One Saturday afternoon in March 2015 I packed a flask and a Kitkat then headed to Fence, a small Lancashire village. I was looking for the location of Thomas Whitham who was awarded the Victoria Cross for bravery in the First World War.
Once off the dual carriageway I found myself in a small quiet village with stone houses alone one main street. I found the church on an empty leafy lane where detached houses gave way to countryside. It wasnít really a church - it looked more like a posh barn, no lofty spire, no multi-coloured windows. The sign said this was Inghamite Burial Ground. I didnít take the advice of a sign to call in for a coffee. In the past Iíve called into similar churches to find old women with nice hair styles and bad legs hobbling over to me, offering cups of tea (the kettle always seems to be near the charity box - and the biscuits are usually so hard you could use them as body armour.) I doubt they got many callers as the place was a little remote.
The back of the church opened up to quiet a large graveyard. There was a man walking his spaniel up and down the main paths. He saw me scanning the graves in the old section and pointed to where the newer graves were. I was looking for an old one though - that of Thomas Whitham who died in 1924.
If you havenít found the grave youíre after in ten minutes it usually takes about an hour. I was starting to get a little disheartened when I saw a bright red wreath down one path and that was the one I was after - so a ten minute find, then. Itís good to know someone is calling at the graves of brave folk and they arenít forgotten forever.
At the First World War ripped through Europe Thomas Whitham joined the Coldstream Guards. At 29 he was fighting in Pilckem near Ypres, Belgium. The battalion was under heavy machine-gun fire. Not only were the enemy shooting but invading the exposed battalion. Using his initiative Thomas worked his way from shell-hole to shell-hole, shooting and killing while people were they were trying to kill him. Eventually he reached the main machine-gun and, together with an officer and two others, silence the machine gun and took over the hole. This bold action was of great assistance to the battalion and saved many lives.
Thomas returned home a hero. Burnley council presented him with a gold watch and chain and his portrait was painted (see photos.). More than that he was presented with the Victoria Cross at Buckingham Palace. However less than a year from returning home a hero Burnley Council gave him a bricklayer a 'curt and humiliatingly dismissive' rejection letter when he tried to get a job bricklaying. He was soon living in poverty and the gold watch and VC medal ended up in a pawn shop.
Though married with three children he was an errant father moved around the country looking for work. He disappeared from family life and his wife was forced to move in with her grandfather. With the help of the press she tried to find her husband and finally tracked him down to lodgings in Liverpool. Later he found work in Gatley near Manchester. In October 1924† he was admitted in to Oldham Royal Infirmary suffering from severe complications stemming from a life of extreme poverty. He died at just 36 of peritonitis.
Seven years after his death the council bought the gold watch and Victoria Cross back off the pawnbroker for £50.
For thirty years the grave remained unadorned but Coldstream Guards Association erected the headstone on his grave. Here I am by it.
Thomasís son spent decades trying to convince Burnley Council to return the medal to the family but it still has them and they can presently be viewed in Towneley Hall (his portrait is also in there, too.)
In the same graveyard I spotted the headstones of two other soldiers, one just 19. There were also two headstones lying together with Mickey Mouse type ears (see below.)
As I was posing for the camera with a heart salute he man walking his spaniel passed by again. ďItís a Victoria Cross grave,Ē I uttered to him as he passed but his eyes didnít even veer toward the red wreath.
I got in the car and had a coffee from my flask and a Kitkat. The wrapping of the Kitkat was the same bright blood red as the wreath on the grave.
The church was more like a posh barnÖ
A bit stuckÖoh, where to startÖ
In happier times: after getting the Victoria Cross at Buckingham Palace and with this familyÖ
Also I spotted these grave next to each other. Impressive Mickey Mouse earsÖ