The unique history of the Corps of Commissionaires

The legacy of the oldest security firm in the world

by Evelyn McKechnie

The Corps of Commissionaire has a unique place in British history concerning the employment of injured soldiers. It achieved long term goals and invoked wider debate regarding the employment of disabled veterans and the responsibility of the state, paving the way for future reforms. 

The original eight members photographed on 13th February 1859

The organisation was set up after the Crimean War by Captain Sir Edward Walter as a way to provide gainful employment for ex-servicemen. The corps initially was wholly self-supporting, with its pension and insurance fund and sick fund. King Edward VII, who inspected the corps at Buckingham Palace on 16 June 1907, described it as – ‘One of the best regulated and most useful institutions in the country’

Captain Sir Edward Walter, founder of the Corps of Commissionaires

During the Great War 1914 – 1918, it is estimated that over 1,640,000 British soldiers were wounded, nearly 30% of all British troops. 41,000 of these were limbless men. State provisions for the war disabled were unsatisfactory. The state saw philanthropy as a way of not having to allocate as many resources into the rehabilitation of disabled ex-servicemen. This meant that some former servicemen fared better than others depending on where they lived and their access to charities. 

Some examples of these organisations are:

  • St Dunstan’s, for the war-blinded
  • Scottish War Blinded Veterans 
  • Roehampton – artificial limb-fitting centre
  • The Princess Louise Scottish Hospital for Limbless Sailors and Soldiers 
  • The Queen Mary’s Star and Garter home for paraplegics 
  • The Soldier’s and Sailor’s Help Society also trained disabled men 
  • Harry Lauder Million Pound Fund for Maimed Men, Scottish Soldiers and Sailors 

Charities put forth a laudable effort but were unable to deal with the staggering number of men who required rehabilitation. 

The problem was that even after treatment, training and limb replacement, men often found it impossible to gain employment. The lack of employment for disabled ex-servicemen led to Henry Rothband proposing a scheme, the King’s National Roll Scheme (KNRS) in 1915, whereby, “every company in England and Wales with over ten employees (had) to ensure that no less than 5 per cent of their workforce comprised disabled ex-servicemen”. 

Patients at Pavilion Hospital for Limbless Men, 1917

Even though the program was voluntary, it became very successful with around 89,000 men finding employment through it within a year. It continued to be a success until 1944 when the compulsory Disabled Persons’ Employment Act took over. 

However, the Corps of Commissionaires had been at the forefront of helping ex-soldiers return to employment for 50 years before the start of the Great War. Its unique history is being lost, especially as it is a forerunner of present-day organisations helping injured soldiers, like Help for Heroes, Combat Stress and Blesma. 

The founding of the Corps of Commissionaires

After the Crimea War, Captain Sir Edward Walter, a retired officer of the 8th Hussars, recognised along with many others, that the military pension was too little to live on and many disabled ex-soldiers were reduced to destitution. He knew that gainful employment for the disabled ex-soldier was the way forward to ensure their lives were ‘not forced into idleness and poverty’.

The original eight members of the Corps of Commissionaires

Corps members had to pay into a Sickness and Burial Fund, a Clothing Fund and a General Fund to cover sick days, uniforms and expenses. The cost of admission at £25 set up some barriers for some, but most soldiers with a pension could afford to join. A soldier whose pension had expired would have to use connections to furnish the money for him. Some viewed this admission fee as restricting membership to the middle class or above.

However, the progress of the corps was steady. In 1874 the strength was a little under 500, by 1886 it reached 1200; in 1904 about 3000; in 1909, 3740; and on 11 June 1911, 4152. Of these 2541 men are stationed in London, while the remaining 1611 are distributed in ten other large cities, Belfast, Birmingham, Bristol, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Leeds, Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle-on-Tyne, and Nottingham.

The history and legacy of the Corps

The Corps has genealogical and social history importance which must be saved. Many of its documents, including the Founders original handwritten notebooks, letter and photographs are hidden from history, along with Queen Victoria’s correspondence and Florence Nightingale, two figures of immense historical significance.

The richness and history of the Corps of Commissionaires must be brought to the fore, which includes the full story of its Victoria Cross recipients, of whom there are five, but there may be more.

The VC was introduced on 29 January 1856 by Queen Victoria to honour acts of valour during the Crimean War.
Since then, the medal has been awarded 1,358 times to 1,355 individual recipients.

For example, the story of Thomas Hancock VC, one of the original eight members of the Corps, had lain in an unmarked grave for years. It was only after a local campaign in 2011 that his grave was restored, indicating the present-day interest in this type of history.

Thomas Hancock VC

Siege of Delhi, Indian Mutiny, 19 June 1857

Thomas Hancock was invested with his Victoria Cross by Queen Victoria at Buckingham Palace on the 8th June 1859.

Capture of Delhi in 1857

While unemployed and living in London, Hancock wrote to Captain Sir Edward Walter who had recently set up the Corps of Commissionaires as a way to provide gainful employment for ex-servicemen. Hancock joined the Corps on the 12th March 1859 and was employed by Messrs Hunt & Roskell, silversmiths and jewellers to Queen Victoria. He has since become known as one of the ‘original eight’ Corps employees.

Thomas Hancock VC (photo DRW 2013)

His grave was remained unmarked in the Brompton Cemetery, West London, until 2011.

Frederick Hitch, VC – Rorkes Drift

His daring exploits were made famous in Zulu, the movie. His handwritten account of the battle is held at the Brecon Museum in South Wales. Hitch joined the Corps of Commissionaires after receiving his VC from Queen Victoria in hospital. He shoulder was shattered and 39 pieces of bone removed but he eventually went on to become a London cabbie dying in 1913.

Frederick Hitch VC, Private Frederick Hitch, Battle of Rorke’s Drift on 22nd January 1879
Blue Plaque marking the home of Private Frederick Hitch V.C. at 62 Cranbrook Road, Turnham Green, London.
Private Hitch’s grave in St Nicholas Church, Chiswick

There is vast public awareness and knowledge of the many charities involved in ex-soldiers well-being, whether that is for combat stress, or for physical injuries, but the Corps of Commissionaires history is just not visible despite being the very first organisation to help ex-soldiers. This neglected history needs to be out there and thankfully many of their archives are finally being preserved and digitised.

Captain Sir Edward Walter’s vision and legacy is extraordinary – he knew 150 years ago, that soldiers needed to live full and useful lives and was prepared to do something about it. He recognised the issue of mental health was just as vital as recognising the ramifications of losing a limb, he also knew these men needed to feel part of society again. The Corps of Commissionaire did that. It’s a wonderful history for any organisation to be proud of and their motto ‘loyalty, integrity, service‘ still resonates today.

Corps of Commissionaires VC recipients:

William Kenny VC – 1st Battle of Ypres, 23 October 1914, Drummer in 2nd Battalion, the Gordon Highlanders. His citation reads:

‘William Kenny, No 6535, Drummer, 2nd Battalion, The Gordon Highlanders. Date of Act of Bravery: 23rd October, 1914. For conspicuous bravery on 23rd October, 1914, near Ypres, in rescuing wounded men on five occasions under very heavy fire in the most fearless manner, and for twice previously saving machine guns by carrying them out of action. On numerous occasions Drummer Kenny conveyed urgent messages under very dangerous circumstances over fire-swept ground.’

William Kenny VC, Gordon Highlanders
William Kenny VC, buried in Corps of Commissionaires plot at Brookwood Cemetery

His original marker was lost in 1936 and until its was replaced by a new headstone in 1999, he was otherwise not commemorated. His medals are on display at the Gordon Highlanders Museum in Aberdeen.

James Hollowell VC – Siege of Lucknow, 26th September 1857, 78th Regiment of Foot (later the Seaforth Highlanders). His citation reads,

‘A party, on the 26th of September, 1857, was shut up and besieged in a house in the city of Lucknow, by rebel sepoys. Private James Hollowell, one of the party, behaved, throughout the day, in the most admirable manner; he directed, encouraged, and led the others, exposing himself fearlessly, and by his talent in persuading and cheering, prevailed on nine dispirited men to make a successful defence, in a burning house, with the enemy, firing through four windows. (Extract from Divisional Orders of Major-General Sir James Outran, G.C.B., dated 14th October, 1857.’

James Hollowell VC

James Hollowell’s grave in the Corps of Commissionaires plot in Brookwood Cemetery

His medals are held by the Queen’s Own Highlanders Museum, Fort George, Inverness-shire

Thomas Hancock VC – Siege of Delhi, Indian Mutiny, 19 June 1857, 9th (Queen’s Royal Lancers). His citation reads:

The guns, I am happy to say, were saved, but a waggon of Major Scott’s battery was blown up. I must not fail to mention the excellent conduct of a Sowar of the 4th Irregular Cavalry, and two men of the 9th Lancers, Privates Thomas Hancock and John Purcell, who, when my horse was shot down, remained by me throughout. One of these men and the Sowar offered me their horses, and I was dragged out by the Sowar’s horse. Private Hancock was severely wounded, and Private Purcell’s horse was killed under him. The Sowar’s name is Roopur Khan.

His medals are not publicly held.

Albert Edward Shepherd VC – Villers Plouich, France, 20th November 1917, The 12th King’s Royal Rifle Corps. His citation reads,

‘No. R/15089 Rflmn. Albert Edward Shepherd, K.R.R.C. (Barnsley).

For most conspicuous bravery as a company runner.

When his company was held up by a machine gun at point blank range he volunteered to rush the gun, and, though ordered not to, rushed forward and threw a Mills bomb, killing two gunners and capturing the gun. The company, on continuing its advance, came under heavy enfilade machine gun fire.
When the last officer and the last non-commissioned officer had become casualties, he took command of the company, ordered the men to lie down, and himself went back some seventy yards under severe fire to obtain the help of a tank. He then returned to his company, and finally led them to their last objective. He showed throughout conspicuous determination and resource.’

Albert Shepherd VC

He died in 1966 and is buried in Royston Cemetery, near Barnsley in Yorkshire. His medals can be view at the Royal Green Jackets (Rifles) Museum in Winchester

Private Edward Hitch VC Rorke’s Drift – (22-23 January 1879), 2nd Battalion 24th Regiment. His citation reads,

‘2nd Battalion 24th Regiment Corporal William Allen and Private Frederick Hitch

It was chiefly due to the courageous conduct of these men that communication with the hospital was kept up at all. Holding together at all costs a most dangerous post, raked in reverse by the enemy’s fire from the hill, they were both severely wounded, but their determined conduct enabled the patients to be withdrawn from the hospital, and when incapacitated by their wounds from fighting, they continued, as soon as their wounds had been dressed, to serve out ammunition to their comrades during the night’.

Frederick Hitch’s medals including the replacement VC at the South Wales Borderers Museum, Brecon, Wales (VC Online)

His original VC is lost. His medals can be view at the South Wales Borderers Museum in Brecon.

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Scottish based company designing travel apps for historical locations. Travel apps that will take you on amazing journeys to destinations in history where famous events took place. Scotland, Castles, Clans, WW1 & WW2

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