William George Sylvester GC (EGM exchanger)

b. 06/12/1914 Hornchurch, Essex. d. 21/02/1996 Ysbyty, Wrexham, Wales.

DATE OF GC ACTION: 18/01/1940 Waltham Abbey, Essex.

William George Sylvester (1914-1996) was born on 6th December 1914 in Hornchurch, Essex, the son of George and Ethel Sylvester (nee Flint). His brothers and sisters were Stanley, Alf, Peggy, George, Nellie and Grace. His father had a successful smallholding in Loughton, Essex supplying the London markets. He kept pigs and grew fruit and vegetables.

William G Sylvester GC

After attending school in Waltham Abbey until the age of 14, George (he preferred his middle name from then on), first went to work for his father then began driving the wagons to Covent Gardens. He would drive around the various smallholdings and market gardens collecting fruit and vegetables each morning. In 1939 he married Eileen Louise Mary Davies, who came from Oswestry, and they went on to have a son, John Ashley Sylvester. When the Second World War broke out, he chose to not join the military, and gained employment at the Royal Gun Powder Factory in Waltham Forest to “do his bit”.

On 13th January 1940, an explosion ripped through the no. 5 mixing house, killing the three men working there as well as two men working in no. 20 stove nearby. Leo O’Hagen, Stanley Sewell and George Sylvester were working in no. 2 washing house only 150yds from the explosion, which damaged the hot water and air services, where over 1,000lbs of unstable nitroglycerine was being processed. The three men stood by their post for some two hours until the services were restored and then continued their work until the whole charge had been brought to a state of stability. During this time there were further explosions. Had they fled for safety, it is highly probable that the whole charge of nitroglycerine under their care would have exploded, killing many more people.

George, as well as Stanley Sewell and Leo O’Hagen was awarded the Empire Gallantry Medal of the Civil Division on 6th February 1940, which was exchanged for the new George Cross following its creation in September 1940. Following the explosion, George decided to move to Wrexham in North Wales and began work at the new Royal Ordnance Factory there and remained in the town for the rest of his life. When the ROF closed down, he moved to work for Monsanto with which he stayed until his retirement. Due to the extreme dermatitis he was suffering from due to the chemicals he worked with, he finished his working life in the Social Services Department.

He took a lot of interest in his local community and actively participated at the Queen’s Park Methodist Church where he was a Steward. He also helped set up the 1st Wrexham Boys’ Brigade where he was a Lieutenant. George died on 21st February 1996 in Ysbyty, near Wrexham, and was cremated at Wrexham Crematorium. His GC, 1953 QEII Coronation Medal and 1977 QEII Silver Jubilee Medal were donated to the Royal Gunpowder Museum in Waltham Abbey.