Richard Nelson, a volunteer researcher at Trafford Local Studies, is identifying and attempting to find out more about the lives of servicemen in Trafford who were awarded medals for gallantry, devotion to duty or meritorious service in the Great War. The following story caught his attention as being a little different from the array of Military Medals, Distinguished Conduct Medals and Military Crosses that were being awarded.
Stretford Council Employee shoots down a Zeppelin
Buried in the minutes of Stretford Urban District Council, January 1917, was the following intriguing entry:
“Bombardier Herbert Shawcross, employee in the Highways Department, was presented with a Gold Medal by the Lord Mayor of London for bringing down a Zeppelin, 31st March 1916.“
A little further research reveals that Herbert, born about 1885, was baptised at the same time as his younger sister, on 23rd February 1887 at St. Matthew’s Parish Church, Stretford. His family were living at Bennett’s Buildings, King Street, Stretford in both 1891 and 1901.
He was working in Engine Sheds in 1901. He married Mary Ann Derbyshire in the late summer of 1909 and had five children between 1910 and 1917. By the time of the 1911 census we find him residing at 14 Cooper Street, Stretford. His occupation is recorded as Carter for the District Council. By this date his father is an inmate in the Barton upon Irwell Union Workhouse.
So how did an ordinary soldier from a poor background in Stretford come to be presented with a medal by the Lord Mayor of London?
Colonel Sir Charles Wakefield, Lord Mayor of London, had offered a reward of £500 to the first person to shoot down one of the Zeppelins that were undertaking regular bombing raids over London. The Times reports that, on March 31st 1916, anti- aircraft gunners protecting ammunition magazines at Purfleet, Essex, scored a hit on German Zeppelin L-15 as it tried to bomb the establishment.
It was severely damaged and plunged into the sea a mile from the Kentish Knock Lightship. The seventeen survivors were taken prisoner. The remains of the L-15 were then taken under tow, but the airship broke up off Westgate and only small sections were hauled ashore, where parts were taken by souvenir hunters.
Because a number of gun batteries were involved in shooting L-15 down, and each one had claim to the prize for hitting it, the Lord Mayor decided to have 353 gold medals produced, instead of dividing up the cash reward. Herbert Shawcross, serving with the Royal Garrison Artillery as a Bombardier, was one of the recipients of what has become known as a ‘Wakefield Medal’.
Herbert’s 9 ct. gold medal was submitted to Stretford Council Members for inspection, and councillors expressed their appreciation of the honour conferred upon their employee. The Medal Roll shows that he was promoted to Acting Sergeant before demobilisation and also served with 14 Brigade, Royal Field Artillery.
Photograph of Bennett’s Buildings, Trafford Lifetimes TL10311.
Photograph of zeppelin – The Great War Archive, University of Oxford (www.oucs.ox.ac.uk/ww1lit/gwa); © John Rowlands.
Wakefield Medal – The Great War Archive, University of Oxford (www.oucs.ox.ac.uk/ww1lit/gwa); © John Rowlands.
Permission to use images from The Great War Archive, University of Oxford, at http://www.oucs.ox.ac.uk/ww1lit/permitteduse.