Beyond the Legend: Bill Speakman VC
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He was illegitimate and is one of many men who overcame their less fortunate start in life to win the Victoria Cross. His mother, Hannah Speakman, was a 'general servant domestic ' but nothing is known of his father, whose name does not appear on Speakman's birth certificate. In an era when there was still a stigma attached to illegitimacy and little help available to single mothers, Hannah Speakman decided to keep her child. Social habits change over the years, however, and at the time of writing 47 per cent of UK births occur outside marriage.
Hannah Speakman registered her son's birth on 18 October He was named William after his maternal grandfather. Bill Speakman never knew his father.
Derek Hunt (Author of Beyond the Legend)
Whoever he was, he must have been a man of means as he made regular maintenance payments to Hannah's father to support her and her child. Speakman did not discover this until many years later. His mother never revealed the name of his father, although she had the opportunity, and to speculate on his identity would be futile.
Speakman accepts the reality of the situation. Bill Speakman was not the first war hero to come from Altrincham; during the First World War, Chapel Street, Altrincham was said to be the most patriotic street in the country. It was a short walk from Moss Lane where Speakman was born. In a street of just 60 houses, men fought for King and country and 29 of them never returned. Chapel Street was in a working-class area of the town and many of the inhabitants were of Irish descent who had come to Altrincham looking for work. The names of all men were recorded on the memorial and King George V sent a telegram expressing his appreciation of the sacrifices made.
Chapel Street was demolished in the s as part of a slum clearance programme.
All Saints Church was also demolished and the glass-fronted memorial was taken into storage at Altrincham Town Hall. In September Trafford Council erected a blue plaque honouring the men who volunteered. The plaque was fixed to the wall of a restaurant in Regent Road which stands on part of the rebuilt street.
Bill Speakman VC attended the plaque unveiling as a guest of the organiser, Peter Hennerley, who is a descendant of one of the Chapel Street volunteers. Her father, William Speakman, was born about and was the second of ten children of William and Elizabeth Speakman. He was a general labourer when Hannah was born. Her mother, Elizabeth Speakman, formerly Fowles, registered the birth on 6 February In the census, Hannah was the youngest of four children: her sisters were named Mary and Emily and her brother was Joseph.
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Two further sisters followed: Jessie was born in and Grace in The two older girls, Mary and Emily, had left home by the time Bill Speakman was born and he does not remember them. At the time of her son's birth, Hannah was in service as a general servant to the owners of one of the many large houses in the area.
She was in service for one particular Bowdon family for many years; the staff were expected to work long hours for low wages. When the First World War gave women the opportunity to undertake new areas of work previously performed by men, many of them never returned to work in service. Hannah Speakman was 15 years old when the war ended so would not have had the chance to try other work and was a domestic cleaner all her life.
Max Arthur OBE noted in Symbol of Courage that 'over 75 per cent of VC awards have been made to a man who has grown up as the responsible child of an early widowed mother or the eldest child in a large family'. For almost eight years of his life, until his mother married Bert Houghton in , Bill Speakman was an only child to an unmarried mother and must have learnt responsibility at an early age.
He said that they all showed a strong sense of responsibility for others which they developed early in their lives. On 15 June Hannah Speakman, aged 33, married Herbert Houghton, a year-old widower, at the local register office.
Herbert had previously married Lily Venables in but she died in , aged Herbert and Lily had two daughters: Lillian and Margaret, known as Peggy, who was born in , just two years before her mother died. Herbert was recorded as a potato salesman living at 15 Shaw's Road at the time of Peggy's birth in but had become an engineers' storekeeper by the time of his marriage to Hannah in Shaw's Road is close to Moss Lane, so Herbert and Hannah were in the same neighbourhood and it is likely that this is how they met. Bill Speakman was 7 years old at the time of the marriage but cannot recall the event.
Houghton's eldest daughter, Lillian, had left home by the time of her father's remarriage. Peggy was a year older than Bill and was fond of him.