b. 05/12/1896 Leigh, Lancashire. d. 18/10/1940 Leigh, Lancashire.
Alfred Robert Wilkinson (1896-1940) born in Leigh, near Wigan, on 5th December 1896; the eldest son of Alfred and Sarah Wilkinson (nee Swift). His father was a cotton spinner and the family lived at 1 Brideoake Street, later moving to 59 Bradshawgate. Young Alfred was baptized at St Joseph’s Roman Catholic Church on 13th December 1896 and later attended the infant school at St Joseph’s. He had an older sister Beatrice born 1894, two younger brothers Henry (born 1898) and Francis, and two younger sisters Alice and Agnes. Another brother John died as an infant. He attended the Junior School at St Joseph’s between 1903 and 1909 and then went to work with his father at the Mather Lane Spinning Company No. 3 Mill in Leigh where he was employed as a cotton piecer. This was a hazardous job, usually carried out by children and young people, requiring the piecer to lean over the rapidly moving spinning machines in order to repair broken thread.
With the outbreak of war in August 1914 the battalion, together with the other Territorial Battalions of the Manchesters, Lancashire Fusiliers and East Lancashire Regiment composing the 42nd (East Lancashire) Division mobilised immediately and within a few days had volunteered for overseas service. As with the other five Manchester Territorial Battalions reserve battalions were formed immediately and the 2/5th Battalion was formed at Wigan during September. Recruiting for these second line battalions began immediately and quickly new recruits were sworn in and provided with uniforms and equipment. Alfred Wilkinson was soon to be one of these and enlisted at Atherton, near Wigan on 14th December 1914, age 18 years and 11 months. Height 5’ 7 1/2 “. He was given the Regimental number 3120.
The 2/5th became a part of 199 Brigade, 66 Division and Wilkinson joined them at Southport where the battalion remained until May 1915 when it moved to Sussex, with companies based in Crowborough, Cuckfield and Peaspottage. He carried on training with the battalion when it moved once again to Colchester in March 1916. On 30th July 1916, now re-numbered as Private 43839, he was posted as one of the large number of reinforcements sent to France to join the 18th Manchesters.
August and early September were spent training and providing working parties; back in the line for much of September and early October. On 12th October the 18th Manchesters, as part of 30th Division, attacked the German position south of Ligny-Thilloy. Again there were considerable casualties in the ranks of the battalion and out of a rifle strength of three hundred and fifty who went ‘over the top’ two hundred and fifty were killed, wounded or missing. On 8th November 1916 Wilkinson was admitted to the 43rd Casualty Clearing Station with a sprained ankle. His injury must have been rather more severe than a sprained ankle as on 13th November he was admitted to the 16th General Hospital at Etaples and it was not until 23rd December 1916 that he rejoined the battalion.
The tremendous casualty rate in the 1917 fighting had made some reorganisation of the Army necessary and it was decided to adopt the German formation of three battalions to a brigade and nine to a division. This affected the 18th, the junior battalion of 90th Brigade, and it fell to their lot to be disbanded on 19th February 1918. The majority of the men were transferred to the 17th Entrenching Battalion but somehow Wilkinson was fortunate enough to be posted to his parent battalion, which had been in France since arriving from the battlefields of Gallipoli and Egypt in March 1917.
Wilkinson joined 5th Manchesters, part of 127th Brigade, shortly before the great German offensive began at dawn on 21st March 1918. 42nd Division had been in reserve for several weeks undergoing training and sports but all this now came to an end following a terrific bombardment along more than fifty miles of the British front, from east of Arras to south of St Quentin.
In two days of incessant fighting on 27th/28th September 42nd Division pierced the Hindenburg Line to a depth of 5,000 yards. Following this success the pursuit of the enemy was carried out with such vigour that the Germans were unable to make a determined stand. On 9th October the Division marched out of their rest area and after three days halted at Fontainie-au-Pir and Beauvois. The advance continued with constant attacks and counter-attacks until eventually the River Selle was successfully crossed on the night of the 19th.
On 20th October 1918 at Marou, France, during the attack, four runners had been killed in attempting to deliver a message to the supporting company and Private Wilkinson volunteered for the duty. He succeeded in delivering the message although the journey involved exposure to extremely heavy machine-gun and shell fire for 600 yards. He showed magnificent courage and complete indifference to danger and throughout the remainder of the day continued to do splendid work.
For his bravery Wilkinson was immediately recommended for the award of the Victoria Cross. The award of the Victoria Cross to Albert Wilkinson was announced in the London Gazette of 9th January 1919. On 8th February 1919 Wilkinson was given 14 days special leave to return to the UK to receive his award. On arrival at Leigh railway station the Mayor, his own family and townspeople were there to give him a great welcome. He was driven in an open landau to the Town Hall escorted by mounted and foot police, a detachment of soldiers from the guard at the Leigh prisoner-of-war camp, Boy Scouts, the St John’s brass band together with a number of discharged soldiers and sailors. At the reception that followed he was presented with an illuminated address, 500 War Savings certificates and £50 in cash. Subsequently he received many other gifts including a gold watch from the members of the St Joseph’s Boys and Young Mens Society and an illuminated address from the directors of the Mather Lane Spinning Company.
On 22nd February 1919, now promoted Lance Corporal, he travelled to London with his Mother and brother Henry, then serving with the South Lancashire Regiment, to receive the Victoria Cross from King George V at Buckingham Palace. He attended the investiture with his mother, a his father had passed away in 1916. After the ceremony he returned to Belgium to rejoin what was left of his old battalion. Wilkinson’s last act as a soldier, of which he must have been very proud, was to take part in the Victory Parade in London on 19th July 1919 when the Colours of the 1/5th Battalion were carried. The Colour Party consisted of Captain C P Brown, Lieutenant Holmes, RQMS Christie DCM and Lance Corporal Wilkinson VC.
Alfred Wilkinson was a quiet reserved man who, despite his recently acquired fame, on the whole declined to take part in any public affairs. After the war he was employed by the Leigh Operating Spinner’s Association. Together with seven other holders of the Victoria Cross from the Manchester Regiment he attended the VC commemorative dinner in the House of Lords in 1930. On 26th October 1932 he married Grace Davies at the church of The Twelve Apostles in Leigh. They had one daughter. The Wilkinsons acquired a sweets and tobacconists shop at 34 Leigh Road. In 1938 King George VI and Queen Elizabeth visited Leigh and Wilkinson was one of the local citizens presented to them.
Shortly before the outbreak of the Second World War in September 1939 the family had given up their shop and moved to 113 Etherstone Street in Leigh. Wilkinson joined the Bickershaw Colliery in Leigh as a laboratory technician in the surveyors’ laboratory. After the outbreak of war in September 1939 he joined the Local Defence Force, later to be renamed as the Home Guard. He also became a Special Constable. However, he was keen to play a more active part in the war and the 44 year old applied for a commission in the Pioneer Corps. On 16 October he attended the wedding of his surviving brother Henry.
On the morning of 18th October 1940 he received a letter with official notification that he had been granted a commission in the Pioneer Corps. He then left home at 6.30 am to go to his work at the colliery. At 8.15 Colin Smith, a laboratory apprentice, went into the room where Wilkinson was sitting and thought that he looked ill. Wilkinson told him that he had a headache, opened the door and later said that if he did not feel any better he would ask to go home. Smith later remembered that two Bunsen burners were alight in the room as well as a firebrick oven, described as a furnace. Smith then left to go down the pit about half an hour later. At about mid-day Harold Webb, a brickworks clerk at the colliery went to an outside water tap below the window of the laboratory and saw Wilkinson reclining in a chair with his head thrown back and his legs outstretched. He immediately assumed that Wilkinson was ill and went inside, finding him unconscious. He sent for breathing apparatus and artificial respiration was carried out before Wilkinson was taken to the Bolton Royal Infirmary where Dr MacFaul pronounced him dead.
He was buried in Leigh Cemetery, 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 Honour in the Manchester Regiment Chapel in Manchester Cathedral. A plaque to his memory was unveiled in Leigh Town Hall on 27th January 2005 and a similar plaque is positioned in Wigan Town Hall.
For many years his Victoria Cross, British War Medal, Victory Medal and Coronation Medal (KGVI) were in the possession of a private collector in Ontario, Canada. They were sold at auction by Dix Noonan Webb of London on 29th June 2006 for the sum of £110,000 and were bought on behalf of the Michael Ashcroft Trust, the holding institution for Lord Ashcroft’s VC collection.
LOCATION OF MEDAL: LORD ASHCROFT GALLERY, IMPERIAL WAR MUSEUM, LONDON.
BURIAL PLACE: LEIGH BOROUGH CEMETERY, LEIGH, LANCASHIRE.
Alfred Wilkinson's medals including VC on display at the Lord Ashcroft Gallery, Imperial War Museum, London
PLOT 1-U, GRAVE 99.
John Harker MBE