Henry James Raby V.C. (Victoria Cross)2006 saw the 150th anniversary of the institution of the Victoria Cross. The first man to wear this most famous of all medals for gallantry was a man with strong Llanelli connections. In July 1878 a Rear Admiral of the Royal Navy left the Stepney Arms Hotel and made his way by carriage to Llanelli Station to catch the 11 o’clock train to Southsea. Henry James Raby V.C. had been retracing steps that he had not made for thirty seven years, since he had last bid farewell to Llanelli, the town his father and grandfather had thrust into the industrial revolution nearly a hundred years previous.

Although Alexander Raby had invested his entire wealth in the exploitation of the district's abundance of coal and iron industries, the depression after the Napoleonic Wars saw the failure of the Raby Empire. The failure of this industrial empire and a number of other set backs, including the destruction by fire of the family home in the village of Furnace, had caused Henry's father Arthur, to travel to France. And so it was at Boulogne on the 26th. September 1827 that Henry was born. After leaving Sherborne School in 1842, Henry joined the Royal Navy as a 1st class volunteer. By 1850 he was a Lieutenant stationed off West Africa carrying out anti slavery operations.

Following the commencement of the war in Crimea, he landed ashore from H.M.S. Diamond to serve with the Naval Brigade (in the Victorian Navy it was often necessary for the Royal Navy to provide specialist support to land forces, such as signalling, heavy artillery and ladder storming parties). Besides being at the Battle of Inkerman he was second in command of the ladder party at the siege of Sebastopol. On the 18th of June 1855, British soldiers assaulted a defensive fortification at Sebastopol called the Redan. Unfortunately this was a complete disaster for the British as they were caught in open ground and came under heavy crossfire and grapeshot. This left many wounded soldiers in ‘no man's land’. One soldier in particular was seen calling for assistance as he was shot through both legs. Lieutenant Raby, a brother officer and two sailors climbed out of their trenches and ran over seventy yards in open ground under heavy fire to rescue the unfortunate soldier of the 57th Regiment. For this very brave action Lieutenant Henry Raby was awarded the Victoria Cross and subsequently promoted to the rank of Commander.

At the very first investiture of the Victoria Cross in Hyde Park on the 26th of June 1857, Henry was the most senior officer of the Senior Service and so became the first to ‘wear’ this most famous medal. On his retirement from the Royal Navy in 1878 as a newly promoted Rear Admiral, he returned on a nostalgic visit, to the town of his roots. He visited Raby Street and Forge Row, where the residents welcomed him with flags and cheers. He repaid their gesture with gifts to the poor of the area. He also visited the old furnace, the Carmarthenshire Dock and the burnt out ruins of the old family home at 'Plas Ucha' in the village of Furnace where his father and grand father had kindled the fire of Llanelli's industrial revolution so long ago. A more detailed account of his brave action can be found in ‘Heart of a Dragon’ by W. Alister Williams. Published by Bridge Books.

Sketch by John Wynne Hopkins