Sunderland hero first to win prestigious award

Damage following the 1914 bombardment of Hartlepool and, inset, local hero Thomas Alderson.
Damage following the 1914 bombardment of Hartlepool and, inset, local hero Thomas Alderson.
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This year marks the 75th anniversary of a heroic deed which won Sunderland-born Thomas Hopper Alderson the first ever George Cross.

Thomas, an Air Raid Precautions (ARP) warden, risked his life three times in August 1940 to rescue people trapped in wreckage following Luftwaffe bombing raids.

“His courage and devotion to duty, without the slightest regard for his own safety, won him admiration at the highest level,” said local historian Bill Hawkins.

Thomas, the fifth of six children, was born to coachman Thomas Alderson and his wife Sarah at Ashburne Stables, within the grounds of Ashburne House, in 1903.

Just a few years later, the family moved to Hartlepool – where Thomas showed his leadership abilities by becoming head boy at Elwick Road Senior Boys’ School.

“Aged 11 he witnessed the bombardment of West Hartlepool by the German High Seas Fleet, on December 16, 1914, in which over 100 people died,” said Bill.

“But he refused to let memories of the tragedy ruin his life and, after trying out several jobs, Thomas completed a five-year engineering apprenticeship.”

Thomas went on to join the merchant navy, serving first as an assistant engineer – but later qualifying as a first engineer after taking Board of Trade exams.

He then married Irene Johnson in 1932, and the birth of their daughter in 1935 prompted him to leave the sea and work for West Hartlepool Council as an engineer.

“Three years later, as Britain prepared for a possible war, Thomas moved his family to Bridlington – where he worked as a council works supervisor,” said Bill. “It was here that he trained as an ARP instructor and, following the outbreak of war, his skills in tunnelling through bomb wreckage proved much in demand.”

Indeed, on August 15, 1940, Thomas was called into action to rescue a woman left trapped in the debris of two collapsed houses. His mission was a success.

Just five days later, he tunnelled under two five-storey buildings on the Bridlington dockside, where 11 people had been buried alive in a cellar.

“The wreckage was unsafe, with hazards such as gas leaks and flooding, but Thomas refused to risk the lives of any rescuers other than himself,” said Bill.

“He got badly bruised, but rescued all 11. Then, just three days later, he tunnelled 14ft under the wreckage of another bombed house to save two more people.

“A three-storey wall was swaying in the wind as he carried out the rescue, and the people were trapped beneath a massive refrigerator. Sadly, one later died.”

On September 30, 1940, Thomas’s “sustained gallantry, enterprise and devotion to duty” was recognised with the award of the first ever George Cross.

But, despite the citation mentioning Thomas by name, he modestly insisted he had received the award as a representative for all of Bridlington’s rescue parties.

“Bridlington was hard hit by German air raids and, as many of the bombs fell on residential areas, Thomas was kept busy throughout the war,” said Bill.

“But he didn’t confine his rescues to townsfolk. In 1941 he was awarded a medal by the RSPCA for saving two horses from a burning stable.”

Once peace was finally declared, Thomas switched careers to work as an assistant highways surveyor with the East Riding of Yorkshire County Council.

And, a few years later, he joined the new Civil Defence Corps – which was designed to protect people from nuclear warfare, rather than Hitler’s bombs.

“Sadly, he died from cancer at 62, but his memory lives on through his George Cross medal, which is on display at the Imperial War Museum in London,” said Bill.

“He was a man of very great courage, but possibly rather a forgotten hero in Sunderland – as few actually realise he was born here.”

l Do you have any stories to share about old Sunderland and its characters? Email sarah.stoner@jpress.co.uk