Heritage: Honoured war heroes found to have Doncaster connections

ictoria Cross Recipient Corporal Joseph Tombs who was formerly a teacher at Fishlake School, Doncaster.
ictoria Cross Recipient Corporal Joseph Tombs who was formerly a teacher at Fishlake School, Doncaster.

All of my life I have been fascinated with local history and I thoroughly enjoy talking to people about it and the mutual sharing of knowledge.

My current role as Curator of Ashworth Barracks Museum is certainly an environment that allows me to do just that and find out even more about the history of the Doncaster area.

James Magennis, who was awarded his Victoria Cross during World War Two for his part in attacking a Japanese war ship as crew of a midget submarine. After the war he moved to Doncaster.

James Magennis, who was awarded his Victoria Cross during World War Two for his part in attacking a Japanese war ship as crew of a midget submarine. After the war he moved to Doncaster.

It also comes in handy with the great number of talks that I give to groups within our local community.

You may be asking where it all started for me. It started six years ago for me, but how did the uncovering of a small piece of local history make such a huge impact on so many lives in the UK and bring about a change in attitude to other parts of our nation’s history?

In 2012 my son was a soldier who was serving with the Blues & Royals in Windsor and he was about to leave to go on his second tour of Afghanistan.

Before he left we had a brief conversation about him not trying to be a hero, as I am sure many fathers of soldiers have done in the past.

Thomas Bryan's grave in Arksey Cemetery. Thomas was awarded the Victoria Cross.

Thomas Bryan's grave in Arksey Cemetery. Thomas was awarded the Victoria Cross.

After he was gone I started thinking about Doncaster soldiers from the past and if any had been awarded the Victoria Cross, the highest award that this nation can bestow to anyone.

After a few hours of research on the Internet I came up with a list of seven men, who were either born, or had lived or worked in Doncaster who had been given the prestigious accolade.

Two of them are buried locally so I decided to visit them.

When I visited the grave of Thomas Bryan VC in Arksey Cemetery I did not realise that my small personal discovery of local history was about to change my life. But it did.

Fishlake School in the 1970s. Photo by Fishlake historian Rob Dowling.

Fishlake School in the 1970s. Photo by Fishlake historian Rob Dowling.

Within a few months the Victoria Cross Trust was formed to care for graves of men awarded the Victoria Cross and shortly afterwards, with the support of Doncaster Council, Ashworth Barracks Museum in Balby opened to the public.

Since the museum opened in 2014, we have been instrumental in educating thousands of people from around the world in the history of men awarded the Victoria Cross and we have restored over 50 grave sites here in the UK and Europe.

We have also provided employment to local people, including veterans.

We have given social support and a central focal point to South Yorkshire Veterans as well as becoming a major tourist attraction in the region. We have been ranked the number one Military Museum in Yorkshire.

During this time, I have continued to research connections with the Victoria Cross and Doncaster,

Today. I am very excited to reveal that there are two more men awarded the Victoria Cross with a Doncaster connection.

One of the men is Belfast-born James Magennis, who was awarded his Victoria Cross during World War Two for his part in attacking a Japanese war ship as crew of a midget submarine.

After the war, Magennis decided to leave Northern Ireland and he chose Doncaster as his new home.

In 1955 he lived in Rossington and worked as an electrician at Rossington Colliery, where he is still remembered by many a former miner.

My latest discovery came out of the blue with a news cutting sent to me regarding the Warrington Victoria Cross Recipient Corporal Joseph Tombs. He was mentioned in the article and said to be ‘formerly a teacher in Fishlake School, Doncaster’.

Sadly, there does not appear to be any records held in Doncaster Archives to confirm his employment, but given the contemporary nature of the news report it is highly unlikely to be false.

The second man is Joseph Tombs, who emigrated to Canada following the end of World War One where he served in the Canadian Air Force during World War Two. He passed away in 1966 and is buried in Toronto, Canada.

Whilst he obviously decided to spend over 40 years living in Canada, I would like to think that he looked back on his time as a young man in Fishlake and Doncaster with fondness.

So, there we have it, two more small segments of local history that I take great pleasure in sharing.

Doncaster has such a wonderful history of great people that I hope to continue sharing with Free Press readers at some point, and hopefully give it a location connection that we can all relate to.

I still find it amusing when I see Clint Eastwood on the TV and delight telling anyone who will listen his connection to our great town of Doncaster.

For more information about the Ashworth Barracks Museum, please go online and visit www.ashworthbarracks.co.uk.