Alice Frances Hann was a member of the Women's Voluntary Service (WVS) who died during the Cowes Blitz in the early morning of 5 May 1942.

 

Alice was not a member of the fire services but as shall be seen below her commitment to providing for their welfare reached heroic proportions and ultimately cost her life.

She was born in Gatcombe in July 1878, the daughter of Henry, a dairyman, and lived in a cottage known as Little Gatcombe. For reasons unknown by the time of the 1891 Census, when Alice was 12, the family had left the Island and were living 122 Brinton's Road in the St Mary's district of Southampton. By now Henry was a grocer. Ten years later they were still at the same address but Henry had diversified again, now plying his trade as a confectioner. 

On 15 September 1903 (or possibly 05) Alice married Tom Hann, a butcher from Dorset at St Matthews' in Southampton. The 1911 Census found them living in Highcliffe-on-Sea in Dorset. Evidently Tom had his own butcher's shop because in addition to their three daughters and a son their home is the residence of two shop assistants and one house servant; suggesting the business was doing well.

When the war came Tom volunteered for the Royal Garrison Artillery. His records show that at the time of his attestation they were living at Bartholomew Street in Newbury where he was still trading as a butcher. Tom was ordered to report to a fort in Plymouth known as the Royal Citadel. 

Serving as Gunner 163058, Tom's original medical showed him as 'A1' but at some stage he was wounded in action serving with 245 Siege Battery, sustaining injuries to both legs and his abdomen. A practitioners handwritten entry on his records states disablement approximately 50%. 

It was some time after he sustained the wounds that he was finally discharged on 3 November 1919. His total service spanned 2 years and 156 days. For his service and extent of injuries he was awarded a weekly pension of 40s 9d to be reviewed after one year (approximately £60 per week today). 

At some point after the Great War the family relocated to Alice's roots on the Isle of Wight and set up another butchery business, this time in East Cowes at the junction of Clarence Road and Yarborough Road.

The business sustained the family, now comprising six children, throughout the next two decades but Tom, perhaps owing to the injuries sustained in the war, was to die prematurely aged 51 in 1929; he was interred at Carisbrooke Cemetery.

Whether or not Alice ran the business single-handed isn't known but in 1935 she placed the day-to-day management in the hands of fellow butcher Archie Mant who went on to serve with the Island's fire services for many years. 

By 29 September 1939 when the 1939 Register was taken, Alice has listed as the head of the household a retired male bearing her maiden name (first name indeciperable) who was sixteen years her elder and widowed. By now only her youngest son Jack remains of the children and he is employed as a draughtsman. In the column provided for additional notes it states that Alice is an ambulance driver for the A.R.P. 

At that time an essential element of the Civil Defence framework was the Women's Voluntary Service, today known as the Royal Voluntary Service. The work of the WVS was broad and seemingly without limit and drawn up on regional lines to match that of the other home defence organisations.

Alice threw herself in to the WVS role and on the night of 4/5 May 1942 was tasked with deploying a canteen van to patrol the East Cowes district ensuring that the rescuers received sufficient sustenance to fortify them during the most intense and testing of hours in Isle of Wight history.

As the situation worsened Alice's district Commandant for the WVS ordered her to withdrew in her vehicle to a safe location away from the heart of the action. Apparently Alice ignored this order and maintained a position at the bend where Clarence Road meets Minerva Road in order to sustain the firemen working furiously against the fires and digging in to rescue what survivors they could locate.

Ryde's NFS Company Officer Max Heller was sending his firemen to her by rotation and as the enemy attention had waned for some time he allowed Leading Fireman Bert Dewey and Fireman Colin Weeks their opportunity for a cuppa and a sandwich. 

At this precise moment the Luftwaffe's Dornier's refuelled and rearmed at their base in northern France were bearing down on the mouth of the Medina which was now clearly visible by the multitude of fires in the districts. It is suggested that above the din of the roaring fires and thumping fire pumps no-one heard the aircraft approach and one of the first stick of bombs rained down and made a direct hit on the WVS canteen van where Alice was serving Bert and Colin.

All three died instantly. 

 

At the top of the IWFBF Remembers page I stated that the idea is to remember not just those front line firefighters but also those who were committed to providing direct support to them in their endeavours. None could be more committed than Alice Frances Hann who risked her life and paid with her life in an utter disregard for her own safety rather than leave the rescuers without food and drink to keep them going. She may have never been formally recognised for this outstanding act but in the view of the IWFBF she is an unsung hero of the Isle of Wight.

 

Rest in peace Alice Frances Hann.