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What Makes a Hero?

The latest edition of the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, published on 27 May, includes a special focus on people remembered for acts of civilian heroism. Here, Philip Carter, one of the ODNB’s editors, considers what these and other lives tell us about changing attitudes to popular heroism over the last 250 years.

Between the institution of the Victoria Cross in 1856 and its civilian equivalent, the George Cross in 1940, Britain witnessed a significant expansion in the concepts of heroism and the hero. The effect broadened heroism beyond an association with great men, as conveyed in Thomas Carlyle’s On Heroes and Hero-Worship (1841) with its focus on world figures including Dante, Shakespeare, and Napoleon. On Heroes remains one of the period’s leading accounts of the subject, its author’s interest in the ‘character of greatness’ prompting wide-ranging discussion. But Carlyle’s attachment to what his contemporary Samuel Smiles described as the ‘strong man’ was not shared by all, including Smiles, who in Self-Help (1858) offered a broader definition of heroism inclusive of industrialists and missionaries like Josiah Wedgwood and David Livingstone or, more generally, those who embodied Smiles’s principle of self-improvement. In subsequent decades definitions expanded further, reflecting a greater willingness to identify heroes with specific acts of bravery, to commemorate those capable of such deeds, and—given its value at a time of mass democracy and conscription—to celebrate the potential for heroism across society. Just who was chosen for recognition continued to heed the quality of a life lived, with courage and self-sacrifice regarded as expressions of exemplary conduct. But increasingly, to quote G. F. Watts, a leading advocate of this new vision, it was in the ‘deeds of its people’ that suitable and plentiful examples were to be found.

It is possible, of course, to identify instances of the reward of civilian heroism well before the late nineteenth century. In London in April 1774 a group of physicians and nonconformist ministers established a Society for the Recovery of Persons Apparently Drowned, subsequently renamed the Royal Humane Society. The society—one of the first to promote the novel phenomenon of resuscitation—recorded acts that led to the saving of life. Initially the society’s motive was less the celebration of heroism than an interest in different forms of resuscitation, though this later shifted to rewarding those who rescued people from life-threatening situations.

In addition to philanthropic institutions like the Royal Humane Society, town corporations also struck medals on an ad hoc basis to acknowledge the courage of local residents. One such recipient was Jack Crawford, an ordinary seaman from Sunderland whose heroics in ‘nailing the colours to the mast’ at the battle of Camperdown (1797) were rewarded with a silver medal, struck by the city fathers, which he later wore when invited to Lord Nelson’s funeral. While Crawford’s rewards were relatively modest, those of the lighthouse keeper’s daughter Grace Darling, were—commensurate with the national reach of her story—far more extensive. This owed much to the fact that Darling’s heroism—the rescue, with her father, of nine sailors shipwrecked off the Northumberland coast in 1838—coincided with the rise of a national press eager for remarkable and uplifting stories such as this. In the months after the rescue Darling became a figure of celebrity, the subject of paintings, verse, and commemorative pottery, and the recipient of numerous honours including the Royal Humane Society, which presented father and daughter with a specially struck gold medal.

Darling’s courage was acknowledged and celebrated almost immediately, in part because of her survival and because her deeds were widely publicized. Others are remembered due to the later intervention of third parties who campaigned for recognition of actions that were initially unnoticed. The sinking, in March 1899, of the channel steamer Stella resulted in the deaths of 112 passengers and crew, including the ship’s stewardess Mary Rogers. Initially Rogers’ actions received just a paragraph in the official report of the disaster. However, survivors testified to her self-sacrifice in securing their rescue and in refusing to enter a lifeboat to prevent it capsizing. In so doing Rogers’s conduct epitomized the recently established, and much lauded, principle of ‘women and children first’, attributed to Alexander Seton for his evacuation of a stricken steamship, the Birkenhead, in 1852. Rogers’s dutiful life and courageous death were subsequently recorded with a memorial fountain, verse by the poet laureate, and a tablet in George Frederic Watts’s recently erected Memorial to Heroic Self-Sacrifice in the City of London.

Watts, a prominent artist and advocate of social reform, had first proposed a commemoration for everyday heroes, initially envisaged as a statue to Unknown Worth, in the mid-1860s. This came to nothing and twenty years on he tried again, prompted in part by reports of the death of a London servant, Alice Ayres, who sustained fatal injuries attempting to rescue children from a house fire. Two years later Watts wrote to The Times proposing a public memorial to the ‘heroism of everyday life’ to mark Queen Victoria’s golden jubilee, and cited Ayres as an example of the civilian heroism he wished to see remembered for the good of the nation. Watts’s memorial was at last unveiled in Postman’s Park, north of St Paul’s Cathedral, in 1900. It took the form of a cloister decorated with ceramic tablets, each of which commemorated a person who had died in the act of rescuing others. Alice’s tablet was installed two years later and by the late 1930s fifty-three tablets marked the acts of sixty-one ‘heroes of humbler life’.

A common attribute of those named in Postman’s Park was an exemplary, if often unremarkable, life cut short by actions indicative of dignity and compassion—Watts’s intention being the remembrance of those typically obscured by low social status. In sharp contrast the loss of the Titanic in spring 1912 was a disaster of international significance. And yet the actions and character of those selected for commemoration highlighted similar themes—of selflessness, nobility, and consideration—typically associated with late Victorian and Edwardian notions of the gentleman. Of those remembered in the Titanic disaster, particular attention was paid to the ship’s seven musicians and their leader, Wallace Hartley. Survivors reported that the orchestra had played throughout the evacuation in order to allay passengers’ fears, with certain observers maintaining that the hymn ‘Nearer, my God, to thee’ had been played as the Titanic made its descent. As victims who clearly acted courageously and benevolently, Hartley and his fellow musicians served both to highlight the heroism of many ordinary passengers and crew and to prompt questions over the less dignified conduct of some superiors. Likewise the Titanic‘s master, Edward Smith, though cleared of blame by the inquiry, proved a less reliable subject for commemoration. Today there are more than twice the number of memorials to Hartley and his musicians worldwide as to Captain Smith.

The heroism displayed in disasters like the Titanic prompted numerous public and commercially sponsored reactions: from monuments and plaques to postcards and sheet music. This blend of personal philanthropy and commerce had long been a feature of heroic commemoration, as seen in the lucrative trade in Grace Darling souvenirs. These, however, were not the only means of record and remembrance and from the 1850s the state—with a range of medals and citations—increasingly supplemented civil society in rewarding heroism in what, by the 1910s, had also become an era of total war involving conscripts and civilians.

Since its institution in 1856 the Victoria Cross, Britain’s highest award for acts of military bravery in warfare, has been a notably democratic honour. According to its royal warrant, the medal was open to ‘all persons on a perfectly equal footing’ and, in keeping with this principle, the first recipient Charles Davis Lucas was a mate in the Royal Navy.

Ten years after the Victoria Cross came the Albert Medal, providing civilians with an equivalent, though less prestigious, award ‘for gallantry in saving life’. In 1940 the Albert Medal was replaced with the George Cross which became, and remains, Britain’s highest award for bravery by a civilian or by a military person where the VC is not applicable. Introduced by George VI to acknowledge courage on the home front the first recipient was Thomas Alderson, a Yorkshire ARP warden honoured for ‘sustained gallantry, enterprise and devotion to duty’ during bombing raids in August 1940. Since 1945 notable recipients of the George Cross (both posthumous) have included the railwayman John Axon, whose attempts to stop a run-away train were also remembered in a pioneering radio documentary, and the air steward Barbara Harrison who died saving passengers from a burning plane in 1968, and who remains the only woman to have received the medal in peacetime.

More than two hundred years after the formation of the Royal Humane Society national interest in heroism and heroes is as marked as ever, if perhaps for different reasons. The current popularity of historical biography, together with a broader focus on celebrity, may account for some of this interest. Modern commemorations tend to carry less religious and moral purpose than those of the late Victorian and Edwardian period, being largely respectful attempts to preserve or promote historical understanding of notable individuals. Recent examples have included newly commissioned monuments, museum displays, and books recalling the conduct of, among others, Jack Crawford, Mary Rogers, and Alice Ayres. However, while modern commemorations may be less didactic, they remain on occasions—notably following the death of Diana, princess of Wales—no less sentimental (and for some no less mawkish) than past episodes that fused the grief of loss with a celebration of heroism. Today established forms of commemoration are also being revisited. In June 2009 a new tablet (the first since 1938) was unveiled at the Watts memorial in Postman’s Park. In Britain attendances at the annual armistice ceremonies are likewise increasing. This current interest in heroism, and especially that of ‘ordinary’ people in war, owes as much, of course, to current circumstances as it does to historical events: a country once more involved in significant military conflict, and a public who last year observed the deaths of Bill Stone, Henry Allingham and Harry Patch—the last surviving servicemen of the First World War.

Recent Comments

  1. Dick Wilkinson

    It is interesting to read this piece about changimng attitudes to heroism. I am also glad to see mantions of this society in your article. Society has changed a great deal since the late 18C but we have tried very hard to keep the awards we give commensurate with the bravery demonstrated in each act. Unfortunately we are not as well known as we were and members of the public frequently assume we conform to the US type of Humane organisation which is usually dedicated to animal welfare. Any clarification is always helpful. Our 2009 report whihc can be accessed from our web site should prove interesting to your readers. Dick Wilkinson/Secretary Royal Humane Society

  2. Anthony Staunton

    In 1940, the George Cross replaced the Empire Gallantry Medal not the Albert Medal. Nearly thirty years later in 1969, surviving recipients of both the Albert Medal and the Edward Medal were given the option of changing their medals to the George Cross.

    Tabloids might have called Bill Stone, Henry Allingham and Harry Patch, the last surviving servicemen of the First World War, heroes but I call them soldiers.

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