The world’s largest collection of Victoria Crosses (VCs), belonging to the Michael A Ashcroft Trust, is to be displayed publicly for the first time in a new gallery at Imperial War Museum London.
The 152 medals, which range from the Crimean to the Falklands wars, will be displayed alongside the 50 VCs and 29 George Crosses (GCs) already held by the Museum.
The medals to go on show in the new gallery are the result of a collection of VCs first started 22 years ago by Lord Ashcroft, the Tory peer, international businessman and philanthropist. The new display, in what will be called the Lord Ashcroft Gallery, is due to open in the autumn of 2010.
It is estimated the new gallery will cost £5 million and the project has been made possible by a donation from Lord Ashcroft. The collection of VCs is also worth several millions of pounds.
Among the medals to go on display are the VC awarded to Lieutenant (later Rear Admiral) John Bythesea, who during the Crimean War became only the second man to earn and receive the award; the medal to Lieutenant (later Captain) William Leefe Robinson, who shot down the first Zeppelin over British soil during the First World War; and the posthumous medal to Sergeant Ian McKay, of the Parachute Regiment, which is one of only two VCs awarded during the Falklands War.
The new gallery will examine the creation of both the VC and the GC, and the personal stories behind the award of the medals. The VC is Britain and the Commonwealth’s premier award for extreme gallantry in the face of the enemy. The GC is Britain and the Commonwealth’s most prestigious civil decoration.
Sir Robert Crawford, the Director General of the Imperial War Museum, said: “The museum is delighted to be providing the first public home for Lord Ashcroft’s remarkable VC collection. The Imperial War Museum tells the story of people’s experience of war and we look forward to working with Lord Ashcroft to display this important collection, which demonstrates better than any other the extraordinary experiences of very ordinary people in wartime.”
Lord Ashcroft said: “I am absolutely thrilled that this unique collection of gallantry medals is to go on display at the Imperial War Museum, which has a reputation second to none for helping people to understand the experience of modern conflicts. I hope visitors will enjoy seeing the new collection as much as I have enjoyed helping put it together.
“The new gallery is the result of my fascination with bravery, in general, and the Victoria Cross, in particular, which go back to my childhood. My passion for the VC stems from the fact that it can be won by someone regardless of class, colour, religion, creed or rank – provided they exhibit truly exceptional courage in the face of the enemy.”
Lord Ashcroft bought his first VC at auction in 1986 – the medal awarded to Leading Seaman James Magennis, one of two crew serving in a midget submarine that planted limpet mines on a moored Japanese cruiser at the end of the Second World War.
The purchase of the Magennis VC, intended as a one-off, quickly turned into a desire to create a unique collection. Today the trust, which was set up to care for and protect the medals, owns well over a tenth of all the VCs ever awarded.
Lord Ashcroft is the author of Victoria Cross Heroes, published in 2006 to mark the 150th anniversary of the creation of the VC by Queen Victoria through a Royal Warrant. Ironically, given today’s announcement, his book, which had a foreword by the Prince of Wales, was launched at the Imperial War Museum.