Ernest David Kay, known as "Ernie" to his wide circle of friends, was born at Holcombe on 30th January 1876, the son of Howarth and Margaret Kay. A keen sportsman, he played with the Burnley Tradesmen football team, but enjoyed most success as an amateur sprinter, winning around 100 prizes over distances up to 440yds. A Salford Harrier, as was his brother Walter, he was one of the founder members of the Burnley Harriers.
In the early days of the battalion's training, Ernie memorably helped his commanding officer, Captain Raymond Ross, to win a bet on the ability of the Burnley Company to march to Accrington and back in quick time.
Like a flash they were off, all on foot, except Corporal Kay who drove his ambulance in the form of a sturdy motor-bike and sidecar and saved his wind to sing such sweet lullabies as "Cock Robin", "Good Luck Bobby McGregor" and "Totty will you go" etc. With the Captain in front and Ernest on his cycle, blasting his songs into the ears of anyone showing signs of wearying "Z" Company did it. Accrington and back in about half an hour or maybe in three half hours. Which was it? Each man's share of the bet individually was one bun and a bottle of pop.1
The Burnley Company left its home town for Caernarvon on 23rd February 1915, before moving as Z Company to Penkridge Bank Camp on Cannock Chase 11 weeks later. It was at Penkridge that Ernie was appointed Sergeant Cook on 31st May.
By now the motor cycling corporal was Sergeant Cook and although he had had a cookery course, his mind was still concentrated on internal combustion engines. Some said "we were hardly that!". But he was of the persevering type and when one considers the cooks he had (God bless'em) it is a wonder anybody survived to tell the tale. They at least worked, but then, salts do that, and the troops soon found out why the tea sometimes tasted bad!"
Training continued in camps at Ripon and Hurdcott before the battalion was posted overseas, first to Egpyt in December 1915 and then to the Western Front in France in March 1916.
In the days immediately before the Battle of the Somme, the battalion rested behind the lines in Warnimont Wood.
At night, most of the "Z" Coy gathered together for a sing-song and here once again the old Motor-cycling corporal, who was now Platoon Sergt. Kay, led the lads from Burnley and Blackburn and district in singing the old songs, that had been so gaily sung on the highways and byways of East Lancashire. "Cock Robin", "Bobby McGregor", "Whiter than the whitewash on the wall", "Who's your lady friend", "Totty will you go", "Oh my, what a rotten song" are some of the songs that will always be dear to "Z" Company. They are as much "Z" Coy as Sergt. Kay himself and both were great assets.3
Z Company formed part of the 3rd and 4th waves of the Accrington Pals' attack on Serre in the morning of 1st July 1916, going over the top from Campion and Monk Trenches at 7.29am. In a letter to his wife, Ernie described how he was wounded leading his platoon across No Man's Land:
I got up to the wire in front of the German's first line when I got my first hit - a piece of shrapnel or bullet through the right forearm, clean through, but not at all bad. I could use my arm. I got down then and waited for my men to come up, but could not see any. I crept up nearer to the German lines. I wanted to get close enough to drop a few bombs in their trench, but had not gone far before I got put out for a bit with one in the back. I thought it had finished me. I told a fellow so next to me. It was one in the back, and took away all feeling. I thought it had touched my backbone, but happily the use came back in a few minutes. But this was a very lucky escape, as the shot went clean through the pack on my back and missed the spine by just a fraction. The next wound was just a bit of shrapnel in the shoulder - nothing to speak of.4
Ernie was treated for his wounds in the Scottish National Red Cross Hospital at Bellahouston, Glasgow from which he was discharged on 13th September 1916. His life in the ranks soon came to an end when he was accepted for admission to No.2 Officer Cadet Battalion which he joined at Pembroke College, Cambridge on 3rd January 1917. He was appointed to a temporary commission with the rank of 2nd Lieutenant on 25th April and would have been delighted when he was posted back to his old battalion which he re-joined on 18th June.
In the spring of 1918, the Accrington Pals fought desperate defensive actions first at Ayette and then, during the Battle of the Lys, at Vieux Berquin. It was during the second action that Ernie won the Military Cross for gallantry over the days of 12th and 13th April. The citation was published in the Supplement to the London Gazette of 16th September 1918:
For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty. This officer, in charge of a platoon, acted as rearguard to withdrawing troops the whole of one day, and was the last to leave each successive position. He continually rallied stragglers and reorganised the line on his flanks. The following day, seeing the enemy massing in an hollow, he took three Lewis guns forward 150 yards to a position from which he could effectively enfilade them. He was always in the open, watching for the enemy's movements or controlling the fire of his men.
Ernie left the battalion for the last time after being wounded in his neck, arm and back at Meteren on 21st May. After hospitalization in the U.K., he served with the Royal Army Ordnance Corps on the Baltic Mission (North Russia) before being demobilized on 21st December 1919.
In the years following the war, Ernie established an importing business and for a number of years owned a cutlery manufacturing works in Sheffield. Both his son, Francis Roche, and his son-in-law, Leslie Wilkinson, worked alongside him.
Above left: Ernie's son, Francis Roche Kay, a Lieutenant with the R.N.V.R. in the Second World War. Above right: Wedding of Francis Roche Kay and Elsie Wormwell, 14th November 1939. Ernie is standing behind the bride; his daughter Alice is next to the groom. Photographs by kind courtesy of Pat and Roger Kay.
Ernie was best-known locally however for his long association with Burnley Football Club. First elected to the board in 1925, he lost his place four years later before rejoining in 1937. The policies he put forward did much to bring the club into the prominence it was to enjoy in the years to come. He became Chairman in 1948, a post which he held until 1952. He died in hospital of a haemorrhage on 6th June 1956, the day after returning home from representing his club at the annual meeting of the Football League.
Burnley Football Club Function, date unknown; Ernie Kay is standing in front of the archway on the right, Bob Lord is in front of the painting, Francis Roche Kay is standing at the far left. Photograph by kind courtesy of Pat and Roger Kay.
© Andrew C Jackson 2006
Compiled from quoted sources, TNA documents WO95/2358 and WO339/84716, the Burnley Express and News of 13th June 1956, and with the kind help of Pat & Roger Kay, Catherine Duckworth and David Ingham. Extracts from "The History of Z Company" by Percy Crabtree and Fred Sayer are reproduced here by kind permission of Gillian Brown & family and Judy Langton.