"Well, goodbye Sir. I'll win the VC or get killed"
William Henry Billington was born on 29th March 1886 at 51 St John Street in Bedford to William and Annie Billington. William was born just eight weeks after his parents wedding day which took place on 1 February 1886 at St Cuthbert’s Church in Bedford. William Snr a greengrocer grew up with his single mother Lucy Billington and his grandparents.
The following year in 1887 Annie gave birth to another son, Frederick Ernest Billington. The young couple were to have no more children together. Just one year later on 5 March 1888, a mere two years since their marriage, William John Billington passed away of Tuberculosis aged only nineteen.
After her husband’s death, Annie struggled to bring up her two young boys. She received poor relief from the local Board of Guardians and on 17 March 1889, at the tender age of two the young William Henry Billington was registered as a pauper inmate at the Bedford Union Workhouse. His younger brother Frederick stayed with his grandparents and Annie travelled to Leicester to seek work. In 1894 a Commission set up by the British Medical Journal to investigate the nations workhouses visited Bedford. The Commission reported that the nursery was a miserable little room where there were no toys and the children were a sorry, sickly lot, reminiscent of London Slum Children.
Annie went to Leicester seeking work as a shoe fitter, found lodgings in Park Street in the St Mary’s district of the town where she met Thomas Henry Buckingham, a shoe riveter and son of a shoe maker, Jacob Buckingham from Upper Charles Street in Leicester. The two married on 3rd August 1891. Annie was twenty-two and Thomas twenty.
Three months after their wedding, Annie gave birth to a son Joseph on 18 November 1891 at their home in Court C, Upper Charles Street. Life was not easy and by June 1892, both Annie and Joseph were in the Leicester Union Workhouse. It was that year that she was reunited with her two sons from her first marriage William and Frederick. All were admitted into the Workhouse under the name Buckingham.
Joseph Buckingham died aged just nine months in the Workhouse on 9 September 1892. Joseph received a Christian burial and was laid to rest in Welford Road Cemetery in Leicester. Annie left the workhouse the following month abandoning her two sons in Leicester and by 1901 Annie was a resident of the Bedford Union Workhouse and then returning to live with her mother at York Street in Bedford.
William and Fredericks stepfather Thomas Henry Buckingham never returned for his stepsons either. The same month that his nine-month-old son Joseph died, in the Leicester Union Workhouse, Thomas enlisted in the 1st East Yorkshire Regiment under the assumed name of Thomas Henry Walker, described as a single twenty-two year old shoe riveter from Leicester. His next of kin noted at Jacob Walker. Thomas Henry Walker/Buckingham died at Shorncliffe Camp in Kent on 26 July 1906.
William and Frederick Buckingham were transferred from the Union Workhouse on 15th July 1892 to the Children’s Cottage Homes in the South Leicestershire village of Countesthorpe. From 1896, their upbringing was overseen by Mr and Mrs William Harrison, the Superintendent and Matron of the Homes. The Brothers was educated in the Cottage Homes and then later attending the Bassett Street Board School in South Wigston, a ‘new model’ town to the West of Great Wigston, now known as Wigston Magna. William trained as a tailor, and then enlisted with the Leicestershire Regiment at the Glen Parva Barracks on 29th November 1901, aged 15. Williams younger brother Frederick signed up for the Royal Navy in 1907 aged twenty. Frederick was discharged in 1910 for careless performance of duty and a conviction of theft. Frederick moved back to Bedford to live with his mother Annie and continue his original career as a baker.
On 28 April 1915, William Henry Buckingham born in Bedford but grew up in Leicestershire, eldest son on William John Billington and Annie Susan Billington/Buckingham received the Victoria Cross for his “conspicuous acts of bravery and devotion to duty in rescuing and remaining with the wounded whilst exposed to heavy fire himself”.
One of the men he rescued was a German Soldier who was lying some distance away with one of his legs blown off. Hearing his cries for help, William Buckingham went out amid a hail of bullets, administered first aid and took him to a place of safety.
On the third day of battle, William was severely injured in the chest with a machine gun bullet. The shot went partly through a packet of postcards he was carrying and caused superficial wounds in the chest; finally landing in his left arm. William returned to England where he was nursed at the South Manchester Hospital. The bullet that had wedged itself in his arm was removed without anaesthetic at his own request.
After being discharged from hospital, he returned to Countesthorpe to continue with his recuperation and it was William Harrison the homes superintendent who first saw the notification of William’s Victoria Cross in the morning paper on 29th April 1915. It was the first William knew about the honour that was to be bestowed upon him. William was awarded his medal by George V at Buckingham Palace on 4th June 1915. He was then presented with a gold mounted walking stick by the staff of the Cottage Homes.
Shortly after, a subscription fund was opened on his behalf and William was given a cheque for £100, which he invested in the War Loan. William spoke at recruiting meetings and when resuming training he was promoted to rank of Sargent but relinquished his stripes to get to the fighting line.
William was killed in action on 15 September 1916. He fell wounded in the thigh by a machine gun bullet and was killed instantaneously by a second bullet which hit him in the head. William was one of the four hundred and twenty-four casualties suffered by the Battalion in two days. William’s body was never recovered, and he is commemorated on the Thiepval Memorial. As well as his Victoria Cross, William was granted the 1914 Star with Mons clasp, British War Medal 1914-20 and Victory Medal 1914-19.
He was 30 years old.
Bedford Union Workhouse
(New) Park Street, Leicester
Image: Creative Commons Zero ‘no rights reserved’ licence: http://creativecommons.org/publicdomain/zero/1.0/
Leicester Union Workhouse.
Image: Authors own collection
Countesthorpe Cottage Homes
Bassett Street Board School, South Wigston
Image: Authors own
William Henry Buckingham
Image: Authors own collection
Memorial at Leicester Cathedral