They feared only five people would attend war veteran’s funeral – more than 500 were there to pay their respects.
Quite what Harold Jellicoe Percival, a painter and decorator by trade who kept himself to himself, would have made of it is anyone’s guess.
Most likely a man described as fiercely independent and a bit of a loner would have been astounded and bewildered by the fuss, and most likely a tad embarrassed.
We can’t say for certain because no one really knew Mr Percival. He had few friends and no immediate family, which is, of course, what made his funeral yesterday in Lytham all the more poignant.
“We expected five here, maybe 10 at a push,” said Andrew Collier-Worsell, Mr Percival’s nephew, who had travelled from Hertfordshire.
“The scene when we arrived was astonishing. I knew there had been publicity about it but never in my wildest dreams did I think so many would turn out.”
It all started last week with a small death notice in the Gazette’s sister paper, the Lytham St Annes Express.
“Harold Percival, aged 99. He has no close family who can attend his funeral. Any service personnel who can attend would be appreciated.”
And what happened next is enough to warm the heart and fill one with optimism that a world where so many terrible things happen might not be such a bad place after all.
Someone spotted it and put it on Facebook.
Sgt Rick Clement, the Blackpool soldier who suffered devastating injuries on duty in Afghanistan, saw it and began spreading the word.
“A few lads I know also put it on their social network sites, The Gazette ran a story about it and then more and more got involved and suddenly it was everywhere,” he said.
Former Conservative Party leader Ian Duncan Smith, comedian Jason Manford and film star Simon Pegg all Tweeted about it.
The national newspapers ran the tale of the war hero without family or friends who had died.
TV news broadcasters helped this unstoppable news story get bigger and bigger.
And it is why yesterday, on a damp dark day in Lytham, Harold Percival was given a send-off befitting a man who risked his life to fight for King and country in the Second World War.
More than 500 people, not just those in the services but normal everyday folk touched by Mr Percival’s story, descended on the Crematorium in Lytham.
The building would have needed to be three times as large to fit everyone in.
People stood, heads bowed in the drizzle, to pay their respects.
There was applause as the coffin was lifted from the hearse for a funeral service that began, appropriately enough, at 11am on Armistice Day.
A trumpeter played The Last Post, a two-minute silence followed. Then the coffin was carried inside the crematorium and the service began, most mourners stood outside, listening to the loud speakers.
“It is unreal, I am absolutely amazed,” said Sgt Clement, as he surveyed the scene. “I was just hoping a few of the guys from the regiment would come along to show Mr Percival the support he deserves. But it has just got bigger and bigger and to see the turnout is amazing.”
We know a few things about Mr Percival. He was born in Kent, had a brother and two sisters, and served in the RAF Bomber Command during the Second World War, when he became part of the squadron which carried out the famous Dambuster raids.
Using a specially developed bouncing bomb, the squadron breached two dams in Germany. The attack caused widespread flooding, disrupting industry in the Ruhr valley and was viewed as a great success.
The mission was dangerous, 133 men set out but only 77 returned.
He emigrated to Australia after the war and worked as a household decorator, but led a nomadic lifestyle. “He was a very private man, carrying his few possessions in a bag,” said Reverend Alan Clarke, who led the service.
He moved to Blackpool around 15 years ago – “we’re not sure why,” said his great nephew Adam Worsell, “we think he was based here during the war so maybe he wanted to come back” – and moved into Alistre Lodge nursing home in St Annes after a fall.
“My mum was in the room opposite him,” said Lyn Whitehead, who sang Jerusalem with fellow members of Lytham Community Choir at the end of the half-hour service.
“We’d have a chat about football and I’d take him sweets. He was a very nice chap and if he could see all this fuss, all these people who have turned up to his funeral, he might be a little embarrassed but I bet he’d have loved it.”
It was a sad day. Someone had lost their life, someone who had served his country during a war when you didn’t choose to fight – you had to.
But what happened yesterday was also a celebration, and a relief.
How wonderful that as the horrors of the two World Wars grow ever more distant, and as it becomes increasingly difficult to hammer home to today’s generation the importance of forever remembering the sacrifices made by previous generations, something like this can happen.
Thousands of folk with no real emotional attachment to Mr Percival chose to give up their time and travel to Lytham – some from far afield – to honour him.
What happened here transcended one man’s death, it was a groundswell of support and thanks to a generation of folk – now, sadly, almost all gone – who risked life and limb to ensure we lucky ones today live the lives we lead.
We owe them all – including Mr Percival – and we should never forget it.
What mourners said about Harold Percival
Great nephew, 32, from Cheshire
“Every time we saw him it was a great experience and we just really enjoyed having him. He was like the eccentric uncle that everybody has and he was a fantastic guy to be around. He was very full of life and bearing in mind he was 67 when I was born – so I didn’t get to know him until he was into his 70s – that shows how much energy he had. He didn’t talk a lot about the war to the family, more about his travels. I’d like to thank everybody who has attended and everybody from Lytham and the surrounding area. It has been a fantastic turnout.”
Nephew, from Hertfordshire
“He used to live with us on and off for 25 years while he was in England, and he had his own room in my mum’s house. He taught me how to play cricket, that was one of his major passions. The turnout has taken our breath away. It was outstanding. It was very emotional on so many different levels. It was my Uncle ‘Coe’ so I found it incredibly emotional from that point of view. But it was more than that – it was about the British people saying thank you to the servicemen of this country.”
Manager at Alistre Lodge Nursing Home, where Mr Percival lived
“It was completely overwhelming, I mean this is just something that doesn’t normally happen to a small nursing home in St Annes. We are just ordinary down-to-earth people who do this job day in, day out so it is nerve-wracking to be in the spotlight. We are proud of the care we deliver and we are so proud to have been able to care for someone like Harold. He was a lovely man, very strong-willed and independent, but don’t think that he died alone – you are never alone in a care home. We will never forget Harold.”
REVEREND ALAN CLARK
“You’ve come not because you knew him but because each of you, each of us, are part of each other. We have a common humanity. We are one. To be honest we know very little about Mr Percival. In his 99 years he will have touched the lives of many hundreds of people and each of them will carry some of him with them. Whether we know it or not, each one of us carries a little of what we’ve experienced here. It’s the way we are made – to be a in a relationship with each other. And because you’ve come today to remember Harold Percival, this says something of his worth and of yours.”
SGT RICK CLEMENT
“I’ve had to postpone a trip to London to meet (the pop star and photographer) Bryan Adams, who has done a charity book about wounded soldiers that I feature in. But there was no way I would have missed this funeral. A friend showed me the death notice in the paper. I stuck it on Facebook to get a few of the lads rounded up and they shared it – then some others shared it, and then suddenly it was viral. It doesn’t matter what you serve in – Army, Navy, Airforce – we are all a big family.”
Her mum lived in the room opposite Mr Percival at Alistre Lodge Nursing Home
“When I went to visit my mum he would pop his head around the door and we would have a chat. He liked to talk about football – he was a West Ham fan, I support Blackpool. He wasn’t cantankerous or a loner really – he was just a very pleasant old man who I got on well with. I wish he could see all the fuss. I think he would have loved it and if he was looking down I’m sure he’d think it was wonderful.”
Chairman of REMY Association Lancashire Branch, from Marton
“The day, November 11, and the time, 11am, made it even more poignant. As an organisation we try to get to as many funerals of ex-servicemen as we can but it is truly moving to see how many turned up to this one. I think Mr Percival would be a bit bemused but I think he would also be very proud. People in the forces do a fantastic job for their country so we should be there for them when they need us.
A Falklands veteran from Thornton
“The whole country should be behind people like him. It isn’t just Mr Percival who was stuck in a nursing home – there are countless others like him as well and it was only right that we all, myself included, should make a bit of an effort to give him the send off he deserved. I think the fact this was so heavily supported on the internet is encouraging because it shows a lot of young people are proud of the likes of Mr Percival, and others who have fought in conflicts for their country.”
“I’m not at all surprised by how many turned out. Once an appeal like this goes out among the Airforce, Navy and Army community, then they will be there – it is one big family. It makes me feel very proud to be here though also a little sad. He was 99, what a shame he couldn’t have just one more year.”
Ex-Royal Airforce, from Norbreck
“I am here to say farewell. I was on parade at Blackpool Cenotaph when I found out and my heart sunk. I knew I had to be here. I think he’d be speechless if he could see the scene. It is very emotional and it is nice to see a lot of the top brass here. I’ve seen quite a few very senior Royal Air Force officers. I wouldn’t have missed this for the world.”
MARK MENZIES, FYLDE MP
“When I read the appeal for people to attend the funeral I wanted to ensure someone was there to pay their respects so, already having unavoidable commitments, I sent a representative to attend on my behalf.
“It turns out I need not have worried as the power of the media and word of mouth meant hundreds of people took the time to attend and show their support for Mr Percival.
“That doesn’t surprise me in the least and reflects the warmth and generosity of spirit I have found in people from Fylde since becoming MP.”