Sapper Hackett VC
by J R Ashby
Last month in ‘The Creation of the Victoria Cross’ we found that
this medal, the highest and most prestigious award for gallantry in
the face of the enemy, came into existence in 1856 and is 150 years
old this year. We discovered that prior to the mid C.19th only
officers could win medals and following reports of acts of
gallantry, on the battlefields of the Crimea War, a need began to be
felt for a medal of honour which any serviceman could be awarded.
The Houses of Lords & Commons plus the populous as a whole were in
favour of the new medal but military leaders were opposed. We found
that Queen Victoria and Prince Albert were enthusiastic as to its
creation, how they had: helped to design the medal; suggested the
inscription; chosen a fitting colour for the ribbon; and how Prince
Albert had given it the name of the Victoria Cross. Also how it was
Queen Victoria who had caused the use of the cannon, taken at the
Battle of Balaclava possibly by the Charge of the Light Brigade, to
be used to make the medal, in her quest for the perfect appearance
of the medal. Then lastly we found that the highest number of
Victoria Crosses had been awarded during the First World War and
that one recipient had been Sapper Hackett of Mexborough.
William Hackett, to give him his correct name, was born in
Nottingham on 11th June 1873, one of two sons of John and Harriet
Hackett. The latter half of the C.19th saw great hardship in this
country, as it was the time of the great depression. Education was
expensive and therefore he did not attend school and remained to the
end of his days completely illiterate. He began work in a factory in
his hometown of Nottingham but at the age of eighteen
William walked to Denaby Main, finding work at the colliery, where
he was to remain for twenty-three years. Where because of the habit
of calling boys, working at the colliery, youth, he was nicknamed ‘Youthey’.
He stayed very close to his family in Nottingham and spent the few
days holiday he got with them, walking the ninety miles there and
On 16th April 1900 he married Alice Tooby at Conisbrough Parish
Church and at first the couple set up home, in one of the myriad of
tiny terraced houses owned by the colliery at Denaby Main. It is
here that we find them, in 1901, with William employed as a ‘Coal
Miner’s Filler’ working at the Coal Face filling tubs with coal,
living at 22, Cusworth Street, with Alice, his wife and Alice’s
niece Ursula A. Tooby.
No One seems to know when he moved employment but after nearly a
quarter of a century, working at Denaby Main Colliery, he went to
work at Manvers Main Colliery as a Dataller, repairing and making
roads or laying rail track. As you could only live in one of the
homes owned by Denaby Main Colliery if you were employed by the
firm, it must have been at this time that the family left their home
at Denaby Main and moved to 49, Crossgate, Mexborough. By this time
the family consisted of William, Alice, Arthur (son), Mary
(daughter), plus Thomas & Sarah Tooby, William’s parents-in-law.
When war broke out in 1914 he tried three times to enlist in the
York and Lancaster Reg. but was turned down as being too old, at the
age of forty one years, but most worryingly of all he was discovered
to have a slight heart problem. Then in 1915 a plea for experienced
miners to enter the Royal Engineers was put out. On 25th October
1915 they accepted him and after two weeks training at Chatham was
placed into the 172nd Tunnelling Company. Then the following month
was transferred to the 254th Tunnelling Company and after a few days
leave was sent to France.
In January 1916 he received devastating news from home. At Christmas
1915 his fourteen-year-old son, Arthur, had left school and begun
employment at Manvers Main Colliery. He had worked there for less
than a month when a number of tubs came off the rails hitting him.
This resulted in the amputation of his right leg, below the knee. As
he could not write William had to find someone who was willing to
write a letter back home for him, which he at last did in Sapper
Evans and in February 1916 his wife, received the following: “It is
very hard to be in this foreign land and have a lad placed in
hospital. I cannot help him but I know you will do all you can”.
The Battle of Givenchy, in which Sapper Hackett was to win his V.C.,
is now one of those forgotten battles of the First World War being
overshadowed by that of the Somme.
Sapper Hackett was ordered to tunnel under the German Trenches where
mines were then to be exploded. What happened next I feel I cannot
surpass the description, written by Capt. Grant Grieve in the
‘Tunellers’ of Sapper William Hackett’s valiant deed and feel that I
must quote it for you. It reads as follows:
On 22nd June 1916, for two hours a rain of shells, including
heavies, fell upon our saps, front, and reserve and support lines.
At 2.50a.m. the enemy exploded a large mine, completing the
destruction of two saps, wire and front line trench over a
considerable distance, and inflicting losses on the garrison. To add
to the confusion, a strong enemy raiding party entered our lines,
but was later ejected by the remnants of the 2nd Royal Welsh
Fusiliers, who gallantly counter-attacked. The crater, the largest
on the Givenchy front was known as the ‘Red Dragon,’ the sign of the
Division to which the 2nd Royal Fusiliers belonged. ‘Red Dragon’ is
also connected with one of the most poignant incidents in tunnelling
Considerable damage was done below ground when the mine was fired.
The main drive from the Shaftsbury Shaft had not proceeded very far,
and five men were in it at the time of the blow. The shock broke
some of the timbers near the shaft, causing the fall of the roof and
cutting off the men. Relays of workers set to work at top speed to
release the trapped men. After twenty-four hours a small opening was
made through the soft fallen ground and broken timber. Three men
scrambled through it to safety. It was then discovered that a
smaller fall of roof had occurred near the face. Of the two men
remaining in the gallery, one, a big man, was badly injured by the
fall near the face; the other was Sapper William Hackett.
The opening, which the rescue party had driven through the outby
fall, was too small to permit the injured man to be passed through,
and as there immediate danger of further falls, Hackett was ordered
to come out. Well knowing his fate, he steadfastly refused to leave
the injured man, saying: “I am a Tuneller. I must look after my
mate”. Scarcely had he finished speaking when both men were
overwhelmed by a fall of clay which filled the gallery completely.
All efforts to re-open it failed.
Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for
It is also reported by others that it was Sapper Hackett who helped
the other men to get through the hole to safety and that after the
final roof-fall the party worked for four days to rescue him.
He is buried, not in France as you would expect, but at Ploegsteert
Memorial, in Belgium.
A clue as to his self-sacrifice may lie in an interview given to the
Mexborough & Swinton Times shortly after the incident. It appears
that shortly before his enlistment he was involved in a roof-fall at
Manvers Main Colliery where he had narrowly escaped death, receiving
a vicious cut across the back. He therefore knew what it was like to
be entombed, alone.
A collection was instantly organised among his comrades for the
benefit of his bereaved wife and children. She wrote back thanking
them and informing them that the £67 they had raised would be used
for her childrens’ education and that Arthur, his son, was now
attending Mexborough Secondary School (Mexborough Grammar School)
and was taking additional tuition in order that he may gain
employment in an office.
On 2nd December 1916 the Mexborough & Swinton Times also inform us
how King George V at Buckingham Palace on Wednesday 29th November
1916 invested Alice Hackett with the V.C., along with other V.C.
widows. Sapper Hackett’s V.C. is now to be found at the Royal
Engineers Museum at Chatham.
As soon as it was made known that Sapper Hackett was to be awarded
the V.C. a fund was begun by Mexborough Urban District Council, the
committee being Chaired by Councillor W. Winstanley, in order to
create a monument in his honour. The main donors as listed in the
Mexborough & Swinton Times seem to have been the local Collieries of
Manvers, Denaby, and Wath Main, these were followed closely by
Barnsley British Co-Op and most of the local businesses and gentry.
The Monumental Fund closed in the week commencing 4th December 1916
with subscriptions in excess of £142, a vast amount for those times.
The monument was erected, bearing the Mexborough Coat of Arms as his
town of residence, to the right of the main doors to Mexborough
Council Rooms and Market Hall displayed proudly for everyone to see.
In the latter half of the C.20th the Market Hall was sold and a new
site was sort for the memorial. The most fitting seemed to be that
of the Cenotaph, Castle Hills, Doncaster Road, Mexborough and in
1997, following its transfer, a service of rededication took place
attended by vast numbers of people.
Information Obtained from:
Mexborough & Swinton Times 2nd December 1916
1901 Census Returns for Conisbrough
Photocopies of: Sapper November 1916, May 1917, and May 1966.
Western Front Association. Cemeteries & Memorials Where V.C’s are
Commonwealth War Graves Commission
Wikipedia, the free internet encyclopaedia.
1916 Forgotten Battles.
Copyright. This newsletter may not be reproduced, in part or in its
entirety, without the permission of J.R. Ashby