WEST Bromwich has been the birthplace of many people who have achieved great things in their chosen fields of activity; but only one has received Britain's supreme military accolade for bravery, the Victoria Cross. That person is Robert Edwin Phillips who was born in the Hill Top area of the town.
This most prestigious decoration, which over the last 150 years has only been awarded 1,356 times, is the highest that can be granted to British and Commonwealth forces. It was established by Royal Warrant in January 1856, but was made retrospective to 1854 to accommodate the Crimea War period.
The military record of Captain Phillips and his heroism during the First World War has of course already been reported upon in the local press and other media outlets, but almost nothing is known by the general public of his civilian life during the years either side of his war-time experiences. None of his early contemporaries are alive today to provide a detailed insight into his boyhood days and even those who knew him locally in later life are now very few and far between. However, with the help of friends, archivists and relatives of Captain Phillips, all of whom are acknowledged at the end of this account I have been able, with supporting documentation obtained during my researches, to highlight in chronological order some of the hitherto little-known events in his life, with a particular reference to West Bromwich.
It has been assumed that Robert Edwin Phillips was born at Holyhead House, Hill Top, West Bromwich, when in fact his birth certificate shows this not to be the case. He was in reality born at 12, Queen Street, Hill Top, West Bromwich on 11 April 1895 to parents Elizabeth Phillips (formerly Hudson) and Alfred Phillips, a roll turner at Charles Akrill & Co of Golds Green, West Bromwich, manufacturers of chilled and grain rolls. Alfred's duties in this highly skilled position would have been second in importance and salary only to the firms owners.
The following year in 1896 the Phillips family moved into the house next door but one, 16, Queen Street, Hill Top, where they remained for the next eleven years. These houses were of a typical terraced design in what was described at the time as a 'working class' area of Hill Top. Queen Street today no longer exists, with the land it once occupied now supporting a modern housing development.
In 1900 at the age of five years, Master Robert Edwin Phillips enrolled at St James's National Elementary School, Hill Top, adjacent to St James's parish church which was not far from his home. The school subsequently closed in 1911 with the pupils transferring to the newly-opened Hill Top Council School on the corner of Coles Lane. The original St James's schoolroom building is however still in use today as a church hall. Robert was almost ten years old when a deed of 23rd February 1905 was signed recording the fact that his father Alfred Phillips of 16, Queen Street, Hill Top, West Bromwich purchased vacant land from a Mr John Field of The Woodlands, Hill Top who was described as a gentleman and landowner. John Field incidentally was born at Hill Top on 18 June 1831 receiving his education privately and at Marshall's School, Hill Top. He later became a mining engineer and a director of the Sandwell Park Colliery Co Ltd while also serving as a Town Councillor and Justice of the Peace.
Holyhead House, Hill Top, also known as No 54b, appears to have been built some time in 1905 following Alfred Phillips's land transaction because the address of these premises is first recorded on an electors roll of 1905-06, but curiously occupied by one Arthur Brockhouse who a year earlier was living at No 54a. A further deed, dated 12 October 1906, indicates that Mr John Field subsequently sold Holyhead House to Alfred Phillips of 16 Queen Street, Hill Top, for the sum of £150.10.0. Consequently, the electors roll for 1907 now shows Alfred Phillips residing at Holyhead House including of course young Robert Phillips who it transpires was twelve years of age when he first went to live in the house. Meanwhile around this time, school records show that after completing his elementary education at St James's, Robert Edwin Phillips was admitted to the King Edward VI Grammar School in Frederick Road, Aston, Birmingham, as a fee-paying student on the 28 November 1907, after passing an entrance examination nine days earlier on 19 November. However, in September 1910 he was awarded a scholarship which relieved his parents of the requirement to pay school fees.
On 10 March 1911, just one month before his sixteenth birthday, Robert left the King Edward VI Grammar School and after a break of nine months he eventually secured a position as a boy clerk in the Tax Surveyors office of the Inland Revenue at Worcester on 15 December 1911. This was the beginning of a career in the civil service which would span more than forty years, interrupted only by his service in the 1914-1918 war. The fact that he was willing and able to accept a position some considerable distance from his home in West Bromwich was to become a feature of his working life, with further posting by the Inland Revenue as far afield as London, Altrincham, Stoke on Trent and even Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia. It appears that apart from six boyhood years spent at Holyhead House, he apparently never resided there for any great length of time after his return from military service. This is evident from electoral roll records which have never shown him registered at that address, although his brother Claude Augustus Phillips is shown there between spring 1920 and autumn 1925.
In 1913 Robert was transferred to the London office of the Inland Revenue and it was during this placement that on 17 March 1914 he enlisted in the 1st/15th Company of the London Regiment (Territorials). On the 3 December 1914 he was commissioned in the 9th/13th Battalion of the Royal Warwickshire regiment, holding the rank of Temporary 2nd Lieutenant. He served in Suvla Bay, Gallipoli from the 6 October 1915 until being wounded in action on 17 November 1915 and after convalescence he re-joined his regiment who in the meantime had moved to Mesopotamia. It was during his service in Mesopotamia that on the 10th April 1916 he was promoted to Lieutenant (also Adjutant). A few months later on 25 January 1917 he was to carry out an act of supreme gallantry for which he later received Britain's highest military honour, the Victoria Cross. A synopsis of his citation is as follows:
After his commanding officer, Lieutenant Colonel Edward Elers Delaval Henderson had been mortally wounded while leading a counter attack on the enemy near Kut, Mesopotamia, Lieutenant Phillips went out under heavy and concentrated fire to his aid. With the assistance of a comrade, Corporal Scott, who later received the Distinguished Conduct Medal, they succeeded in bringing him back to the safety of our lines.
Lieutenant Phillips was again mentioned in despatches by Lieutenant General Maude on 31 March 1917. A few weeks later on 8 June 1917 The London Gazette reported that Lieutenant Phillips had been awarded the Victoria Cross for his heroic action. He was also awarded the Legion of Honour by France which was reported in the London Gazette of 25th September 1917, while at the same time referring to his rank as 'Temporary Captain'. Unfortunately I have been unable to trace any documents confirming a subsequent promotion to the rank of full Captain. He was once more mentioned in despatches by Lieutenant General Marshall on 31 March 1918 for distinguished service in Mesopotamia. On 9 May 1918 Captain Phillips was attached to the newly-formed Royal Air Force for pilot training but his service there was cut short when, after going on leave in October 1918, the armistice was signed. It was whilst on leave that he visited his old King Edward VI Grammar School and where, on the 13 November 1918 he was presented with a silver casket in recognition of the great honour bestowed upon him by King George V. The scholars were given a day's holiday to commemorate this event. Finally, on 13 February 1919 Captain Phillips left his military service behind and resumed his career in the civil service.
During the next fifteen months of civilian life he must have visited Holyhead House on a number of occasions because he eventually married a young lady who lived close by in Hill Top, her name was Beatrice Amy Brockhouse of Lawnside, Coles Lane. Their marriage took place at St James Church, Hill Top, on 19 May 1920. Beatrice, aged 24, was a domestic science teacher and in her younger days was a pupil at West Bromwich Municipal Secondary School between 1905 and 1912. Their marriage certificate also shows the profession of her father Henry Brockhouse, as a 'manufacturer' while Robert's father Alfred was still a roll turner, but now in the employment of the Albert Sheet Iron Co Ltd, Witton Lane, Hill Top. Their marital home in 1920 was at Barnt Green, Birmingham and later they had two children, Michael and Rachel.
On 22 February 1927 Robert's father Alfred died leaving Holyhead House to his wife Elizabeth who survived her husband by another twelve years. At the time of his mother Elizabeth's death on 23 May 1939 Robert, who was jointly granted probate with his brother Claude Augustus Phillips, is recorded as living in Altrincham, Cheshire. Robert's quarter share ownership of Holyhead House left to him by his mother, was eventually sold by him on 31 December 1945 to his sister Alicia Muriel Willis (nee Phillips). Robert Phillips was at the time living in Hanchurch, Stoke on Trent. From 1946 onwards the electors roll shows Alicia Muriel Willis and husband Benjamin living at Holyhead House until on the 31 March 1952 it was sold to a Mr D.J. Durose, thus bringing to an end the Phillips family ownership of the property.
After Robert Edwin Phillips had retired from the civil service around 1960 he and his wife moved to St Veep, Lostwithiel, Cornwall where he died on 23 September 1968.
Until recently this unselfish act of valour by Captain Phillips had largely been forgotten by the inhabitants of West Bromwich but following the decision by Sandwell Council to name a roadway after him at Hill Top, the successor to his regiment, the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers, have since sponsored a blue plaque in his honour which was unveiled at Holyhead House, Hill Top, West Bromwich on 26 January 2008.
In this brief chronicle of notable events in the life of this remarkable and heroic man, Captain Robert Edwin Phillips VC, I have attempted to provide those who may be interested with facts, figures and corrections which hitherto may not have been known.