b.18/01/1884 Liverpool. d. 26/03/1963 Liverpool.
William Ratcliffe (1882-1963) was born at 38 Newhall Street, St Thomas’, Liverpool on 18th February 1884 according to his birth certificate. However, his baptism record states 18th January. William always celebrated his birthday in January throughout his life. His father, also William, was a general porter, and later dock labourer. He married Mary Ann nee Kelly on 5th February 1876 at St Vincent de Paul Catholic Church, Liverpool. They had seven children in all, and one of William’s brothers, Peter, was killed aboard the RMS Lusitania in 1915.
William was educated at St Vincent de Paul RC School, Liverpool. He left the school in c.1895 and was employed as a messenger boy for Edmund Ranson, a cow keeper in Liverpool. He enlisted with 3rd South Lancashire in Liverpool on 19th September 1900, and after 49 days, enlisted in the Durham Light Infantry on 14th November. He is believed to have served in India, before being discharged in 1911.
He returned to working on the Liverpool docks, before being recalled in early August 1914 and posted to 16 Platoon, D Company, 2nd South Lancashire at Tidworth, Hampshire. He went to France on 6th December.
On 14th April 1917 at Wulverghem, Belgium, he was awarded the Military Medal for going out and taking out seven enemy snipers which were inflicting heavy casualties. On 14th June 1917 at Messines, Belgium, after an enemy trench had been captured, Private Ratcliffe located an enemy machine-gun which was firing on his comrades from the rear, and single-handed, on his own initiative, immediately rushed the machine-gun position and bayoneted the crew. He then brought the gun back into action in the front line. Private Ratcliffe had displayed similar gallantry and resource on previous occasions.
His wounds saw him evacuated to England, where he was treated in Hampton-in-Arden, Warwickshire, where he remained until the end of August. He was presented with his MM on 24th September. The VC was presented by King George V outside Buckingham Palace on 26th September 1917. William may have returned to France but this is not certain. He was discharged to the Class Z Reserve on 11th February 1919. The medal roll for the Victory and British War Medals state he served with the 2nd, 11th, 7th and 2nd Battalions in that order and also in the Manchester Regiment. There is no mention of the Manchester Regiment on his medal index card.
He returned to the docks for the rest of his working life, but fell on hard times in the 1920s, when he was lucky to get two days’ work a week. He lodged briefly with his sister, Mary Jane and her husband in Brindley Street, Liverpool before moving into his own lodgings. When he was invited to the VC Dinner at the House of Lords on 9th November 1929, he stated “I have hopes of getting the fare and I hope no one will mind my going in this old suit.” A new suit was donated anonymously and he was able to attend.
In 1946, while working on the quayside of Queen’s Dock, he was struck by heavy bags of castor oil seed that had fallen from a sling while being offloaded from a vessel. He sustained injuries to the neck, spine and pelvis and was completely deaf in one ear, with limited hearing in the other. He was unfit for further work and retired with a pension of £2 per week from the Dock Board. He moved in with his sister Sarah following the death of her husband in 1948. They then moved to Brindley Street, Liverpool, until her death in 1955. Thereafter his niece, Margaret Walsh and her daughter, Noreen, supported him. They accompanied him to the 1956 VC Centenary Celebrations at Hyde Park, for which he was donated a new suit.
In 1962, he started to show signs of dementia. In March 1963, he slipped on ice and fell on his way home. At Broadgreen Hospital he was unable to remember his address. His niece, Margaret, had reported him missing and he was found. He needed regular supervision and was transferred to residental care at Kirkdale House. He developed bronchopneumonia and died there on 26th March 1963. He was buried in the grave of his sister and brother-in-law in the RC Section of Allerton Cemetery, Liverpool.
In addition to his VC and MM, he was also awarded the 1914-15 Star, British War Medal 1914-20, Victory Medal 1914-19, George VI Coronation Medal 1937 and Elizabeth II Coronation Medal 1953. They are owned privately, but since November 2007 have been on loan to the Imperial War Museum, where they are displayed in the Ashcroft Gallery.
LOCATION OF MEDAL: LORD ASHCROFT GALLERY, IMPERIAL WAR MUSEUM, LONDON.
BURIAL PLACE: ALLERTON CEMETERY, LIVERPOOL.
William Ratcliffe's medals on display at Lord Ashcroft Gallery, Imperial War Museum, London (August 2014).
SECTION 19, GRAVE 274
Liverpool Town Hall
The gun captured by William Ratcliffe VC at the
Lancashire Infantry Museum, Preston, Lancashire.
War Illustrated, 1st September 1917
Liverpool VC Memorial, Abercromby Square
Ratcliffe (pictured 2nd from right)
Before his investiture, Ratcliffe is on the far right
William Ratcliffe's memorial stone and plaque unveiled on 15th June 2017 at The Church of Our Lady and St Nicholas, Liverpool (James O'Hanlon)
Two more images connected to the unveiling of William Ratcliffe's VC memorial stone on 15th June 2017
(Images courtesy of Chris Vere and the Lancashire Infantry Museum)