William Ratcliffe, V.C., M.M. was known to his family and friends as Bill or Billy, so to avoid confusion, I will refer to him as Bill and his father as William
Bill’s maternal grandparents, Peter and Mary Kelly, nee Rutledge, were Irish immigrants who arrived in Liverpool around the time of the potato famine. However, without further research, it is difficult to say how many of their family came with them. We know that Mary’s mother, Ann Rutledge, settled in Toxteth and we have good evidence that shows that they had at least one child who was born in Ireland and four more born in Liverpool. Their daughter Mary Ann, Bill’s mother, was born in Liverpool on the 2nd of January 1851 and baptised three days later at St Patrick’s Church, Toxteth.
In 1876, Mary Ann Kelly married William Ratcliffe and less than a week later she gave birth to their first child, Sarah.
Bill’s paternal grandfather, John Ratcliffe, was also born in Liverpool. In 1834 he married Jane Tolbut in Standish, Wigan. So far, I have found records that show they had five children. After the birth of their second child the family left Wigan and moved to Liverpool. Their youngest child, William, was Bill’s father. William was born in Toxteth on the 15th of January 1854 and baptised at St Vincent de Paul church. He grew up close to the Mersey and spent his adult life working at the docks. He died on the 18th March 1917 in the Royal Southern Hospital
Like many families, the Ratcliffes moved house regularly. Better accommodation during good times and cheaper rooms when work was scarce. Poor housing and unemployment all contributed to high infant mortality and Mary Ann and William lost two of their seven children. Thomas was just two years old, in 1888, when he passed away. And in 1892, John was three days old when he was buried in a public grave at Ford Cemetery. Five months later real tragedy struck. Bill’s mother, Mary Ann, was forty one when her husband registered her death.
After their mother died the Ratcliffe children had to grow up fast. Mary Jane was eleven years old when she took on the care of Bill, aged eight, and three year old Alice. Sarah, who was sixteen, earned money by selling kindling and now more than ever her income was needed to support the family. In 1909 Sarah married John Humes.
At seventeen, Mary Jane married Peter Joseph Rowan and three years later the family were living at 13 Parliament Street. By 1901 Bill and his brother Peter had joined the army. Sarah was in service, and Bill’s father and younger sister, Alice, were living with Mary Jane. In 1906 the Rowan family had settled at 14 Brindley Street. This was their first stable home and they remained there for twenty years. In 1915 Bill’s sister, Alice, married Thomas Hughes.
At seventeen, Bill’s brother, Peter, was working as a labourer at the Queens Dock and living in Dexter Street. On 27th March 1895 he joined the Militia, 4th Battalion, Liverpool regiment (service No. 3305). Eighteen months later on 18th September 1896 when he signed up for twelve years with the 2nd Battalion, King’s Liverpool Regiment (service number 5412) the family were living in Pilgrim Street. Peter spent over two years in South Africa and after almost after five years service he was found to be medically unfit and discharged. He returned home to his family at 13 Parliament Street and, like his father, found work as a labourer at the docks. In 1902 he married Margaret Melia.
On 4th August 1914 Britain declared war on Germany. Peter was quick to enlist. Although not back to full health he joined the 13th Battalion, Kings Liverpool Regiment, on 22 September 1914 (Service No. 12237). After eighty one days he was once again found to be unfit for service.
A year later Peter was a mercantile marine and working as a fireman. On the 7th of May 1915 he was heading home from New York on the Lusitanina. His ship was just of the coast of Ireland when it was torpedoed by a German U-boat. Peter along with 1197 passengers and crew went down with the ship. Peter’s widow was left with four young children.