The Australian Boer War Memorial
Anzac Parade Canberra

Trooper Tom Morris

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:

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 four miles 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 fires, 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."

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 never happened.

After his return to Australia Tom did not stop serving the community. He joined the NSW Police, eventually retiring with the rank of Sergeant at Corowa, a town close to the Victorian border. His 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). 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.

Toms Grave at Corowa Toms Grave at Corowa
Toms Grave at Corowa Toms Grave at Corowa

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.

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NSW Lancers Memorial Museum Our thanks to Jan Galsby for the Tady Cigarette Card, and details of Tom Morris' later life.

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