Exactly a year ago – Remembrance Day 2010 – was a highly significant day in my life, one for which I had been preparing for an extremely long time. The opening of the new gallery bearing my name at the Imperial War Museum – by HRH The Princess Royal – was the result of a half-century long journey in which a passion turned into a dream, and a dream turned into a reality.
The passion – dating back to my childhood – was my huge interest in bravery, while the dream was that I would one day be able to put my collection of Victoria Crosses (VCs) on public display. Finally, the reality was the opening of the Extraordinary Heroes exhibition in the Lord Ashcroft Gallery last November.
But how has the gallery fared since then? An awful lot of thought – both from my own team and that of the museum – went into making the exhibition educational, inspirational and entertaining. However, the success of any gallery or museum depends on, first, members of the public visiting it and, secondly, them liking what they see.
Well, I am delighted to report today that there is excellent news on both these fronts. The gallery has been visited by nearly 250,000 people since it opened its doors to the public a year ago.
Furthermore, according to data gathered by the museum, each visitor spends an average of 54 minutes looking at the exhibition, which is three times longer than had been anticipated. In short, members of the public are showing their support for the new gallery with their feet, by going there in the first place, and their eyes, by each studying the exhibits for the best part of an hour.
Additional recent research has found that 89 per cent of visitors rated the exhibition as good or very good. If media coverage is a reliable indicator of the gallery’s worth, then it has also been an outstanding success: it has generated more than 400 items of media coverage in its first year alone.
My interest in bravery dates back to when I was a small boy. I had always been fascinated by the events of the Second World War and my father’s account, as a young officer, of his involvement in the D-Day landings on ‘Sword’ Beach made me even more intrigued by the concept of courage.
Gradually, I became increasingly interested in gallantry medals and, shortly after my 40th birthday, having by this time earned a little money as an entrepreneur, I purchased my first VC, Britain and the Commonwealth’s premier decoration for bravery in the face of the enemy. Although I had initially intended the purchase to be a one-off, I soon decided that I wanted to build a collection. Within two decades, I had amassed the largest collection of VCs in the world, but this created another problem: how to share the decorations with the public at large.
I was determined to put the collection on display at, not just a suitable location, but the best location. For me, this was the world-renowned Imperial War Museum and, after a great deal of behind-the-scenes discussions, I was able to announce in the summer of 2008 that I was providing a £5 million donation for a new gallery.
When that gallery opened a year ago, my collection of VCs stood at 164 – and by then I had purchased my first George Cross (GC) too. The gallery also became the new home for 48 VCs and 31 GCs already in the care of the museum and, since then, some additional VCs and GCs have been added to the collection.
The Extraordinary Heroes exhibition, which seeks to “intrigue, inspire and amaze”, has been attended by the very old and the very young alike. Today I have little doubt that there are a large number of small boys and girls up and down the country who, as a result of visiting the gallery, will now understand, for the first time, what Remembrance Day is all about.
Today, when we remember the many who have died in two world wars and other global conflicts, I would like to share with you the story behind just one posthumous VC in my collection. It is the decoration awarded to Private George Peachment who, at just 18, is one of the youngest men ever to receive the VC.
During heavy fighting at the Battle of Loos in September 1915, Private Peachment’s company commander, Captain Dubs, was seriously injured by a bomb which blew away part of his face. The young private ignored a heavy fire to crawl to his wounded officer and he began to dress his wound.
His VC citation told how “Private Peachment never thought of saving himself. He knelt in the open by his officer and tried to help him, but while doing this he was first wounded by a bomb and a minute later mortally wounded by a rifle bullet.”
In fact, Captain Dubs survived and later wrote a long and affectionate letter to Private Peachment’s mother which ended: “I can’t tell you how much I admired your son’s bravery and pluck. He lost his life trying to save me and no man could have been braver than he was….Your son died the finest death a man can die, he showed the greatest gallantry a man can show.”
On Remembrance Day, and on the first anniversary of my gallery’s opening, I ask you to spare a thought for the likes of Private George Peachment: brave men, and women, who gave their lives so that millions of others around the world could be free.
• To learn more about the Lord Ashcroft Gallery click here.
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