Alderman and Mrs Heelis were responsible for two FIRSTS in Appleby. The first married couple to be made Freemen of the town while she was the first woman to be so honoured. Why?
Already well known and respected locally, the Heelis family came up trumps in the first World War. Alderman Edward Heelis was Mayor throughout the war years, ably supported by his wife. His son went off to war, his daughter helped raise funds for wartime charities and his sister was Commandant of the local auxiliary hospital.
Edward Heelis was first elected Mayor in 1896. By the time war broke out he had been in office three times and was asked to continue for the duration of the war. Each time re-election came up he expressed in vain the hope that this would be his final year in office.
At the outbreak of war he employed six staff, by the end this was reduced to two, one of whom it was pointed out was a woman (you can almost feel the attitude that this was only slightly better than no one at all.) None the less he soldiered on, involved in many of the new functions which were being devolved to councils. This was referred to more than once.
A fellow councillor in 1917 commenting on his committee work said, that “he would have gained such a knowledge of butter, sugar, meat,milk and what other commodities they knew not, that he might wish to change the somewhat precarious profession of a lawyer for the more lucrative business of butcher, milk seller, coal merchant or even grocer he would have such a fund of knowledge to start with”.
1918 saw more praise .“The comparative smoothness(!) with which their municipal machinery moved, the immunity from serious criticism of their Local Tribunal, the minimum of friction in connection with the admin of food control had been largely due to the controlling brain,, the tact and the judicial mind of Alderman Heelis”
Even in 1919 he was not allowed to retire; it was realised that he had made many sacrifices in his long period as Mayor during a long & trying period but in view of his work with the housing scheme, the war memorial and the welcome to be given to returning troops council felt he should stay. A seconder felt that as he was Mayor when the men went away he should be there to welcome them back.
Edward Heelis clearly intended to stand down, referring to being chained, but succumbed and indeed did become Mayor for the 10th time in 1919. His son, Lieutenant Guy Heels had returned home safely from India and Mesopotamia. He was able to preside over the peace celebrations and a welcome home for the returning soldiers in January 1920. However even his renowned diplomacy was unable to smooth over the disagreements over the town’s war memorial and ultimately two memorials were erected.
He was ably supported by his wife, Ann Day Heelis. Apart from the ceremonial duties of the mayoress she was instrumental in setting up the womens working party which met regularly to produce clothing for soldiers, she seems to have masterminded raising money and sending gifts to individual soldiers and worked as a VAD at he auxiliary hospital in the Red House putting in 660 hours of service doing nursing and orderly work.
The town’s appreciation of their activities was such that they were jointly awarded the Freedom of the Town “ for a long record of civic usefulness.” This was the first time that the honour had been bestowed on a woman and councillors obviously thought that it was richly deserved.
“In recognition of the eminent services rendered by her to the borough during several terms of office of her husband as Mayor, and especially during his tenure of that office in the years covered by the Great War, in the course of which she not only identified herself with many functions and movements which had as their object the welfare and comfort of soldiers at home and abroad but by her practical sympathy and co-operation which made it possible for her husband to undertake at the earnest solicitations of his colleagues the duties and responsibilities of the civic chair through that strenuous period.” When he was pressed to stay in office at the end of each year his response was always “I’ll see what my wife says.”
After taking the Freeman's oath, they were each presented with a signed and sealed certificate confirming their new status. These were framed in oak supposedly taken from the timbers of the old bridge dating back to the twelfth century.
The Mayor had served in the Rifle Volunteers for 25 years, first as a private and then as an officer. His younger brother, George, was still serving when the war broke out. By this time the Rifle Volunteers had been reorganised and renamed as the 4th Border. 28 local men were mobilised on the 5th August when Captain George Heelis led them to the railway station accompanied by cheering crowds. They were sent to India to release a regular battalion, 1 Border, for service in Europe. Kitchener’s promise that they would in turn serve in Europe was never fulfilled and there is a sense of disappointment that they were away from the main theatre of war.
Two other members of the family made their mark. The mayor’s older sister, Marion, is reported as working at the Netley Military Hospital. She presumably got caught up in the general enthusiasm to join the Voluntary Aid Detachments which were set up in 1909. We have records of a major training event held in the area in September 1913 at which Miss M Heels was in charge of a dressing station. She is listed 1913 as Commandant of VAD Westmorland 12. Between 1914 and 1916 she served in military hospitals in Warrington and Netley. Meanwhile the VADs in Appleby were busy raising money but frustrated by the lack of premises in which to utilise their new- found skills. When Lord Hothfield made the Red House available for use as a hospital in 1917, Miss Heels returned to take charge.
The original twenty beds were increased to 40 and in all 361 patients were treated. There are happy photographs of the inmates at different times and it is clear that the townspeople took the project to heart as every week lists of gifts appeared in the press. At some stage Miss Heels was made an M.B.E.
The officers in the picture are Mrs Bosworth, the Quartermaster and Miss Heelis, Commandant.
Two other ladies merit mention. Mrs Sybil Heels, the wife of Captain George, worked in the hospital for a total of 300 hours, cooking or caring for linen while her niece, the Mayor’s daughter, Sylvester put in 350 hours and was still working in June 1919. Not content with that, her name appears regularly on concert programmes. Early on in 1915 a grand entertainment was held in the public hall in aid of war funds. In co-operation with Miss Perry, teacher at the council school, she wrote an operetta called Elfinsong which was performed by a cast of 12 pupils supported by a chorus of elves. In 1918 a concert to raise money for the Prisoners of War fund opened with a musical play performed by children from the Council School. It had been written by S. Heelis she played the piano accompaniment too. Before that she had been recruited by the indefatigable Mrs Riving ton to take part in one of her concerts - on this occasion she played the viola and sang.