Sleaford school’s bid to acquire former pupil’s war medals

A Sleaford primary school has launched an appeal to raise the funds needed to acquire a set of First World War medals that belonged to a former pupil who died in tragic circumstances.

The medals of James and Charles Penson. EMN-210203-200038001
The medals of James and Charles Penson. EMN-210203-200038001

William Alvey School carried out a research project to trace the details of all 72 of its former pupils that served and died in the First World War, leading to a plaque being erected on the wall outside.

They are currently renovating a Second World War air raid shelter within the grounds to become a museum and learning resource for pupils.

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Now they have been contacted by collector Darren Howlett, the current owner of the medals that were awarded to former Alvey pupil Charles William Penson and his father, James Ambrose Penson. He is willing to sell the medals to the school and return them to the town.

Headteacher Stephen Tapley said: “Charles, I think, is the most famous of the Sleaford Boys. We really want the medals back.

“His story is both fascinating and tragic.”

Charles William Penson was born in Sleaford on January 12, 1898, the eldest of seven children. He was killed in a tragic airship crash near Hull involving H.M. Airship R.38 on August, 24, 1921, aged 23. The centenary of the event will occur this year and Charles’ name appears on the school’s memorial.

“We want to make a special display of the information we hold about Charlie and, in the same way we are using the recently renovated air raid shelter as a piece of living history for the Second World War, we want to use the information we have about Charlie, photographs and medals, as a First World War historical resource for the children to study.”

A photo of Charles Penson. EMN-210203-200057001

Mr Howlett said he had decided to part with the old medals.

Private James Ambrose Penson was born in Sleaford in 1877 and died in the town on November 11, 1928, aged 51, seven years after his son’s terrible accident. James served in the war with the King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry. He received the British War Medal 1914-20 and also the Victory Medal 1914-19.

Mr Howlett has provided his research which Mr Tapley has shared with his pupils and has also tracked down a relative of the Pensons still living in the town.

Prior to the war James, living in Westgate, had worked as a brewer’s cellar man and then as an iron foundry worker, while his son Charles worked as a doctor’s house boy and then a tinsmith.

The ill-fated airship R.38, ready for flight at Howden. EMN-210203-200110001

Charles joined the Navy two years after the outbreak of war, aged 18, and trained at RNAS Training Establishment, Cranwell (HMS Daedalus) - later to become RAF College Cranwell.

He was an Officer’s Steward 3rd Class with the Royal Naval Air Service, then later transferred to the Royal Air Force on its formation in April 1918. He received the British War Medal 1914-20 while serving with the RNAS.

Over the next two years he rose to become an Aircraftman 1st Class and was posted to RAF Airship Base Howden, East Yorkshire.

It was while serving at Howden that tragedy struck Charles.

The funeral of Charles Penson. EMN-210203-200122001

The R.38 rigid airship was designed for Britain’s Royal Navy during the final months of the First World War, for long-range patrol duties over the North Sea. But after the armistice with Germany, R.38 was sold to the United States Navy before completion.

During trials offshore near Hull and watched by thousands of spectators, the structure of the airship failed amidships. Eyewitnesses saw the ship begin to fold and catch fire before a large explosion shattered windows in the area. The remains fell into the shallow waters of the Humber Estuary. Sixteen of the 17 Americans, and 28 of the 32 Britons (including Charles), in the crew were killed. A memorial was erected at Hull.

Mr Tapley says: “The tragedy became known as the first great airship disaster. Charlie was still given a war grave under Category One of the war graves commission (Commonwealth men and women who were still in military service at the time of their death). These personnel automatically qualified for commemoration provided they died within the qualifying dates as follows: First World War - August 4, 1914 to August 31, 1921. So Charles qualified for a war grave by just one week.

“A memorial scroll was unveiled at the school in 1922, for all the children who attended the Alvey and went on to fight then tragically die in the First World War and special mention is made of Charlie Penson in the newspaper report of this event. Unfortunately, the scroll was lost over the ensuing years and the search for the 72 names subsequently formed the basis of Project 72 and the replacement of the scroll now in St Denys’ Church and the creation of a permanent memorial, outside the school, which forms part of the ‘When in Sleaford’ Town Trail. What makes the story even more compelling is that Charlie’s father, James Ambrose Penson, also fought in the First World War and outlived his son.”

Both are buried in Sleaford Cemetery, close to Charles’ old school.

Mr Howlett explains in his correspondence: “Medals to men killed in this disaster are very rarely seen on the market and are highly desirable and prized by collectors. I have only seen the medals to two men in over 30 years of collecting and both reside with me. Subsequently, due to their rarity and desirability, they command much higher than average prices, especially with aviation and airship ephemera collectors.

The memorial plaque design to the 72 former Alvey boys, including Charles Penson. EMN-210203-200135001

“The medals are extensively researched and are accompanied by a CD containing a wealth of information. Believe me, I literally research medals in my collection ‘to death’.”

Mr Howlett is asking £800 for the medals - which is effectively what he paid for them, he says, although he believes their potenisl auction value to be considerably more.

But he generously adds: “I thought it would be nice to offer them to you (the school) first.”

He is happy to wait if the school needs to raise the cash and commented: “I think they would look great framed and on display in his old school for future generations to remember him.”

If you are able to help in the bid to acquire the medals, contact William Alvey School by emailing: [email protected]

Charles Penson's grave in Sleaford Cemetery. EMN-210203-200146001