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James Gorman: Respected Vernon Officer

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5 min read
From 1871 to 1892, the NSS Vernon – a nautical school ship for at-risk boys – had a permanent mooring at Cockatoo Island. A person charged with supervising and educating the youth who’d been placed aboard the vessel was James Gorman. In this article, Harbour Trust volunteer Michele canvasses the achievements of the brave and well-respected seaman, which include being the first recipient of the Victoria Cross to reside in NSW.
Bravery in battle

James Gorman was born in 1834 at Islington, England. At the age of 13, he was accepted into the Royal Navy as an apprentice. After serving aboard several ships, including the HMS Victory and the HMS Rolla, and being promoted to the rank of Able Seaman, Gorman fought with the Naval Brigade in the Crimean War, including at the Battle of Inkerman. 

On 5 November 1854, at the age of 20, Gorman risked his life protecting the wounded soldiers and sailors of the Lancaster Battery during the Battle of Inkerman. For his bravery, Gorman received a yearly gratuity of £10 and was awarded the Victoria Cross, established by Queen Victoria in 1856 to acknowledge gallantry during the Crimean War. In fact, he was amongst the first ever recipients of the prestigious award.

In 1860, Gorman returned to England but, during his subsequent travels with the Navy, visited Australia. In January 1863, having been discharged from the Royal Navy, he left behind his home in Plymouth and relocated to Australia permanently.

A new career in Sydney

When Gorman arrived in Sydney, he became the first recipient of the Victoria Cross to  reside in New South Wales. Initially, Gorman was employed as a sailmaker but, in 1867, he was recruited by the NSW Government to serve as a foundation officer aboard the NSS Vernon. Hid duties included instructing students in the use of a cutlass, leasding rifle drills and teaching trades such as shoemaking.

The Vernon relocated to Cockatoo Island in 1871, roughly two years after the closure of the island’s penal establishment, and Gorman found himself fulfilling numerous roles aboard the vessel. His positions included Master at Arms, gunnery instructor, sailmaker, and officer in charge of the lower deck.

Gorman eventually earned £130 a year aboard the Vernon for ensuring for the welfare and discipline of 130 boys. He was respected by his fellow officers, as well as the boys, for reasons that included his care of the sick during a Scarlet Fever outbreak. Gorman remained on the Vernon until 1881, when he transferred to the position of foreman of the magazines on Spectacle Island.

Gorman’s final chapter

On 15 October 1882, Gorman died at the age of 48 on Spectacle Island. He was buried at Balmain Cemetery and a large detachment of officers and Vernon boys attended the funeral. A naval salute was given by a firing party of boys from the Vernon. James Gorman’s portrait was housed in the Victoria Cross Gallery in London. Balmain Cemetery is now the site of Pioneers Memorial Park, Leichhardt where Gorman is named on the war memorial.


Article was originally published on 28 October 2022.



Gorman was respected by his fellow officers and the Vernon boys


– Michele

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