Decorations for Gallantry (Display)

– in the House of Commons at 3:39 pm on 9th March 1994.

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Photo of Mr Nick Hawkins Mr Nick Hawkins , Blackpool South 3:39 pm, 9th March 1994

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to regulate the public display or exhibition of decorations for gallantry; and for connected purposes. The Bill would give the Secretary of State for Defence the ultimate decision-making power over where the highest awards for gallantry are displayed to the public in cases of dispute. I bring this matter before the House because I have been contacted by one of my elderly constituents, Mr. William Whitham, who is now in his late 80s and is the son of the late Private Thomas Whitham VC, who was awarded the Victoria Cross for conspicuous gallantry in the trenches in the first world war.

For nearly 40 years, my constituent has been trying to arrange for his late father's Victoria Cross medal to be displayed at the Coldstream Guards museum—the regiment to which his late father belonged—instead of at a museum in Burnley, the medal's current location. The Coldstream Guards museum already has on display all the other 12 Victoria Crosses won by members of that most gallant regiment, and my constituent and the surviving members of his family would dearly like his late father's medal to be displayed there as well.

The regiment has supported Mr. Whitham in his campaign, as have many people over the years, including my parliamentary predecessor Sir Peter Blaker, who also raised the matter in the House.

Mr. Whitham feels particularly strongly that it is not appropriate for the medal to be on display in Burnley because of the history of how it came to be in the hands of Burnley council, and how his late father was treated by that council. Immediately after my constituent's father had won the Victoria Cross, Private Whitham's home town of Burnley said that it was very proud of him; his portrait was painted; presentations were made; and various civic ceremonies were held during the last year of the war.

When the war ended, however, and Private Whitham returned to Burnley and to his young family, sadly he had no job to return to. Hon. Members on both sides of the House will recall that this was supposed to be the land fit for heroes to live in", when the troops returned.

Former Private Whitham VC wrote to Burnley corporation, asking if he might be able to work for it in the humble capacity of a manual worker. The letter of rejection that he received—a copy of which I have read—only a year or so after being fêted as a local hero was, to say the least, curt and humiliatingly dismissive.

As we are all aware, jobs were hard to come by in the early 1920s and Private Whitham VC and his young family lived in harsh and reduced circumstances. My constituent, who, as I said, is well over 80, has never forgotten the sense that they all had that the town of Burnley had rejected his father.

Tommy Whitham VC was forced to leave his young family to seek work elsewhere. His Victoria Cross medal was pawned on two occasions to raise money for the family, and eventually, only six years after the war ended, Private Tommy Whitham VC died in penury.

Once my constituent reached adulthood, he sought to have the medal returned and, on one occasion, in 1948, he nearly succeeded. Burnley council passed a resolution saying that the medal could be returned to my constituent if £50 were paid. Unfortunately, my constituent was travelling the country while employed as a civil servant by the Ministry of Works and he never received a message about the council decision. Within a week or two of the decision, there was a change of political control, I understand, in Burnley council and the Labour party was elected. The previous decision was immediately reversed at the next council meeting before my constituent was informed of the first decision.

Over many years since, all attempts to persuade Burnley council to release the medal have failed, even though for many years it appears that the medal and its ribbon were not at all well looked after. It is right to point out that only after my predecessor, Sir Peter Blaker, and the colonel-in-chief of the Coldstream Guards raised the matter in 1991 was the decision finally taken to put the medal on display. It is fair to say that Burnley council has offered in recent weeks, after I had taken up the case, to present a replica of the medal to my constituent, but he feels that that, too, is not what he seeks. He is strongly of the view that his late father's regiment should have the medal on display.

I feel strongly about this matter because, although my own service connections are with the Royal Navy, my late grandfather, who died only three years ago, served in the trenches in the first world war in what was then the Royal Horse Artillery and was commissioned from the ranks. Therefore, I know—second hand from him—what all soldiers who served in the trenches in the first world war went through, and the extraordinary bravery that must have been shown by my constituent's late father to win the Victoria Cross.

I believe that it is entirely appropriate for the Secretary of State for Defence to be given the power to decide in cases of dispute such as this where our most important decorations for gallantry should be displayed. There is a strong body of opinion on this matter and I have had tremendous support from my hon. Friends, many of whom have served in the distinguished Coldstream Guards regiment.

I very much hope that, when Burnley council is made aware of this debate, it will consider thinking again about the matter. I see that the hon. Member for Burnley (Mr. Pike) is in the Chamber. I must say, in fairness to him, that I know that in his time as a member of Burnley council, and since becoming a Member of the House, he has also sought to take up this matter, but unfortunately it appears that we have not yet succeeded in persuading Burnley council to reverse its earlier decision.

This is an important matter. It relates most directly to one of my constituents, but it has great significance for a large number of people who remember the gallantry of all those who served in the trenches in world war one.

The most appropriate words with which I could close my remarks would be those that were used with a heavy sense of irony by the first world war poet, Wilfred Owen, whose poetry I studied when at school: Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori.

Photo of Mr Peter Pike Mr Peter Pike , Burnley 3:47 pm, 9th March 1994

I wish to speak in opposition to the Bill of the hon. Member for Blackpool, South (Mr. Hawkins) quite simply because I believe that it would be wrong to allow the ten-minute Bill procedure to be allowed to give any impression that anything that is debated under it today had the approval of the House. I believe that the issue must be looked at. The hon. Gentleman has rightly said that I have raised the matter on number of occasions, both as a Member of Parliament and as a member of the local authority.

Unlike the hon. Gentleman, my military service was just two years in the Royal Marines. It would be totally wrong to approve a Bill that, in a dispute about where the medal should go, allows the final decision to be made by the Secretary of State for Defence, whatever Government and political party is in control at the time. It would in my view make it a political decision if the Government were to determine to whom medals belonged and to where they should go—[Interruption.] As always, the hon. Member for Lancaster (Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman) is making sedentary comments.

It is contended that the medal should be displayed with the other 11 Victoria Crosses awarded to the Coldstream Guards. But there is a view strongly held in Burnley that Thomas Whitham, who with great heroism earned the VC in 1917 during the first world war, was a hero of Burnley. It is with great pride that his medal is shown in the Towneley art gallery and museum, which is owned by the local authority.

As a schoolboy, I went to the art gallery and museum and saw the display in which the medal has been on show from time to time; it is now on show more frequently. Notwithstanding the claims of the hon. Member for Blackpool, South, we children took great pride in the fact that the Victoria Cross had been won, with great courage, by someone who lived in Burnley. I accept that Burnley council treated Thomas Whitham appallingly in the 1920s, but I should point out that it was not Labour-controlled at the time: Labour did not take control until many years later.

Thomas Whitham was presented with the medal in 1917. He was also given a gold watch and chain, and his portrait was painted; it now hangs in Towneley hall. In 1921, owing to hardship, he pawned his VC, and the council purchased it in 1931. It is believed that the medal had been pawned on earlier occasions, that it was not held in pawn for the entire 10 years and that the council had previously redeemed it and returned it to Mr. Whitham. Ultimately, however, he had to pawn it in order to survive. That is a sad reflection of the way in which we have treated many people who fought in the first world war, in a land which—I agree—was not quite as fit for heroes as we would have wished.

The issue raised by the hon. Member for Blackpool, South was raised in 1948, but 10 years elapsed between the decision made then and Mr. Whitham's contacting the council again. It may have been felt that, if the issue had been so important to him, he would have pursued it earlier. It was considered again in 1980, 1988 and 1990, and I raised it recently with the chief executive of the council and the controlling group. It is clearly felt that the medal belongs in Burnley's art gallery and museum. The Coldstream Guards have been offered a replica, as has Mr. Whitham junior; the council is willing to pay for both.

The regiment understands and accepts the council's decision. That is clear from a letter from the regimental headquarters to the then chief executive of the council, dated 12 July 1991. The letter states that the regiment accepts that the medal can be made available to it on loan. Indeed, it has been made so available on a number of occasions, whenever the regiment has requested it. It has also been shown throughout Lancashire in various travelling exhibitions, and presented as something for which a part of Lancashire should be proud.

The hon. Member for Blackpool, South is right to pursue, with diligence and concern, an issue that affects one of his constituents. I feel, however, that this is the wrong way to deal with it. I wish to make it clear that whatever happens now does not necessarily mean that the House approves of the Bill.

Question put, pursuant to Standing Order No. 19 (Motions for leave to bring in Bills and nomination of Select Committees at commencement of public business), and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Nick Hawkins, Dr. Charles Goodson-Wickes, Sir Archibald Hamilton, Sir Anthony Grant, Mr. Cyril D. Townsend, Mr. Matthew Banks, Mr. Michael Stephen, Mr. Andrew Robathan, Mr. Michael Mates, Mr. Michael Colvin and Sir Edward Heath.