b. 10/07/1889 Eaglehawk, Victoria, Australia. d. 24/06/1948 Paddington, London.
William John Symons (1889-1948) was born on 12th July 1889, at Eaglehawk, Victoria, Australia, the eldest son of William Samson Symons and Mary Emma (nee Manning). His parents were of Cornish descent, and his father who was a Methodist lay preacher, worked as a miner. The family lived in Tarriff Street, and William, known as his friends as “Curley”, attended Eaglehawk State School. He was a member of the Eaglehawk West Methodist Band of Hope, and the church played a big part in his formative years. William would be a strict teetotaller all his life. Tragedy struck in 1904, when his father died suddenly at the age of 42, leaving William, at 14, as head of the family. To help support them, he took a job driving a grocer’s cart and together with his old grey horse, he became a familiar figure in Eaglehawk. Two years later, he moved with his mother and four brothers to Brunswick, Melbourne. He joined the militia and soon all his spare time was devoted to soldiering, firstly in the 5th Australian Volunteer Regiment and then in the 60th Infantry, where he held the rank of colour sergeant.
When war broke out, he was living with his family at 8 Burkett Street in East Brunswick. On 17th August 1914 he left his job, working behind the counter at Messrs McDougall and Sons’ grocery stores in Sydney Road, and enlisted. Posted to A Company of the 7th Battalion as colour sergeant, he embarked with his unit for Egypt on 18th October.
Symons was promoted to acting regimental quartermaster sergeant sixteen days before his unit landed at Anzac Beach. He came through the initial fighting unscathed and later said “the fire was incredibly hot, and, as soon as we had advanced a certain distance, Colonel Elliott was sent back a message. “We are digging in”, but he received an order to press on at once, and so on we went.”
As a result of the heavy losses that day, he was commissioned as second lieutenant on 26th April 1915. He came through the ill-starred Second Battle of Krithia, in which his unit again suffered heavily, and was promoted to Lieutenant on 2nd July.
On 8th–9th August 1915, at Lone Pine, Gallipoli, Turkey, Symons was in command of a section of newly captured trenches and repelled several counter-attacks with great coolness. An enemy attack on an isolated sap early in the morning resulted in six officers becoming casualties and part of the sap being lost, but Symons retook it, shooting two Turks. The sap was then attacked from three sides and this officer managed, in the face of heavy fire, to build a barricade. On the enemy setting fire to the head cover, he extinguished it and rebuilt the barricade. His coolness and determination finally compelled the enemy to withdraw.
Having recovered from a bout of gastroenteritis, he was struck off the strength of the 7th Battalion in January 1916 and, being considered unfit for general service for three months, he embarked, at his own expense, for Australia, where he arrived in March to rapturous receptions in Victoria. A newspaper report described him as “a tall and well-built, but a trifle thin as the result of his illness. He has a quiet, active manner, and talks freely with people he knows, but is absolutely silent when approached on the subject of how he earned the coveted VC”. At Bendigo, he was greeted at the railway station by relatives together with the Citizen’s Band, who provided a musical escort to the Town Hall where 300 townspeople and fifty returned ex-servicemen were waiting to honour him.
Symons did not return to the 7th Battalion. In April 1916, he was posted to a newly raised Victorian unit, the 37th Battalion, which formed part of the 10th Brigade. Made Captain, he was given command of D Company, consisting largely of farmworkers who felt proud to be led by a man they considered a “dinkum” soldier. The 37th arrived in France in November 1916 and Captain Symons was wounded during the 10th Brigade’s so-called “Big Raid” carried out on 27th February 1917. Back with his unit by April, he narrowly escaped death a month later when two shells hit his dug-out without harming him. On 7th June, however, he was gassed as he led his company forward for the assault on Messines Ridge. Following a spell in hospital in Etaples, he was evacuated back to 3rd London General Hospital where he remained until September. He re-joined the Battalion on 18th January 1918 and served with it throughout the bitter fighting which followed the March German offensive. His frontline service ended in June when he returned to England to attend a musketry course at Hayling Island.
On 15th August, having adopted the surname of Penn-Symons, he married Isobel Anna Hockley, eldest daughter of Mr and Mrs H. E. Hockley, of Kenton, Hayling Island, at St Mary’s Church, South Hayling in Hampshire. An artist of note, his bride could claim descent from the Spanish aristocracy. The day after the wedding, they sailed for Australia, arriving in October. Captain Penn-Symons VC was discharged from the AIF on 7th December 1918, although he continued to serve as a Captain in the 59th Infantry Regiment until he transferred to the reserve of officers in July 1922. They then returned to England and settled close to his wife’s family home in Kenton.
Penn-Symons began a successful business career, gathering a clutch of directorships in a number of firms ranging from fur dying to sports stadium management. During the Second World War, with Britain threatened by German invasion, he enlisted with the Local Defence Volunteers. He was given command of the 12th Battalion, Leicestershire Home Guard, and held the post until 1944. He also served on the Leicestershire Military Interviewing Board.
Lieutenant-Colonel Penn-Symons VC died on 24th June 1948 in St Mary's Hospital, Paddington, London as a result of a brain tumour and was survived by his wife and three daughters. He was cremated at Golders Green Crematorium and his ashes were scattered on the Crocus Lawn. In December 1967, his widow, claiming poor circumstances, took his medals including his VC, 1914-15 Star, British War Medal 1914-20, Victory Medal 1914-19 and George VI Coronation Medal 1937 to auction, where they sold for £800. The 7th Battalion Association persuaded the Australian Returned Services League to launch a public appeal and the Victoria Cross was purchased and presented to the Australian War Memorial, Canberra.
LOCATION OF MEDAL: AUSTRALIAN WAR MEMORIAL, CANBERRA, AUSTRALIA.
BURIAL PLACE: GOLDERS GREEN CREMATORIUM, LONDON.
William Symons' medals courtesy of Memorials to Valour
William Symons VC's memorial paving stone laid at the National Memorial Arboretum on March 5th 2015.
(Picture - Steve Lee).
Cemetery Plan courtesy of Kevin Brazier
ASHES ON CROCUS LAWN SECTION 3D
Memorial at Springvale Cemetery, Melbourne
Eaglehawk Town Hall, Victoria
Eaglehawk Primary School Honours Board
Golders Green Crematorium
War Illustrated, 20th November 1915
I am indebted to Sarah Kellam Ansdell for the
two images above and right