b. 11/05/1888 Burnley, Lancashire. d. 22/10/1924 Oldham, Lancashire.
Thomas Whitham (1888-1924) was born at Worsthorne, Burnley, Lancashire on 11th May 1888. His father, John, was born in Scotland. His mother, Catherine nee Courtney, was also a Scot. They married on 6th November 1874, and his father was listed as a mason. They moved south after their marriage and ended up in Lancashire. Thomas was one of eight children, though sadly his mother died in 1905 when he was 17.
Thomas was probably educated at St John’s School, Worsthorne as he visited it after a reception in the village following the award of his VC. He also attended Briercliffe County School, Burnley from 1900-1901 and left to work in a mill. He was then employed as a bricklayer and a labourer. On 1st May 1909 he married Fedora nee Bennett, a worsted spinner, and they lived at 98 Robinson Street, Burnley. By the outbreak of war, they had moved to 111 Barden Lane, Burnley. They had seven children – Walter (died aged 7), William, Thomas, Jennie, Harry, Jack and Fedora.
Thomas enlisted on 25th January 1915 and served with 5th Battalion. He was absent without leave from 1st – 7th April 1915 and again on 8th July, for which he was awarded fourteen days Field Punishment No 2. He went to France on 26th October 1915 to join 1st Battalion. He was further in trouble when sentenced to 56 days Field Punishment No 1 by a Field Marshal Court Martial on 3rd July 1917 for disobeying a lawful command on 26th June. He was still under the sentence when he performed the action which earned him the VC.
On 31st July 1917 at Pilkem near Ypres, Belgium, during an attack an enemy machine-gun was seen to be enfilading the battalion on the right. Private Whitham on his own initiative immediately worked his way from shell-hole to shell-hole through our own barrage, reached the machine-gun and, although under very heavy fire captured it, together with an officer and two other ranks. This bold action was of great assistance to the battalion and undoubtedly saved many lives.
He left France on leave on 6th October and the VC was presented by King George V at Buckingham Palace on 20th October. He was also presented with a gold watch and chain and other gifts by the people of Burnley. Thomas served with 5th (Reserve) Battalion at Windsor, Berkshire from October 1917 until the end of the war. He was discharged in March 1919.
He returned to working as a bricklayer. He was out of work for some time and wrote to Burnley Corporation seeking manual work, but the reply was curt and dismissive. He pawned his VC group in 1921, together with various gifts he had received from his hometown. He found work as a bricklayer on a housing estate at Egremont and his family joined him there until the project ended in 1924. They returned to Burnley and he travelled around on his bicycle looking for a job.
While riding in the Windermere area of Cumberland in May 1924 he suffered severe head trauma and memory loss after crashing into a wall. He was advised by a doctor to rest, but continued and disappeared, ending up in lodgings in Liverpool. He found work in Gatley, near Manchester and wrote to his wife before disappearing again, ending up in lodgings at Hollins Green, Middleton, Lancashire. Fedora had to move in with her father with the children.
Thomas died of peritonitis and a perforated gastric ulcer at Oldham Royal Infirmary on 24th October 1924. He was buried in Inghamite Burial Ground, Nelson. On 16th March 1952, a headstone was dedicated by members of the Regiment and the North East Lancashire Branch of the Coldstream Guards Association. The headstone was restored in April 1988.
In addition to the VC, he was awarded the 1914-15 Star, British War Medal 1914-20 and Victory Medal 1914-19. In 1931 Burnley Borough Council learned that his VC and gold watch, held in Fitzpatrick’s Pawn Shop on Abel Street for a number of years, were to be offered for sale at public auction. The Council purchased the items for £50 and they were offered to the family provided they paid the £50, agreed to keep the articles within the family and only disposed of the VC by presenting it to the Coldstream Guards. Thomas’ son, William, did not get the offer as he was working away, and when he returned, the offer was withdrawn. Towneley Hall Art Gallery and Museum, Burnley now holds the VC and gold watch. William spent 40 years trying to have the medals moved to the Guards Museum without success.
LOCATION OF MEDAL: TOWNLEY HALL ART GALLERY, BURNLEY, LANCASHIRE.
BURIAL PLACE: INGHAMITE CEMETERY, NELSON, LANCASHIRE.
Thomas Whitham's medal and pocket watch at the Townley Hall Art Gallery, Burnley, Lancashire (Andrew Mackay).
Thomas Whitham's medal display at Coldstream Guards RHQ
Plaque on his grave with description of VC action
His wife's grave also in the same cemetery
Worsthome, Burnley, Lancashire
War Illustrated, 13th October 1917
Burnley War Cenotaph (Andrew Mackay)
The three images here are kindly provided by Mike Townend of the Towneley Hall Museum, Burnley.