Penrith Beacon’s part in war effort

Date: Tuesday 11th July 2017

Sir, I read (Herald, 1st July) that Penrith Town Council is to commemorate the centenary of the armistice on 11-11-2018 by having a beacon on the Beacon Pike.

This is to be commended as it complements the work that the Penrith Remembers research group and the Friends of the Penrith Museum are doing. They are co-operating to research every man and one woman who are remembered on the St. Andrews Church memorial and the Penrith war memorial at the entrance to Castle Park.

We hope to have completed the results of our research by that date. They will be lodged in Penrith museum and Penrith library. It is also hoped to create a website containing most of the research which will be available to all.

Not only is the Beacon a dominant geographical background feature for Penrith but it is extremely significant in the local history of the Great War.

There was a proposal in 1917 to cut down the trees on the Beacon which raised considerable opposition at the time but it was felt a necessary contribution to the war effort. The Canadian Forest Corp. arrived in 1917 and commenced cutting down the trees.

The British government had requested from the Canadian government men who were skilled in forestry because most of the wood used in Britain was imported and shipping space was at a premium because of German submarine activity.

If home-grown wood was used during the First World War it would make us more independent and not dependent on imports so that the war machine could continue. The Great War in general and the Western Front in particular used large quantities of wood for new huts, supports for the trenches and dugouts, platforms for the artillery in muddy conditions and duckboards to walk on.

Over the centuries in the UK, we had denuded the landscape of trees to build ships and houses, so that by the 20th Century we had the lowest area given over to the growing of timber in Europe. Because of this, the Forestry Commission was established in 1919.

In 1919 there was a proposal to buy the Beacon from the Lonsdale Estate for it to be established as the town’s war memorial. It would have then become a public park. Although there was some support for the project it did not materialise.

A consequence of the cutting down of the trees on the Beacon meant there was an influx of Canadian soldiers in Penrith. When they left, three of them stayed behind in our care. The Canadian troops joined in with the town’s activities, attending dances and other social. At one point in 1918 a sports day was organised which caused great excitement. Among other activities they played a baseball match against a local scratch team.

The three who were left in Penrith cemetery are Private William Ploethner, aged 26, who died on 20th June, 1918, in a lorry accident at Eamont Bridge; Private Malcolm Van Alack, who died in Fusehill Military Hospital (ex-Carlisle workhouse and today part of the University of Cumbria); and Joseph Frank Towle, aged 32, whose mother lived in Maine, USA. He had recently been married to a local lady, Mrs. Wilkinson, of Middlegate, and died on 1st November, 1918, of Influenza.

Privates Ploethner and Alack are in the same grave whose headstone was provided by officers of the Canadian Forest Corp.

I am sure the event of remembrance on the Beacon will be most notable in commemorating the centenary of the Armistice and the loss of the 200 individuals who never returned to lie in Commonwealth Graves Commission graves in Penrith cemetery, below the Beacon.

Lighting this beacon once more will be a fitting tribute to Penrith’s war effort and our bereaved families. Yours etc,

RICHARD J. PRESTON

(Co-chairman of Penrith Remembers)

Southwaite.