b. 20/07/1877 Blackburn, Lancashire. d. 20/03/1939 London.
Percy Thompson Dean (1877-1939), the oldest at 40 of all the Zeebrugge VCs, was born on 20th July 1877, at Witton Bank, Witton, Blackburn, Lancashire, the son of John Dean and Ellen (nee Thompson). The Deans were a prominent middle-class family with strong economic and political associations in the neighbourhood. Both his paternal grandfather and his maternal uncle were former mayors of Blackburn, while the family’s wealth was founded on successful slate merchant and cotton spinning businesses.
Educated at King Edward’s School, Bromsgrove, Worcestershire, from 1890 to 1895, Percy was an undistinguished scholar with little evidence of any sporting prowess beyond the game of fives. Given his wealthy background, academic achievement was not that important. Convention dictated that he would follow his father in business, and this he duly did, to marked success, reviving the slate business which had fallen into decline since his father’s death.
He gained a reputation as a “model employer”, and soon gained most of the trappings of a provincial prosperous life: a wife, Mabel Ratcliffe, whom he married in 1906 and a son. It was the first of three marriages. Following his wife’s sudden death in 1907, he married Jeanne Marie Klein in 1908, by whom he had a daughter. They divorced in 1921 and he married Mrs M.R. Hardwicke, the widow of Lieutenant General J.O. Hardwicke.
In 1911, he went into local politics becoming Chairman of the Young Unionist League in Blackburn, even though he was now in his mid-30s. His rise then was rapid. In 1913 he became a town councillor, winning a seat from the Labour Party, and two years later he was selected as Chairman of the local Conservative Party.
By then, the Great War had broken out, and political office seemed the only way he could serve. An attempt to join the Army was rejected because of a bizarre injury suffered during a Christmas vacation in 1912. While staying at a hotel in Blackpool, he was washing his feet in a bathroom basin when it broke, severing a tendon at the back of his leg. Despite surgery, the damage was never entirely repaired and he was left with a slight limp.
Refusing to be put off, he turned to the Navy. He was a skilled yachtsman which he felt would offset his minor disability. He was a popular member of the West Lancashire Sailing Club at Hoylake and his efforts paid off. In June 1916 he was commissioned as a Temporary Sub-Lieutenant in the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve. Although at 38 he was older than most men of a similar rank, he gained a thirst for adventure. Joining the Dover Patrol, he fitted in well, and in April 1917, played a supporting role in the destroyer action which resulted in an enemy ship being rammed and a boarding party repelled. He was promoted to Lieutenant in June 1917, and was given command of a motor launch before the call went out for volunteers for the blocking operation on Zeebrugge planned for April 1918.
On 22nd and 23rd April 1918 at Zeebrugge, Belgium, after Intrepid and Iphigenia had been scuttled, their crews were taken off by Motor Launch 282 commanded by Lieutenant Dean. He embarked more than 100 officers and men under constant and deadly fire from heavy and machine-guns at point blank range. This complete, he was about to clear the canal when the steering gear broke down, so he manoeuvred on his engines and was actually clear of the entrance to the harbour when he was told there was an officer in the water. He immediately turned back and rescued him.
Having come through miraculously unscathed, he returned home on leave, and his VC, one of only two non-elected awards in the original list, was gazetted on 23rd July 1918 and presented to him at Buckingham Palace on 31st July. He was also promoted to Lieutenant Commander, back dated to 23rd April. He had long been hailed as a local hero, and even three weeks before the announcement of his VC, on 3rd July 1918, he had accepted the nominated to stand as Blackburn’s Conservative candidate at the first post-war election. Five months later, the naval hero was a MP, having trounced the eminent Labour politician Philip (later Viscount) Snowden. His parliamentary career was short, however, and he stood down at the 1922 election.
As managing director of Messrs John Dean Ltd, Messrs Forrest & Crabtree Ltd, and the Moelferna and Deeside Slate and Slab Quarries, and Chairman of Messrs Dean, Waddington & Co, he had much to occupy him. Politics continued to exert a pull though, and in 1930, was appointed a second time as Chairman of the Blackburn Conservative and Unionist Association. He held the post for three years, until the pressure of business interests in London brought about his resignation. The remainder of his life was mostly spent in London, where he occasionally gave lectures on his war experiences. By November 1938, his health was beginning to fail. Early the following year, he became seriously ill and took a cruise in the West Indies to try and recover. It was to no avail and on 20th March 1939, he died at his north-west London home.
Among the mourners at his Golders Green Crematorium funeral, were many political figures and former naval colleagues, including Geoffrey Drummond VC. His medals including the VC, British War Medal 1914-20, Victory Medal 1914-19 with Mentioned in Despatches, King George V Silver Jubilee Medal 1935 and King George VI Coronation Medal 1937 were purchased at an auction at Glendinnings in 1992 by Michael Ashcroft and now displayed in the Ashcroft Gallery, Imperial War Museum.
LOCATION OF MEDAL: LORD ASHCROFT GALLERY, IMPERIAL WAR MUSEUM.
BURIAL PLACE: GOLDERS GREEN CREMATORIUM, SW LONDON. ASHES SCATTERED.
Percy Dean's medals including VC on display at the Lord Ashcroft Gallery, Imperial War Museum, London.
Cemetery Plan courtesy of Kevin Brazier
Golders Green Crematorium VC
Blackburn Town Hall (Paul Lee)
Bruges Exhibition - April 2018 (Timothy Beuselinck)