boers who had advanced quite close to the firing line, Firth carried the Officer over the crest of the ridge to shelter, receiving a bullet through the eye and nose, whilst engaged in this humane act".

The information in the above table was obtained from the Victoria Cross web-site

From Victoria Cross Awards 1856 - 1920

Fortunately Lieutenant Umpreville who recommended James for the award added some more details to the days events

"On the 24th February, 1900 in the vicinity of Plewman's Farm, six miles NW of Arundel, Cape Colony, the 1st West Riding Mounted Infantry Company had driven the Boers out of one range of koppies (low hills) and followed them up to another - but arriving at the crest of the second ranges they found themselves under very heavy fire from higher koppe's (sic) to their direct front and also their right and left fronts from a vastly superior force. No 4673 Lance Corporal Blackman was hit just over the crest and lay exposed to the enemy's fire (at a range of 4 to 500 yards). Sergeant Firth picked him up and carried him under the shelter of the rocks.

Shortly afterwards the enemy attempted to rush our position, covered by the fire from the dominating koppe's (sic), they reached the ridge and 2nd Lieutenant (now Lieutenant) was shot through the head in a most exposed place. Sergeant Firth carried over the crest to shelter but was himself shot thro' the nose and eye and fell beside his Officer - the remains of his eye to be subsequently removed."

Apart from this, there is very little information on James available. He joined the regiment in July 1889.  In 1900, after the injuries he sustained in the war, James was discharged as medically unfit from the services. He applied for service again in 1914 at the outbreak of World War One, but he was turned down on medical grounds. After a long period of disability he died of tuberculosis in May 1921.

The Sheffield Daily Telegraph dated 3rd June 1921 carried a brief report of James' funeral

SHEFFIELD V.C. BURIED

The funeral of Sergeant James Firth, Sheffield first V.C., took place yesterday at Burngreave Cemetery in the prescence of thousands and friends from Neepsend, where he lived for several years.

A service was held at St Michael's Church, Neepsend, conducted by the Rev H H Everson (Vicar) and the Rev C F Wardby. From the church, the coffin draped with the Union Jack was carried to a gun carriage by six sergeants and a regimental sergeant major of the Duke of Wellington's (W.R.) Regiment (Sergeant Firth's old regiment who came from the depot at Halifax.. Following the coffin was a firing party from the Cheshire Regiment form Hillsborough Barracks carrying arms at the reverse.

The service at the Cemetery, simple and impressive, was concluded by the sounding of the Last Post and the firing of three volleys over the grave.

James's Last Will and Testament gave the following information

WILLS AND BEQUESTS 1921.

V.C.s GIFT TO HIS SON.

Mr James Frith, V.C. of *Douglas Road, Parkwood Springs, Sheffield, and formerly of Swalwell, Durham, formerly Sergeant, Duke of Wellington's ( West Riding ) Regiment, who was awarded the Victoria Cross in 1900 for conspicuous bravery in the Boer War and who died on May 29 last, left estate valued for probate at £359. The testator left:-
To his son Alleyne Gatehouse Firth, on attaining majority, his Victoria Cross and his South African Medals, the silver watch, No.34188, presented to him by the people of Swalwell, his Queen Victoria chocolate box, the card bidding him to the investiture at St. James Palace to receive the Victoria Cross and his gold snake ring, and further on the decease of his ( testators ) widow or earlier at her discretion the black marble clock and two bronze horses presented to him by Messrs. Vickers Son and Maxim, Limited, and the enlarged photograph of himself in his red tunic.

* 193 Douglas Road, Neepsend, Sheffield

An article in the Sheffield Star on Tuesday 16th March 2004 that brings the story up to date

Final resting place: Alan Johnson, Albert Jackson and Christine Stevens at the site of James Firth VC's grave at Burngreave Cemetery

Family is reunited with 'lost' grave of VC hero

THE descendants of Sheffield's first-ever recipient of the Victoria Cross have been reunited with his 'lost' grave.

Alan Johnson, a Barnsley market trader, did not even know he was related to Sgt James Firth, a hero of the Boer War, until he found a letter among his late father's personal effects. It said Sgt Firth was Alan's great uncle, had fought in South Africa in the 1st Battalion Duke of Wellington's Regiment, and had been awarded the VC in June 1901 for gallantry.
The medal – the most prestigious military award available in this country – has been granted only 1,354 times to 1,351 men and once to the American Unknown Soldier.
Sgt Firth was chosen for the VC in June 1901, 16 months after rescuing and carrying to safety two of his battalion during action.
Aged 26, while fighting at Plowman's Farm near Arundel, Cape Colony, Sgt Firth picked up and carried to cover a Lance Corporal who was lying wounded and exposed to heavy fire. Later in the day, when the enemy had advanced to within a short distance of the firing line, Sgt Firth rescued a second lieutenant who was dangerously wounded. He carried him over the crest of a ridge to safety – and survived being shot through the nose and in the eye while doing so. 
After the end of the Boer War Sgt Firth, who was born in Jarrow, County Durham, in 1874, lived in Neepsend, Sheffield*.  James died aged 47 in 1921 and was buried with military honours at Burngreave Cemetery off Scott Road. His wife Mary Florence and two of their sons were later buried alongside him.
In the 85 years that followed, his grave, in the north eastern section of the cemetery close to the War Memorial, became lost and forgotten and the inscriptions on the ornate stone headstone were eaten away by years of pollution. But Mr Johnson was helped to find the grave by local historian Albert Jackson and Christine Stevens of the Friends of Burngreave Cemetery. Alan, aged 54, of Manor Way, Hoyland, said: "I had only ever vaguely heard of Sgt Firth before I found the letter which said he was my father's uncle. It's intriguing really.
"My eldest aunt says she remembers him visiting the house – apparently he was very tall and used to run his hand along the top of doors to see if there was any dust!"
Mr Johnson is now trying to trace any other relatives of Sgt Firth. A Victoria Cross database lists a great nephew, a great niece, and a great great grandson who still live in County Durham.
 

James was born in Sheffield which means that James is the first holder of the decoration to have been "born and bred" in Sheffield. The first holder from Sheffield was George Lambert, but he was born in Northern Ireland

* James is thought to have lived in Wallace Road, Neepsend, Sheffield and after leaving the Army became a  foreman in a local steelworks. His wife Mary is shown as living in 1925 at 193 Douglas Road Neepsend Sheffield.

The grave in the cemetery is like many of that era deteriorating with age. In March 2012 I was contacted by the Victoria Cross Trust who indicated that moves were afoot to repair and renovate the grave. They seem to think that the damage to the gravestone may have been done by well-meaning attempts in the past to clean the memorial. Whatever the cause of the deterioration the plans are, subject to permissions, to refurbish the memorial and ensure that James has a memorial befitting his actions

As a sidenote, the adjoining headstone bears memory to Joseph Edwards, lost in the sinking of the great Cunard liner Lusitania on 7th May 1915, while close by lies the military grave of Sub-Lieutenant HR Dyson MM RNVR, who was twenty-six when he died on 25th November 1918 while attached to the RAF. His inscription reads “Many as good, but none better”. (from Burngreave Messenger)

Thanks to the efforts of the Friends of Burngreave Cemetery and the Sheffield Indexers there is now a record of the burials in the grave

FIRTH, Alleyne G (Smelter, age 48).
Died at 28 Brinsworth Hall; Buried on December 24, 1951 in Consecrated ground;
Grave Number 18, Section E4 of Burngreave Cemetery, Sheffield.
Parent or Next of Kin if Available: . Remarks: Officiating Minister, ~: Removed from Sheffield Parish.

FIRTH, James (Works Foreman, age 47).
Died at 193 Douglas Rd; Buried on June 2, 1921 in Consecrated ground;
Grave Number 18, Section E4 of Burngreave Cemetery, Sheffield.
Parent or Next of Kin if Available: . Remarks: Officiating Minister, H R Everson: Removed from Neepsend Parish.

FIRTH, Joseph Wallis (Son of Jas Firth, age 10).
Died at 193 Douglas Rd; Buried on May 2, 1912 in Consecrated ground;
Grave Number 18, Section E4 of Burngreave Cemetery, Sheffield.
Parent or Next of Kin if Available: . Remarks: Officiating Minister, W H Holland-Healey : Removed from Neepsend.
Plot Owner: James FIRTH of 193 Douglas Road.

LITTLER, Mary Florence (Widow, age 77).
Died at 2 Herries Road; Buried on April 15, 1953 in Consecrated ground;
Grave Number 18, Section E4 of Burngreave Cemetery, Sheffield.
Parent or Next of Kin if Available: . Remarks: Officiating Minister, ~: Removed from Sheffield Parish.
 

From the record it look as though James's widow Mary Florence remarried. I checked the BMD indexers and found the following entry

Marriages Sep 1928
Firth Mary F Littler Grimsby 7a 1702
Littler Thomas H Firth Grimsby 7a 1702
 

Sources

Burngreave Messenger

The Sheffield Star

The London Gazette

Spinks - Auctioneers

Victoria Cross Research

Victoria Cross Reference

Victoria Cross

The Anglo - Boer War 1899 - 1901

Victoria Cross Heroes - Michael Ashcroft

Victoria Cross Trust

Notes:

"During the action at Plewton’s Farm, near Arundel, Cape Colony, on the 24th February, 1900. Lance Corporal Blackman having been wounded and lying exposed to a hot fire at a range of 400 – 500 yards, Sergeant Firth picked him up and carried him to cover. Later in the day, when the enemy had advanced to within a short distance of the firing line, Second Lieutenant Wilson being dangerously wounded and in a most exposed positioned, Sergeant Firth carried him over the ridge, which was being held by the troops, to shelter and was himself shot through the nose and eye whilst doing so. (London Gazette, 11th June 1901)"

Medal entitlement of Sergeant James FIRTH Duke of Wellington's Regiment
Victoria Cross
Queen's South Africa Medal ( 1899-1902 )
1 clasp: "Cape Colony"

"...Sergeant Firth, from Jarrow, Co Durham, rescued two wounded members of his battalion under intense fire at Plewman's Farm near Arundel, Cape Colony, on February 24, 1900. Although shot through the nose and eye, he survived, to be recommended for a VC in June 1901. His medal will go on sale accompanied by his Queen's South Africa Medal...."

Further confirmation came with the entry for the 1881 Census

Source Information: Dwelling 1 Court No 1 Eben Street Census Place Brightside Bierlow, York, England
Family History Library Film 1342128 Public Records Office Reference RG11 Piece / Folio 4664 / 117 Page Number 33
Charles FIRTH Head M Male 45 Leeds, York, England Furnaceman
Ellen BULLAS Servant M Female 22 Brightside, York, England Housekeeper (Dom)
Clara FIRTH Daur Female 13 Wincobank, York, England Scholar
Arthur FIRTH Son Male 10 Wincobank, York, England Scholar
James FIRTH Son Male 6 Wincobank, York, England Scholar
Annie BULLAS Housekeepers Daughter Female 5 Wincobank, York, England Scholar
Henry BULLAS Son Male 3 Wincobank, York, England
Florence BULLAS Housekeepers Daughter Female 4 m Brightside, York, England

The earlier 1871 Census shows the family living in Ecclesfield. James had an elder brother WILLIAM (aged 8) and two older sisters MARTHA (aged 6) and MARY (aged 4) who do not appear with the family on the 1881 Census. CLARA and ARTHUR are aged 3 and 4 months respectively.

The 1891 Census does show James father CHARLES in Jarrow with his second wife and family but there is no trace of JAMES. A local history web-site does state that JAMES was educated in Swalwell prior to joining up

"a Swalwell resident, though originally from near Sheffield, lived in Quality Row and enlisted in the Duke of Wellington's West Riding regiment in 29th July 1889; winning the Victoria Cross on 14 February 1900

In February 2009, I received the following information from a descendent of James

"..Charles Firth (James' father) who arrived in Tyneside as a Steel Smelter and worked initially at the Newbridge foundry in Tyneside. James went to school in Swalwell Gateshead. Charles then moved to Jarrow and worked in Palmers Blast Furnaces as part of Palmers Shipyard. James lived in Jarrow for a short period and worked at a local chemical works...There is a plaque to James and others at Palmers hospital as a VC holder and a favoured son of "Jarrow". This was unveiled in 2008 and was reported in the local paper, the Shields Gazette"  .

Another website devoted to the Anglo - Boer war 1899 - 1901 adds the following

"He was at first wrongly gazetted as 'W' Firth.  Sergeant Firth married, June 1897, at Emmanuel Church, Attercliffe, Sheffield, Mary Florence, only daughter of Thomas Edwards, of Swineshead, Lincolnshire, and they had two children: Alleyne G Firth, born 25 June 1903 and Cecil J Firth, born 18 December 1907."

This is not strictly true. James and Florence had another son Joseph Wallis Firth who was born 1902 but died at the the young age of 10 in 1912. He was buried in Burngreave Cemetery (see above memorial). The burial record is as follows

"Burial no: 86078 Grave no: E4-18 Burial date: 02 May 1912 Name: Joseph Wallis Firth description: purchaser: James Firth purchaser address: 193 Douglas Road burial type: consecrated comment:"

Alleyne Firth is known to have two daughters, Pamela and Susan who were last known to be living in London area. Alleyne's younger brother Cecil James married Marjorie (nee Waller?).

The final confirmation that JAMES was born in Sheffield is the 1911 UK Census form which was for the first time filled in by the householder rather than an enumerator

Name James Firth
Relationship to Head of Household Head
Condition Married Gender Male
Age 37 Estimated Year of Birth 1874
Occupation General Labourer
Employed Yes Working at Home No
Industry Open Hearth Furnaces Steel Work
Place of Birth Yorkshire Ecclesfield
Enumerator Information
Address 193 Douglas Road Sheffield Parish Sheffield Town Sheffield
Type of Building Private House Number of Rooms Five 5 Inhabited Yes
Reference RG14PN27942 RG78PN1598 RD510 SD5 ED19 SN247 Administrative County Yorkshire (West Riding)
Registration District Sheffield Registration Sub District West Brightside Enumeration District 19 

"I married the late Charles Firth son of Frances (Frank) and Jane (Jenny) Firth of Jarrow, they had  three sons, Frances, Charles and Ambrose, two daughters Ruth and Jane (Jenny). James was the brother of Frank. To my knowledge James was born in Jarrow but later moved to Sheffield. (see above). Frank Firth Junior had three daughters - Patricia, Linda and Marion also one son, Frank. Ruth had two sons - Joseph and Frank. Jenny had two daughters, Joan, and Jeanie, also twin boys. Ambrose had two girls. I have one daughter - Janice who lives in Canberra, Australia"

If anyone can supply me with any further information about JAMES and his family, please contact me

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This page was last updated on 22/01/17 13:21