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Local Stalwarts No.4

A series describing how eminent local individuals reflect their own times.

William (Bill) Burlingham

Published in Barwicker No. 93. March 2009

William (Bill) Burlingham is 93 years old; he has spent his life serving the Gascoigne family, the Lotherton estate and his country. Bill was born in Aberford, leaving school at 14 to work for the vicar of Aberford, Canon Flower, who was very friendly with Colonel Gascoigne. In 1933 Bill applied for the post of second chauffeur at Lotherton, he was interviewed by the Colonel who took him on a fortnight’s trial. Apart from six years army service he has been there ever since.

Bill’s father worked in Micklefield pit. His mother worked at the VAD hospital at Lotherton during the Great War, and his brother also worked there as a gardener. Bill’s wife Laura was a seamstress who used to make dresses for Mrs. Gascoigne Snr.

When Bill started work at Lotherton he was paid £1.5s 0d a week and given a pair of overalls, he lived in the bothy above the stables. As second chauffeur he had to clean the model T Ford after every outing, the first chauffeur insisting that he cleaned under the mudguards; he also had to polish the brasses in the stable and clean the windows. At the time the family was phasing out using the horse and trap which was used to travel to Garforth twice a week to do the shopping.

As the years passed Bill looked after, drove and serviced a succession of different makes of expensive cars.

Colonel Frederick Richard Thomas Trench Gascoigne was a genuine Victorian Imperial hero. He had served in the ill-fated Nile expedition of 1884-5 to save General Gordon at Khartoum and later fought in the Boer War. The colonel had an aloof, distant manner and brought a brisk military approach to Lotherton; he was very much in command of the estate. His wife was largely responsible for creating the marvellous formal gardens. The staff were thus very keenly supervised, working long hours with little free times for themselves.

When Bill was kitted out in his full chauffeur’s uniform he had to take the colonel and his wife either to Aberford or Saxton church every Sunday, escort them to their pew and take the collection during the service. He has always had an intense loyalty to the family and would never reveal any family secrets or utter a word of criticism other than muttering that, ‘they were a bit keen.

The Gascoignes owned a Scottish castle at Craignish and the uninhabited island of Scarba just off the coast. Family holidays were taken here and Bill once rigged up a winch to lift the colonel’s wheelchair into a small boat to ferry him to their larger boat ‘Tremona,’ which would sail to Scarba for shooting and picnic parties.

The Colonel died in 1937 and his son Alvary took over the estate, though Mrs. Gascoigne still lived at Lotherton. Alvary was to become a distinguished international diplomat over the years being based in Tangiers, Japan and Moscow where he was British Ambassador to the USSR at the height of the Cold War.

Bill very much appreciated Alvary’s affable, gentle and kindly approach and they became good friends over the years as Bill rose up the household ranks. It must have been very comforting for Alvary to know that whatever diplomatic difficulties he had to face in distant parts of the world, there were loyal faithful staff personified by Bill and Laura, to look after his mother and Lotherton.

Alvary married an American girl, Sylvia Wilder and over the years Bill got to know their two children Douglas and Yvonne, when they were not at boarding school or in America during the holidays. The marriage broke down and after a divorce, Alvary married Lorna Priscilla Leatham from a wealthy Yorkshire family. Once again Bill’s many sterling personal qualities ensured that he became very good friends with the new Mrs. Gascoigne. Alvary was knighted and increasingly as his duties took him overseas, he looked to Bill to make sure that Lotherton ran smoothly.

The Second World War was a disaster for the Gascoigne family. Bill was called up and spent six years in the army. He was at Dunkirk which he won’t talk about because ‘it was too cruel’ and he fought at D day and in Normandy; at Eindhoven he was wounded in action by shrapnel and lost his hearing in his left ear. His very good friend next to him was killed. Captain Douglas Gascoigne of the Coldstream Guards was killed in Normandy aged 26. In ferocious action his Churchill tank was knocked out so Douglas set out in a Firefly tank with a more powerful gun to destroy the well camouflaged deadly 88mm artillery. Unfortunately another German gun on his flank hit the ammunition box on his tank killing the crew of four instantly.

The war ended and Bill returned to Lotherton and austerity Britain. The Gascoigne family were distraught at Douglas’s death. Yvonne had also served in the forces and her health was not good, Bill said that she was devoted to her brother, ‘they had been like twins.’ This was the hardest time for him because they were short of staff and few people stayed long, so Bill had to do many of the household and gardening tasks. It was a grim time and Alvary had taken his son’s death very hard.

Sir Alvary’s mother died in 1949 and Lady Gascoigne came to live at Lotherton after their home in London was sold. She was a great dog lover and Bill made coffins for the dogs they had had over the years, burying them in the Lotherton pets’ cemetery.

Bill and Laura were held in very great affection by the Gascoignes, for they were the glue holding the place together at this difficult time. The Gascoignes were always a very generous family, giving Bill monetary gifts, a pension, a Triumph Dolomite car and a life tenancy on his house.

The death of Douglas changed everything and resulted in Alvary deciding to make the Lotherton estate and a great deal of his wealth over to the City of Leeds in 1968. Sir Alvary died in 1970, Yvonne died suddenly in 1972 aged 53 and Bill ensured that Lady Gascoigne lived comfortably until her death in 1979, then he retired.

Today Bill lives secure in his cosy house in the stable yard, with his daughter Pat who looks after him; the very friendly estate workers admire him and keep him well supplied with wood for his open fire. They all know that Bill was a loyal, faithful, conscientious and diligent worker for sixty years who started as a servant and became a treasured friend to the Gascoigne family; a trusted colleague who scattered Sir Alvary’s ashes in Captain’s Wood and later did the same for his lady wife.

Bill Burlingham is the archetypal local stalwart. We all salute you sir!


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