Leigh’s Almost Forgotten VC Hero

The beauty of being a Funeral Director, is I get to meet so many amazing people and learn so much about families and their loved ones, I also get the opportunity to meet people from all different organizations, which also helps me broaden my knowledge of my local area and the incredible people from around me, kind of where this story begins, back in May 2018 a gentleman called at my funeral home and informed me that Leigh had its own Victoria Cross recipient, his name was Alfred Robert Wilkinson, his name lost in time sadly, the gent advised me that Alfred’s grave had fallen into a state of disrepair, he asked if there was anything I could do to get it fixed? With my curiosity in overdrive my quest was on

So who exactly was Alfred Robert Wilkinson? Alfred went to fight in World War 1 at the age of 21 years old, joining the army on the out-break of war 1914, enlisting with the Royal Scots Greys, he then transferred to the Seaforth Highlanders, before finally moving to the  1/5th Battalion of the Manchester Regiment. Alfred was sent out to France to a town called Marou , where he was to be part of the Battle of the Selle that took place around 20th October 1918. Alfred saw the cruel brutalities of war  he experienced fear, saw death, destruction, injuries, friends shot dead, and so much more. On October 20th 1918 at Marou in France, during the attack, four army runner’s had been killed shot through the head by the enemy, attempting to deliver a message to the supporting company, it was here Private Alfred Wilkinson volunteered for the duty! Alfred succeeded in delivering the message, his journey was one we can only imagine in our minds he was shot at by hand guns and machine guns, shells were fired at him, mortars from all sides raining down, he had to run 600 yards or 6 Football pitches, Alfred completed his duty. On 08th February 1919 Alfred was given 14 days off to return to Leigh where he was given a heroes welcome news of his deeds had traveled from London everybody knew his story, Alfred was taken to Leigh Town Hall where he was presented with 500 war savings & £50.00 in cash (today would be worth £1805.00.

On 22nd February 1919, now promoted to Lance Corporal, he traveled to London with his mother and brother Henry, to receive the Victoria Cross from King George V at Buckingham Palace, After the ceremony he immediately returned to Belgium to re-join what was left of his old battalion. On the morning of 18th October 1940, Alfred left home at 06:15 to work at Bickershaw Colliery, at 08:15 one of Alfred’s work mates went into the room where Alfred was working and thought he looked ill, Alfred told his work mate that he had a headache, and if it didn’t pass he would go home,

At about mid-day Harold Webb, a brickwork’s clerk at the colliery went to an outside water tap ,and saw Alfred reclining in a chair with his head thrown back and his legs outstretched. He immediately assumed that Alfred was ill and went over, finding him unconscious. He sent for breathing apparatus and artificial respiration was carried out before Alfred was taken to the Bolton Royal Infirmary where the Doctor pronounced him dead.

An inquest was held to confirm Alfred’s death was confirmed, as carbon-monoxide poisoning.  The colliery supervisor tried all the apparatus and found it in order. Further checks had been necessary to remove a ‘T’ junction which was on the outside wall. Once removed it was given a knock to remove any shavings of rust or dirt. ‘some feathers were noticed and on the pipe being given another knock the body of a sparrow fell out. The bird, which was in a fresh condition, was in the down section and required a hard knock to remove it’.

A requiem mass was held at St Joseph’s Church, Leigh attended by a large congregation. From there to the cemetery the streets of Leigh were lined with spectators paying their respects, at some points three deep. The cortege must have been an impressive sight. Members of the Home Guard led the procession with ‘arms reversed’, followed by the Bickershaw Colliery brass band, members of the British Legion and the Special Constables.

He was buried in the same grave (plot IU 99) as his father who had died in January 1916. A headstone, in the form of a cross of black marble, was later erected on his grave, provided jointly by The Manchester Regiment and Wigan Borough Council. His name and citation are recorded in the VC Book of Honor in the Manchester Regiment Chapel in Manchester Cathedral. A plaque to his memory was unveiled in Leigh Town Hall on 27 January 2005 and a similar plaque is positioned in Wigan Town Hall.

Early Thoughts and Observations after reading as much as I could on Alfred’s story it was evident that he was an extraordinary man, who’s story needed to be told, I began jotting things down after extensive research in my spare time to understand what I was taking on, I visited Alfred’s grave located in Leigh Cemetery and sadly it had fallen into a sorry state, certainly not befitting the hero resting peacefully below my feet, the curb stones around the grave had become separated, the wording fading away slowly as time and weather were taking it toll, dirty pebbles within the grave looking tired, the large upstanding cross wasn’t straight on the base setting, all in all it was a sad state it had fallen into, hard to believe that beneath this, tired looking gravestone was the body of a war hero, it was obvious from this point that a lot of work was required, so my first point of contact was with the local council, owner of the cemetery, after numerous e-mails and telephone calls back and fourth, it was agreed that the works would be allowed to proceed, the council advised that they wanted to be part of this project, and advised that they wanted to pay for the restoration of the grave stone, through their own appointed stone mason, this was a massive result, which allowed me to concentrate on the various other ideas I had, to not only tell Alfred’s story, but I wanted him to have the right recognition focal point for his deeds, so the quest moved up a gear.

Social Media and Local Schools when trying to tell a story like Alfred’s even though he was a local chap, sometimes falls on deaf ears, its about rousing peoples interest and trying to get people involved in his story, figuring out how to deliver it in a way where peoples attention would be caught, but without a massive information overload, my first objective was to create a powerpoint presentation, plenty of visuals with interesting snippets of information, I figured the best place to send this out was via social media! so Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn and Whatsapp became the host of my powerpoint, I created two powerpoints one was family orientated the other was more aimed at adults (I’ve included the adult PPPT here) it generated massive hits and some superb discussions, many people hadn’t heard of him or even knew our town had a Victoria Cross recipient, it was clear that through public opinion Alfred’s story was generating pace, but I wanted to project it further, I wanted his story to become a subject or topic for our local school children, I put together a project file, then contacted all our local schools, the response was fantastic and most schools were rally interested in Alfred’s story, and wanted to include it within their own curriculum, this was a fantastic result for Alfred, it meant his story would continue to be told be generations to come, the project was going from strength to strength, it was time to really up the ante whilst I had the bit firmly between my teeth.

A Lasting Memorial to Alfred I had a thought that I’d like to design a last memorial to Alfred, something telling his story that would continue to push peoples imagination, so I decided I wanted to portray his story through the eyes of children, as my son was a pupil of St Thomas’s C of E Primary School in Leigh, it was the obvious choice as a location in which to discuss with the headmaster, to enlist the pupils to help create pictures of Alfred’s story, that would be placed inside a large poppy mural, I had the vision in my head of what I wanted needed to put it into a design, then cost it out, I discussed with a local signage company what I wanted and how I wanted it to be constructed, after a week on the drawing board my design was born

I was pleased with my design but I wanted the children’s pictures in the poppy petals rather than it being red, so my family friendly powerpoint was delivered to the school, and the children began their drawing project, due to the costings I injected my own money but made up up the remaining through a crowdfunding page I set up, the response was overwhelming, during this phase of my project I spoke with the armed forces contact within the council, he was massively keen to get onboard, and advised if we could create another poppy identical to the first, as he wanted one to be placed in Wigan town center, he advised me that his department would pay for the second poppy, again fab result, full steam ahead, the children did me proud creating truly inspiring pictures depicting different parts of Alfred’s story that were printed into the design, I place was agreed for our poppy, it was to be placed in the Wilkinson Memorial Garden within Leigh Cemetery, a lasting memorial to our VC hero.

One More Addition To Alfred’s Memorial the land where Bickershawe Colliery once stood had been purchased by a house building company, who along with the council wanted to also remember Alfred and all what he did and stood for, as Alfred had worked his last years at the Colliery on the spot where new houses and families now called home, they decided to commission a full size wooden statue of Alfred, again a lasting memorial to his memory, an event was planned between the council and house builder, members of the armed forces came to speak about Alfred as well as some children from St Thomas’s Primary School spoke as well, prior to the poppy being secured in the Wilkinson Memorial Garden it stood at the font of the event, allowing everybody to see it, the event was a wonderful end to an amazing 5 month journey for me, it was very satisfying to see our end results, that all started from a simple conversation between two people.

A Lasting Conclusion after several months of full on promoting and working behind the scenes Alfred’s grave was completed and looking truly wonderful and befitting the person it represented, the poppy memorial was placed into the Wilkinson Memorial Garden not to far from Alfred’s resting place, a chance for all to come and enjoy his story through the eyes of young children, his story has been told at all the schools in Leigh, as well as generating hundreds of talking points across social media, also making local and national newspapers and radio stations headlines as well, his statue stood tall head bowed for all to see, and to stop spare a thought or just quietly reflect for just a moment, Alfred was no longer forgotten his story is out there for all to know and read about, his gallantry being applauded and his life remembered, children will continue to keep his tale alive for years and years to come, nothing more than he deserves, finally when somebody say Do you know Alfred Wilkinson? it is not met with “who?” instead he is now discussed, he is immortalized by the dedications created in his honor a lasting legacy, Alfred was nearly forgotten in the passage of time thankfully now he will always be remembered! stay safe Paul 07.02.2021

By Paul Sargent

I was born in Manchester, UK in 1974, I'd like to say that I have worked hard at this attempt at life? I have had some incredible experiences on my journey up to now, and will continue to make memories as and when I can, I live in Leigh, Greater Manchester, UK with my fiancee and son. My current job is that of a Funeral Director, this current year has been an emotional roller coaster, due to the awful Coronavirus Pandemic, that has devastated the globe, I needed an outlet to shut out the realities of the day! A chance for me to escape perhaps my own sub conscious if only for a moment in time. As I expand my journey as a blogger will continue to open my mind and share my thoughts, I'd like to write about Life Through Ordinary Eyes, an honest interpretation at what I see and feel, what experiences I have had, and to perhaps share things that just might help you or someone you know on this voyage of discovery called life. Oh well here goes nothing. . . . . . . . . . . .

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