The Australian Boer War Memorial
Anzac Parade Canberra
Tom Morris was the first Australian to be recommended for the award of the Victoria Cross, and arguably should have been the first Australian Victoria Cross winner. This interview with the Singleton Argus when he returned to Australia tells the story:
"Singleton Argus" Tuesday 26 June 1900:
"TROOPER TOM MORRIS
Interviewed at Melbourne
Trooper Tom Morris, who is being invalided home from the war, was recommended for the distinction of the Victoria Cross for courage in returning to rescue a disable comrade of the New South Wales Lancers under hot fire near Arundel. Though he is not yet officially gazetted as "V.C." it is understood throughout South Africa that the recommendation will be confirmed, and so certain is the belief that the English illustrated press published his portrait as the "first Australian to win the Victorian Cross". Should Trooper Morris receive the coveted distinction, he will not only be entitled to the annuity provided by the Imperial Government but will obtain a similar income from a Sydney life assurance society, which made the offer of an annuity at the opening of hostilities. The return of Trooper Morris is quite unexpected, for his name is not among those cabled as suffering from illness, and the story of how he came to be recommended for the Victoria Cross is interesting, and especially from the fact that it has not hitherto been published either in England or in Australia. Trooper Morris is a tall, handsome young fellow of 24, a native of Singleton, New South Wales, where he follows the calling of a contractor with his father, Mr Joseph Morris, one of the best known residents of the district. Young Morris joined the local detachment of Lancers as a mere lad, and, unlike most Australian youths, neglected athletics for military exercises. The result has been that, though he regretfully admits that he can neither play cricket nor football, and can neither scull nor box, he can point to a long list of prized won at military tournaments, not only in his own country but against the flower of the British Army. Morris was one of the detachment of Lancers which left Sydney 18 months ago for training at Aldershot. He remained there till the opening of the war, when the majority of the men volunteered for service at the Cape. He took part in much of the hard and glorious work connected with the campaign, and was under fire on so many occasions that he learned to despise the enemy's bullets. "The first time you go into action," said his townsman, Trooper Waddell, "you think every bullet is going to hit you. After a while you imagine none will." Morris nods, but of his exploit he will say little, and that little has to be obtained by a series of leading questions and long cross-examination. "We were at Arundel, near Colesberg," says Morris at last, "and a body of us were ordered out under Major Lee to examine a row of kopjes about six kilometres long. We had ridden along for half the distance without finding any sign of the enemy, when they suddenly opened fire on us from the kopjes on both sides. Al we had to do was to draw their fire, so we started to get back at once. I was near the rear of the detachments, and as I rode along I could see the Boers coming round the other kopje to cut us off. Then I looked back to see if any of them were following us and saw Trooper Harrison's horse fall. It was shot under him, so I went back and took Harrison up and galloped away." In telling his story Trooper Morris omits the most important part which his comrades eagerly tell. As Harrison fell the Boers rushed down from the kopjes on both sides towards him evidently intending to make him a prisoner, but the others maintained such a heavy fire that he was forced to take cover behind the body of the dead horse. A number of Boers also closed in from the kopjes on either side, and were firing after the retreating Lancers at the very moment Morris turned his head. The plucky Singleton lad, however, swung his horse round, and galloping back right in the face of the fire picked up Harrison with the enemy scattering bullets from three sides of them, and rode back safely, running the gauntlet of the enemy for the second time. Morris was present in several subsequent reconnaissances but eventually he fell a victim to enteric fever, and after three months in the hospitals of South Africa he was invalided back to Australia."
Records show Tom who had joined the Lancers in 1895 took part in the following engagements:-
13 January 1900 - Arundel where Tom was nominated for the VC.
19 January to 6 February - actions around Colesberg.
12 February - Riet River.
13 February -– Kliep Drift, Modder River.
15 February - Relief of Kimberley.
16 February - Dronfield.
18 February to 5 March - Paardeberg.
7 March - Poplar Grove.
10 March - Driefontein.
12 March 1900 - Bloemfontein.
It was at Bloemfontein that Tom caught Typhoid. He was lucky to survive, his colleague Corporal Ben Harkus died of the disease in hospital at Bloemfontein.
Trooper Harrison whose life Tom saved went on to take part in 42 engagements from Arundel to Witkop on 5 October 1900, shortly before Lancer Squadron was withdrawn.
The letter, left, on the NSW Lancers letterhead and dated 05 Feb 1900. Asks Captain Bowman commander of the Regiment’s Singleton Troop to notify Tom’s family and friends of him being nominated for the VC. The letter in incredible condition for one written over 120 years ago is in the custody of Tom’s grand daughter’s family.
The letter reads:
NSW REGT OF LANCERS (CREST)
Would Capt. Bowman convey to the parents or friends of Trooper Morris the great satisfaction and pleasure the officers of the Regt. feel in learning that he has been recommended for the V.C. being as far we know the first Australian gaining that high honour.
Captain AS Bowman is shown on the illuminated nominal role of the Regiment dated 1903, prepared for Federation and the creation of the 1st Australian Light Horse Brigade, as commanding the Singleton Troop
From the payroll returns for the Singleton Troop, spanning 1893 to 1903, he joined the Troop as a Trooper on 20 January 1994; was promoted to First Lieutenant on 1 January 1894. This is obviously wrong. The return references General Order 212 dated 24 October 1894. From that, the date of his promotion would more likely be 1 October 1894; Promoted Captain 16 May 1895, a rank and CO of the Troop he still held when the ledger ended.
On the Annual Field Training Return dated 9 March 1895, he was graded "Good" by both his CO and the Inspecting Officer (highest grading was "Excellent").
Lieutenant Colonel James Burns (later Colonel Sir James Burns KCMG MLC) was the Regiment's Commanding Officer during the Boer War. He commanded the Regiment from 2 September 1997 to 30 June 1903. Like many of the Regiment's early officers, he joined Parramatta Troop as a Trooper and then was given very rapid promotion. CLICK HERE for more information on Colonel Burns.
But nothing came of Morris's recommendation for the VC possibly because in 1899 Australian troops were classed as "colonials" and Tom Morris was only a farm contractor and "trooper". Later, a professional from the Australian Commonwealth did an equally brave thing and became the nations first VC winner. That takes nothing away from what Tom Morris did.
Two contemporary cigarette companies issued cards to commemorate South African war heroes, the "Ogden" cigarette company issued a card using the photograph above of Tom Morris. The other was issued by the also long defunct "Taddy" Cigarette Company. The Taddy card takes quite a degree of licence. The regimental badges have been evened up by adding extra elephant trunks, also the badges and buttons are gold instead of silver. And; Tom is shown wearing the VC that was never confirmed.
After his return to Australia Tom did not stop serving the community. He joined the NSW Police. Tom had a police record that covered 25 years:
1902 - Appointed to the NSW Police, Police Registration Number 7848
1902 - Probationary Constable
1903 - Promoted to Ordinary Constable
1910 - Promoted to Senior Constable
1918 - Promoted to SGT Third Class
1924 - Promoted to SGT Second Class
1924, July - Transferred from Holbrook to Corowa
1928 - Promoted to SGT First Class
1934 - Retired as SGT First Class (retired at Corowa)
After his long service in the Police, in February 1938, at NSW Government House, Lord Wakehurst presented Tom with the Imperial Service Medal. The letter from the Home Office, Whitehall, London, which accompanied the medal, was as follows:
"Sir, I am commanded to forward an Imperial Service Medal which His Majesty the King has been graciously pleased to award to you in recognition of the meritorious services which you have rendered. I am, Sir, yours faithfully, R.R. Scott, Secretary and Registrar of the Imperial Service Order."
In 1944 he was elected onto the Corowa Municipal Council, receiving the most votes.
Tom's obituary in the "Corowa Free Press" Friday 7 October 1955 details his part in two police cases:
"Four men were wounded with rifle bullets in a shooting affray near Jingellic. About 17 shots were fired at a picnic party by a man named Claude Batson. One of the men later died. Armed; Batson terrified the district for several days and turned bushranger, hunted by an armed posse he was eventually captured in a starving condition at a dairy farm near Jingellic. It was during the search that Sgt Tom Morris visited a house at Lankey's Creek and after searching the house, saw Batson run through the orchard. Morris called to him to put up his hands, but instead Batson turned and fired at him, and also at Sgt O'Connor. Morris fired at Batson and the shot went through his sleeve. He took aim again, but the rifle jammed.
Sgt Morris was also responsible for recognising a 19 year old youth named Thomas, who was known as the Staghorn Flat murderer. Thomas lived at Corowa as George Maxwell for nearly a year, until he forged cheques in the name of Hugh Jamieson, and hired a car to Culcairn. Morris and his second in command, Constable (afterwards Inspector) Yardy, notified Culcairn police and Thomas was arrested and brought to Corowa, where Morris recognised the likeness of a photo in Thomas' pocket to the Staghorn Flat murderer, he was arrested and admitted his guilt. Although a reward of 200 pounds had been offered in Victoria for the arrest of Thomas, the Victorian authorities refused to recognised the NSW Police, and the reward was never distributed."
Clearly the bravery shown by Tom in South Africa was not in any way out of character. Tom was buried at the Corowa old cemetery on Wednesday 5 October 1955, the casket was carried by Sergeant M. J. Whelan, Senior Constable B. D. Riordan and Constable 1st Class R. Hunt (Corowa Police) and Messrs M. Gyles, C. Pratt and Eric Harrison (Returned Soldiers - Eric Harrison was the soldier whose life he saved in 1900). Tom married Amy Clare Nickson on 5 March 1906 in Coolamon NSW. They had three children: Gladys Ellen, Edwin James, and Irene.
Almost as a monument to the injustice Tom suffered. No Lancer has ever been awarded a VC.
Tom now rests quietly in the Pioneer Cemetery at Corowa alongside his wife. There is no mark on his grave to indicate he was ever a soldier, or that he was the first of our countrymen to be nominated for its highest honour for bravery in combat.
In 2020, the Regiment was deployed to the New South Wales - Victorian border during COVID Assist. In time out from the deployment a Joint NSW Police / Royal New South Wales Lancers commemoration took place at Tom's grave. Lieutenant Colonel Andrew White, the Regiment's Commanding officer laid the Army's wreath.
Our thanks to Jan Galsby for the Tady Cigarette Card, and details of Tom Morris later life; Terry Gilbert Morris for the Ogden Card; Ian Hawthorn for the research on Captain Bowman; Andrew White for the ceremony details.