George Samuel Sewell, A Unique Hero
By Mike Sewell
This article was originally published in the August 2001 edition of Soul Search, the journal of The Sole Society.
When I began researching into my family history I knew that my father was born in Kingston-upon-Hull, Yorkshire and that his father had moved into the city from a village six miles away. Anxious for clues, I followed up any Sewell references in Hull and district and discovered some relations of whom I had been unaware and also found other Sewells where no obvious relationships were apparent.
One of the latter was George Samuel Sewell. I had believed that he was one of my Sewells so, trawling through the G.R.O. Indexes, I found the reference to his death, which led me to the obituaries in the “Hull Daily Mail.” The names in the obituary meant nothing to me and I concluded that George Samuel was no relation. I began rewinding the microfilm and stopped for a second at the front page, where my eye caught the headline, “WARTIME HERO DIES IN HULL” and the name of George Samuel Sewell. (This phenomenon is called serendipity - making a happy discovery by accident.) What I read was so fascinating that I was inspired to do some research in the local library, and uncovered a unique story.
George Samuel Sewell was born on 26th September 1897 in Sunderland, County Durham. He eventually worked for the oil company, Shell-Mex in his home town and, after spending some time in Bristol, went to Hull in 1934. By the beginning of the Second World War he was working as an engineer in the Shell-Mex compound that was part of the large petro-chemical complex at Saltend, which lies on the bank of the River Humber a few miles east of Hull. He was also in charge of the works fire brigade.
On 1st July 1940, during one of the first daylight raids upon this country, a lone German aircraft dropped a cluster of bombs onto Saltend. Although there were no direct hits, bomb splinters pierced a large tank and set the gas inside it on fire. The official account stated, “Mr. Sewell led a party of men into the tank compound and was also continually on the tank roof whilst the gas inside was burning, endeavouring to extinguish the flames by playing foam over the tank top and placing sandbags over the roof curb.” (London Gazette, 30th September 1940.)
On 24th September 1940 two new bravery decorations were announced by the Royal Warrant of King George VI. This was intended to acknowledge the bravery of civilians and also to recognise the fact that everyone was now in the front line, (although military personnel would be eligible for the decorations for actions where military awards were not normally granted). The senior of the two decorations is the George Cross, which is only awarded, “…for acts of the greatest heroism or of the most conspicuous courage in circumstances of extreme danger….” (Royal Warrant). This is one of the rarest decorations in the world and many awards are posthumous. Junior to the George Cross is the George Medal, which was to be awarded, “…for acts of great bravery...” (Royal Warrant). This decoration is also very rarely awarded and perhaps the best-known recipient in recent times has been Lisa Potts, the nursery nurse who was severely injured while defending a group of small children against a man who was wielding a machete.
Just six days after the publication of the Royal Warrant, the first awards were announced and among the recipients of the George Medal were five men who were each awarded the medal for their bravery at Saltend on July 1st. One of these was George Samuel Sewell. This is a remarkable achievement in itself but it is not this award that makes George Samuel Sewell unique.
In the Spring of 1941 Hull was subjected to heavy bombing. (It became the most heavily bombed town for its size in the country.) On 7th July 1941 the London Gazette announced the award of a Bar to the George Medal to George Samuel Sewell. In British practice, this meant that he had been awarded the medal for a second time. It was almost a case of history repeating itself. During one of the heavy air raids incendiary bombs pierced a fuel tank at Saltend. “Although enemy aircraft were overhead and bombs continued to fall, Mr. Sewell immediately climbed to the top of the tank and placed bags of sand over the holes, successfully extinguishing the fires. Mr. Sewell then climbed onto another tank and kicked to the ground a burning bomb.” (London Gazette, 7th July 1941.)
Bars to the George Medal have been extremely rarely awarded. Most have been given to military personnel who were involved in bomb and mine disposal. A few have been awarded to police officers and another was given to a colonial official in Aden. However, George Samuel Sewell is the only person in a purely civilian capacity who was awarded the George Medal and Bar and it is this which makes his achievement unique.
George Samuel Sewell G.M. and Bar, retired in 1958 and continued to live in Hull. He died on 5th April 1969, aged 71, leaving a widow and two sons. It is unlikely that his unique record will ever be equalled.
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