b. 14/05/1892 Bethnal Green, London. d. 10/12/1968 West Chiltington, Sussex.
Geoffrey Harold Woolley (1892-1968) was born at St Peter’s Vicarage, Bethnal Green, London on 14th May 1892. His father was Reverend George Herbert Woolley. Before being ordained, George was a wine merchant in partnership with his father, trading as Charles Woolley & Son. Following being ordained, he was Curate at St Matthew’s, Upper Clapton, London before taking on the role of Vicar at St Peter’s, Bethnal Green. Geoffrey’s mother was Sarah nee Cathcart. His parents married on 8th December 1874. Geoffrey was one of eleven children (four brothers and six sisters).
Geoffrey was educated at Parminter’s School, Bethnal Green from 1900-1902, St John’s School Leatherhead 1902-1911 and Queen’s College Oxford 1911-1914 (BA awarded under war service conditions), where he was a member of the Officer Training Corps. He was commissioned into the 5th Essex on 26th August 1914 and transferred in September to 9th London. He went with the Battalion to France on 4th November and was one of the street liners when Lord Roberts’ body was being returned to England.
Prior to his VC action, he had a narrow escape when a mortar bomb landed in the section of his trench. He promptly picked it up and threw it back before it exploded. On “Hill 60” near Ypres, during the night of 20th–21st April, 1915, although the only officer on the hill at the time, and with very few men, he successfully resisted all attacks on his trench, and continued throwing bombs and encouraging his men until relieved. His trench during all this time was being heavily shelled and bombed and was subjected to heavy machine gun fire by the enemy.
He was the first VC awarded to a member of the Territorial Force. He was badly affected by gas on 23rd April, but returned to the Battalion two days later. A few days after he was sent to rest camp and then No 2 Red Cross Hospital at Rouen before being evacuated to Osborne, Isle of Wight. He was then appointed Acting Captain on 27th April, and while convalescing he helped train Cambridge University OTC and ran various courses. He was presented with the VC by King George V at Buckingham Palace on 6th July 1915.
He was promoted to Lieutenant on 5th September and returned to France to command B Company. He was then appointed Instructor at Third Army Infantry School at Auxi-le-Chateau in March. He was then promoted to Captain in June, and then appointed GSO3 HQ Third Army in August. While he was on leave on 8th July 1918 he married Janet Beatrix nee Orr-Ewing, with his father conducting the service. Her father was an MP and she was a widow of Captain George Culme-Seymour KRRC. He had been killed in action on 7th May 1915. Janet was also the niece of Alexander Hore-Ruthven VC. Geoffrey and Janet went on to have two children – Harold Lindsay Cathcart “Rollo” Woolley born in 1919 and Janet E Woolley born in 1921.
Geoffrey was demobilised on 1st February 1919 and was awarded the Military Cross on 3rd June 1919 for his actions in France and Flanders. He then returned to Queen’s College Oxford from 1919-1920, earning a Diploma in Theology and an MA in 1924. He was part of the VC Guard at the interment of the Unknown Warrior on 11th November 1920. He was ordained in Coventry Cathedral on 19th December 1920 with a licence as a curate at Rugby parish church and was employed as an Assistant Master at Rugby School 1920-1923.
He joined the hastily formed Defence Force against strikes, being granted a temporary commission as Captain in 7th (Defence Force) Battalion, Royal Warwickshire Regiment on 12th April 1921. He commanded a company in Coventry, and following this appointment, he resigned his commission on 5th July 1921.
He then became an Assistant Master at Harrow School from 1927-1932 and was Chaplain there from 1932 onwards. He was then appointed Chaplain 4th Class on 1st February 1940 and served at Woolwich and Pirbright until appointed Chaplain 3rd Class as Senior Chaplain Algiers in November 1942. He sailed aboard the Cunard liner, RMS Scythia, which was bombed while anchored at Algiers, but he was unharmed. Tragically, Geoffrey’s son, Rollo was killed in action over the skies of Tunisia on 2nd December 1942 and was buried in Massicault War Cemetery. Geoffrey then suffered a second bereavement when his wife died of pneumonia in February 1943. He also fell ill with pleurisy and pneumonia in May, but recovered and returned to duty in six weeks. He was awarded the OBE for his services as Chaplain to the Forces in North Africa.
He was then appointed Senior Chaplain in Rome, and was posted to Naples, pending the fall of Rome. He was hospitalised with a back injury following an accident, and was eventually evacuated to England. He was not active from 1944 onwards, but remained on the Army List until 1948. He would relinquish his commission on 14th May 1952 and was granted an honorary rank of Chaplain to the Forces 3rd Class. He had taken up the position of Vicar at St Mary’s, Harrow in 1944 until 1952. In 1945, he married for a second time, to Elcie Elisabeth nee Nichols. They had a son, Geoffrey Nicholas, born in 1946. After Harrow, he became Rector of West Grinstead, Sussex from 1952-1958. He was a member of the Royal Commonwealth Society and the first Vice-Chairman of the VC and GC Association from 1956-1968. He published his autobiography “Sometimes a Soldier” in 1963, having already written four books.
Geoffrey died at Hunter’s Barn, West Chiltington, near Pulborough, Sussex on 10th December 1968 and was buried in St Mary’s Churchyard, West Chiltington. In addition to his VC, OBE and MC, he was awarded the 1914 Star with Mons clasp, British War Medal 1914-20, Victory Medal 1914-19 with Mentioned in Despatches oak leaf, 1939-45 Star, Africa Star, Italy Star, 1939-45 Defence Medal, War Medal 1939-45, George VI Coronation Medal 1937 and Elizabeth II Coronation Medal 1953. His medals were held privately for a number of years, before being donated to the Royal Green Jackets Museum, Winchester, Hampshire.
LOCATION OF MEDAL: ROYAL GREEN JACKETS MUSEUM, WINCHESTER, HAMPSHIRE.
BURIAL PLACE: ST MARYS CHURCHYARD, WEST CHILTINGTON, SUSSEX.
Steve Davies – Image of Woolley’s VC Grave (cleaned by Steve Davies)
Terry Hissey – Image of the Woolley VC Medal Group at Royal Green Jackets Museum, Winchester.
Nick Woolley (Son of Geoffrey Woolley VC OBE MC) – Several personal family images.