West Yorkshire market town of Pontefract
 
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Pontefract Local History

A VERY GALLANT GENTLEMAN

CAPTAIN PERCY BENTLEY M.C.


by TERRY SPENCER

(Initial Draft January 2007)

Percy Bentley, scion of a prominent Knottingley family, was born in that town on the 18th January 1891, the son of James William and Helena Bentley, and was baptised in the parish church of St. Botolph on the 11th February. (1)

The family were originally farmers at Knottingley (2) but in 1829, Michael Bentley established a business as an auctioneer and valuer (3) and by the middle of the following decade he had become a prominent citizen of the township, being elected to the Select Vestry, the town’s administrative committee, in 1835. (4)

Michael Bentley served as a vestryman, undertaking a number of public offices arising from his membership, until 1867, being joined on the town’s committee by his son, John Skipwith Bentley in 1865, he being succeeded in 1889 by his son, James William Bentley, who served on the Select Vestry until its replacement by the Local Government Board in 1892. (5)

On the distaff side, Percy Bentley’s mother was the daughter of Mark Stainsby, proprietor of a tar distillery located at the east side of Knottingley, who resided at the Green House, Spawd Bone Lane. (6)

Percy Bentley was educated at the King’s School, Pontefract, before joining the well-known public school, Sedberg, located amidst the North Yorkshire fells, close to the Westmorland border.

Founded as a chantry school in 1525 and re-established as a grammar school by Edward VI later in the sixteenth century, the school had a reputation for scholarship and a tradition of individual achievement. (7)

At Sedberg, Bentley joined the Officer Training Corps and discovered a natural aptitude for military affairs and excelled at rifle shooting. Bentley’s skill in the latter pursuit was shown to good effect when shortly before the outbreak of the Great War in 1914, against all comers, he won a rifle competition held at Strensall, York. (8)

In 1910 Bentley was commissioned in the Territorial Army and posted to the 5th Battalion Kings Own Yorkshire Light Infantry. Following mobilisation, the Battalion embarked for France on the 12th April 1915. Appointed as the Disembarkation Officer, Bentley exhibited something of the courage and dedication to duty which was to bring later distinction, by undertaking his duties within a few hours of undergoing an operation for appendicitis. (9) Bentley’s efficiency did not pass unnoticed and on the 9th November 1915 he was appointed Battalion Adjutant with the rank of Captain, serving in that capacity until 1919. (10)

In 1915 Bentley was wounded. A singular feature of the incident was that Bentley’s brother, 2nd Lieutenant Will Bentley, was present, his trench periscope being twice struck by bullets from the opposing trenches. (11)

Returning from convalescence in July 1915, Bentley resumed his duties as Adjutant and in January 1917 he was awarded the Military Cross for gallantry in action on the Somme. At Passchendaele on the 20th October 1917, Bentley was again wounded, rejoining the 5th Battalion K.O.Y.L.I. in February 1918. (12) Bentley was awarded a bar to his M.C. on the 16th September 1918 following conspicuous action at the battle of Rheims the previous year. On the 7th November 1918 a second bar was gained following action in the second battle of Haveringcourt and a third bar was awarded on the 1st February 1919 as a result of action following a German offensive during which the K.O.Y.L.I. made a memorable stand at Bucquoy. (13)

By his distinguished service Bentley had achieved a distinct rarity, being one of only four recipients of the M.C. and three bars in the entire history of the British Army and additionally, being mentioned in despatches and also awarded the 1914-15 Star. (14)

In passing, it is also worthy of note that Percy Bentley’s brother, Will, and his cousin, Henry, also served with the K.O.Y.L.I. Regiment in the Great War and while their service may have been less noticeable it was no less distinguished in terms of duty. (15)

Given his achievements, it is unsurprising that Captain Percy Bentley should be recommended for advancement in the service. Bentley’s commanding officer summarised his character and ability thus,

"A most capable and gallant officer. Has the rare distinction of the M.C. with 3 bars.

His appearance is very smart and soldierlike. He is the most efficient Adjutant I have known & would make an excellent Staff Officer." (16)

A fuller statement from the same source provides further insight into Bentley’s abilities and potential.

"A energetic, capable officer with very good knowledge & organising ability. A strict disciplinarian. Has a high power of leadership & initiative. Has very good knowledge, tact and capacity for training. Is suitable for Staff as Brigade Major. Is well qualified & recommended for accelerated promotion. No knowledge of foreign languages. Is physically fit and a very smart officer with good power of command." (17)

Yet, notwithstanding his obvious qualities, allied to his gallantry, Captain Bentley appears to have been passed over for promotion. To a civilian, unfamiliar with the mentality which informs military mores, the disregarded recommendation is inexplicable. Was the reason merely that the recent conclusion of hostilities had resulted in a surfeit of officers suitable to fill the limited posts available for a peacetime army? Was Bentley'’ lack of facility with foreign languages a factor? In this respect it does seem rather unusual that Bentley’s time at Sedberg had not instilled the rudiments of at least one foreign tongue. Whatever the reason for his being overlooked the experience does not appear to have caused disenchantment, for Bentley’s service life continued for several more years before he resigned his commission.

At some indeterminate date Bentley had converted to Catholicism. The fact is somewhat remarkable in the light of the Bentley family’s strong ties with the Anglican church at Knottingley. Perhaps the reason for Bentley’s change of faith was his marriage in 1917 to Miss Francis Ann Poskitt of Pontefract who was the sister of Reverend Harry Poskitt, Roman Catholic Bishop of Leeds. (18)

In 1922 Bentley left the army in order to join the family business as an auctioneer and valuer. The extent to which lack of promotion may have been influential in shaping his decision or whether family responsibilities prompted the return to civilian life is not known. Whatever the cause, to embark on a new career was a bold step for someone approaching middle age who had no first hand experience of the chosen business. (19)

As a preliminary to active participation in the family business, Bentley spent two years at the farm of Mr. A. Taylor of Spring Lodge, Womersley, gaining practical experience which was eventually to make him one of the shrewdest judges of livestock in his profession. (20)

Between the two world wars Bentley took a keen interest in the welfare of ex servicemen and their dependants as a member of the local branch of the British Legion. For the British Legion Conference held at Scarborough in 1928, attended by Edward, Prince of Wales, Admiral Beatty and Marshal Foch, Bentley was selected to command the Guard of Honour. (21)

Bentley was the recipient of a local tribute in the immediate aftermath of the Great War. At a meeting of the Knottingley Urban District Council in February 1920, the decision was taken to present illuminated scrolls to all local men whose bravery had gained official recognition by conferment of a formal award. (22) In December of that year a public presentation was arranged in the Council Chamber of Knottingley Town Hall. Six servicemen were to be honoured, one Sergeant K. Penty M.M., posthumously.

Led by Captain Bentley M.C., Sergeant E. Taylor M.M., Pt W. Parkes M.M., Sgt A.J. Kellyn D.C.M., Sgt F. Norfolk D.C.M. and the representative of Sgt Penty M.M. received their oak framed illuminated scrolls at the public gathering on Wednesday 15th December 1920. (23) As each recipient stepped forward the Chairman of the Council, Councillor J.W. Reynolds, read out the individual inscription.

Bentley’s inscription read

"Presented to Captain Percy Bentley 5th K.O.Y.L.I. by the inhabitants of Knottingley, through the Urban Distrcit Council on the occasion of his obtaining the Military Cross and three bars. The donors of this testimonial hereby wish to place on record their very high appreciation of your valorous conduct as set forth in the following recommendation.

‘For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty. As Adjutant during heavy enemy attacks he showed great tact in moving the battalion to a position on the flank from which he managed a counter attack which was successful. Later, when his Commanding Officer was killed, he took command and displayed fine courage and leadership.’

He also received three bars to his Military Cross and was mentioned in desptached. We are proud of your noble conduct and rejoice with you that it has been acknowledged by the military authorities.

Given under the common seal of the Knottingley Urban District Council at a meeting held 29th September 1920."

The address was signed by all members of the Council and the Town Clerk.

In his reply Bentley expressed the hope that the address would not merely be a record of his "mis-called gallant deeds" but also as an appreciation by his townsfolk. He and others had simply done their duty. Awards in war were strangely distributed and for every award made, hundreds more were deserved. The scroll would be valued throughout his life and hopefully by those who followed him. (24)

Fulsome tribute was also paid by Councillor Hargreaves to the recipients of the addresses and in passing he made reference to Percy Bentley’s brother, Captain Will Bentley, and his cousin, Lt Henry Bentley, assuring the meeting that they were all gentlemen "who would never send a man where they would not go themselves." (25)

Following his return to civilian life, Bentley took an active interest in local politics and in 1922 was adopted as the Conservative candidate for the Mill Hill Ward of Pontefract. Defeating his opponent Councillor W. Barber, by 540 votes to 309, Bentley took his seat on the Council to which he was returned unopposed three years later and was to remain a Borough Councillor until 1945.

During the General Strike of 1926, Bentley was appointed as the commander of the special constabulary forces for the Osgoldcross division when the force was reorganised that year, the post being an echo of the lesser role of his great grandfather at Knottingley in former times. (26)

It seems somewhat ironic that if necessary, Bentley was prepared to command action against the strikers and their supporters, people drawn for the greater part from the ranks of those he had so proudly commanded on the Western Front only a decade earlier, the welfare of whom he had been so solicitous in the post war years. As one born into the midst of a relatively small working class community at Knottingley and later as a civic representative of an urban community with a substantial number of coal miners, Bentley must have been aware of the hardship endured by local workingmen and their families and fully understood the harsh conditions which lent both moral and economic legitimacy to their industrial action. One must therefore assume that considerations of working class aside, Bentley was impelled to adopt an anti-strike stance from an innate love of civic order born on military experience and a fear of the influence of Bolshevism occurring in the wake of the Russian Revolution and undermining British democracy.

The attitude found approval amongst Bentley’s largely middle class constituents who in 1928 gave him a 500 vote majority over his Independent opponent, Mr. F. Mason. However, demographic developments and growing support for the Labour Party, reinforced by the effect of the war of 1939-45, promoted psychological changes in public attitudes which found expression in the determination for social and economic change. As a result, when the local elections resumed after the war, Bentley, standing in the Castle Ward, was defeated by Alderman G. Lodge.

Returned successfully for the more middle class Carleton ward the following year, Bentley served until 1949 at which time he did not seek re-election.

Bentley also served as a representative on the West Riding County Council from which he retired in 1939 having served the previous six years as a County Alderman. (27)

As Mayor of Pontefract in 1930-31 Bentley attended by family and friends, members of Pontefract Corporation, local religious leaders and civic dignitaries and a cross section of local schoolchildren was introduced at the Mayor-Making ceremony by Councillor T.J. Sides who, stating his pride in proposing one of his dearest friends as Mayor, referred to Bentley as "the finest adjutant in the British Army." (28)

Amidst the somewhat routine and indeed, boring round of civic duties undertaken by the Mayor in his year of office were two which were no doubt of more than usual interest to Bentley.

The first occurred in January 1931 when accompanied by fellow councillor's and Corporation officials, the Mayor visited Pontefract Barracks to conduct a civic inspection of the K.O.Y.L.I. Depot. Following a comprehensive tour of inspection the visitors were entertained to lunch in the Officer Mess by Major N.E.H. Sim, officer commanding, and Major A.L. Hibbart, commanding officer of the K.O.Y.L.I. Regiment, during which the Mayor complimented both officers on the excellent standard of the garrison and its personnel. (29)

In May, the Mayor and Mrs Bentley, together with civic dignitaries, represented the Borough of Pontefract at the annual Military Sunday held in the medieval setting of the City of York. A military parade involving 400 soldiers and military bandsmen, was accompanied by a service in York Minster conducted by the Bishop of Whitby and attended by 4,000 people, followed by a civic luncheon. (30)

On Monday 17th November 1930 the new Mayor had made his initial appearance as Chief Magistrate of the Borough Court. Following the introductory speeches of congratulation and welcome, Bentley took his seat on the Bench to give his first judgement, the outcome of which whilst delivered in accordance with historic precedence, reflected humanity born of wide experience.

The first case brought before the mayor, doubtless selected for the minor nature of the offence, concerned a labourer of no fixed abode accused of begging in the streets of the Borough. After hearing the evidence Bentley explained to the accused that in accordance with historic tradition it was his prerogative to dismiss the first case brought before him. After obtaining a cheerful assurance from the prisoner that he would quit the town as soon as possible, the Mayor exercised his prerogative and dismissed the grateful prisoner. (31)

Bentley’ civic record included membership of Pontefract medical Charities Committee, Commissioner for Income Tax and Chairman of the Municipal Baths Committee. In his youth, Bentley had played cricket for Knottingley Town Cricket Club and in later years was the President of the Gentlemens’ Swimming Club. (32) Together with his brothers, Bentley also served on the Board of Governors of the Kings School, Pontefract, and was also sometime treasurer of the Pontefract & Goole Divisional and Pontefract Borough Conservative Associations. (33)

On Sunday 8th July 1956 Percy Bentley, aged 65, died suddenly at his home, ‘White Gates’, Ackworth Road, Pontefract, his wife having predeceased him the previous year, leaving a son, mark, and three daughters. (34)

The funeral service took place at St. Joseph’s Roman Catholic Church, Pontefract, on Wednesday 11th July 1956. The service was well attended, family and friends being joined by representatives of many local organisations and institutions including the Yorkshire Association of Valuers, Pontefract Division of the West Riding Constabulary, Pontefract Farmers’ Show Committee, Pontefract Farmers’ Union, the Pontefract District Licensed Victuallers’ Association and the Staff of Messrs Bentley & Sons.

The service was opened by the Reverend W. Fitzgibbon and Requiem Mass was said by Fr. J. Murphy and followed by interment at the church yard of St. Edward Clifford, conducted by the Reverend A. Sweeney. (35)

The day preceding the funeral, the public attending the cattle market at Pontefract observed a minute’s respectful silence in memory of Bentley who had for many years conducted the weekly market on the site, an appropriate tribute to a very gallant gentleman whose deeds are unique in the annals of the town. (36)

©2007 Dr. Terry Spencer

NOTES:
(1) I am indebted to Mr. Ron Gosney for details concerning Bentley's birth, baptism and parentage.
(2) The Knottingley Tithe Apportionment 1842, indicates that Michael Bentley rented land slightly in excess of 15 acres and also owned land a little in excess of two roods, in Long Racca, upon which tithe was payable. The Knottingley rate Books for 1857 and 1859 reveal that in addition to possessing a small farmstead and several cottages with gardens, Bentley was a lime merchant, owning a small quarry. By the latter date Bentley's land holdings included two quarries, a farmstead and several small properties, totalling 38 acres, 2 roods 23 perches.
(3) Knottingley Select Vestry Minute Book, 2-6-1835, p190.
(4) 
(5) Michael Bentley served as Deputy Chief Constable for Knottingley township in 1834 and as Chief Constable in 1840 and was unsuccessfully nominated for the office in 1842. Bentley was a Surveyor of the Highways in 1839 and was proposed for Overseer of the Poor three times but was not elected.
J.S. Bentley was a Poor Law Guardian in 1865 & 1869 and Overseer of the Poor in 1870, in which year he was also nominated as Parish Constable and again in 1875, being unsuccessful on both occasions. A member of the town Burial Board from 1872, J.S. Bentley was Chairman of the Select Vestry, 1880-1888.
J.W. Bentley was Overseer of the Poor in 1888 and served on the Select Vestry from 1889-91.
Percy Bentley's uncle, Thomas Henry Bentley, also served on the Select Vestry and held civic office in its final years while at a later date his brother, Horace, was a member of Knottingley Urban District Council, serving as Chairman in 1929 & 1930.
(6) Mark Stainsby, sometime member of Knottingley Select Vestry, was killed in 1886 when struck by a locomotive close to Womersley Road crossing whilst walking along the track between his home and the tar distillery, c.f. Pontefract Advertiser 8-5-1886. Mar's son, Alfred, married Mary Bentley, daughter of J.S. Bentley, of Quarry House, Hill Top, Knottingley, c.f.ibid 3-10-1885, thus consolidating ties between the Bentley and Stainsby families established by the marriage of Percy Bentley's parents.
(7) The roll of honour at Sedberg School bears the names of more than a hundred distinguished men. An outstanding architectural feature of the school is a beautiful arcaded cloister in memory of former pupils who fell in the world wars of the last century.
(8) Pontefract Advertiser 6-6-1914.
(9) ibid 15-11-1930 p3
(10) ibid 27-9-1930 p5 & Pontefract & Castleford Express 26-9-1930 p10. Also correspondence, Col F.W. Cooke M.B.E. M.C. and Mr. N. McWhirter 24-8-1982. I am indebted to Major M Deeds, Light Infantry Office, Pontefract, for making the latter source available for use.
(11) Pontefract Advertiser 8-5-1915. I am grateful to Mr. H. Pickard for drawing my attention to this source. Surprisingly, the wounds sustained by Bentley in 1915 are not recorded on data obtained from the Light Infantry Office, Pontefract.
(12) ibid 3-7-1915. I am indebted to Mr. H. Pickard for this information.
(13) ibid 27-9-1930.
(14) The other recipients of the M.C. and three bars are Lt. H.A. Gilkes, M.C. (1895-1945), Capt G.C. Timms O.B.E., M.C. (died 1958) and 2nd Lieut F. Wallington M.C. (RFA).
The M.C. was instituted 12th December 1914 as an Army award for commissioned officers for gallant and distinguished services in action. For details and description of the medal c.f. Dorling H.T. 'Ribbons and Medals', 20th edition, edited and revised by A.A. Purves, (1983) p27. The 1914-15 Star was not sanctioned until 1918 for details c.f. Laffen J. 'British Campaign Medals' (1964) p63.
(15) Will Bentley was a member of Pontefract Borough Council for several years after the Great war but did not seek re-election following the year of his Aldermancy in 1929. Horace Bentley was Chairman of the K.U.D.C. in 1930 & 1931. Both men were J.P's who together with their younger brother, set a record for the magistracy, two sitting on the Pontefract bench and the other; Wakefield.
(16) Entry in Captain Percy Bentley's Pay Book dated 25th March 1919. Courtesy of Major M. Deeds, Ligh Infantry Office, Pontefract.
(17) Form of recommendation for command and staff appointments, dated 5th January 1919. Courtesy of Major M. Deeds.
(18) I am indebted to Mrs L. Handley, Pontefract Registry Office, for assistance in obtaining details of Bentley's wife.
(19) Correspondence Colonel F.W. Cook & Mr. N McWhirter 24-8-1982. cited supra.
(20) Pontefract & Castleford Express 13-7-1956 p8.
(21) ibid. Alfred taylor was for many years Chairman of Pontefract Rural District Council. Retiring to Scarborough, he died in 1931, leaving the substantial sum of £25,012 in his will. c.f. Pontefract Advertiser 9-5-1931.
(22) Pontefract & Castleford Express 20-2-1920 p3.
(23) ibid 3-12-1920 p9 & 10-12 1920 p9. It is interesting to note that as an officer Captain bentley was awarded the Military Cross whilst the 'other ranks' reveived the Military Medal. The distinction was ended in 19?? and all ranks now receive the M.C. ?
(24) In view of Bentley's expressed hop it is somewhat ironic that intensive enquiries a few years ago failed to reveal the whereabouts of a single illuminated scroll presented by the K.U.D.C.
(25) ibid 1-12-1920 p7. While illuminated scrolls were presented on at least one other occasion, the cost at £45 each, was prohibitive. Despite an appeal for financial assistance made to the Knottingley Xmas Presents Fund Committee, the scheme failed before all Knottingley men who had served with distinction could be honoured. c.f. Spencer T. 'Knottingley & Ferrybridge War Memorials', (2001) pp29-30.
(26) For reference to Michael Bentley's service as Parish Constable c.f. Spencer T. 'Aspects of Civil Administration & Social Development in Nineteenth Century Knottingley', chapter 10 passim. (forthcoming) & note 5 supra.
(27) Pontefract & Castleford Express 26-9-1930 p10 & 13-7-1956 p8. Also Pontefract Advertiser 27-9-1930 p5.
(28) ibid 15-11-1930 pp2-3
(29) ibid 24-1-1931 p6
(30) ibid 9-5-1931
(31) ibid 22-11-1930 p2
(32) ibid & 27-9-1930 p5. A photograph of Percy Bentley as a teenage member of Knottingley Town Cricket Club, dated 1908-09 is shown in Gosney R. 'Knottingley & Ferrybridge Revisited'. (2006) p35. I am grateful to Mr. Gosney for drawing my attention to this item.
(33) Pontefract Advertiser 15-11-1930 p2 & Pontefract & Castleford Express 13-7-1956 p8.
(34) ibid
(35) Rev Fr. W. Fitzgibbon was the parish priest of St. Joseph's R.C. church and had served as Mayor's Chaplain during Bentley's Mayoral year. c.f. ibid 22-11-1930 p2.
(36) ibid 15-11-1930.


Also by Terry Spencer:

Darrington Hotel: Origins and Early History
Willow Park Dog Track
The Hope and Anchor Inn, Pontefract
Priming the Town Pump
Pontefract's Forgotten Man: Thomas J. Sides


 

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