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Museum honours nurse who is only woman to have ‘won VC’

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The remarkable story of a woman who nursed soldiers in India during a 19th century cholera outbreak and the medal they gave her in gratitude is to go on display in London.

For her “indomitable pluck”, Elizabeth Webber Harris was awarded a replica Victoria Cross, as women were ineligible for the country’s top bravery award itself during her lifetime.  

Her medal will go on display at the Imperial War Museum from next month, in the wake of International Women’s Day last Sunday.

It will be in the Lord Ashcroft Gallery, which is dedicated to objects and artefacts belonging to those awarded the Victoria Cross or the George Cross.

Born Elizabeth Matthews in Bexleyheath, Kent, in 1834, Mrs Harris travelled to India with her husband, who had been made commanding officer of the 104th Regiment (Bengal Fusiliers).

In 1869 a cholera epidemic moved across India from Calcutta – modern day Kolkata – and by August had reached the regiment’s location in Peshawar on the country’s north-west frontier.

“It is a most beautiful ornament, and will always be my most cherished possession”

Elizabeth Harris

Members of the regiment and their families soon became infected and died. On 17 September the remainder of the regiment marched into the countryside to try and contain the disease. Elizabeth Harris was the only woman to go with them, despite having recently recovered from fever herself.

For three months, she lived among the troops as they moved through the Indian countryside. As they set up camp, men died. After they were buried, the following morning the survivors moved on.

Life on the edge of the North-West Frontier outside Peshawar was also dangerous. On one occasion, Mrs Harris was attacked late at night by two tribesmen who seized her horse, which she later described as “an alarming incident”.

When the regiment returned to Peshawar after the end of the epidemic, Elizabeth Harris was widely praised for having working selflessly under dangerous conditions to both treat the sick and keep up the spirits of those who survived.

For her months of selfless devotion, the regiment’s officers felt that she had lived up to the traditions of the Victoria Cross. After obtaining “special permission” from Queen Victoria, they had a gold VC made to reflect “her indomitable pluck, during the cholera epidemic of 1869”.

Women have only been eligible to receive the Victoria Cross since 1921 and there have been no female winners since then. As a result, the medal given to Elizabeth Harris, although informal, is the only “VC” to have been awarded to a woman.

Mrs Harris later wrote: “It is a most beautiful ornament, and will always be my most cherished possession.”

Mrs Harris died in London in July 1917. Her ashes were buried next to those of her husband, Major General Webber Harris, who had died 14 years earlier.

Her medal was displayed for many years at the Royal United Services Institute in Whitehall and then the National Army Museum.

In 2013 it was acquired by the Lord Ashcroft Collection of British military decorations, which is permanently housed at the Imperial War Museum in Lambeth.

The medal stands as an “eloquent testimony” to all the women who lived with the British Army in Victorian India, said the museum.

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Readers' comments (2)

  • What an amazing woman and nurse. What a travesty that other women who have served were not recognized until after 1921 and then only as bit part players to the men.

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  • Colm, you don't receive the VC for nothing you know, it's ' For Valour' ( not pluck) in battle in the face of the enemy. Plenty of other medals such as the George Cross won by our female non-combatants at the time.
    This may well change now that females can fight at the front-line, but a VC is a damned sight harder to win nowadays, 11 in total since the end of WWII, compared to 1,347 prior.

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