b. 21/02/1872 Aston, Birmingham. d. 14/04/1921 Birmingham.
George Albert Ravenhill (1872-1921) was born on February 23rd 1872 in Thimble Mill Lane in the Nechells district of Birmingham. He was the son of Thomas and Mary Anne Ravenhill and his father followed the trade of wood turner. He was the fifth child of nine and the family had moved to the Aston area of Birmingham by the time of the 1881 Census.
He married Florence Langford in 1898 and their first child Lily was born in 1900. George Ravenhill joined the 2nd Battalion of the Royal Scots Fusiliers in May 1898 at Birr in Ireland. He served nearly six years in India and then saw active service in the Boer War (1899-1902). The war broke out on October 12th 1899 when Boers invaded Cape Colony and Natal. He gained the Queen's and the King's medals, with clasps, for the Relief of Ladysmith, Transvaal and Cape Colony.
On December 15th 1899 General Sir Redvers Buller VC, British Commander-in-Chief in South Africa, led an advance on the Boer defence line along the Tugela River established by General Botha. Buller commanded five infantry brigades and had artillery support from the Royal Artillery and the Royal Navy. The whole force numbered about 21,000. This was a step towards the relief of the besieged town of Ladysmith which had been cut off since November 2. George Ravenhill was serving in 6th Brigade commanded by Barton.
The British attack was to be three pronged and frontal. Both flanks were repulsed. On the left flank men commanded by Major General Hart were ambushed in a blind loop (the open end of a loop like a salient) in the river 7 km upstream from Colenso. This was a mistake caused by inaccurate British maps. They could not cross and were fired upon from three sides. In the centre of this loop was Colonel C.J.Long, who commanded two batteries of twelve 15 pounder field guns and six naval 12 pounders and had advanced these heavy guns into the bend in the river. The guns had been escorted forward by A and B companies of the Royal Scots Fusiliers,including Private George Ravenhill. It appears that Long had exceeded his orders and pushed his guns further forward than Buller had instructed. The gunners came under very heavy rifle fire from trenches on the opposite river bank and the guns were abandoned as the teams of horses could not be brought up to the guns.
Private Ravenhill went several times, under a heavy fire, from his sheltered position as one of the escort to the guns, to assist the officers and driver's who" were trying to "withdraw the guns of the 14th and 66th Batteries, Royal Field Artillery, when the detachments serving them had all been killed, wounded, or driven from them by infantry fire at close range, and helped to limber up one of the guns that were saved. Private Ravenhill was wounded in the shoulder during the action.
Ravenhill was awarded the Victoria Cross and received his medal on the same day that he was invested, 4th June 1901 from the Duke of York (later King George V) in Natal, South Africa. George remained in the Army until 1908, when he decided to leave having served for 13 years.
Sadly, George’s life took a dramatic downturn after leaving the Army. He fell on hard times, and his case was even mentioned in the House of Commons on 13th May 1908, when C. B. Harmsworth MP for Droitwich stated “I beg to ask the Secretary of State for War if he is now in a position to say what action, if any, is proposed to be taken by the War Office to relieve George Ravenhill, V.C., who is, or was recently, an inmate of Erdington Workhouse, of the necessity of taking advantage of public charity.” The response from Mr Haldane, the Secretary of War was “The case is still under investigation. As soon as a decision has been reached, it shall be communicated to my hon. friend.”
Unfortunately, no action had occurred when later that year, George fell foul of the law. He had already been to court regarding a charge of not performing his allotted task at Erdington Workhouse, when in August 1908, he was charged with theft of iron to the value of 6 shillings, from James Rollasson, manufacturer at Bromford Mills. Ravenhill in his defence stated he felt he was due a pension of £50 per annum but had heard nothing from the authorities about his claim. Unfortunately, the judge didn’t agree with Ravenhill and jailed him for a month.
Due to his conviction, George was subject to the forfeiture of his Victoria Cross (though he was never struck off the Register). In December 1908, at Sotheby’s, George’s medals were sold for £42 and were purchased by Mr Spink. Following George’s release from prison, his life got worse. By 1911, he, his wife and his now four children (Lily, George, Raymond and Florence) were inmates at the Aston Union Workhouse. Sadly, he had to make the horrendous decision to send three of his children (except Florence) to Canada to be fostered. Two more children were born in 1910 and 1912 but both died before the age of 1.
By the time of the outbreak of World War One in September 1914, George was now living in Chipping Norton, Oxfordshire, with his wife. He served initially with the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry before transferring to the Hampshire Regiment, and then the Duke of Cornwall's Light infantry, before being discharged on medical grounds in 1916. Whilst in the Army, he had two more children, Arthur (born in 1915) and William (born in 1916). He was discharged back to the Chipping Norton address in Rock Hill. At some stage he returned to Aston in Birmingham, his last child, Laura being born there in 1919.
George died suddenly of a heart attack, aged just 49, on 14th April 1921 in Birmingham. He left a wife and five children living in extreme poverty. Shortly before Ravenhill’s death, King George V declared that the VC should never be forfeited. ‘Even were a VC to be sentenced to be hanged for murder’, wrote the King, ‘he should be allowed to wear the VC on the scaffold’. George was laid to rest in Witton Cemetery, Birmingham after a funeral with full military honours. Sadly, his grave is only marked by a small plaque with “36” on it, and his name is on a nearby screen wall. His medals were eventually obtained by the Royal Highland Fusiliers Museum, Glasgow, Scotland.
LOCATION OF MEDAL: ROYAL HIGHLAND FUSILIERS, GLASGOW, SCOTLAND..
BURIAL PLACE: WITTON CEMETERY, BIRMINGHAM. (COMMON GRAVE 36).
George Ravenhill's medals on display at the Royal Highland Fusiliers Museum, Glasgow, Scotland.
(Picture courtesy of Thomas David Stewart.)
Cemetery Plan courtesy of Kevin Brazier
Witton Cemetery War Memorial