Saturday, 26 July 2014

The St Helens Girl and The Albert Medal

A story from my town now and specifically my village and my old infants school. October 14th 1881 saw a severe storm, 'a gale of terrific fury', hit St Helens, Lancashire. At Sutton National School, almost 200 children were in the infants schoolroom as the storm reach its peak. The winds attacked the school belfry, dislodging a ton stone, sending it crashing through the gallery and on to 40 children, causing the instantaneous death of one four year old girl, Harriet Bradbury and injuring others, eight severely.

Step forward 23 year old assistant schoolmistress Hannah Rosbotham

Though teaching elsewhere at the time, Hannah rushed to the scene as others fled to safety. Entering the schoolroom, she proceeded to rescue five pupils in critical danger, one of whom was near suffocation under debris, despite the persistent threat from falling masonry and rafters and the increasingly unstable gable wall.

Following the disaster the working class Sutton villagers, despite their penury, raised the sum of £13 (around £900 in today's money) to reward with gratitude Hannah Rosbotham for her bravery that night.

Two months later, on December 16th 1881, Queen Victoria awarded Hannah with the Albert Medal - the heroine of Sutton being the first female to be honoured with the award. Often described as the civilian Victoria Cross, the award was instituted in 1866 in memory of Victoria's husband, Prince Albert, and was initially to be conferred for acts of gallantry at sea. The Medal's remit was only extended to include heroism on land in 1876, just four years prior to Hannah receiving it. 

By the time the famous Strand Magazine (the illustrated monthly which introduced the world to Sherlock Holmes) profiled Hannah in 1896, she was still the only female to hold the Albert Medal. In fact Hannah remains one of just sixteen ladies to ever have had the award conferred upon her. She will always remain as such to, as the award no longer exists; having been replaced by the George Cross in 1940.

Hannah's story was told in print a further time in a March 1968 edition of Look and Learn, a magazine about historical moments. The tale was accompanied by this artist impression by Angus McBride

Surprisingly little is known about the heroic Hannah. She married a Pilkingtons glassworks clerk by the name of James Parr in 1887 and remained in Sutton, living in areas very close to where I live now, and continued to work as a teacher rising to headmistress. Hannah passed away in 1935 aged 77 and was buried in the local St Nicholas churchyard of Sutton Parish. Bizarrely, there is no mention of her bravery on the grave nor the initials 'AM' after her name to highlight her ownership of the Medal like other recipients have. It could be that, with Hannah and James having no children of their own, those responsible for her internment may not have been aware of her gallantry. They're not the only ones; this is a story that is barely known in St Helens despite the pride its residents should feel. There is nothing to commemorate this heroine in the town (or in Sutton itself) and, though Hannah's medal survives, it isn't even in this country; it remains in a private collection in the United States.

I first heard about the story on the 'Sutton Beauty' website, a heritage site for my little part of the town. I hope that by reporting on this here, I can spread this story that little bit further.

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