There are two recipients of the Victoria Cross buried in Ryde Cemetery – General Sir Sam Browne and Quartermaster William Thomas Rickard. Historic Ryde Society is honoured to have been loaned some items relating to Quartermaster W T Rickard VC, by his great grandson, Mr David Wheeler, of Ryde.
William Thomas Rickard was born at Devonport on the 10th February 1828, and at an early age joined the Royal Navy. He took part in several engagements in the Crimean campaign, including the battles of the Alma and Inkerman. He became Quartermaster on the H.M.S. Weser under the command of Captain John Edmund Commerell, under orders to take part in the bombardment of Sebastopol. While cruising on the eastern side of the spit of Arabat, Captain Commerell learnt from some fishermen that large quantities of corn and forage about 400 tons, intended for the use of the garrison at Sebastopol – were stored on the Crimean shore of the Livash.
Realising the importance of destroying these stores of the enemy, Captain Commerell gallantly undertook to attempt the service and asked for volunteers. Quartermaster William T. Rickard was the first to volunteer and then followed George Milestone A.B. and two other seamen. Leaving his vessel in charge of the second master, Captain Commerell, the mate Mr. Lillingstone, quartermaster Rickard, and two seamen, entered a small shallow boat and rowed towards the Spit. On arriving there they leapt ashore, dragged the boat across the Spit which was about 200 to 300 yards wide at this point and launched it on the waters of the Putrid Sea. This was done in intense darkness and the Spit was swarming with Cossacks. Having crossed the Putrid Sea, Mr. Lillingstone and a seaman Hoskins, were left in the boat, while Captain Commerell, Rickard and Milestone accomplished the remainder of their enterprise on foot, having to walk two miles and a half using a hand compass to check their direction, and then waited for daybreak.
As visibility improved with the dawn, they were able to see their objective, which was a fodder store containing about 400 tons of corn about a mile away with a large red building beside it, close to the Cossack guard station and signal post. Close by was a village in which a large number of Cossacks were encamped. Heedless of all dangers, the heroic party waded through two canals, neck deep in water, and found the grain and forage stacked on the banks of the Salghair, near the towing-paths evidently awaiting transmission by water and they contrived to ignite the stacks. The straw being very dry, in a moment the whole was in a blaze. The red building would not ignite and the Cossacks came streaming out of their guard post while Commerell was still trying to light it. The glow of the burning ricks revealed Captain Commerell and his companions running with all possible speed in the direction of their little craft.
With a wild cry of vengeance the Cossacks, who spared no one, leapt into their saddles and started off in hot pursuit, a number of infantry joining them and keeping up a heavy fire of musketry. The distance between the pursued and the pursuers grew less and less. When within signalling distance of the boat, Captain Commerell called out to the men in it to fire on the pursuers, which they did with effect. The next moment the gallant three felt the ground yielding beneath their feet. They had reached the muddy belt which skirts the shore of the Putrid Sea. It was their salvation. The Cossacks dared not urge their horses through the treacherous loam, but though the pursuit was not kept up, the Russians continued to fire which was briskly replied to by Mr. Lillingstone and his companion from the boat; ball after ball splashed about them, and with the enemy barely forty yards behind, the struggle across the thick slimy mud proved too much for Milestone who slipped and fell utterly exhausted and begged to be left behind but the other two removed his boots, swam with him across the second canal and here let us quote from Captain Commerell’s report : “I must bring to your notice the excellent conduct of my quartermaster, William T. Rickard, who much fatigued himself, remained to assist the other poor, unfortunate seaman, who, from exhaustion, had fallen in the mud and was unable to extricate himself, and this was done notwithstanding that the enemy were keeping up a heavy fire at the distance of 30 or 40 yards”.
Rickard carried his comrade and the three reached their boat in safety. Assisted by Lillington and Hoskins, who gave covering fire from the boat, the three managed to escape and embarked in time. The Cossacks were only 60 yards away when the boat pushed out from the shore and Commerell actually killed the nearest horseman with his pistol. After rowing across the Putrid Sea they re-crossed the Arabat Spit, where they encountered more of the enemy who fired upon them, but they managed to regain their vessel, having successfully completed a deed of the highest daring. Later the look-outs watching from Weser’s masthead reported that the fodder store had burned to the ground.
For his noble share in the heroic exploit William Thomas Rickard was awarded the Victoria Cross, a medal for distinguished conduct, and a special pension. He also received the Legion of Honour. The Victoria Cross was likewise conferred upon Captain Commerell, who afterwards became Admiral of the Fleet Sir John Edmund Commerell, G.C.B. Sir John predeceased his old quartermaster of the ‘Weser’, and to the last he manifested his interest in the gallant comrade who shared with him the glory of compassing one of the most hazardous deeds recorded in Naval Annals.
William’s later career
William Rickard served on in ‘Weser’ after Commerell left and was probably invested with his Victoria Cross on board by Commerell’s successor, Commodore Johnstone, sometime in 1857. Rickard must have celebrated his medal too enthusiastically because he forfeited on 26th December the Good Conduct badge he had been awarded that July, and ended 1857 as an Able Seaman again. However he regained his rate in July 1858 and was a Quartermaster when he was paid off to the ‘Impregnable’ in Devonport in June 1859. His last ship was the screw liner ‘Donegal’ as Captain of the Forecastle; he then joined the Coastguard Service as boatman, Chief Boatman and latterly as Chief Officer of Coast Guards, retiring sometime in the 1870s.
In June 1860, William had married Rebecca Whitingham, of Kingsbridge, and they had four sons and two daughters. In retirement Rickard was boatman to the Ryde Rowing Club in the Isle of Wight and he and his family lived at Arethusa Cottage, Smallbrook, Ryde.
He had his V.C. pension of £10 a year, paid at £2 10s a quarter, and from 1888 he also had £25 a year from the Greenwich Hospital Pension for Coast Guard Chief Officers. He died on 21st February 1905 in the Royal Infirmary, Ryde.
George Milestone, the sailor whom Rickard rescued, was a much younger man, born in December 1834. He also came from Stoke Damerel, Devonport, and served with Rickard in ‘Arethusa’, ‘Weser’ and ‘Impregnable’. It is quite likely that Rickard took a fatherly interest in the young man from his own home village. Milestone was married, and he signed for 10 years continuous service in July 1855. He did not win the Victoria Cross and nothing more is known of him. Commerell and Milestone shared in the same adventure. One of them became an Admiral, and walked with kings, queens, and emperors. The other returned into oblivion.
Sale of a Victoria Cross Medal.
The Victoria Cross medal awarded to John Commerell in 1855 was sold by auction at Southebys in Billingshurst, West Sussex in September 1994. It had been expected to fetch around £25,000. With the medal was a Jewelled sword given to Commerell by the German Kaiser after he had acted as host during a naval review at Portsmouth in 1889. The Victoria Cross medal was sold for Stg £41,000.
The medal like all V.C. is cast from bronze melted down from Russian cannons captured at Sevastopol during the Crimean War. Lesley Thomas, head of exhibits at the Royal Navy Museum, Portsmouth, said “The value of Victoria Crosses has dropped in recent years. At one time they were ridiculously expensive and no one could afford them”
Photographs of Quartermaster Rickard, and some of the items loaned to the Heritage Centre, can be found on the Ryde District Heritage Centre gallery page. A photograph of his grave and links to obituary etc, can be found on the RSHG website here. Thanks to Sally-Ann Garrett for her research.