Tank Inventor medal discovery

The Tank Museum has received a donation of two medals belonging to Walter Gordon Wilson, one of the principal inventors of the tank.

The location of the medals had long been a mystery after they were stolen from the family home near Winchester in August 1954. Their whereabouts only became known to the Family when they were put up for sale in 2021.

After making it clear to the seller that the returned medals would be gifted to The Tank Museum, Walter’s grandson Brigadier Henry Wilson came to an amicable arrangement with the vendor.

Whilst these medals of the Great War may look modest in themselves, yet they represent great service and some amazing stories. These medals were awarded to one of the most important names in the development of the tank. One medal – the War Medal – was given to all those who served in the Armed Forces in the First World War, the second is the Companion of the Most Distinguished Order of St Michael and St George (CMG) awarded in June 1917 in recognition of Wilson’s contribution to the war effort.

Born in County Dublin in 1874, Walter Wilson became a midshipman on HMS Britannia aged 14 before resigning from the Navy in 1892 to enter King’s College, Cambridge where he studied Mechanical Sciences. Here he met the Honourable Charles Rolls and acted as a mechanic for this fellow vehicle enthusiast.

In 1898 he teamed up with Percy Sinclair Pilcher, a glider pioneer who then held the record for the longest flight with his Hawk Glider at 820ft (250m). Wilson designed and built an air cooled, flat twin engine weighing only 40lbs for Pilcher’s new triplane with the aim of achieving the world’s first powered flight

The War Medal and Companion of the Most Distinguished Order of St Michael and St George.
Walter Wilson's donated medals.

The attempt was arranged for 30th September 1898 at Stamford Park near Rugby but the engine’s crankshaft broke just days before and Pilcher decided that, rather than disappoint the invited guests and potential backers he would anyway show off the Hawk. It rained on the morning saturating the fabric and the bamboo frame snapped in flight causing the Hawk to crash. Tragically Pilcher died two days later, and, without his partner, Wilson abandoned any further powered flight attempt. Had they succeeded and the view is that they very probably would have, Wilson and Pilcher would have beaten the Wright Brothers into the air by five years. The triplane was never flown but the Hawk was repaired and is displayed in the National Museum of Scotland.

Wilson turned his attention to motor car manufacture and in 1901 the first Wilson-Pilcher, produced at his factory in Westminster, was offered for sale. In all some 50 were built and were acclaimed for their efficiency and cutting-edge technology. Initially they were offered with either a flat four or flat six engine and a four speed epicyclic gearbox

Portrait of Walter Wilson
A portrait of Walter Wilson.

In 1904 he joined the Armstrong-Whitworth Company of Newcastle which took over the manufacture of the car. One Wilson-Pilcher remains in private hands and for a number of years was loaned by the Wilson Family to The Tank Museum. Wilson also worked with J & E Hall of Dartford to produce the Hallford commercial lorry that was widely used by the British Army during the First World War.

Wilson returned to the Navy in 1914 and served with the Royal Naval Armoured Car Division, which protected Royal Naval Air Service bases set up in France and Belgium. Winston Churchill, as First Lord of the Admiralty, was champing to get more involved with the land campaign so he ordered the Head of Naval Construction to investigate the idea of a ‘Land Ship’ and 20 Squadron of the Armoured Car Division was assigned the task. Wilson with his extensive engineering background was placed in charge of testing and, at the behest of the Landships Committee, worked with William Tritton of the agricultural manufacturing firm Fosters of Lincoln to create an effective new landship.

Wilson is credited with numerous key features on the original tanks, notably the track design for the test vehicle ‘Little Willie’ and its rhomboid successor ‘Mother’ with the tracks running around the whole vehicle.

Wilson also worked on the gear system and his epicyclic gear was fitted to the Mark V tank allowing a single operator to drive rather than the four required on earlier models. Wilson transferred to the Army in 1916 becoming a Major in the Heavy Branch of the Machine Gun Corps, the precursor to the Tank Corps.

Bri Genry wilson and little willie
Walter Wilson's Grandson, Brigadier Henry Wilson with Little Willie.

Wilson’s major contribution to the Great War was formally recognised when in 1920, The Royal Commission for Inventors awarded him and Sir William Tritton by far the largest financial prize to any claimant. Considering the key role, he played it is surprising that Wilson did not receive any further recognition than the CMG, but this may have been due to his uncompromising character!

In 1919 Wilson took out a patent on the epicyclic gearbox and this led to the formation of, first, Improved Gears Ltd which then became Self-Changing Gears Ltd based at Lythalls Lane, Coventry. The Company’s pre-selector gears became standard equipment for numerous automobile manufacturers including Armstrong-Siddeley, Daimler, Talbot, Riley and Lagonda to name but some. Other applications included trains, boats and commercial vehicles and military tanks and armoured vehicles. Indeed, the Saladin and Ferret scout cars remained in service well into the later part of the 20th Century. In addition, the Wilson-patented pre-selector gearboxes were made under licence by numerous other companies both in the United Kingdom and overseas.

Black and white photograph of a WWI tank
'Mother' the first ever Rhomboid tank.

Self-Changing Gears Ltd, which became a successful three-way partnership with the Family, Armstrong-Siddeley Ltd and Leyland Motors Ltd, was run by Walter’s eldest son, Gordon Wilson, himself a talented designer until the mid-1960s when Armstrong-Siddeley sold their share to Leyland Motors. Sadly Leyland, or British Leyland as it became, was soon to collapse and become State-owned.

Walter died in 1957.

It is fitting that they are housed alongside Walter Wilson’s great creations, in particular Little Willie and the rhomboid First World War tanks, that made a vital and decisive contribution to the victorious outcome of the Great War.

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