In this podcast The National Archives’ Principal Military Specialist reveals some of his favourite stories about civilian gallantry from the First and Second World Wars, from the bravery of the youngest recipient of the George medal to a bizarre tale involving a bomb and some table tennis bats.
Bombs, bulls and civilian bravery
Hello and welcome to The National Archives podcast series. Here we have stories about civilian gallantry from our Principal Military specialist at The National Archives. Our first tale of gallantry, a bizarre story involving table tennis bats, wasn’t known until the records were released at The National Archives in the 1990s. Our second story explains what Hannah Hugill did in order to become the first ever female to receive the Edward Medal, and in our final story, you’ll hear about the bravery of the youngest ever recipient of the George Medal.
Hello my name is William Spencer, I’m the Principal Military specialist at The National Archives and my day-to-day job, my primary purpose, is to provide advice to users and potential users with information about the public records.
The National Archives hold thousands of pieces of paper relating to the activities of individuals that were forms of bravery which ended up in a British gallantry award being announced in something like the London gazette.
Now the London Gazette is the state’s newspaper and has been since 1665 when it was first published. The London Gazette in many cases will always announce an honour , but apart from the highest award – the Victoria Cross – it many cases it won’t tell you the reasons why somebody was granted an award.
So if we take an interesting example, on the 2 May 1941 a gentleman who was the acting clerk of works in Deptford was awarded a George Medal. Now a lot of the George Medals announced in the London Gazette during the Second World War do have citations – the reasons why. But all it said in his announcement was for “carrying out work in a hazardous manner.”
Now, during the Second World War there was a committee responsible for assessing recommendations for the award of the George Cross, the George Medal and the British Empire Medal. And that committee was administered by the Air Ministry. Now we have lots of Air Ministry records relating to honours and awards. Now the details concerning Walter Thomas Wheeler’s George Medal are contained in the records, and this gives you an idea of not only what he did to earn his George Medal but it also explains why the London Gazette has such a brief description of what he did. So it’s headed ‘most secret’ and even before that it says ‘it is of utmost importance that no mention of the nature of these men’s services be made in the publication of any award’. So even at the time that they’re considering this recommendation they realise that it’s information that would be useful to an enemy, so shouldn’t be published in the London Gazette as then the Germans might be able to understand something, and I’ll explain more why.
On the 24 September 1940, so during the Battle of Britain, the Germans had started bombing London. So on the 24 September 1940, during the Battle of Britain, an unexploded landmine landed on St James Church in Deptford. The building still exists, it’s now a dance studio at Goldsmiths College. Now, the mine was damaged and could not be rendered safe. The only course was to scoop away the main charge. But obviously there are issues relating to working near an unexploded bomb and they didn’t realise how sensitive it was. But it basically goes on to explain that the clerk of works, Wheeler, was asked for some help. And it says: he and his party of four volunteered, bringing with them table tennis bats as improvised shovels. So if you think there’s an opportunity for setting off a mine through magnetism, so, metal, it was a good idea to bring the table tennis bats. And of course it meant that they’re small enough to be able to dig around the mine.
It obviously took them a long time and so it says that it took them two days to dig the mine out, and then the mine was taken away and destroyed by the admiralty.
So from a one line entry in the London Gazette you can get an idea of what this individual did to earn his George Medal and of course we are lucky that we have got all of these papers from the events of the Second World War.
That’s just one example of a civilian getting a gallantry award during the Second World War, but there are many others… there are other medals, which no longer exist, the honours system has changed somewhat, and one of them was a medal called the Edward Medal which was instituted – surprise, surprise – during the reign of Edward VII. Originally of one series or type, it was then split into two: the Edward Medal for industry, and the Edward Medal for mines. So any act or deed of bravery that involved, say, working in a smelting works, so above ground, would have been granted an Edward Medal for industry, and somebody who had been involved in a rescue in a mine would have been granted the Edward Medal for mines. The majority of the grants of the Edward Medal are for things like industrial accidents, mining rescues, so on and so forth. One quite interesting one that stands out, not just because of the circumstances for granting the award, but also because this particular recipient was a woman. So Hannah Hugill was granted the Edward Medal, it was announced in the London Gazette on the 19 April 1910, and her mother was out in a field bringing in some cows and she was attacked by, as it’s described, “an infuriated bull”. Her daughter Hannah, the recipient of the Edward Medal, went out and fended the bull off and subsequently was awarded the Edward Medal. Recommendations for honours and awards to a lot of civilians during the early 20th century were processed by the Home Office, so the series HO 45 has the recommendation for Hannah’s Edward Medal. The file also contains a picture taken from The Daily Sketch of Hannah Hugill holding her pitchfork that was published at the time that her award was announced.
Lastly in the 90s not long after the office, I dealt with a lady who asked ‘I’m looking for information about my award’. And the enquirer was a lady called Charity Bick. Now Charity Bick is quite interesting. Not only did she earn the George Medal during the Blitz in the Second World War, during an attack on the West Midlands, on West Bromwich, she was also the youngest recipient at of the George Medal. She lied about her age, she was serving as a dispatch rider, and this is cycling on bicycles for the ARP, and she rescued some people who had been the victim of a bombing and she was trying to get them out of a building that had been attacked and was being rained upon, not only by high explosives but also by incendiary bombs. She didn’t do it once, she actually did it on a number of occasions all on the same day, and a portrait of her is in the collection of the Imperial War Museum with her sitting on her bicycle wearing her George Medal.
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