Calls grow to honour hero

Mike Gomersall, who has researched story of Thomas Bryan, Castleford's only Victoria Cross winner.
Mike Gomersall, who has researched story of Thomas Bryan, Castleford's only Victoria Cross winner.

DOES Castleford do enough to honour perhaps its greatest hero? The question was posed in a recent letter to the Express from Ferry Fryston man Mike Gomersall and the view seems to be that more could – and should – be done.

Adult education teacher Mr Gomersall has undertaken more than a decade of research into the life of the town’s only Victoria Cross winner – Lance Corporal Thomas Bryan, who received the ultimate accolade for bravery in 1917 – and is concerned his name has slipped out of civic consciousness.

Apart from a plaque in the civic centre and an anonymous Whitwood Mere street bearing his surname, there are no visible reminders of the heroism of the 35-year-old miner, who defied injuries to single-handedly ambush and destroy a machine-gun post during the World War One battle of Vimy Ridge.

Mr Gomersall, 53, said: “Tommy Bryan has been like part of the family for the past 11 years. I’ve done a lot of travelling to museums, archives and libraries, and I also learned a lot from his granddaughter, Ann Dye.

“It annoys me that he stayed around Castleford for many years but was soon forgotten about, whereas others, such as Henry Moore, left town and got all the accolades.

“There’s a lot of talk about heroes in sport and the like – but here’s a real hero and many people know nothing of him.”

Mr Gomersall published a limited-print book on L Cpl Bryan in 2005, but says new information continues to come to light and hopes to produce an updated edition.

“It took me four years to track down Ann Dye but she told me some amazing things,” said Mr Gomersall, “When he was recovering from his injuries, he saved the life of a little girl who’d fallen into some water and gone under.

“Despite his injured shoulder, he pulled her out and gave her the kiss of life – but his granddaughter said you had to drag these stories out of him.”

Mr Gomersall’s sentiments were echoed by Castleford Heritage Trust chairman Alison Drake. She said: “We’re very interested in seeing Thomas Bryan remembered. It’s very important that the town honours people such as him.

“It would be wonderful to see something – perhaps some kind of statue in the town centre, for example – commemorating the amazing things ordinary people have done.”

Thomas Bryan was born in Stourbridge, Worcestershire, in 1882 but moved to Castleford as a toddler when his family, like so many others from the Black Country, headed north to find work in the Yorkshire pits.

He followed his father down Whitwood Colliery until he answered Lord Kitchener’s call and enlisted in the Northumberland Fusiliers, heading for the trenches of Northern France where his act of heroism was to take place on April 9, 1917.

Perhaps one reason Thomas Bryan is almost forgotten is that he transferred from Whitwood pit to Askern Colliery, near Doncaster, moving to live in that area. He later opened a greengrocer’s shop in the village of Bentley, where he stayed until his death in October 1945.

He is buried in nearby Arksey cemetery – where, on Sunday, June 24, the 95th anniversary of his VC award will be commemorated by a ceremony organised by Gary Stapleton of the Victoria Cross Trust.

Coincidentally, Castleford’s new war memorial is due to be unveiled the day before – and, more serendipitously still, 95 years to the day since Thomas Bryan stepped from a train just yards away to a huge welcome.

As a survivor of the Great War his name will, of course, not be on the memorial but, nevertheless, the town’s British Legion also believes his exploits should be more widely known.

Branch president Bob Smith said: “I think we ought to do something. As a start, it would be nice if one or two of us could go to the service on Sunday and take our standard.”

If the evident support in the town can be turned into deeds, then perhaps Thomas Bryan might achieve the prominence he clearly deserves by the time the centenary of his heroic action comes around.