A fitting memorial at last to Fylde’s forgotten hero

Vicar Fr David Lyon with St Annes' then town mayor Karen henshaw and parishioners at the ceremony
Vicar Fr David Lyon with St Annes' then town mayor Karen henshaw and parishioners at the ceremony

A First World War hero has a headstone at last a century on – thanks to the generosity of Fylde folk.

A group of members of St Annes Parish Church rallied round to raise £1,300 to pay for the memorial to William Smith McLean, who tragically died of Spanish flu, aged 39, just days after returning home from the conflict unscathed.

Donors who contributed to the headstone at the dedication at St Annes Parish Church

Donors who contributed to the headstone at the dedication at St Annes Parish Church

Mr McLean, who served in the Royal Flying Corps for two years from 1917, left behind four children as well as a widow.

The fact he had laid in an unmarked plot in the Parish Church graveyard for 100 years came to light by chance during research into local war casualties by Parish Church server Gerald Wilson and his wife Fiona, members of Lytham Heritage Group.

The research into the St Annes victims of the Great War has allowed the Parish Church to sound a quarter peal of the bells there on the exact centenary of each death.

More than 40 of those have now been carried out, including one to Mr McLean at an gravestone and unveiling ceremony in the churchyard at the weekend, attended by three of his descendents.

Mr Wilson said: “It was a very poignant occasion and we are so delighted that William Smith McLean has a memorial stone and his service to 
his country has been recognised.

“Unfortunately, as he died following discharge from the RAF, albeit only five weeks afterwards, he does not qualify for a Commonwealth War Graves headstone.

“I floated the idea with the church congregation that a dozen or so subscribers could club together and pay for the memorial stone that William did not get when he died.”

Mr McLean’s death was announced in the St Annes Express dated May 16, 1919, with the notice saying: “He leaves a widow and four young children with whom deep sympathy will be felt.”

He was born in Liverpool in 1880 and married there in 1902 and he and his wife Elspet had three children Elsie, Jeanie and William and before coming to live in St Annes, where he worked as a watchmaker and jeweller in The Square.

“Initially it was unmarried and younger men who went off to fight in the war, but with casualties at record levels, older family men had to enlist as well,” said Mr Wilson.

“William therefore enlisted in the Royal Flying Corps in August 1917 and became an air mechanic just as another child, Mona Alberta, was born. He served in France and was finally discharged on April 5, 1919.

“Sadly, just as he returned, he caught the Spanish flu and five weeks later on May 10, 1919, he died and was buried three days later at St Annes Parish Church.

“Naturally his wife had bigger concerns than the provision of a headstone on his grave, though his name was included on the Ashton Gardens memorial in 1924.

“Fortunately, all those names were researched, so William’s story came to light, but the location of his grave remained a mystery until early last year, when we found a record of the location of the grave in the St Annes Burial Registers at Lancashire Archives in Preston.”

Mr Wilson then set out trying to track down any of Mr McLean’s descendents via genealogy websites and discovered by chance that the war hero had a great grandson, Andrew Walls, living in St Annes.

That came to light as Mr McLean’s name had come up during separate family research being carried out by Mr Walls’ partner Emma Phillips and they attended the gravestone ceremony along with Andrew’s sister Beverly-Anna Walls, who travelled over from Germany specially. and cousin Susan Jackson, who lives in Blackpool.

Emma said: “The family was really touched that strangers had come together to give William a headstone.

“It had come as a great shock to even know that he was buried in the churchyard and even more to learn of the circumstances of his death.

“Elsie, William’s eldest daughter, died in 1994, but had never spoken of having lost her father at a young age.”

The churchyard ceremony was attended by Coun Karen Henshaw in one of her last duties as St Annes town mayor.

She read Lord Byron’s poem ‘So we’ll go no more a’ roving’ and said afterwards: “It was a privilege to be involved – what a wonderful story and all credit to Gerald and Fiona Wilson for their research, the donors for their generosity and all those responsible for giving William the recognition he deserved.”