Thomas Atkinson Whitehead GC (EM non-exchanger)

b. 17/07/1887 Nenagh, County Tipperary, Ireland. d. 28/12/1972 Larne, Northern Ireland.

DATE AND PLACE OF GC ACTION: 22/03/1922 Sunderland.

Thomas Atkinson Whitehead (1887-1972) was born on 17th July 1887 in Nenagh, County Tipperary, Ireland, the son of Thomas and Emily Whitehead (nee Atkinson). He was one of five children with two brothers (Christopher and Jack) and two sisters (Sally and Emily). He was brought up in Nenagh and went to the local school. It is unknown when Thomas Jnr moved to England, but it is believed that he gained an apprenticeship after finishing his schooling. He moved to Sunderland in the North East of England and began to train as a chemical engineer at Brotherton’s.

Thomas A Whitehead GC

Thomas met and married Grace Willis whilst in the North East and they had three children, Christopher, Doreen and Sheila. Thomas’ life was to change dramatically on 22nd March 1922 whilst at work at Brotherton’s. One of the large cylinder stills was standing empty, and, as it was thought, disconnected from the adjoining stills. A worker called Dougherty descended into it by means of a rope ladder through a small manhole in the corner. When he reached the bottom, he collapsed. One of his workmates, realising that gas must have accumulated in the still, immediately shouted for help and ran to get a rope. George Rogers, who was working nearby, immediately went down to help, but was also overcome and collapsed. In the meantime, other workmen had arrived. One of them, William King, at once entered the still with a handkerchief around his mouth and a rope attached to him. He too was overcome and had to be pulled out. Then Whitehead made two attempts to reach the men, first equipped with a respirator and then with a hood with oxygen pumped into it, but on both occasions had to be pulled out. They did finally manage to pull the men out, but they were dead.

On 5th September 1922, the London Gazette announced the award of the Edward Medal to William King and Thomas Atkinson Whitehead for their actions in attempting to save the two men. In 1928, Thomas and his young family moved back to Northern Ireland where they settled in Larne. Thomas had gained employment with the British Aluminium Works. The family then moved to Belfast and Thomas took a job in the Ministry of Finance until he reached retirement age.

Thomas, though, didn’t stop working once he reached retirement, and found further work at Larne Harbour Ltd as a draftsman in the drawing office. His wife Grace passed away in 1960, and the company kept him on into his early 80s, despite bouts of ill-health. In 1971, the change in the Royal Warrant gave the opportunity to Thomas to exchange his Edward Medal for the George Cross. Thomas declined the exchange and sadly passed away less than an year later, on 28th December 1972, aged 85. He was buried in the same grave as his wife Grace and his daughter Doreen (who had died in 1970). Since his death, son Christopher has also been buried with them, having died in 1979. Thomas’ Edward Medal is privately held.