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Archives biographies: Henry Ellis

Henry (Harry) Stephenson Ellis was born in 1881 in Newcastle-upon-Tyne and educated at St Bees School, Cumberland. On leaving school he became an apprentice with Cardiff Corporation Electricity and Tramways Departments and he attended classes at Cardiff Technical College. In 1904 he was appointed as an Assistant Engineer to the Departments. In 1907 he became the City of Bradford's Chief Assistant Electrical Engineer, and he was promoted to Deputy City Electrical Engineer and Manager of the Electricity Department in 1910. In 1912 he moved to South Shields to become the Borough Electrical Engineer, and during the First World War, he served with No. 3 Signals Section of the Durham Royal Engineers Volunteer Home Force.

Ellis’s work during WWI

A letter from Lieutenant Colonel Walsh of the Welch Fusiliers to Ellis, dated 1st November 1915, is the first correspondence on his wartime activities. Mr Ellis had written to Lieutenant Colonel Walsh previously to request leave from his position as Borough Electrical Engineer in South Shields. In his reply, Lieutenant Colonel Walsh was adamant that Ellis stays in his employment as he was providing much-needed power for shipbuilding firms that were vital for the War. He further explains that even if Ellis were to join the Royal Engineers then he could be sent somewhere peaceful engaged in work of less importance than the type he was doing at home. Ellis’s work as a skilled electrical engineer was recognised as being of more use to the war effort than in the ranks of the Royal Engineers.

“…I have come to the conclusion that you really have absolutely no business or right to leave the important post which you are now holding. Remember this, you are providing power for large shipbuilding firms, Graving docks and people occupied in building destroyers, submarines, cruisers etc…”

“Supposing you get what you are qualified for namely a Captaincy in the Royal Engineers, you might find yourself sent to some quite peaceful place doing Military Engineering work of very small importance compared to the work in which you are now engaged.”

In a second letter dated 15 November 1915, Lieutenant Colonel Walsh reiterates his assertion that he believes Ellis’s first duty is to provide power and light to the shipbuilding industries of South Shields and tries to dissuade him from joining the Royal Engineers in France with the suggestion of enrolling in the Volunteer Corps.

Ellis did not give up easily and the reply from the Air Organization Directorate in May 1916 shows that he applied for a commission in the Royal Flying Corps.

A letter from May 1916 gives evidence that whilst not engaged in active service Ellis was not sitting idle. A reply from Major General Shaw from the Home Forces describes how Ellis’s method of painting street lamps was favourably received by the Field Marshall. He sent drawings on how to minimise white light on the ground produced by arc lamps.

By April 1917 Ellis had offered his services as a National Service Volunteer. However, he again received notice that because of the importance of his occupation he was not to be called upon unless absolutely necessary and only after the offers of men in less important occupations had been exhausted,

“Your offer has been recorded, but in view of the nature of your occupation it can only be considered after dealing with the offers of men engaged in work of less essential importance.”

Ellis did not give up; such was the fervour for patriotism and the desire to enlist. By November 1917 Ellis had succeeded in his attempts to join the war effort in a military capacity. He was accepted as a Lieutenant in the Volunteer Force, County of Durham Volunteer Engineers, exactly two years after his initial request. He was the commanding officer for No.3 Signals Section of the Durham Royal Engineers Volunteer Corps. In May 1919 he received orders for the disbandment of the Volunteer Force and the re-opening of the Territorial Force. He was in command of checking all remaining stores and the accommodation at the Drill Hall.

In recognition of Ellis’s contribution to the war effort, he was granted the Honorary Rank of Lieutenant with the special privilege of wearing his uniform during military occasions,

“I am commanded by the Army Council to inform you that in recognition of your services as an officer of the Volunteer Force in the Durham Royal Engineers (V.) you have been granted the Honorary Rank of Lieutenant with the right to wear uniform on special occasions of a military nature…I am to take this opportunity of conveying the thanks of the Army Council for your services to the Country during the Great War, and for the excellent work you have done.”

After the war

Ellis left Durham in 1919 to take up employment as Borough Electrical Engineer in Southampton. This was a short-lived post, as Ellis resigned in 1920 following an acrimonious strike during which he kept the Borough's electricity supply running. He returned to Cardiff to join his brother Arthur in a consulting firm, A. Ellis and Partners, but in 1923 he returned to municipal electricity supply when he was appointed as Chief Engineer and Manager of the West Gloucestershire Power Co. Ltd, where he remained until his retirement in 1947. Mr Ellis joined the IEE as an Associate Member in 1906 and became a Member in 1913. He was an active member of the IEE's Western Section and served as its Chairman in 1938-39. He was also a Member of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers.

Source: Harry Ellis personal papers IET Archives NAEST 155.

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