Daily Telegraph (20/Jan/2005) - Obituary: Geoffrey Riley


Geoffrey Riley, GC

Geoffrey Riley, who died on Sunday aged 75, was awarded the George Cross for his courage as a 14-year-old schoolboy in attempting to save an elderly woman from drowning in a flash flood.

On May 29 1944, a thunderstorm, followed by a cloudburst, broke over the Digley Valley and the River Holme in Yorkshire, becoming a torrent 80ft wide and 15ft deep which flooded surrounding land and buildings. It was Whit Monday. Young Geoff and his father were looking down on the swollen river from higher ground when they saw that the 76-year-old woman, who lived in a terraced cottage, had taken refuge on her garden wall, which was crumbling under the force of the water.

Geoff first tried to reach the woman by crawling along the wall, which was soon under water, but was prevented by gaps that had already been created in it. She was too frightened to move by herself so he entered the water via an adjacent access road to two factories alongside the river, and reached the wall to help her down into the floodwater. But as he started to bring her to safety, the torrent carried them both towards the river, where they were pinned against a dry stone wall.

By now the floodwater was flowing over the wall and into the river with such force that Geoff was becoming exhausted and could make no further progress. His father, Donald, who had been placing stones in a line to calculate how quickly the waters were rising, realised that he was in difficulties, and went to the rescue.

He reached his son and, holding the old woman between them, they inched towards shallower water with their feet against the wall and their backs to the torrent. Then, without warning, this wall collapsed, and all three were swept away.

Geoff managed to climb on to some floating debris, and so survived. The bodies of his father and the woman were found several miles downstream when the flood had subsided.

Five months later, Geoff and his mother went down to Buckingham Palace where he queued behind a Canadian fighter ace who was to receive a DFC, before mounting the dais without a trace of nervousness for King George VI to pin the Albert Medal on the lapel of his dark suit. "The King congratulated me, and told me I had done very well," Geoff told a reporter afterwards. "Now I am going back to school. They gave me a special holiday to come to the palace."

The Royal Warrant for the Albert Medal was later revoked, and Riley exchanged his award for the George Cross at an investiture by the Queen at Buckingham Palace on March 6 1973.

The son of an electrical engineer, Geoffrey Riley was born at Huddersfield on November 20 1929 and educated at Holme Valley Grammar School. He became an apprentice with the Central Electricity Generating Board. Between 1947 and 1960, he did two courses at Huddersfield Technical College and two years' National Service with the RAF, with which he was based at Stoke Heath, Shropshire, as a junior technician.

Riley qualified as a chartered engineer and spent his working life with, first, the CEGB and then, after privatisation, Powergen, where he found himself employed as a shift charge engineer.

A practical man, Riley bought a large, rundown detached house which he enjoyed renovating; he knocked down walls, re-plumbed and re-wired. He once hired a plasterer whom he watched in action in order that he could do any future work himself. He was also interested in gardening and restoring vintage motorcycles.

On retirement, Riley and his wife enjoyed travelling by caravan around Britain and Europe. After her death, he took holidays in New Zealand, Australia and Canada. In 1977 he received the Queen's Silver Jubilee Medal; from 1995 he served on the committee of the VC and GC Association.

Geoffrey Riley married, in 1953, Barbara Mellor, who predeceased him in 1997. Their son and daughter survive him.