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Plaque in memory of former Leek High School student Michael Holland is returned to a family member

By Leek Post and Times  |  Posted: May 14, 2014

By Belinda Hargreaves

  • Michael Holland, right, with Carsten Velsboe.

  • Michael Holland on expedition.

  • Michael Holland.

  • Michael Holland (right) with his fiancee Valarie Burns.

  • Michael Holland (right) with his fiancee Valarie Burns.

  • From the left, historian and author Brian Lewis, Michael Holland's nephew Max Birchenough, holding the plaque, and Leek High School headteacher John Spencer.

  • The memorial plaque.

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A plaque which was put up in a Leek school more than five decades ago in memory of a former student has been given to a member of his family.

Former Leek High School student Michael Holland lost his life at the age of 29 while trying to save the life of another when he was on an expedition to the ice cap in Greenland, in 1957.

A plaque was placed in his honour at the former site of Leek High, in Westwood Road – now the site of St Edward's Academy– in 1958.

Max Birchenough, Michael's nephew, has now been presented with the plaque after it was uncovered in a store cupboard of old documents and artifacts relating to the 100 years of Leek High.

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Michael Frank William Holland was born to Samuel and Ivy Holland and lived in and around Rushton Spencer as a child, attending Leek High School during and just after the Second World War.

Max, who lives said of his uncle: "He was an active child, with an aptitude for games, and became a keen rugby player.

"However, he was also academically gifted, and went from high school to Birmingham University to read Geography."

Michael was also a keen climber, and joined the British Alpine Society at an early age, leading an expedition to what was then called Spitzbergen – now known as Svalbard – in 1948, at the age of just 20.

Max added: "He came to the notice of several prominent members of the Royal Geographical Society as a result.

"Michael was not too happy at Birmingham, for some reason, and after graduating there he wrote to Dr Kenneth Sandford at St Peter's Hall, Oxford, lecturer in Geology, enclosing examples of his work.

"Sandford was sufficiently impressed to offer him a place at St Peter's, and Michael started a very happy period there as postgraduate BSc student, as several tales from that time bear witness."

On graduating in 1953, Michael continued his interest in exploration, leading an expedition to Greenland, and a further trip to Spitzbergen. He also took up a post as lecturer in Physical Geography at Bedford College, part of the University of London.

He next led the 1956 Oxford University expedition to West Greenland, conducting surveys and a geological exploration of the area around Mount Atter, which had been so named after another Oxford graduate who lost his life there in 1935.

Max said: "1957 was designated as the International Geophysical Year, and Michael was invited to join a Danish expedition to Greenland, under the leadership of Professor Borge Fristrup, of Copenhagen.

"Again, the aim was partly to map the geology of the area, but it is interesting, in view of current climatic events, that another aim was the collection of ice core samples, to build up a history of climatic change worldwide.

"The expedition arrived in May 1957, and worked for two months, until Michael went out with a young Dane, Carsten Velsboe, for further exploratory work.

"It seems that a severe storm caught them by surprise, and Velsboe fell into a crevasse, sustaining quite severe injuries.

"Michael managed to get him out of the crevasse, but dislocated his shoulder in the process.

"The storm continued, and the two men were trapped in their tent, where they died of hypothermia on or around July 18, 1957."

Michael's body was brought home and is buried in the churchyard of St Mary's in Bosley, where the family then lived, and where the pulpit bears a plaque stating that it was restored by Samuel and Ivy Holland in his memory.

Max added: "Michael's parents got the news of his death on August 6, 1957, my grandmother's birthday.

"Her present that year was a diamond necklace, which she could never bring herself to wear.

"Michael's room at Bosley, although used to put up visitors, remained almost unchanged until after Samuel and Ivy died.

"The memorial plaque at Leek High School was dedicated in 1958 with an address given by Michael's head of department at Bedford College, Professor Gordon Manley, himself a leading climatologist, who remained a good friend of the family until his death in the 1980s."

Now the plaque has been uncovered in a room of archived old documents and artifacts by historian and author Brian Lewis, who has recently written a book about 100 years of the school.

Max said: "I didn't see much of my uncle as he was always away – but, from what I do remember of him, he was lively and very jolly. It was always quite an event when he came home. I was six when he died and I do remember the plaque being put up in the school a year later.

"I'm not sure what I will be doing with the plaque just yet but I'm sure it will go up in a prominent place."

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