Ernest William Kent GC (EM exchanger)

b. 02/08/1914 West Ham, London. d. 23/08/1973 Basildon, Essex.

DATE AND PLACE OF GC ACTION: 25-26/10/1938 Hackney, London.

Ernest William Kent (1914-1973), known as Ernie, was the third of eight children born to Henry and Lilian Kent (nee Stanley). He was born on 2nd August 1914 in West Ham, London, but his childhood was extremely tough. His mother abandoned the family with the youngest baby, leaving his father to struggle alone with seven children. When he also left, it was six weeks before it was discovered the children were alone. The children including Ernie were taken into care, and he was fostered to a family living on a pig farm. Sadly, his situation didn’t get much better, as he was often maltreated. He did attend primary school briefly, but it was cut short at the age of 9, when his foster carers needed him to labour on the pig farm. Ernie would not see his father again until he was 22, and it was their only ever meeting for the remainder of his life.

Ernest W Kent GC

Whilst working on a hop farm, Ernie met and fell in love with Jessie Whitbread, and they were married at St Luke’s, West Ham. They went on to have three daughters: Patricia, Valerie and Christine. Needing regular paid work, Ernie took a job in the building trade in London.

On 25th-26th October 1938, he was working at the Hackney Wick Stadium, when a gang of workmen were engaged in piling work. Metal cylinders about 15in in diameter were being sunk into the ground, the earth inside then being removed. At about 2.30am they encountered an obstruction. Herbert Baker, a small man, volunteered to be lowered down into the cylinder, presumably so he could clear the obstruction with his feet. About 12ft down he called for help, and the men began to pull him up, but before he reached the top he lost his grip and fell to the bottom of the cylinder. Kent, who was also a small man, volunteered to be lowered down head first in an attempt to pull Baker out. However, he gave signs of being distressed and was hauled up in a state of semi-collapse and bleeding from the mouth. Another man, Frank Devlin, then volunteered to be lowered but his shoulders got stuck and he had to be pulled back up. In the meantime Kent had recovered and asked to go back down again. This time he grabbed hold of Baker and managed to get him up. Both men were taken to the hospital where Baker was found to be dead.

Ernie was awarded the Edward Medal for his actions (London Gazette, 20th December 1938), and soon afterwards following the outbreak of World War II, he joined the Royal Tank Regiment (RTR) and attained the rank of Corporal. Just before he was posted overseas, he contracted a severe bout of peritonitis and ended up spending most of the war in England, still with the RTR, driving and maintaining tanks. As a result of this, he never had to take a driving test! His family were evacuated to Norfolk during the hostilities, and Ernie joined them there after the war.

They lived in Norfolk for over 16 years before moving to Basildon in 1955, where, as a trained mechanic, Ernie went to work as a millwright at the Ford Motor Factory in Dagenham. In 1962, he was involved in a horrific accident at Ford. He was mending a 2 ton magnet above the furnace when it slipped. He fell but missed the furnace though crushed his arm against the side. He was rushed to hospital where he refused to have his arm amputated. It was patched up but he suffered severe pain for over 2 years. In 1971, he chose to exchange his Edward Medal for a George Cross, and in February 1972, he attended his investiture at Buckingham Palace.

Sadly, Ernie’s health took a turn for the worse, and on 23rd August 1973, he died in Basildon, Essex, and was cremated at Southend Crematorium. In 2006, Ernie’s GC and other medals came up for auction sale. Through the work of Marion Hebblethwaite, the family were contacted and the medals were withdrawn from sale. The police became involved and as of 2007, the medals were returned to family ownership.