In a forgotten corner of Tower Hamlets Cemetery Park, three short wooden posts stand among the rotting autumn leaves. Uneven in height and leaning drunkenly, they are adorned by the red and white plastic tape of construction sites, tattered in places and fluttering gently in the winter breeze.
This is not what we imagine the final resting place of a war hero to be like – marble memorials and regimented lines of gleaming headstones are a far cry from this sad, unmarked site in Mile End.
Yet volunteers have discovered that this is exactly what it is. Working to clear away a patch of undergrowth in November, they came across a grave with no identification other than a small, numbered marker. The research they conducted threw up a surprising result – the grave they had found belonged to Major John Buckley, a recipient of the Victoria Cross.
It is an extraordinary piece of luck that his whereabouts were rediscovered nearly a century and a half after his death, but it would also seem to be the only piece of luck to have befallen this decorated member of British history at all.
Gary Stapleton, chairman of the Victoria Cross Trust, described Major Buckley as “an extraordinary man who had endured great personal losses in his life”, a statement which merely skims the surface of the circumstances in which the soldier found himself dying alone and unremembered, with no one in Tower Hamlets even able to buy him a headstone.
Born in Cheshire on May 24 1813, John Buckley followed the path of many young men of his era, leaving school in his early teens and taking up work in the local textile factory. However, by the age of 18, ambitions of greater things had clearly started to take hold and in 1831 he went to Manchester to sign up to the Bengal Artillery.
Swept up in the age of Empire, Buckley’s first posting was as a gunner in India in 1832. It was there that he met his first wife, Mary Broadway, with whom he moved to Calcutta in 1835 and had three children in quick succession.
Whatever happiness his new family brought him, it was desperately shortlived. Within a decade, both his wife and two children had died from illness. He remarried in 1846, producing five more children, but in 1852 he lost the remaining child from his first marriage and a year later lost two sons from his second.
What remained of the Buckley family moved to Delhi in 1857, setting the scene for the act of bravery that would earn him a Victoria Cross. He took up the post of assistant commissionary of ordnance at the local storehouse for British guns and ammunition, which he guarded alongside eight other soldiers.
In a dose of misfortune which was probably becoming all too familiar, the Indian Mutiny flared up in May of that year. Delhi was not spared in the uprising and Major Buckley found himself and his colleagues defending the magazine from an attack against which they were vastly outnumbered.
Rather than let the ammunition be taken, they chose to blow it up themselves, killing four of them in the process. The survivors, including Buckley, were taken captive.
In spite of his act of heroism, while he was held prisoner Buckley learnt his wife and remaining children had been killed by the rebels. He escaped his captors, but it seems that the loss of his family had taken too great a toll for Buckley to ever be able to recover.
He moved round various posts in the army after the events of May 1857, volunteering for the most dangerous missions in the hope that they would take his life. In 1858 he was promoted to Lieutenant, but soon fell ill and was granted two years’ leave. While he was back in England, he was awarded the Victoria Cross with the citation: “For gallant defence of the magazine at Delhi”.
Buckley returned to India in 1861, but for reasons that are unclear, chose to spend his final years in Poplar, Tower Hamlets. He died a poor man with no family left to pay for a memorial.
“As a nation we awarded him the greatest honour we can for his valour, a Victoria Cross, so now we need to show our reverence for him by, at the very least, making sure his grave is marked with a suitable headstone,” said Gary Stapleton, who has organised a campaign to raise money for the stone.
He added: “So far the donations for the headstone have been very small. We need to raise approximately £2000 to pay for the headstone and to make sure that it is maintained in the future.”
Buckley has already been remembered within the army by having a barracks at RAF Hullavington in Wiltshire named after him, housing a regiment of the Royal Logistics Corps. A representation of his medal also features on the badge of the regiment, with the medal itself on display at the Royal Logistics Corps Museum in Surrey.
It would seem that 136 years after his death, the physical remains of Major Buckley may finally be about to receive the tribute his institutional remains have always had; and rather than being in a corner of some foreign field, it turns out they were in a quiet corner of Tower Hamlets all along.