Thomas Witham - Born Worsthorne Burnley 1888 died Oldham 1924
A friend on a cycling tour near Ypres Belgium found a commemorative plaque alongside a small track, dedicated to the memory of a courageous British soldier and recipient of the Victoria Cross, Thomas Whitham. Having recently visited Burnley, his home town, I and he became curious to know more about this hero and we subsequently found the following on the web. All alone and under heavy fire he captured a German machine gun, an officer and two soldiers. He survived the war but unfortunately died in poverty and forgotten in 1924. He was a native of Lancashire, born in a small place near Burnley.
Born in Worsthorne near Burnley, Thomas Witham's is a sad but interesting story. Having served his country in the Coldstream Guards been awarded the VC for gallantry at Pilckem Ridge and survived the battle of Paschendaele, he returned to his home town to face an uncertain future of unemployment and poverty. Apparently he was a bricklayer but work was difficult to find in the aftermath of the war in his home town as the country suffered a crippling recession with high unemployment and political and social unrest. He was presented with a gold watch by the local council for his gallantry at Ypres but as he sank deeper into debt he was forced to sell both his VC and the gold watch. Sadly he died in poverty in 1924 at the young age of 36.
The story continues, however not finding work in his home town he had to move in 1920 to Egremont in Cumbria to obtain bricklaying employment. This lasted until 1924 when the money for the scheme for house building ran out and he was again unemployed. He travelled the area on his bicycle in search of work, and as he was riding through Windermere he collided with a wall suffering head injuries. The doctor who attended him advised him to stop and rest, but he had no money and had to continue on his journey. The great effort caused a loss of memory and he disappeared. With two children with pneumonia, husband vanished, his wife (Fedora) moved back to Burnley to live with their grandfather. With the help of the press she tried to find her husband who was finally tracked down to lodgings in Liverpool and she received a letter from him. He obtained work once again in Gatley, Manchester. On 10th October 1924 he was admitted in to Oldham Royal Infirmary suffering from severe complications and in a state of extreme poverty. He subsequently died of peritonitis 22nd October 1924. He was buried with military honours at Inghamite Burial Ground Wheatley lane, Nelson - grave 9-114. It is said that thousands attended.
Thomas’s gold watch and VC have subsequently been recovered by Burnley town council and are on display at the town’s Towneley Hall Museum, Burnley’s new sixth form college has been renamed Thomas Whitham College in his honour. There is also a blue plaque fixed to a wall in Burnley and the Coldstream Guards have erected a memorial to him just outside the town.
The photographs above left were taken 16th April 2015 in Prowse Point Cemetery near Ploegsteert in the Ypres salient at the re-interment of six unknown British Servicemen whose remains were discovered during an archeological dig near Comines Warneton Flanders earlier in the year.
Palfreyman, November 2016
Farthingale Publications:... Is a hobby web site containing articles of local interest to Lancastrians, some favourite walking and cycling routes, selected words and poetry, and some writings of more general nature as well as the authors own picture gallery. Access is available via the homepage and menu at the head of the page.