James Owens VC (1829 - 1901):
James Owens was one of the first Ulstermen to win the Victoria Cross, the highest award for bravery in the British armed services.
Owens was born at Killane, Baileyboro, County Cavan, and during the Crimean War served in the 49th (Princess Charlotte of Wales’s) Hertfordshire Regiment. On 26 October 1854, he was engaged in picket (or “piquet”) duty during the siege of Sevastopol. Picket duty refers to a small group of lookouts placed in an advanced position, in front of their main force, and is thus in a highly dangerous position. The commander of the picket patrol was Lieutenant John Connolly (from County Donegal. That day, the British were set upon by Russian troops in a surprise attack. The commander, Connolly, led a fierce resistance until he lost consciousness due to loss of blood. It was Owens who carried him from the scene.
The Victoria Cross was instituted as a direct result of the Crimean War. Before the War, there were rather few decorations for bravery, which was normally acknowledged by admission to chivalrous orders for senior officers, while junior officers and other ranks would receive promotions or financial rewards. In 1854, two new medals were instituted, but for “other ranks” only (that is, not officers) and service-specific. What was notable about the new Victoria Cross was that it could be awarded to any rank in either service (army or navy). On 31 January, 1856 Queen Victoria signed the necessary warrant for the award, and this was published in the London Gazette on 5 February. In order to recognise the considerable acts of gallantry during the Crimean War, which ended in March 1856, the new VC was made retrospective to the beginning of the war.
Owens was one of the first group of VC winners to be “gazetted” on 24 February, 1857 (this list included several Ulstermen, one of these being Charles Davis Lucas, the first winner of the award). Through what was presumably a mistake, his citation dated his action as having occurred on 30 October, since the action in question was having carried to safety his commanding officer, John Connolly, which happened on 26 October.
Owens received his medal from Queen Victoria herself at the first investiture, held on 26 June 1857, in Hyde Park, London. He left the army with the rank of sergeant, worked for some time as a warder at the Tower of London, and died at Romford, Essex, on 20 August 1901.
R Doherty & D Truesdale: Irish Winners of the Victoria Cross, Dublin, 2000; Farset Youth and Community Development Unit: Ireland's V.C.s: a comprehensive list of Irishmen who were awarded the Victoria Cross
© 2015 Ulster History Circle