William Rawson: The Brave Son of a Ripley Miner

I recently came across the Rawson Family of Nuttall’s Park and Wright Avenue of Ripley whilst writing a short biography of William Samuel Rawson, who lived in Ripley all his life. This William worked at Ripley Colliery from 1940, but had previously been employed at nearby Britain Colliery, both of which were owned by the Butterley Company. He had been forced to retire in 1950 at the age of 58, after he developed shortness of breath and high blood pressure. However, this post won’t focus on him, but his eldest son, William Rawson, who was born in 1917, who went on to have an eventful life and who should be commended for the bravery he showed from a young age.

Entry for William Samuel Rawson in the Ripley Colliery Employee Register, 1930-1946, NCB/A/BUT/3/2/8

In February 1929, there had been a lot of cold weather resulting in the freezing of Butterley Reservoir. Lots of people from Ripley used this as a good opportunity to skate, including William Rawson Junior, who was just 12 at the time. Nevertheless, the area close to the railway bridge that crosses the reservoir wasn’t as thick as elsewhere. A six-year-old girl fell in and William instantly dived in to save her, despite being unable to swim himself. He struggled to keep them both afloat but managed it until they were both dragged out of the icy waters, all the while ensuring the little girl was saved first. As soon as he was found to be safe, he quietly made his way home. I can’t even begin to imagine the bravery that took, let alone when adults were there at the scene.

Perhaps it was a sign of things to come later as he went on to join the army as a private in the Royal Artillery aged 18 in 1935. He served in India, North and East Africa during his service. By the time of the Second World War, he had reached the rank of Sergeant. Whilst serving in East Africa, he was captured in June 1942 and was taken as a prisoner of war, first to Italy, and then moved to Germany.

He escaped along with other British prisoners in September 1944, just as the camp he was in, consisting of 6,500 prisoners, was due to be marched to a new location, mainly due to the Americans breaking through into Germany. The escapees managed to hide in the camp until the march had begun. William and a friend succeeded managed to find a motorised bicycle to Neustadt, then take a lorry over to the American lines. When they were finally found by the American soldiers, they were taken to Rheims, which was safely into Allied territory and closer to home. There they were given a welcome party, as well as new clothes, ready for the journey back to England by an RAF plane. He finally came home in prior to VE Day in May 1945, nine years after he had first entered service. When he returned home, he told many Alfreton and Ripley area families of the survival of their loved ones.

Just one of the activities to celebrate VE Day that William Rawson may have participated in, Daily Mail, 8th May 1945,

Despite an already colourful and dangerous life during his time in the army, that was not the end of William Rawson’s exploits. In 1957, both William and his younger brother, Noah, were fined £4 each for motoring offences. Despite the obvious seriousness of this, the circumstances behind these charges are somewhat amusing. It appears that William was attempting to teach Noah to drive on Derby Road in Ripley as the car was going at a reported four or five miles an hour. Still, as Noah had no license, this was illegal, no matter how short a time he was in control of the car for. To make things worse, William admitted his insurance policy only covered him as the policy holder.

In August 1946, he was married to Rosaleen Russell, an Irish nurse who worked at Ripley Hospital. I hope that this meant that Rawson finally found happiness after his unimaginable ordeal during his time as a prisoner of war. He had seen enough tragedy even before the war began. He was in a traffic accident where the motorbike, controlled by his cousin, Edward Bacon, of which he was a passenger on, was hit by a police car after they were travelling home from seeing family in Nottingham. William was knocked unconscious and was treated by Dr George Thomson of Ripley (who was also a doctor for the Butterley Company Collieries), but he had only cuts and abrasions to his feet and hands. Sadly, Edward was killed, leaving behind his wife and two sons.


‘Home After Nine Years’, Ripley and Heanor News and Ilkeston Division Free Press, 11 May 1945

‘Motoring Tragedy at Codnor: Police Car and Motor-Cycle in Collison’, Ripley and Heanor News and Ilkeston Division Free Press, 28 August 1936

‘Pretty Ripley Weddings: Rawdon-Russell’, Ripley and Heanor News and Ilkeston Division Free Press, 30 August 1946

‘Ripley Brothers Fined for Motoring Offences’, Ripley and Heanor News and Ilkeston Division Free Press, 03 May 1957 ‘Ripley Schoolboy’s Heroism’, Ripley and Heanor News and Ilkeston Division Free Press, 22 February 1923

Mining the Seams is a Wellcome Trust funded project aiming to catalogue coal mining documents, originally held by the National Coal Board, so they can eventually be viewed by the public. Alongside the Warwickshire County Record Office, the project aims to focus on the welfare and health services provided to miners. 

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