George Bell Chicken, V.C. (1833 - 1860)
"Born in 1838 in Bishopwearmouth, he served with the Indian Naval Brigade and died at sea in the
Bay of Bengal in 1860. He gained his VC during the Indian Mutiny. His citation reads:
For great gallantry on September 4, 1858, at Suhejnee, near Peroo, in having charged in the middle
of a considerable number of the rebels, who were preparing to rally and open fire upon the scattered
pursuers. They were surrounded on all sides, but, fighting desperately, Mr Chicken succeeded in
killing five before he was cut down himself. He would have been cut to pieces had not some men of
the 1st Bengal Police and 3rd Sikh Irregular Cavalry dashed into the crowd to his rescue and routed
it, after killing several of the enemy."
For great gallantry on September 4, 1858, at Suhejnee, near Peroo, in having charged in the middle of a considerable number of the rebels, who were preparing to rally and open fire upon the scattered pursuers. They were surrounded on all sides, but, fighting desperately, Mr Chicken succeeded in killing five before he was cut down himself. He would have been cut to pieces had not some men of the 1st Bengal Police and 3rd Sikh Irregular Cavalry dashed into the crowd to his rescue and routed it, after killing several of the enemy."
That small extract from an unknown North-Eastern newspaper, sent to me by a fellow researcher,
started me on quite an involved chase for more details about the background and daring deeds of this
gallinaceous warrior. During the course of my Chicken surname studies I have met and
corresponded with quite a number of fellow Chicken-chasers, from roosts now scattered all over the
world. None of them had ever indicated any relationship to this particular Fighting Cock nor at first sight could I see whether he was linked to my particular line in any way, and, since few of that surname had any claim to fame, he seemed a good subject on which to scratch around and try to pull together his story.
There are serious errors in that journalistic account, of which more anon, but it was a good starting point.
I first obtained a copy of "The Register of the Victoria Cross", 3rd Edition1 just published, and the definitive work on all holders of that prestigious award for gallantry. The entry for George Bell Chicken therein (Number 211) gave his date of birth as 6th March 1838 at Bishopwearmouth, Co. Durham; his Gazetting for the award on 27th April 1860; and his death at sea in the Bay of Bengal in May 1860. It also gave brief details of the action in which he had been involved leading to his decoration for great gallantry, virtually the same as in the newspaper article, which turned out as I found from the copy I obtained to be (almost!! - the date was misquoted) a straight quote from the London Gazette11 of that date.
Thus, taking that basic information, I searched my Chicken Births Database and the only George Chicken born in the Wearmouth area between 1829 and 1842 was indeed one George Chicken, born 6th March 1838 at Mill Cottage, Bishopwearmouth, son of another George Chicken, Millwright, and his wife Mary Smith. I obtained his Birth Certificate, and from St Michael's, Bishopwearmouth, Parish Register, found he was baptised there on the 25th March 1838.
Unfortunately, from my listing of Chicken Death's, it appeared that this lad died one year later, and was buried at St Michael's on the 23rd April 1839! The burial details in the Parish Register confirmed his parents as the very same as those for his baptism. In none of these records was a middle name of "Bell" mentioned. On the 1851 Census for Bishopwearmouth I found the family of George and Mary Chicken, he with the same occupation, and this time they had another son, also called George, born in 1842. It seemed extremely unlikely that they would have two living sons both called George.
So I had a problem here. The George Chicken alleged to have been the Victoria Cross winner (no Bell) had only lived for one year. But who was I, a mere amateur in this genealogical game, to argue with high-ranking officialdom as to the veracity of the information they were providing? Could the "Register of the Victoria Cross" actually be wrong? If so, how come? The researchers there must have had access to a far greater range of source material than I had been able to uncover, and presumably it had all been cross-checked for accuracy.
But the evidence was incontrovertible - "their" George Chicken had died as an infant; did not have the middle name of "Bell", and there seemed to be no other in the right time slot or place. I had covered all the Wearmouth Registers up to 1837, along with most of those for Tynemouth, and no George Bell Chicken. Nor was there such a chap on the GRO Indexes.
A search at my local library about the Victoria Cross produced "The Victoria Cross at Sea" by John Winton (1978)2, a book concerned solely with that award to naval personnel. This gave more about Chicken's career with the Indian Navy and the action for which he was decorated. To quote:
"He was not actually in the Navy - he was a Volunteer serving with the Indian Naval Brigade. He was appointed into the Service on 31st July 1858, as Acting Master, borne on the books of HMS "Calcutta". After a few months at Fort William, on the 23rd March 1859, he left for Buxar to join No. 3 Detachment of the Naval Brigade, serving in the rough broken country and jungles of Jagdispur in Bengal against the mutineers under the brothers Kunwar and Amar Singh, taking with him a party of seamen to replace the sick and dead of No.7 stationed at Dahree." (There is an obvious error of dates in here, of which more later).
"On 27th September 1858 George Chicken attached himself to a mixed party of the 3rd Sikh Irregular Cavalry and 68 men of Rattray's mounted police, under Lieutenant Charles George Baker of the Bengal Police, on an attack on a force of about 700 mutineers encamped at a village called Suhejnee, near Peroo, in Bengal. Apparently, Chicken had openly announced his determination to win a Victoria Cross and he behaved with conspicuous gallantry during the charge that day. The mutineers were routed and soon in flight, pursued by Chicken and the others."
"Chicken quickly forged ahead, driving his horse recklessly across river nullahs and through sugar canes and thick jungle. When he caught up with a party of about twenty armed mutineers he was quite alone. Chicken at once charged them and killed five with his sword, but was then set upon by the rest, knocked off his horse and badly wounded. He would certainly have been killed had not four native troopers of the 1st Bengal Police and the 3rd Sikh Irregulars galloped up and rescued him. On receiving the despatches of Colonel Turner, in overall command of the cavalry column, Sir Colin Campbell (later Lord Clyde) recommended both Baker and Chicken for the Victoria Cross, and both duly received it."
"George Bell Chicken returned to Calcutta on 30th November 1859, and in March 1860 was given command of H.M. Schooner "Emily" (2 guns), which was subsequently lost at sea with all hands in a violent squall off Sandheads in the Bay of Bengal in May 1860."
Although gazetted on 27th April 1860, apparently he never received the award personally, it was posted to his father George Chicken, Master Mariner, who lived at 35 King David Lane, Shadwell, London E, on 4th Mar 1862. Did he ever know about the award? He would probably have been at sea in the "Emily" in April, and most unfortunately died the following month when his ship was lost.
Thus there were a few more clues in here, but a further worrying inconsistency. If he had been appointed "Acting Master" in the Indian Navy in 1858 he would only have been 20 years old, IF the Bishopwearmouth birth was true. Surely a bit young to have been sufficiently qualified to be appointed to that rank.
Further clues, and inconsistencies, arrived in another extract sent me by a friend, which gave some more biographical details. The extract was published in a book called "Local Records...." by T Fordyce, published by T Fordyce of 60 Dean Street, Newcastle, and was from an unnamed newspaper of April 27th 1860 (same date as George Bell Chicken was Gazetted). The book was started in 1833, finishing 1866, as a continuation of the famous books by John Sykes3.
As well as describing the V.C. incident, the extract went on to add:
"Mr. Chicken is the son of Mr. George Chicken, shipowner of Jarrow, and brother in law of Mr. James Hamilton, shipbroker of Sunderland. Mr. Chicken, eleven years ago, before he had attained the age of twenty one, passed a most successful examination and sailed from England as a Chief Officer in a large East Indiaman. He afterwards joined the Indian Navy and soon became sailing master. When the mutiny broke out he joined Peel's Naval Brigade and during the continuance of the struggle his name was frequently mentioned in the Bombay and other journals for his acts of gallantry and daring".
So, a few more pointers here. We had a father's name and location (unfortunately there were a lot of George Chicken's!); a brother-in-law, and some timings which may give a way of calculating his possible age. He must have passed his Mate's or Master's examination about 1849 (11 years before the date of the newspaper), and been only 20 years old at the time, making a guesstimate of his birth as being around 1829. Which was a long way off the 1838 date ascribed to his birth by The Register. This also knocked another hole in the 1838 birth date - I found it impossible to believe an 11 year- old could have passed his Mate's exam in 1849, let alone his Master's.
Having a father, George Chicken, I looked up on my Marriages Database all the George Chicken marriages in the period before GBC's possible birth year, and there were three likely ones - a George Chicken and Elizabeth Bell at Jarrow in 1825; a George Chicken and Margery Bell at Newcastle St James in 1828; and the George Chicken and Mary Smith marriage at Bishopwearmouth in 1825. The last one could be discounted because they were the parents of the 1838 Bishopwearmouth George who had died in 1839. I had an inkling that the surname of the wife in the two other cases may well be significant, in that a wife's surname was often given to children as a second forename.
A scan through all the published 1851 Census Indexes I had covered from Northumberland and Durham was not very helpful at that stage. Only the George/Mary and family figured there, still in Bishopwearmouth with their second son called George.
However, there was an entry, at Saugh House, East Howden (HO 107 - Piece 2409 Folio 236)4, for one Elizabeth Chicken and her family, living with her father George Bell, Farmer of 50 acres. No husband, or son called George, but 4 daughters (one born in London) and a 4-year old son called Richard. Could this be the family of George Bell Chicken, minus him and his father (they could have been at sea on Census night)? On the balance of probabilities it seemed highly likely. And I had the birth of a Richard Chicken (a rare forename in this species!) at Tynemouth in 1846 from my St Cath's Database, which agreed with the age for him given in that Census entry.
Obtaining the latter's Birth Certificate gave his father: George Chicken, Master Mariner, and mother Elizabeth Bell. It also gave his full name as Richard Hubback Chicken. From a family I had put together previously from Parish Register searches, I had a William Chicken, George Chicken, Jane Chicken and Thomas Chicken, all baptised at South Shields (1798 to 1808), the children of a George Chicken (Glassmaker) of Gateshead and Elizabeth Hindmarch of Houghton le Spring. A Jane Chicken had married a Richard Hubback at Jarrow in 1827, and the Thomas had become a Surgeon and moved to Nottingham by 1838, founding the Nottingham Chicken Coop which I had researched fairly extensively. In 1851, an Elizabeth Hubback had been staying as a visitor with Thomas and his family in Nottingham at the time of the Census, giving her age as 7, also born in "London, England".
Although one of the 4 daughters of George C and Elizabeth Bell, Eliza, had given on the 1851 Census at Saugh House her birthplace simply as "London", year of birth about 1842, the others all gave their birthplaces as "Tynemouth" between 1826 and 1846. Unfortunately I could find no trace on the GRO Indexes of Eliza's birth registration. I may have missed her since some of those early years were very difficult to read on the microfilm copies I had searched when setting up my Chicken Database. Going back to the original GRO Indexes at the FRC, Islington, still did not produce any sign of Eliza's registration.
London connections for this family, joining the Nottingham Chicken's and the South Shields Chicken's via the Hubback link, were becoming difficult to escape, but their significance at that stage was certainly not very clear. There was the Eliza Chicken and the Elizabeth Hubback, both born in London in the 1840's, and the father of George Bell Chicken living in Shadwell in 1862.
From the IGI I had found the baptism of a Thomas Chicken Hubback at St Dunstan's, Stepney, in 1857. A deduction that this was a child of Richard Hubback and Jane Chicken of South Shields seemed obvious, but there was a very long time span between the marriage of his possible parents in 1827 at Jarrow and his baptism in 1857. An 1851 Census search of Stepney5 for the surname Hubback produced a family consisting of a widow, Jane Hubback, born about 1803 in South Shields, Durham, and three children, one of whom was entered as "Thomas C Hubback", born about 1849 at Ratcliff, Middlesex. Back to the GRO Indexes, and, after searching all the way back to 1848, I finally found the birth registration for Thomas Chicken Hubback in that year. His Birth Certificate gave his parents as Richard Hubback and Jane Chicken, so his baptism had been quite delayed till he was some 9 years old. Since Jane was given in the Census as a Widow, I tracked through the GRO Deaths Indexes, and found the demise of her husband Richard in 1850, along with another son, also called Richard, only two months earlier, both at Ratcliff, Stepney. The father, Richard Hubback, was another Master Mariner, the son was also a Mariner, and two of the children on the Census had been born in Ratcliff, Stepney.
So, I now seemed to have a South Shields family, with links to Tynemouth, Nottingham and East London, but nothing further about George Bell Chicken or any definitive links to a family for him. Circumstantially, it seemed that he must belong to the George Chicken/Elizabeth Bell family, but I had not found any proven tie to them, nor any signs of a birth place or date. And such a proof was crucial to give the real background and family of the Victoria Cross winner.
From the newspaper extract which mentioned him as being a brother-in-law of one James Hamilton, Ship Broker of Sunderland, it should seem possible to match up one of the daughters of George Chicken and Elizabeth Bell from the 1851 Census at Saugh House, on the assumption that they were GBC's sisters. There were four names to go at - Elizabeth, Mary Ann, Jane and Eliza, and extracting all the marriages for these names from my Database gave about eight possibilities, for which I had the Volume & Page Number, and the Registration District. Cross-checking "Hamilton" against these Numbers at the FRC for all these was tedious, but came up trumps on the fourth try with a marriage in 1853 at Tynemouth of Mary Ann Chicken and James Hamilton. Obtaining their Marriage Certificate confirmed her father as George Chicken, Ship's Master, and husband James as a Ship Broker. Thus another circumstantial piece slotted into the jigsaw, confirming the newspaper account.
Whilst doing this search, I noticed the marriage of one Eliza Chicken at Stepney, so on a hunch I took a flyer for her Marriage Certificate. This gave again a father as George Chicken, Master Mariner, Eliza marrying a George Clark, Widower, also a Master Mariner, at Shadwell Parish Church, Middlesex, in October 1862. Eliza was of course George and Elizabeth's fourth daughter on the 1851 at Saugh House, Howden, the "unregistered" one born in London. One of the witnesses was a William Chicken, which could have been her younger brother or possibly her uncle, the other witness was a George Chicken, probably her father. The residence on her Marriage Certificate only gave "Shadwell", but in March 1862 George Chicken, the father of George Bell Chicken, had been living at King Davids Lane, Shadwell, when he received by post the medal for his deceased son. Another piece in the puzzle!
Master Mariners were cropping up with alarming regularity in this detective story, but at that time the term meant little to me except that they were probably ship's captains. I had done no work on the Mercantile Marine, since George Bell Chicken had allegedly been in the Indian Navy since 1855, but I began to wonder if there were any mercantile records available which might give pointers to him and his family. I had a few clues, such as his apparent date of obtaining his Master's Ticket, plus some details about his father, albeit sketchy at that time.
Purchase of the book "My Ancestor was a Merchant Seaman" by Watts and Watts6 proved to be an eye- opener as to what may be available in the way of records for the Mercantile Marine, particularly when it seemed that my George Bell Chicken became a registered Master just about the time that the Registrar General of Shipping and Seamen was compiling an alphabetical register of Ship's Masters and introducing compulsory examinations for Certificates of Competency for Mates and Masters. This was 1845 to 1854, a period which covered the "very successful examination" which GBC supposedly passed around 1849, that examination presumably being for his Competency Certificate.
Using the references given by Watts & Watts (BT127 and BT122)7 I hit paydirt at the PRO (Kew). There was George Bell Chicken, giving his Mate's Register Ticket Number (3,750) and his Seamen's Register Ticket Number (549,720). He had been Certified as "Only Mate" at Sunderland on the 20th February 1852 - only a few years different from the date worked out from the newspaper extract. The Register also gave a list of voyages which he had made from 1852 to 1855, including dates and ship's names. On the 24th February 1852, only days after passing his examination, he had taken ship at Tynemouth as 2nd Mate in the "Anna", registered in Liverpool, for the West Coast of America, returning in May 1852. He then voyaged in July 1852 from Hull to Valparaiso, Chile, returning to Shields. In 1853 he made various voyages as "Only Mate", presumably 1st Mate, on a ship called the "Darlington", registered in Shields, to Copenhagen and other ports in the Baltic, becoming in 1854 the Captain of that ship on further trips to the Baltic.
The last voyages recorded in the Register for GBC were two trips to Madras out of Shields and Irvine, Ayrshire, as Mate (or possibly Master - the writing being unclear) in the Spring of 1855 on a ship called "Hastings", also registered in Sunderland, and the entries in the Register ending by saying "Disd. 25.7.55 Calcutta", presumably from the "Hastings".
More importantly the Register entry gave his origins as being born at Howden Pans, Northumberland, in 1833. This was the first direct evidence confirming my suspicions that George Bell Chicken, V.C., had NOT been born in March 1838 at Bishopwearmouth. It also confirmed, by implication, that he had left the Merchant Service in 1855 in Calcutta, India, but this left a large (and still unexplained) gap in his career between then and his joining an Indian Naval Brigade (which was not formed till August 1857, some 3 months after the start of the Indian Mutiny) and being signed on the books of HMS "Calcutta" in July 1858 as Temporary Acting Master, according to Winton.
I still needed his date of birth and his baptism, which should confirm his parents. I had covered the Parish Registers for Christ Church, Tynemouth, up to November 1835, and neither he nor any of his supposed sisters who had given their birth places as "Tynemouth" on the 1851 at Saugh House, Howden, were entered in them. I wondered if they had in fact been baptised back at the apparent "family church" at South Shields (his father, uncles and aunt had all been baptised there), but I had been unable to cover the Baptism Registers for South Shields St Hilda between 1813 and 1837. Or their baptisms could possibly have been in a Non-Conformist Church in the Tynemouth area, of which there were several.
However, knowing his Mate's Register Ticket Number (3750) from the Competency Register, I applied to the National Maritime Museum at Greenwich8 for a copy of his Application, and received an embarrassing supply of riches. Not only did they send a copy of his Application, but also copies of the actual Mate's Certificate, plus copies of an Application and Certificate for his Master's Ticket, which he had obtained in February 1854. Thus incidentally explaining how he had come to be sailing as Captain of the "Darlington" on its Baltic trips starting in March that year. His Testimonials in support of his Application also gave the information that he had been an Apprentice on board the "Darlington" for five and a quarter years prior to his serving in the "Anna", implying a start to his sea-going career sometime around 1845 or 46 - at age 12 or 13.
And, crucially, the Application gave his date of birth - 2nd March 1833 at Howden Pans, Northumberland. Thus dispelling once and for all the Bishopwearmouth assertions in the "Register of the Victoria Cross" and other sources. The Application also gave his Place of Residence as Saugh House, Howdon Pans, which tied him very firmly to the family I had found there on the 1851 Census. On a hunch, I asked a very helpful colleague of mine in the North-East to have a look in the Wallsend Parish Registers for me, since I had realised that Howden Pans was actually in that Parish and not in Tynemouth, although I had come across many Howden references in the Christ Church Registers. And there he was at Wallsend St Peter's, along with his three elder sisters:
"8th December 1833 - Baptism of George Bell, son of George and Elizabeth Chicken of Howdon Pans, Master Mariner".9
So I had finally got him. The "real" winner of that Victoria Cross in Bengal some 25 years later. There were still many unanswered questions and contradictions about his family and his early career - "flesh on the bones" so to speak - and I wanted to round out his background beyond the raw facts. He had only been 18 years old when he obtained his Mate's Ticket, sailing off in the "Anna" round Cape Horn into the Pacific and on to the West Coast of America and Valparaiso, Chile, and still only 20 years old (by a week!) when he became a Master.
The neatness and flourish of his handwriting, coupled with a very bold signature, implies a very confident young man who was obviously destined to go places. I am not sure whether becoming qualified as a Ship's Master at age 20 was unusual in the 1850's, or perhaps he was one of those precocious bright kids who seem to spring out from time to time in the most mundane of families. From what I had found so far, his family background did not appear anything special - grandson of a Glassmaker and a Brewer's daughter, his father and uncle Master Mariners, the other uncle a Surgeon.
His Seaman's Register Ticket25 entry gave the information that he was an Apprentice at Sea in 1847 (when first Ticketed, age 14) to Dec 1851. It also gave a physical desription of him - brown hair and eyes, of dark complexion, with a scar on his right cheek. The Date of Birth given was in fact inconsistent with the actual date. He had never served in the Royal Navy, and was able to write. Disappointingly it was very short on details of his early career - only one voyage was shown, in 1851.
Why did he leave his maritime background in the North-East of England and what urges compelled him to finally take root in India? There is no record of his returning to his country of birth prior to his death in 1860. India was militarily quiet in 1855 when he apparently signed off in Calcutta, the Mutiny not starting till May 1857, and, despite the frequent assertions that "as soon as war broke out he volunteered into the Naval Brigade with enthusiasm and distinguished himself in acts of bravery in Bengal.", we are not aware that he joined any Naval Brigade till July 1858, fourteen months later and eleven months after the Brigade's formation by Peel. As it says in the newspaper extract "......during the struggle his name was frequently mentioned in the Bombay and other journals for his acts of gallantry and daring."
Another newspaper article about him, in the North & South Shields Gazette10 says "Soon after the breaking out of the war he volunteered into the Naval Brigade, and earned for himself distinction under the walls of Delhi, where for his bravery he was promoted to the rank of Master I.N.". Yet Delhi had been recaptured from the Mutineers in September 1857 - so does this indicate he had actually joined a (Peel's?) Naval Brigade much earlier than July 1858, and that the latter was just another move in his career round the Indian sub-continent seeking action wherever he could find it? Peel himself had died at Cawnpore in April 1858, after being wounded in the second relief of Lucknow in March of that year.
There is a further interesting (undated and unattributed) note in his Imperial War Museum file20: "Joined the Indian Navy and was one of the Indian Naval Brigade during the Mutiny in 1857-58. Was present at action where the Brigade shelled the mutineers from their position in Fort Kali Kanki. Also at operations in Jagdispur...." (My italics). No source for this information is given, but it shows there must be some documents somewhere giving more details of Chicken's fighting career. It is possible that this note is a paraphrase (not entirely accurate) from Creagh & Humphris.19
Perhaps Chicken was a roving adventurer, a bit of a loose cannon, moving wherever he thought there may be a bit of fighting and under no strictly military command?
Chicken's was the only Naval V.C. to be won on horseback! But was it a Naval medal??
It was also the last Civilian V.C. awarded, under Queen Victoria's "civilians" warrant of December 1858 (enacted incidentally AFTER his Deed of Bravery for which he was granted the medal)12.
So, was it a NAVAL or a CIVILIAN Victoria Cross? His award is commemorated on the wall plaque at the Union Jack Club (Combined Services) in London as a Naval award, but......
AND, did he ever in actual fact "join" a Naval Brigade in the sense of enlistment/signing-on? He does not appear on the books of HMS "Calcutta" in 1858.
Or was he a roving adventurer, a true gallinaceous wanderer, who "attached" himself to whatever action was going on which offered him excitement and glory?
As well as the Victoria Cross, in an exhibition at Newcastle Library a few years ago, it was alleged (no source given) that he was awarded the Campaign Medal "1856/58 Indian Mutiny Medal (2 Clasps)", though when this occurred is not given. Further research indicates that, although he may have received the Mutiny Medal, he was apparently not entitled to ANY clasps.
The Indian Mutiny was finally quelled in April 1859. He never saw or handled his V.C - he died at sea less than a month after his Gazetting. It is reported that the medal was posted by Sir Edward Lugard to his father, George Chicken, Master Mariner, at 35 King David Lane, Shadwell, East London, on the 4th March 1862.17 King David Lane still exists, though there are no remaining original dwellings - only a school on one side and council flats and industrial units on the other. A search of the 1861 Census in this area failed to reveal the existence of George and his wife Elizabeth in Shadwell or Ratcliff. As elusive as his son, who was only found on the 1841 Census with his parents at the Coal Meters Arms, Lower Shadwell, where his grandmother Elizabeth Chicken nee Hindmarch (the Brewer's daughter) was the Landlady!
I have recently learned that his (alleged - see later on "Medals") Victoria Cross medal was sold at auction in the Spring of 1987 in Red Deer, Alberta, Canada, and that its box contained a letter about the award. Unfortunately, the buyer inists on remaining anonymous, so there is no chance of me obtaining a copy of the letter or a photograph of the medal. No photographs of the man himself have ever been located.
NOTE: the superscript numbers in the text refer to the references listed on the Reference/Sources Page