Leeds nostalgia: A mother’s battle to change the law

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We’re all used to the stories of sons, fathers, uncles going off to fight in the Second World War and never coming home, so it’s heartening to come across one which is the other way around. Still, the story of Lilian Poulter is really quite remarkable.

The Leeds-born widower, who had lost her first husband in the First World War, watched helplessly as the second great war took six of her seven sons overseas. In the time they were gone, she must have had many a sleepless night and there must have been times when she feared the worst. After all, coming to terms with the loss of a loved one in a far off land and never being able to say goodbye was a bitter pill many had to swallow.

But Lilian’s sons defied the odds and one by one, they returned from their various postings. But if you think that’s remarkable, there’s more to Lilian than meets the eye, as great grandson Lee Catton explained.

Lee, 47, a scaffolder and father of two from Scott Hall, Leeds, said: “It’s a fantastic story. She lost her first husband in the war and because of the laws at that time, she was left without a pension. All of the stuff about her came out after I started looking into the family history about the six uncles who returned from the war. They all came back, one by one. I think the last two to return home were Wilfred and Arthur and they had been at Dunkirk. It really makes you think what she went through.”

Lilian, whose maiden name was Crossfeild, was born in Eccup, Leeds and had 12 brothers and sisters. First husband Arthur, with whom she had three children, was killed in on May 21, 1915 aged just 34, leaving her a widow and with no pension to speak of.

She responded to the unfair situation she found herself in, joining the Royal British Legion’s Women’s section and becoming president of the Chapel Allerton and Meanwood branch.

It was from this platform, with courage and conviction, she was to change British law by helping to secure the right of war widows to claim a pension.

As a newspaper article reports after the war: “A Leeds mother... made one of the most moving speeches heard by the Princess Royal when she attended the British Legions Womans section annual conference in London yesterday. The mother was Mrs Lilian Poulter of 3, Stonegate Avenue, Meanwood. She told how she had lost her first husband in the last war, married a second who was unable to work for long periods through illness brought on by war service, and how she had worked to bring up her children.

“She was speaking in support of a motion which urged the Government to abolish the means test and alter the Royal Warrant so that parents pensions should be given to all parents who lost a son in the war. The resolution was carried unanimously.”

She told the conference: “My second husband has never been able to forget that they deprived me of a widow’s pension, whenever he was ill and I wanted him to stay away from work he would say: ‘Nay lass, I tak no more brass from thee.’”

Sam Poulter was a veteran of the Boer War and First World War.

Lilian was known among her fellow members for being “a fiery, forthright and forceful speaker.” She had four sons by her first husband and three sons and a daughter by her second.

From her first marriage: Ernest, the eldest, served with the RAF, Arthur with the Duke of Wellington’s Regiment, Wilfred and William with the Royal Engineers, while the sons from her second marriage, Robert Poulter received his discharge from the Royal Marines; Charles Poulter served in India and Fred, then just 17, took up gardening as a career and ended up headmaster of Quarry Mount School in Woodhouse. Finally the only daughter Annie, 14, was a nursing cadet in the St Johns Ambulance.

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