Ian Clayton column: Castleford’s Victoria Cross 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.

I bumped into my friend Steve Ganley in Carlton Street the other day.

He said: “I’ve got an idea for your column! I’ve been following the coverage of the First World War commemorations and nobody seems to have mentioned Castleford’s own VC hero Tommy Bryan, can’t tha do something about it?”

I said I’d look into it, so I did and uncovered an almost forgotten part of local history.

Thomas Bryan was born in Stourbridge in the Black Country and came to Castleford as a boy when his father found employment at Whitwood pit.

He attended The Potteries Council School and on leaving, followed his dad into the coal mines.

Thomas was a very athletic and tough young man and played for Castleford in the days of the old Northern Union.

He was 33 years old when he enrolled for the army at a recruiting drive in Castleford and ended up in the Northumberland Fusiliers.

In the summer of 1916, Thomas broke an ankle and was sent home to recover, then returned to the front before Christmas.

He was a fearless soldier and at the Battle of Arras in April of 1917 he proved his mettle. The 25th battalion were pinned down by a German machine gun nest and suffering heavy losses, when Thomas sprang into action.

A citation about his bravery was published in the London Gazette. “Lance Corporal Bryan, although wounded in the arm, went forward alone to attack a machine gun post.

The ferocity of his attack resulted in the enemy abandoning their post after Bryan shot two of their number.”

Thomas was awarded the highest military honour, the VC, at a ceremony at St James’ Park Football ground at Newcastle attended by more than 40,000 people. King George V himself presented the medal.

After the war Thomas returned to the pit and worked at Askern near Doncaster.

He suffered from poor breathing due to a gas attack and eventually came out of the pit to run a greengrocers shop at Bentley. He died in 1945 and is buried at Arksey cemetery.

Lance Corporal Bryan was one of three rugby league players to have received the VC during the first world war.

Thomas Steele, a former Broughton Rangers player was honoured after he too attacked a machine gun post in Mesopotamia, now modern day Iraq.

He continued to play Rugby for an amateur team in Oldham after the war, lived to a ripe old age and died in 1978.

The third was John “Jack” Harrison, a school master from Hull, a flying winger who was a very famous player in that city.

He scored 106 tries in just 116 appearances for Hull FC including two in the Challenge Cup Final in 1913/14 when Hull beat Wakefield Trinity.

He still hold Hull’s most-tries-in-a-season record, an achievement that has stood now for more than one hundred years.

Jack Harrison launched a single-handed assault on German Lines in some woods in the Pas de Calais district in may 1917.

His body was never recovered. His son John, was also killed in action in the retreat from Dunkirk in the second war.

Jack Harrison is remembered by a plaque that was unveiled at Hull’s KC stadium and by a trust in his name that helps youngsters with sporting ambition.

There is a memorial at Oldham to the gallantry of Thomas Steele, while in Castleford Thomas Bryan has a block of houses off Methley Road named after him.

It occurred to me when I was writing this up, that because of Castleford’s association with sculpture, it might be the right time to commission a creative memorial to the bravery of Thomas Bryan.

Castleford has a fine artist in Harry Malkin, who himself worked at the pit, I think it would be entirely fitting if money could be raised to make a portrait or even a bust of the old soldier in these days of increased awareness of the town’s heritage and history.