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The Borough of Whitehaven WW2 ‘Book of Remembrance’

by ritsonvaljos

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Archive List > Postwar Years

Contributed by 
ritsonvaljos
People in story: 
Councillor John Walsh ‘Jack’ JP CC (Mayor of Whitehaven), Major L.B. Hogarth, Mrs Appleby, Mrs Kessell, Hilda McGuinness, Patrick Joseph McGuinness ‘Pat’, Frances McAlone (née McGuinness), William Henry Acton ‘Billy’, George Acton, Andrew Mackin, John Edward Mackin, Robert Casson, Joseph Casson, George Knowles Devlin, Elizabeth Cowan ‘Betty’.
Location of story: 
Whitehaven (Cumberland / Cumbria)
Background to story: 
Civilian
Article ID: 
A8950214
Contributed on: 
29 January 2006

A display cabinet at the Cumbria Records Office, Whitehaven, Cumbria. It contains the former Borough of Whitehaven WW2 ‘Book of Remembrance’, listing many of the names of former Borough of Whitehaven citizens who lost their lives in WW2. [Photograph by Joseph Ritson]

Introduction

Recently, whilst researching articles about the Second World War in the Cumbria Records Office, Scotch Street, Whitehaven I came across an article in an edition of ‘The Whitehaven News’ dating from the summer of 1947 that the then Borough of Whitehaven proposed a ‘Commemoration Fund’ to obtain a WW2 Memorial and Book of Remembrance. The intention was to remember and honour those citizens of the town who had died in the service of their country during the conflict, which at that time, had ended only a couple of years before.

The 1947 newspaper article asked for people to inform the council of the names of townsfolk who had lost their lives in the war, requested donations for the proposed Memorial and to identify any dependants. Despite the fact that I have talked to many people in West Cumbria about World War Two over recent years, I have never met anyone who has mentioned the existence of a Civic WW2 Memorial in Whitehaven. The only ones I know about in Whitehaven are the ones found in the various churches, the town Cenotaph and others commemorating specific wartime events such as Dunkirk or the Normandy Landings.

On the other hand, I do know that several other towns, villages and parishes in Cumbria do have WW2 Memorials. Finally, on Friday 27 January 2006, I discovered a Civic Memorial for Whitehaven was indeed commissioned, and this article explains a little about it. The author has read and understood the terms of the BBC ‘‘People’s War’’ website.

Where is the WW2 Memorial?

In January 2006, as the BBC ‘‘People’s War’’ website was drawing to a close, I thought I would attempt firstly to discover if there was a WW2 Memorial for my hometown of Whitehaven, and secondly, if one existed, where it was located. At the Records Office of the Cumbria Archives Service, Scotch Street, Whitehaven, I was able to discover there was a WW1 Memorial for the former Borough, and also records about War Memorials for some of the neighbouring communities. Yet, there was no record of a WW2 Memorial for Whitehaven.

If there had been a Whitehaven Memorial, one person I felt would have known about it was Mrs Hilda McGuinness, whose husband Sergeant Pat McGuinness was killed in Italy in July 1944. After the war, Hilda always felt it was important that her husband Pat was commemorated for his sacrifice. One of Hilda’s final requests was that Pat was commemorated on her headstone after she died. However, after checking with Pat and Hilda’s eldest child, Mrs Frances McAlone, I found that none of the family knew about a local Civic Memorial.

The other places I made enquiries about the local WW2 Memorial included Copeland Council Offices (successors to the Town Council), the Whitehaven Beacon Museum, local British Legions, some wartime veterans and relatives of some who had died in the war. As explained in the Introduction, nobody I spoke to knew of the existence of a specific WW2 Memorial for all citizens who paid the ultimate price during the war.

However, thanks to the assistance of staff at the Cumbria Archives Service, on Thursday 26 January 2006 I was able to locate another referenced document in the Records Office in Whitehaven. It turned out that this folder contained many of the original documents dating from 1947 about the WW2 Memorial, including letters from the relatives and friends of those who had lost their lives in the war. When I opened the file, the first two documents I saw were handwritten letters by Mrs Hilda McGuinness! Hilda had written to the Mayor’s Commemoration Fund informing them that her husband Pat had died in the war and asking for his name to go on the Memorial (See Article Reference ID A8923944).

Among the other documents in this archived folder were letters from other townsfolk asking if the names of the loved ones could go on the Memorial. Some of these were about people I already knew of who had died in the war, while many others were named that I had never previously heard about. With this additional evidence that there should be a Memorial, the question now was: “Where is the WW2 Memorial?”

Viewing the Book of Remembrance

After looking through the folder about the Memorial, I made another visit to the Copeland Council Offices and obtained permission to use transcripts of Hilda’s 1947 letters to write an article about the Memorial. This permission was given. However, I could still not find anyone who knew the whereabouts of the former Borough’s WW2 Memorial.

Returning to the Cumbria County Records Office, I then checked through editions of ‘The Whitehaven News’ in the latter part of 1947. On 15 August of that year, there was an explosion at one of the town’s coalmines (William Pit). As a result of that explosion, 104 men and boys lost their lives. In addition, many other townsfolk had their lives changed forever. There were many wives widowed, children orphaned and parents who had lost their children. Virtually everyone in the town knew someone affected by the disaster.

The local newspaper articles in the latter part of 1947, quite naturally, have many columns devoted to various aspects of this William Pit disaster. References in the newspaper about a WW2 Memorial for the town seemed to disappear. More pressing needs had overtaken events. A fund was set up to help all those bereaved in this more recent pit tragedy. I began to wonder if the WW2 Memorial for the Borough had never actually been realised.

The Research Room at the Cumbria Archives Office in Whitehaven is on the first floor. At the entrance to this room, there is space for a temporary display. After failing to confirm that a WW2 Memorial existed, I decided to leave for home. On the way out from the Research Room on the afternoon of Thursday 26 January 2006, I went to look at the exhibition currently on display.

Then, at the end of this short corridor where the temporary display was on show, next to a locked door, I saw a display cabinet. For some reason, I walked over to this cabinet and saw it contained two hard backed volumes, each opened at a page with names on it. One of these books had the details of someone who had served in the Great War. The second was a list of names and addresses but there was nothing in the cabinet to say what it was. When I enquired at the Enquiry Desk about the second book it turned out nobody knew what it was. Nor was there a key available to open the cabinet and look at the book. Nevertheless, as always, the Records Office staff promised to help. I was informed that if I returned the following day, they would attempt to find a key and find what the book was that was on display.

Returning the following day, I was able to view the second book and found it was, in reality, the ‘Roll of Honour’, a Book of Remembrance for the former Borough of Whitehaven. By some miracle, the hand of Divine Providence had guided me to the end of a long journey! Finally I was able to look at the names. Among those listed were at least three sets of brothers I knew had died: Billy and George Acton, Andrew and Edward Mackin, and Robert and Joseph Casson. Two others listed that I knew about were George K. Devlin and Pat McGuinness. In total, there were 172 names listed in the ‘Roll of Honour’. Even so, the names of some townsfolk whom I knew had died in the war were missing. This included my own kinswoman Elizabeth Cowan, known to her family as Betty.

It had taken from the summer of 1947 until October 1953 for the ‘Roll of Honour’ for the town to be produced. The Book of Remembrance was signed by the then Town Mayor, John Walsh JP, CC. The ‘Roll of Honour’ had been handed over to the Mayor by Major L.B. Hogarth from the voluntary committee that had been formed to guide the production of the WW2 Memorial. Also in attendance at the formal handing over of the Book were two other members of this committee: Mrs Appleby and Mrs Kessell.

Checking the Council Minutes for that period, also obtainable in the Cumbria Archives, I found there should be a second, identical, ‘Roll of Honour’ Book. The Council Minutes also mention a permanent WW2 Memorial plaque. The recommendation was that this Memorial be placed in the Civic Hall. When I had previously asked at the Civic Hall about the WW2 Memorial its whereabouts was unknown. There are, however, later Memorials placed at the Civic Hall by the Dunkirk Veterans and the Normandy Veterans.

A symbol of Remembrance

The Civic leaders of the Borough of Whitehaven between 1947 and 1953, and its citizens, wished that the names of fellow townspeople who had lost their lives in the war be honoured and remembered. The Book contains the Seal of the Borough of Whitehaven, confirming this was the desire of the Mayor, Aldermen and Burgesses. Below are the moving and poignant words chosen by the Civic leaders of the municipality in 1953 to be written in the WW2 ‘Book of Remembrance’:

“Borough of Whitehaven
BOOK OF REMEMBRANCE
+
Within the pages of this book are recorded the names of MEN AND WOMEN of the BOROUGH OF WHITEHAVEN who served their country and the Commonwealth with self sacrifice and courage in the Second World War for Freedom and the Rights of Man.
1939 - 1945

THEY DIED THAT WE MIGHT LIVE

This Book is a symbol of remembrance to those of our town who lost their lives in the Second World War 1939 - 1945.

It contains the names and addresses only: rank and other details have been omitted because ‘Death makes equal high and low’. Deep in our hearts we think of those whose names are recorded here, not as ranks and numbers but as individuals we have known and loved.

In life, they contributed to the moulding of the community and in death remind us that the price of liberty is vigilance, valour and sacrifice. As heirs to the precious heritage for which they fought an fell
WE WILL REMEMBER THEM

John Walsh
J.P., C.C.

Town Hall, Whitehaven.
October 1953”

The specially created bookmark that goes with the Book of Remembrance has written on it words paraphrasing a famous verse from ‘The Fallen’, a poem by Laurence Binyon:

“They grow not old like we grow old - We shall remember them”.

Conclusion

From the time it was first proposed in the early summer of 1947, it took until October 1953 for the Whitehaven WW2 Memorial to be produced. It actually took slightly longer for the Memorial to be realised than the full length of World War Two. The main reason for this, as has been seen, was due to the catastrophic impact on the town of Whitehaven of the 1947 William Pit disaster. The need to help the living and the large number of grieving families of the 104 men who lost their lives in the William Pit accident seem to have rightly initially taken precedence over a war memorial.

Eventually, in 1953, two copies of a ‘Roll of Honour’ and a Memorial Plaque were presented to the Council so that the citizens of Whitehaven would be remembered. Although one of the Books of Remembrance is in the Records Office of the Cumbria Archives Service in the town, as related in this article, its existence or whereabouts have not been widely known. Hopefully, this article may go some way to rectifying that situation.

I would like to thank all those who have assisted me locate and view the Book of Remembrance. In particular, without the assistance and guidance of the staff from the Cumbria Archives Service, it would have been impossible to obtain the information to write this article.

“We shall remember them”

J. Ritson
29 January 2006

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