The incredible story of a sailor who went on the run from naval college, fled to South Africa, and was recommended for a Victoria Cross for his valour in the Boer War has come to light with a collection of medals, which will go under the hammer at Moore Allen & Innocent antiques auction in the Cotswolds.
George Gill West was a brilliant young man from a poor family, who was admitted to Dartmouth Naval College and – having passed all his examinations with distinction – was permitted to apply for officer rank in 1898.
However, a committee of officers decided West “lacked a Naval family and financial status which, in his own interest, made commissioned rank impossible to grant.”
Devastated, West stormed out of the naval college – which consequently posted him as Absent Without Leave – and, having assumed the name John Moore, bribed his way onto a Union Castle Line ship bound for Cape Town.
He soon found work in the De Beers diamond mines at Kimberley and, using his training as an electrician, he fitted the first electric lights system in a mine.
West was popular with the Boers, and at the outbreak of the Boer War he was permitted exit for Cape Town on the last train guaranteed not to be attacked. However, the train was attacked, and he lost all his possessions.
Back in Cape Town, West – still using his assumed John Moore identity – joined the Cape Town Highlanders, and was involved in the Relief of Ladysmith, a town besieged by the Boers, where he was joined in combat by his nephew, Jack Monk. In fact, by arrangement with the ’runners’, the first person Monk met on arrival at the barracks was his uncle.
On October 25 1901, West was stationed at the tented Jacobsdaal encampment in the Orange River Colony, when the Boers launched a surprise dawn attack. West left the safety of the brick Block House to rescue the son of the camp’s doctor.
According to accounts: “The doctor’s son endeavoured to reach his father in the Block House, but was shot down and lay within sight of his father. (West) disrespected the enemy fire and brought the son in, but his body was riddled with bullets.”
West died of his injuries and was recommended for the Victoria Cross for his bravery, but this was subsequently refused as he was still, officially, a Navy deserter.
Instead, he received a posthumous pardon and was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal, the second highest honour in the British Army for the non-officer classes, in his true name of George Gill West.
Meanwhile, he was awarded the South Africa medal under his assumed name – John Moore. West never did get his promotion: he lived and died a Private.
His medals, along with the medals won by his nephew – who survived the Boer War and went on to serve in World War I – will go under the hammer at the Selected Sale at Moore Allen & Innocent in Cirencester on Friday, November 5 – a fortnight after the 114th anniversary of the Boer attack on Jacobsdaal, and two days before Remembrance Sunday.
Auctioneer Philip Allwood said: “This really is the tale of an unsung hero. It’s the kind of story that should be made into a movie. This lot will appeal to collectors as it contains not only two sets of medals, but contemporary and later handwritten and newspaper accounts of West’s heroism, letters from West and Monk to their families back home, and portraits of the soldiers.”
The lot carries an estimate of £3,000 to £5,000.
Described by the auctioneer as “fine and rare” the circa 1875 mantle clock, which features cherubs riding seahorses around a nautilus shell, is similar in design to one residing in the Museum Of Applied Arts And Sciences in Sydney, Australia.
There is a good selection of Chinese vases, along with “two of the best private collections of ivories I have ever seen,” according to the auctioneer.
Among the 19th century Chinese and Japanese pieces is an intricately-carved farmer sitting on a basket with chickens, a water dragon, and a pair of mirror-image wrist rests hand-carved with scenes of domestic servitude, one in natural ivory colour to reflect day, the other darkened to represent night. Most pieces carry estimates of £1,000 to £1,500, although the farmer and chicken is expected to attract bids of £2,500 to £3,500.
The work of another Scottish artist is represented in the pictures section, where there are no fewer than four works by John Bellany (1942-2013), an artist from a family of fishermen, whose heritage is reflected in much of his work.
Among the paintings are The Woman of the Dornoch Firth, a striking portrait of a red-headed woman with a fish on her head.
The paintings command an estimate of between £300 and £500, to £2,000 to £3,000.
Two paintings by the French impressionist Pierre Grisot (1910-1955) – Bathers, and The Ballerina – are expected to attract bids of £1,000 to £1,500 each, while a large collection of 70 prints – many signed – by artists including David Hockney, Barbara Hepworth, Henry Moore, Joan Miro, Sir Terry Frost, and John Piper are expected to attract particular interest.
Estimates range from between £50 to £80 for a Picasso print to £1,000 to £1,500 for a limited edition, signed Barbara Hepworth chromolithograph.