The search for a true hero of Ladysmith

Michael O'Mahoney with the medal
Michael O'Mahoney with the medal

BY day, Michael O’Mahoney works as a farmer in Leicestershire.

On a night-time, and whenever he gets a spare moment, he throws himself into his passion.

He’s a collector of medals from wars and admits: “I love to find out more about the people who originally earned them.”

Once such medal was the one earned by Robert Stewart, a Hartlepool man who became a hero in the Relief of Ladysmith in 1899.

The story is an astonishing one of guts, determination and persistence.

Robert was a member of the crew of HMS Powerful. It was on its way back from China when it was diverted to South Africa where the town of Ladysmith, held by British troops, was besieged by Boers.

The task of HMS Powerful’s crew was to break through Boer lines and relieve the British troops there.

But to do it, they had to haul a cannon 189 miles from Durban to Ladysmith first. They achieved it, even they they could only unload the guns under rifle fire and a deluge of shells from the Boers.

The ship and its crew returned to Portsmouth Harbour to a hero’s welcome and to a message of praise from Queen Victoria.

There were street parades and Britain hailed them as heroes of the highest order.

The actions of HMS Powerful’s guns were the inspiration behind the historic Field Gun Run which became part of the Royal Tournament.

Queen Victoria also rewarded the crew with a silver pocket watch while Lloyds of London bestowed a silver tobacco tin upon them. A gold medal was also part of the crew’s reward.

And that’s where Mr O’Mahoney’s interest lies. The farmer, originally from Ireland and now from Lutterworth in Leicestershire, became the owner of Robert Stewart’s medal when he bought it. “I go to military fairs and this chap had a medal,” said Mr O’Mahoney.

He said the gold medal had once been part of the watch and added: “I wonder what happened to Robert Stewart. Did he give the watch to his children? Does he have descendants still in Hartlepool.”

Research shows that Robert Stewart was originally born in Irving, Scotland, but moved to the North East with his family when he was a baby.

His father Thomas was a foreman in a Hartlepool blast furnace and was 43 in 1891, according to that year’s Census.

Thomas’ wife, and Robert’s mother, was Mary who was 50 in 1891.

Apart from that, little else is known about Robert and his life.

We are sure our readers can help fill in the gaps.

Those who can should contact Chris Cordner by calling (01429) 239377, emailing, or writing to Chris Cordner, Hartlepool Mail, New Clarence House, Wesley Square, Hartlepool, TS24 8BX.