Duncan Gordon Boyes, V.C. : A man more sinned against than sinning ?

By Ian C. Ruxton


V.C.= Victoria Cross


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1) It is believed that the Duncan Boyes Victoria Cross is now on display at the Lord Ashcroft Gallery at the Imperial War Museum in London. See this list. (26 December 2012)

2) Duncan Boyes will just not go away! A series of posters of Duncan Boyes VC and other medal winners is now on the Victoria undergound line in London (November 11, 2004). See the BBC Report here. The Gloucestershire Echo reports (November 10, 2004) are here and here. A photo of Boyes in civilian clothes seems to be included with the second article. A PDF of the Boyes poster is here. The posters are not for sale, however.

3) On April 23, 2004 Framlingham College loaned their two Victoria Cross medals to the Imperial War Museum in London for public display. Details are here. This seems to me to be a better idea than selling VCs to a private collector through an auction, as my old school Cheltenham College did in 1998. However, Cheltenham has since established a scholarship in the name of Boyes, which is a most welcome step towards his rehabilitation. 

4) Since the article below was written a replica of the Boyes VC medal has been made and is on permanent display in the College library (Big Modern). For more details see here.


1. An abbreviated version of the article below, without sources or illustrations, was printed in the Cheltonian Society News, the magazine for former pupils of Cheltenham College, 1998-9 (No. 19).

2. This article was authored and edited by Ian Ruxton, Kyushu Institute of Technology, Sensui-cho 1-1, Tobata ward, Kitakyushu 804-8550, Japan .

3.  A response to the article mentioned in 1. above was contained in the Cheltonian Society News  1999-2000 (No. 20) which indicated that Boyes had a long record of insubordination dating from his first days in the  Royal Navy. Assuming this to be true, Boyes may well have deserved to be thrown out of the service after all.  (?)


Duncan Gordon Boyes, 1846-69

"On 6 September 1864 at Shimonoseki, Japan, Midshipman Boyes of HMS Euryalus displayed great gallantry in the capture of the enemy's stockade. He carried the Queen's Colour into action with the leading company and kept the flag flying in spite of direct fire which killed one of his colour sergeants. Mr. Boyes and the other colour sergeant (Pride, T.) who was badly wounded, were only prevented from going further forward by direct orders from their superior officer."

(from the Register of the Victoria Cross)

Cheltenham College’s first of several known and recorded encounters with Japan was the glorious act of conspicuous bravery described above. The purpose of this article is to explain briefly the historical background to the action at Shimonoseki, and to give details - insofar as they are known - of the subsequent life and tragic end of the youngest (and surely the unluckiest) of College’s fourteen Victoria Cross winners.

The stimulus for the writing of this article was the recent sale for a substantial sum (£51,000) to an anonymous buyer [probably one Michael Ashcroft, millionaire benefactor of the Tory party and medal collector. Ed.] at Spink’s & Co., a London auction house, on 21 July 1998 by order of College Council, of the Boyes V.C. The medal had lain in a bank vault mostly unseen for twenty years after it had been purchased by chance for just under £2,000 in 1978. (The sale was reported in the Times and other local and national newspapers the following day.)


Historical Background


The Tokugawa shogunate (1603-1867, known in Japanese as the Tokugawa bakufu) was the third and last of Japan’s warrior governments, after the Kamakura shogunate (1192-1333) and the Muromachi shogunate (1338-1573). It was founded in 1603 when Tokugawa Ieyasu (his given name follows the family name, as is the Japanese convention) took the title of seii tai shogun or ‘barbarian-subduing generalissimo'.

It was a combination of foreign indifference and passivity on behalf of the 300 odd mutually uncooperative clan chiefs (called daimyo) of a fragmented nation, which allowed the Tokugawa shoguns to rule from Edo (now Tokyo) in conditions of unparalleled peace for 250 years. The Emperor (Mikado), though still nominally the supreme ruler, resided throughout the period in seclusion in the ancient capital of Kyoto, surrounded by spies, servants and women, a virtual prisoner with no temporal power.

Then suddenly the calm was shattered by the arrival of the American naval officer Matthew Calbraith Perry on 8 July 1853 in Edo Bay with a squadron of four ‘black ships' (called kurofune) at the head of an expedition to open diplomatic and commercial relations between the United States and Japan. He returned for an official answer in February 1854 with eight ships, and secured the Kanagawa Treaty on 31 March. This treaty was the model for agreements made between Japan and Britain, Russia and the Netherlands in 1854-6.

Some forty years later the distinguished British scholar-diplomat Sir Ernest Satow wrote memorably in a letter to a friend that “the Tokugawa regime was ready to break down and dissolve" and that the arrival of the foreigner was “the touch that shook the mass into crystals." In his memoirs of the period 1862-9 (A Diplomat in Japan) he also commented that the strange political system “was enabled to hold together solely by the isolation of the country from the outer world. As soon as the fresh air of European thought impinged upon this framework it crumbled to ashes like an Egyptian mummy brought out of its sarcophagus." (Incidentally in the same book Satow, who was himself at Shimonoseki in 1864, mentioned Boyes by name on p. 112 for showing "conduct very plucky in one so young".)

Yet it was more than the mere presence of the foreigner and his new ideas which caused the collapse. Foreign pressure (known as gai-atsu, literally outside pressure) also took more aggressive forms. There was first a naval engagement involving the mighty Royal Navy bombarding and destroying part of the city of Kagoshima (in the south of the large island of Kyushu) in August 1863, in retaliation for the killing by the Satsuma clan of a British merchant (Charles Richardson) near the treaty port of Yokohama in the previous year.

The attack on Shimonoseki in 1864 was a second punitive military expedition, this time involving Britain as the main protagonist, supported by the Netherlands, France and the United States. It was ordered by Sir Rutherford Alcock, then British Minister and leader of the diplomatic body, and aimed at subduing the Choshu clan, which in 1863 had - following an imperial order to expel the barbarians - fired on vessels of the latter three nations as they had passed through the narrow Straits of Shimonoseki between Kyushu and the largest island of Honshu.

Alcock’s action was quite unofficial and not supported by the Foreign Office in London, but the slow communications between Japan and London - the telegraph link had at that time not got beyond Galle in Ceylon - allowed him to act on his own initiative. (Later he was called to account and faced dismissal, but managed to justify his action in terms of protection of trade, and even gained promotion to Minister at Peking !)

In any case, the result of the naval bombardment at Kagoshima and the brief bombardment followed by landing of military forces at Shimonoseki was to convince Satsuma and Choshu (the two most powerful anti-shogunate clans based in and around Kagoshima and Shimonoseki respectively) that it was futile to resist the foreigners. It was a much better idea to make friends and learn from them. This realisation combined with various other factors to bring about the downfall of the Tokugawa shogunate at the end of 1867, and the proclamation of the Meiji restoration in the following year.

The “other factors" included gun-running to various anti-shogunate clans by a Nagasaki-based Scottish merchant called Thomas Glover, an alliance between Satsuma and Choshu in March 1866, and anonymous articles written at about the same time in the Japan Times by Ernest Satow, then a brilliant young interpreter at the British legation, which seemed to the many Japanese who read it in translation to define British policy as against the Shogun, even though it was officially neutral.

So the unofficial Shimonoseki campaign (for which no campaign medal was struck , even through three Victoria Crosses were won, including the first ever by an American citizen) was a vital part of the foreign ‘pressure from without,' which certainly accelerated the process of renewal of Japan’s outmoded and inadequate polity. Indeed we may go further and argue that foreign pressure in various forms was indispensable to the process itself.


The Life of Boyes: Before and After Shimonoseki


Duncan Gordon Boyes was born at 3 Paragon Buildings, Cheltenham, Gloucestershire, the son of John Boyes Esq. on the 5 November 1846. His sister Louisa Mary was later to marry Thomas James Young, who won a V.C. at Lucknow during the Indian Mutiny on 16 November 1857. Duncan was educated at College and joined the Royal Navy, after being prepared at North Grove House Academy, and was assigned to HMS Euryalus on the East Indies station.

Duncan Boyes was a midshipman throughout his brief career. This rank is unique to the Navy, and there is no direct equivalent in the other two services. It is an officer’s rank, above naval cadet and below sub-lieutenant. Perhaps the most illuminating description would be “officer-in-training", so naturally Boyes would have been expected to be promoted in due course, regardless of his glorious feat performed at the tender age of 17. Depending on the size of the unit to which a midshipman is attached, he may mess in the officer’s wardroom in a small ship, or with the lower ranks in a larger ship.

The HMS Euryalus (2,371 tons) in which Boyes served was the flagship at Shimonoseki, commanded by Captain Alexander, with Admiral Küper on board in overall command of the 8-ship British squadron. Built at Chatham in 1853, it was a wooden screw frigate with 35 guns at the time, and a crew of 515. It had arrived at Yokohama on 14 September 1862, the date on which Richardson was murdered (see above).

What happened to Boyes after Shimonoseki ? He certainly achieved recognition for his bravery. The medal citation published, as is customary, in the London Gazette of 21 April 1865 read:

“For the conspicuous gallantry, which, according to the testimony of Capt. Alexander C.B., at that time Flag Captain to Vice-Admiral Sir Augustus Küper K.C.B., Mr. Boyes displayed in the capture of the enemy's stockade. He carried a Colour with the leading company, kept it in advance of all, in the face of the thickest fire, his colour-sergeants having fallen, one mortally, the other dangerously wounded, and he was only detained from proceeding yet further by the orders of his superior officer. The Colour he carried was six times pierced by musket balls."

The Naval Brigade and Marines storming the stockade at Shimonoseki, 6 September 1864. From a sketch in the Illustrated London News of 10 December 1864. Boyes is presumably the man holding the Union Jack in the centre of the picture.

Duncan Boyes was invested with his V.C. on 22 September 1865 by Admiral Sir Michael Seymour G.C.B. (C-in-C to Portsmouth) on the Common at Southsea, along with William Seeley (the American) and Thomas Pride, the other two winners of the medal at Shimonoseki. Hugh Talbot Burgoyne V.C. and John Commerell V.C. (both veterans of the Crimean War 1854-6) also attended the ceremony.

Duncan's short life was to take a turn for the worse from then on. On 9 February 1867, he and another midshipman were court-martialled for disobedience of the C-in-C's Standing Order by breaking into the Naval Yard at Bermuda after 11 pm, after they had been previously refused admittance by the Warder at the main gate for not having a pass. Both admitted their guilt and were sentenced to be dismissed from the service.

The deep disgrace (and presumably the bitter sense of loss) was too much to bear for Boyes. He began to suffer tremendously from fits of depression and began drinking heavily. For the sake of his health he went to New Zealand to work with his brother on his sheep station, but the scandal appears to have followed him, for he was to suffer a complete nervous breakdown and he took his own life on 26 January 1869 at Dunedin on the South Island, aged just 22 years 2 months. On his death certificate, the cause was listed as delirium tremens.

He was buried locally in the Southern Cemetery 'Viking style' (i.e. with a stone at his head and feet), though on 4 May 1954 the Dunedin Returned Servicemen’s Association (RSA), in consequence of his V.C., reburied him in the servicemen's section of Anderson's Bay Cemetery. His tragically short life resembles nothing so much as that of a masterless samurai (rônin) of the Edo era in Japan. The Royal Navy was his master, but it rejected Boyes and his unswerving loyalty.


Concluding Remarks


The author of this article regrets the sale of the Boyes V.C., not because of the significance of the Shimonoseki action in Japanese history, great as that was, but because it was the only V.C. owned by College, and thus in a sense represented all the Old Cheltonians who have won the medal. (Incidentally, College’s record of fourteen V.C.s has only ever been bettered by Eton College with 22 and Harrow School with 15.)

In addition, I hope and believe I have shown that Boyes was a tragic figure, and met with peculiarly ill fortune. Why was he dealt with so harshly ? Could it be that he was a cocky individual, who flaunted his medal and thus excited the envy and dislike of his superiors ? Or did he fall foul of a particularly unforgiving and draconian C-in-C, bent on asserting his authority under the recently enacted Naval Discipline Acts of 1861 and 1866 ? (Life in the Navy at the time was a good deal more brutal than the one we know today: for example, the practical abolition of flogging was not realised until 1879.)

We will probably never know the answer to such questions, and any official written records remaining may not give hints to help us. The best hope is that further research will uncover private letters about Boyes and his case at some future date.

Whatever the case, it is not difficult to argue that the punishment Boyes received was out of all proportion to the ‘crime', and that the sale of the medal was a further misfortune for this unlucky individual. The medal indeed lay in a bank vault unseen for twenty years as insurance costs made permanent display at College prohibitive, but it is for this writer too wide a leap in logic to say that it should therefore be sold.

Why was it not brought out at least once a year, on September 6th, the anniversary of the heroic deed ? The C.C.F. (Combined Cadet Force) could surely have formed an honour guard and made an appropriate brief ceremony. Alternatively a replica could have been made and displayed permanently, no doubt at a fraction of the cost, while keeping the genuine article in the bank. But of course it is now too late: “what’s done cannot be undone."

Furthermore, while the notion of a scholarship in his name funded by the proceeds of the sale is not unwelcome, it also raises further questions. In particular, given that he was thrown out of the Navy, what would Boyes himself have thought of the idea of awarding the scholarship in the first instance to the children of servicemen ?

An alternative - and I believe better - idea would be to recognise that the medal was won in Japan, and pursue that line in determining appropriate recipients. (This fact in itself makes the Boyes medal a rarity, as in total only four V.C.s have been won in Japan, three at Shimonoseki in 1864 and one at the Bay of Onagawa, Miyagi prefecture, northern Honshu in 1945.)

One suitable recipient group is the children of Old Cheltonians resident in Japan (an increasingly large number, though the author having no children has no vested interest !). Another is the children of Japanese citizens resident either in Japan (population 120 million), the Straits of Shimonoseki or “Kanmon' area (1.25 million), or Shimonoseki City itself (250,000).

The above are just two suggestions, but other ones of course might be considered. The children of residents of Japan, whether foreign or Japanese, is a convenient ‘catch-all' for both the ideas given above.

Whichever is considered the most appropriate idea, if Japan is our “natural ally' in East Asia, as the then Foreign Secretary Lord Kimberley told Satow in May 1895, (and Britain was the first Western power to form an alliance with Japan, 1902-23), then we need her friendship more than ever now that Hong Kong has been returned to China.

Moreover, for real and lasting world peace such friendships should be encouraged between communities at the grass roots, not merely between governments. (In this connection it might interest Cheltenham Borough Council - which already has several international twinning arrangements but apparently none in Japan - to know that Shimonoseki City is looking for a twin town in an English-speaking country. The pre-existing historical link is real and ineradicable !)

Is it too much - or still too soon - to ask that, as we shortly enter a new millennium, College take a lead here in wiping the slate clean, despite the unhappy personal memories some older O.C.s will doubtless have of Japan as our enemy in World War II ?

Lastly, the most pressing matter in connection with Boyes himself is a petition to the Ministry of Defence to reconsider the case and determine whether a miscarriage of justice occurred. Such petitions are apparently not uncommon these days, and in this case it is well overdue. The Ministry is apparently bound to grant such a petition. If the sale indirectly achieves this result, perhaps it will have been worth it after all.




The Register of the Victoria Cross, published by This England, 73 Rodney Road, Cheltenham, Glos GL50 1HT, 3rd edition 1997

Japan: An Illustrated Encyclopedia published by Kodansha, Tokyo 1993

The Royal Navy - A History from the earliest times to the death of Queen Victoria in seven volumes by Sir William Laird Clowes (AMS Press Inc., New York, 1966) Volume VII, pp. 190-209 for Japan's historical background and details of the naval and military action at Shimonoseki.

A Diplomat in Japan by Sir Ernest Satow, P.C., G.C.M.G. (first edition Seeley, Service & Co., London 1921)

The Diaries and Letters of Sir Ernest Mason Satow (1843-1929) A Scholar-Diplomat in East Asia selected, edited and annotated by Ian C. Ruxton (The Edwin Mellen Press, 1998)

The Victoria Cross at Sea by John Winton (London: Joseph, 1978)

Scottish Samurai - a biography of Thomas Blake Glover (1838-1911) by Alexander McKay (Edinburgh: Canongate Books, 2nd edn. 1997, paperback)


Public Records Office reference ADM 12 is a handwritten alphabetical index of naval court-martials held in 1867 and prepared in that year, which includes the Boyes case and gives further references as follows:

ADM 1/6043 Minutes of the sentence delivered on 9 February 1867

ADM 1/6004 Admiral’s letter dated 25 February, P160

ADM 1/6029 “Promiscuous letters" (filed alphabetically under B)

The author visited the PRO on 25 November 1998, but in the short time available was unable to locate the minutes or letters themselves. It is possible they were lost, misfiled or even culled at some stage, perhaps by the Admiralty before they were handed over to the Public Records Office. (If anybody reading this article can help delve further, please contact the author !)


Victoria Crosses are awarded on the basis of recommendations made by commanders in the field, which are passed to higher officers and on to the sovereign if deemed meritorious. After the award is made it is ‘gazetted', or reported in the London Gazette.

Assistance from Richard Arman (e-mail: richard@hitech.net.au) and Mike Chapman (e-mail: mikec@chapter-one.com) who are both V.C. devotees and very knowledgeable on the subject is gratefully acknowledged. Mike runs an Internet website called Victoria Cross Reference at http://www.chapter-one.com/vc/



This article was authored, and edited for the worldwide web with some minor textual additions and alterations, by Ian Ruxton , Kyushu Institute of Technology , Sensui-cho 1-1, Tobata ward, Kitakyushu 804-8550, Japan

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