b. 26/07/1864 Kensington, London. d. 04/12/1944 Beadnell, Northumberland
DATE AND PLACE OF GC ACTION: 01/11/1914 Whitby, Yorkshire.
Herbert Edgar “Bert” Burton (1864-1944) was born on the 26th July 1864 at Crescent Place, Kensington, Brompton, Middlesex, the second eldest of four children born to Henry Burton, a Corporal in the Royal Engineers, and his wife, Eliza Rachel (nee Dalley). He was baptised at Holy Trinity Church in Brompton on 4th December 1864. His older sibling was Fitzhenry Durant Spencer born in 1861. His two younger siblings were Eliza Florence born in 1873, and Augustus Henry born in 1876, when the family was now based in Chatham, Kent.
At the age of 14, in 1878, Herbert followed his father into the Royal Engineers, and progressed from Bugler to Company Sergeant Major by 1888. On 15th May 1887, he married Annie Elizabeth Troy in Islington, Middlesex, and they went on to have four children: Nora Florence (born 1890), Harry Robert Troy (born 1892, died at sea serving in the Great War), Sidney Herbert (born 1893) and Frederick Alan (born 1896).
In 1894, he was promoted to Regimental Sergeant Major before being posted out to the South African War in 1900, where he was commissioned in 1902 “for good service in the field”. On his return to England, now a Lieutenant, he was posted to North Shields becoming Captain and Commander of the Coast Battalion.
However, it is not his military career for which he is best remembered. After the end of the South African War in 1902, he became a lifeboatman. In 1905 the RNLI brought in the first motor life-boat, and as Burton had both the engineering and the sailing skills he became its Honorary Superintendent, at Tynemouth, in the North East, a post he kept at the insistence of his crew.
In 1914, he was promoted to Commandant and Chief Instructor of a Command School of Signalling, Field Engineering and Bombing. He had over 1000 officers and men under his command by 1918. He received further promotion that year to Brevet Major and was appointed an Order of the British Empire (OBE).
On 1st November 1914, at Whitby, Yorkshire, he serving in the Tynemouth motor lifeboat, when the hospital steamer ship, “Rohilla”, ran aground on Saltwick Nab. Attempts by the Whitby and Upgang lifeboats both failed to reach the Rohilla, due to the overpowering seas, so the Tynemouth boat was called. Coxswain Robert Smith and Major Burton steered the Henry Vernon 44 miles through the night amid the storm, unaided by coast lights. The lifeboat reached the wreck, which had run aground two days before, and after all the other efforts had failed, rescued 50 people.
He was awarded the RNLI Gold Medal for his actions alongside Robert Smith, having already received the Silver Medal for rescuing survivors from SS Dunelm in 1913. On 4th July 1924, in the London Gazette it was announced that Burton and Robert Smith had been awarded the Empire Gallantry Medal to coincide with the RNLI’s Centenary. In 1927, sadly, Burton’s wife Annie passed away, and he decided to leave Tynemouth.
On 23rd July 1928, he re-married to Margaret Jane Pillar in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, and he then became Adjutant to the 50th Northumberland Division of the Royal Engineers in 1939. It was then at the age of 75, that he was appointed Administrative Officer to a Divisional Engineers Unit of the Territorial Army. In 1940, he organised the District Local Defence Volunteers, later part of the Home Guard. Also that year, the creation of the new George Cross, saw Burton’s EGM automatically exchanged. Sadly, Robert Smith had passed away and was not eligible for this.
In his later years, he had settled with Margaret in Beadnell, Northumberland, where he died peacefully, on 4th December 1944, aged 80. He was buried in Beadnell Cemetery, and his wife decided to donate his medals including his GC and OBE to the Royal Engineers Museum in Chatham, Kent. She died in 1977 and was buried with her husband.
LOCATION OF MEDAL: ROYAL ENGINEERS MUSEUM, CHATHAM, KENT.
BURIAL PLACE: BEADNELL CEMETERY, BEADNELL, NORTHUMBERLAND.
Herbert Burton's medals including George Cross and OBE on display at the Royal Engineers Museum, Chatham, Kent.