Thursday, April 28, 2011

Remembering Pte William Harker Lee MM

Photographs (Top to bottom):

1. Bridson's Court / Bardy Lane district, Whitehaven
(Where William H. Lee was born in January 1920)

2. Arc de Triomphe, Paris
(Billy Lee spent 3 days 'sightseeing' in Occupied Paris in 1940)

3. High altar of St Mary's Church, Cleator, Cumbria
(Where William H. Lee MM married Julia Fleming, January 1945)

4. Family Headstone of William Harker Lee MM
(Whitehaven Cemetery, Cumbria)

For additional information click on ‘Comments’ below


Blogger ritsonvaljos said...

"Now muse not, reader, though we stones can speak,
Or write sometimes the deeds of worthy ones.... "

George Gascoigne (1542 - 1577)
'Epitaph upon Captain Boucher ...'

(1) The stones that speak to us

Reading what is written on headstones or memorials in cemeteries or churchyards can tell us much about the people who are commemorated nearby, or in some cases far away. In one sense the stones speak to us if we are prepared to listen. Strictly speaking, we need to see what has been written on the stones and try to understand them.

In a quiet corner of Whitehaven Cemetery, Cumbria is a family headstone made of pink marble. It commemorates the Lee family. In many respects there is not much to differentiate this headstone from those nearby. This is the wording on the headstone:

In sweet memory of
Margaret H. Lee
1894 - 1943
Beloved wife of Jacob

Also their sons
William H. Lee MM
1920 - 1947
Killed in William Pit disaster
Albert Lee
1927 - 1949

The headstone tells us that one of the family buried in this place - William H. Lee - was a Military Medallist. The remainder of this article concentrates on remembering William Harker (Billy) Lee MM, who was awarded the Military Medal in the 'Escape and Evasion' category.

(2) Biographical details of William Harker Lee MM

William Harker Lee, usually known as 'Billy', was the son of Jacob Lee (a Whitehaven coal miner) and Margaret Hannah Lee. Billy was born on 10 January 1920 at 2 Bridson's Court, Bardy Lane, Whitehaven close to the West Strand of Whitehaven Harbour. A few days later William Harker Lee was baptised into the Church of England by Reverend Reginald S. Oliver at Christ Church, Preston Street, Whitehaven. By the time WW2 broke out the family had moved to 16 Thwaiteville, Arrowthwaite, Kells, Whitehaven (Thwaitevlle is opposite the main gates to Haig Pit, Kells, Whitehaven).

As a young lad, Billy Lee was in the Boy Scouts although there some things he got up to were not quite so honourable. At the age of 16 in 1936 Billy Lee and one of his pals from Arrowthwaite appeared before the local magistrates for 'larceny' (i.e. theft). Yet even this experience would prove beneficial during Billy Lee's wartime service. Learning a few wily tricks in the manner of 'The Artful Dodger' meant that Bill Lee had the 'nous' and daring to pocket the key to his prison cell and so make his escape.

Like many of the young lads of his home district, Billy Lee followed his father's occupation and became a miner. With war in Europe increasingly imminent in the spring of 1939 the British Government doubled the size of the Territorial Army. On 2 May 1939 Billy Lee enlisted with the local Territorials recruiting in West Cumberland - the 5th Battalion The Border Regiment. His Service Number was 3599849.

War with Germany was declared on 3 September 1939, while Billy Lee and the lads of 5th Border were still away on Summer Camp at Halton, Lancaster. The 5th Battalion The Border Regiment became part of the 126th Brigade, 42nd Division. A separate article has been written summarising Billy Lee's time with the BEF in France, the events that led to his capture and his eventual escape.

Having passed through six European countries during his escape Billy Lee made it to Britain on 4 December 1940. During the time Billy was making his escape he met up with a French fellow and they had spent three days sightseeing in Paris. Like any tourist to Paris, can imagine them visiting the 'Tomb of the Unknown Soldier' at the Arc de Triomphe. After all, this is what most of the German soldiers occupying Paris at that time seemed to be doing!

Tuesday, 03 May, 2011  
Blogger ritsonvaljos said...

(3) A hero to be proud of ...
... but not a saint.

'The Whitehaven News' of Thursday 9 October 1941 reported that the previous week Pte Billy Lee had been presented with the Military Medal by the King during an investiture at Buckingham Palace. Billy Lee had visited the Palace accompanied by his father Jacob Lee and his sister, Miss Mary Lee. After the investiture Billy returned to the hospital where he had already been for some months for treatment of serious wounds.

Because of these severe wounds he had received at Dunkirk Billy Lee MM was not able to continue serving in the Army, although this was what he really wanted to do. Instead, Billy Lee MM returned to Whitehaven to work as a miner. At that time mining was regarded as 'work of national importance'. Not every soldier is a hero - which is perhaps just as well. If everyone was a hero, then where would we be? Billy Lee was one of the exceptional few who proved to be a hero.

There are another two issues to consider at this point. Firstly, what does a hero do after the battle has passed on elsewhere and where the hero would rather be? Secondly, are all heroes saints?

We know that what Billy Lee MM really wanted to be doing was in the Army with his best mates. Unfortunately, his wounds were sufficiently severe that this did not seem to be possible. So he was back working underground as a miner.

According to the Bible, St Peter was able to walk out of a locked prison cell with the help of an angel. Billy Lee had also managed to walk out of a locked prison cell, but by using his guile and intuition. We already know from his pre-war record that although he became a hero he was no saint. What happened after Billy Lee MM returned to civilian life is that he fell foul of the law again.

In January 1943 Billy Lee MM and another pal appeared before the Whitehaven Magistrates for stealing clothing from the LMS Railway Company at the beginning of December 1942. Billy’s friend was a well-known 'scallywag' who had appeared in the Magistrates Court many times. On the other hand, this was the first time Billy had been in trouble since 1936.

They said the reason for stealing the items from Workington Railway Station was because they had been drunk. They were fined £10 each and would have received a custodial sentence except, as miners, the two of them were 'doing work of national importance'. Billy stated in court he had never been in trouble in the Army and again stated he wanted to be away from the Whitehaven pits.

The presiding magistrate, Mr W.H. Wandless, said they were actually all rather proud of Billy. But, they could not allow the conduct why he was before them. Nevertheless, Mr Wandless said he would see if what he could do to help Billy get out of the pits. Unfortunately, Billy's wounds had made him unfit for military service and it seems that nothing was able to be done to get him out of the pits.

Tuesday, 03 May, 2011  
Blogger ritsonvaljos said...

(4) 'Settling down' to civilian life

After this little episode before the local magistrates, Billy Lee knuckled down to working as a miner and turned his life round again. On 27 January 1945 Billy Lee married Julia Fleming from the nearby town of Cleator Moor.

One of Julia's brothers was 3600375 Pte Hugh Fleming, 5th Battalion The Border Regiment, who had served with Billy Lee in France but had been killed during the German spring assault of 1940. Julia and Hugh Fleming's parents were William Fleming and Julia Fleming (nee Stafford). The Fleming family home was at 16 North Street, Cleator Moor.

Billy and Julia's wedding took place at St Mary's R.C. Catholic Church, Cleator. The bridegroom Billy Lee was 25 years old while his bride Julia Fleming was 23 years old. The witnesses were David Lee (brother of the groom) and Catherine Rooney as Matron of Honour. The ceremony was conducted by Father Frederick Cuthbert Clayton O.S.B., Parish Priest.

The altar rails of the High Altar at St Mary's, Cleator where Billy and Julia would have taken their vows were designed by Sebastian Pugin Powell (grandson of Augustus Welby Pugin). They had been dedicated in 1918 to the memory of the War Dead of St Mary's parish. On this day of happiness Billy and Julia must have thought about Julia’s brother Hugh, also one of Billy’s army pals, who had already made the ultimate sacrifice in this Second World War.

Tuesday, 03 May, 2011  
Blogger ritsonvaljos said...

(5) A terrible Friday afternoon: 15 August 1947

With the war ended, in 1947 Billy Lee MM got a new job, although still working as a miner, at William Pit, Whitehaven. Working on the afternoon shift on Friday 15 August 1947, at 5.40 p.m. there was an explosion underground. At the time there were 118 men underground and 104 of them would not come out alive. This was a terrible tragedy of the greatest proportions to so many families.

Billy Lee MM was one of two Military Medallists to die in the William Pit that afternoon. The other Military Medallist among the 104 men who died in the William Pit that afternoon was John Henry Doran MM, who had gained his award in the First World War. It was because of the methane gas in the mine where they worked that they died rather than by what the troops of Kaiser Bill and Adolph Hitler could throw at them.

The body of Billy Lee MM was the 18th casualty to be located by the rescue teams, at 6.25 a.m. on Sunday 17 August 1947. After being brought to the surface, his body was formally identified by his father Jacob Lee. Billy Lee MM was still only 27 years old at the time of his death. Two days later, on Tuesday 19 August 1947, William Harker Lee MM was taken to his final resting place in consecrated ground at Whitehaven Cemetery (Grave ref. 5/P/24). The ceremony was conducted by Reverend James Olive, Vicar of Christ Church, Whitehaven.

Billy Lee MM was buried in the same grave as his mother Margaret, who had passed away in 1943. His wife Julia was a widow at the age of 25. Records show Julia later remarried.
(6) Worthy of Remembrance

The family and surviving friends of William Harker Lee MM are still proud of him. Although not a saint, he was certainly a hero. In a short life of 27 years he left his mark on history. He is worthy of remembrance, and this article is dedicated to his memory. The final word goes to Billy Lee's relatives, those who knew him best. The following two 'In Memoriam' items appeared in 'The Whitehaven News' in August 1948, a year after his death:

(a) Lee -
"In loving memory of my dear brother,
William Harker Lee, M.M. aged 27 years,
killed in the William Pit disaster,
August 15 1947."

"Deep in our hearts his memory is kept,
We loved him too dearly to ever forget,
The tragic way he had to die,
We shall always remember and wonder why."

Evelyn, Bill and Evelyn.

(b) Lee -
"Treasured memories of
William Harker Lee, M.M.
Aged 27 years who was killed in
William Pit disaster
August 15, 1947."

"Some may forget you now you have gone,
But we will remember no matter how long."

Aunt Tissie and Uncle Matt and grandmother


1. Amanda M. Garraway
(Author, '104 Men' The William Pit Disaster, 1947')

2. Andrea Curwen
(Great Niece of William Harker Lee MM)

3. Cumbria County Archives
(Whitehaven Records Office)

4. 'The Whitehaven News' (Archives)

5. Joan Little
Volunteer researcher,
Cumbria County Archives, Whitehaven Records Office

6. Stuart Nicholson
Parish of Whitehaven (Church of England)

Tuesday, 03 May, 2011  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you so much for all of this. Billy was my father's youngest brother.

Nobody seems to know what happened to his medal.

Jackie Lee

Wednesday, 08 June, 2011  
Blogger Unknown said...

I know where the medal is....Ive got it.

Best Regards

David Lee

Son of Matthew Lee, Billy's brother

Wednesday, 16 August, 2017  
Blogger Unknown said...

I have the medal.

Best Regards

David Lee, son of Matthew Lee, Billy's brother

Wednesday, 16 August, 2017  
Blogger Unknown said...

I have the medal.

Best Regards

David Lee, son of Matthew Lee, Billy's brother

Thursday, 17 August, 2017  

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