Coniston’s VC Hero

Reprinted by kind permission of Cumbria magazine – Issue November 2011

Apart from outdoor pursuits and an excellent range of tourist facilities visitors are drawn to Coniston for several reasons, not least through Donald Campbell’s tragic death in 1967 whilst attempting to break his own world water speed record. And what of the influential John Ruskin? Brantwood, on the eastern shore of the lake, is a shrine to the memory of the revered Victorian critic.

Both men’s remains are buried in Coniston, with Donald Campbell’s in the newer burial ground and Ruskin’s beneath an ornate cross in the east of the old cemetery which surrounds St Andrew’s. On the opposite side of this churchyard, largely unnoticed, is the grave of Coniston’s own son and hero, James (“Jimmy”) Hewitson VC who fought in WW1. Inside the church a small glass-framed account of him is displayed on a wall near the piano.

Only four holders of the Victoria Cross are buried in the county now designated Cumbria. Of these, three were born and died in the area and served with the King’s Own Regiment. Jimmy was born at Thwaite Farm, Coniston on 15th October 1892 and was educated at Coniston Church of England School. His parents Matthew and Mary (née Hayton) had moved from New Hutton to Coniston where Jimmy’s father worked in agriculture. After the turn of the century he drove the only coach, drawn by four horses, which linked Coniston with the eastern part of the county.

Jimmy enlisted for duty on the 17th November 1914 and won the Victoria Cross whilst serving as number 15833 with the 1st/4th (Territorial Force) Battalion, King’s Own Royal Lancaster Regiment. He returned to his village as a Lance Corporal and hero, with a civic reception, having been personally decorated by King George V on August 8th 1918 in France. It is the highest and most prestigious award given to British and Commonwealth armed forces (and former British Empire territories) for valour “in the face of the enemy”.

It isn’t difficult to imagine the scene for nearly a hundred years have passed in which there has been ample time to contemplate images, films and personal accounts of the appalling Great War. Weary hungry men, in filthy wet uniforms, waiting in trenches carved out of mud preparing to “go over the top” to fight until death. A typical instance was the 26th April 1918 at Givenchy when James Hewitson led his men towards the enemy. This account from the London Gazette of June 28th 1918 enlarges on the reasons why Lance-Corporal Hewitson was awarded the VC:

‘For most conspicuous bravery, initiative and daring action. In a daylight attack on a series of crater posts L/Cpl Hewitson led his party to their objective with dash and vigour, clearing the enemy from both trench and dugouts, killing in one dugout six of the enemy who would not surrender. After capturing the final objective, he observed a hostile machine-gun team coming into action against his men. Working his way round the edge of the crater he attacked the team, killing four and capturing one. Shortly afterwards he engaged a hostile bombing party which was attacking a Lewis gun post; he routed the party, killing six of them. The extraordinary feats of daring performed by this gallant non-commissioned officer crushed the hostile opposition at this point.’

Not only had he killed sixteen men single handed and captured a survivor, he also carried one of his injured comrades two miles to a field hospital whilst under shell fire.

During the war Jimmy was wounded three times – at Ypres, Somme and Messines. Other locations where he did battle were Loos, Armentières and Paschendale, the latter experience haunting him as far as his death bed.

In 1919 Jimmy married local girl Mary Elizabeth (“Lizzie”) Dugdale with whom he had one child, Dorothy. She married Reggie Dodd and produced four sons and daughters. Jimmy and Lizzie were living at Forge Cottage, Coniston when their first grandchild Dicky was born under their roof. He remained with them until he married. Dicky speaks of his grandfather with great fondness; of his sense of humour, his love of Woodbine cigarettes and his enjoyment of the company of his contemporaries in Coniston pubs where he relished the odd pint shandy, which he called a lemon dash.

Not long after the end of Great War a variety of military paraphernalia was given pride of place in several local villages and towns, with Ulverston boasting a tank displayed on a plinth, along with a German field gun. Hawkshead acquired two or three wartime reminders, but when a German field gun landed in Coniston Jimmy and his pals took great exception. One night they trundled the object down to the lake, and with the aid of the Gondola it was dragged into the water and submerged, although there is speculation that it is no longer there.

For several years Jimmy appeared to cope reasonably well with his nightmares but finally there was a heavy price to pay in terms of his mental health. His memories had begun to affect him so badly that he was admitted to Stone House Hospital, Dartford, Kent where Dicky and Lizzie visited him on a regular basis for the best part of twenty years. He finally returned home in an easier frame of mind to work on the roads, even though as late as 1954 pieces of shrapnel were still being taken out of his back and shoulders, one piece of which he kept as a memento in a matchbox which he carried permanently in his pocket.

The King’s Own Royal Regiment Museum in Market Square, Lancaster has a wealth of information and memorabilia to the fallen. It also includes a display devoted to the regiment’s holders of the Victoria Cross, along with poignant reminders of Jimmy as it features his tunic and his cap, as well as photographs and an account of his brave deeds.

In 1926 he bought a Matchless 500 model for which he paid £47.17.6d in Dalton-in-Furness. It had hand-change gears and carbide lights. In the very near future this historical addition will be on display at the Ruskin Museum.

Jimmy Hewitson died on March 2nd 1963 in Ulverston hospital, of respiratory complications following influenza. During his fever he would call out ‘Paschendale’ and ‘They’re coming to get me’. Sadly his death occurred on the wedding day of Dicky and his wife Nancy who cut short their honeymoon to attend the funeral, which took place at St Andrew’s, Coniston with full military honours.

Towards the end of his working days, whilst repairing roads in the Yewdale area, a gentleman approached him. He explained he’d been searching for him for years as he was the injured colleague he had carried to safety at Givenchy. In gratitude for saving his life he treat Jimmy and Lizzie to a holiday in London.

Clearly we must remember such great deeds performed by such ordinary men and women who chose to leave the safety of their villages, towns and cities and, in particular, havens such as Coniston to face the horrors of war, often against their natural will and beliefs.

Currently only eight living people hold the Victoria Cross. Two were awarded the ‘Victoria Cross for Australia’ and one holds the ‘Victoria Cross for New Zealand’. The remaining five were decorated with the Imperial Victoria Cross. This statistic emphasises the nature of the award since it is often bestowed posthumously. The fact that only 1353 individuals have received the cross since it was introduced by Queen Victoria in 1856 gives further indication of its rarity.

It is surprising that relatively few who earned the Victoria Cross have a statue to their memory: lest we forget their awesome bravery perhaps these omissions should be addressed.

On the 26th April 2018 a paving stone is to be placed near his grave to commemorate the centenary of Jimmy’s brave deed that earned him the Victoria Cross…..

 

Maggie B Dickinson

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