STANDING in the sun last Saturday as the Last Post drifted mournfully across Witton Park and the memorial stone to Victoria Cross winner Lt-Cmdr George Bradford was dedicated, two words swam through my mind.

Derrick and mole.

Bradford's VC citation had been read during the service in St Paul’s Church, almost opposite the house where he had been born on St George’s Day 1887. It told how, on St George’s Day 1918, he had “climbed up the derrick” on the deck of his ship, and how “during this climb the ship was surging up and down and the derrick crashing against the mole”.

Whenever I tell his extraordinary story, I stumble over these odd words.

A quick look in the dictionary and, faster than you can say “Jack Robinson”, “mole” is explained – it comes from the Latin “moles” which meant a massive structure, “a thing of great size”. Bradford’s ship was trying to land on Zeebrugge’s manmade harbour which loomed 30ft above its deck, so it truly was “a thing of great size”.

Derrick – as in a crane – is much more interesting.

In Queen Elizabeth’s day, executioners were hard to come by, so the queen’s favourite, the Earl of Essex, offered criminals who had been sentenced to death a reprieve if they – poachers and gamekeepers – would become the executioner. Convicted rapist Thomas Derrick stepped forward.

He turned out to be a good executioner, as executioners go, despatching about 3,000 people in his 50 year reign. His skill was in devising the “derrick” – rather than just throwing a rope over the gallows and hauling the person up, he placed a ring in the centre of the beam and used pulleys to lift his victim into place.

When the Earl of Essex fell out with the queen and was sentenced to death for his revolting behaviour, Derrick was the executioner. As the earl was a nobleman, he was able to choose the method by which, in his own words, he was “spewed out of this realm”, and he plumped for the axe.

However, Derrick – the earl’s appointee – wasn’t very good at axemanship and it took him three strokes to bludgeon Essex’s neck so that the headsman could pick the severed head up by its long, fair hair and declare it to be that of a traitor. The earl would have been better to let Derrick use the derrick.

Because the derrick was an efficient means of picking up and lowering heavy items, the word “derrick” was applied to all similar-looking devices which used the same principles.

And so Lt-Cmdr Bradford jumped from the top of the derrick onto the mole, leaving himself utterly exposed and, faster than you can say “Jack Robinson”, all the enemy guns were trained upon him.

There are several potential derivations for this quick-as-a-flash phrase. The best concerns Sir John Robinson who was the lieutenant of the Tower of London from 1660 to 1679, and in charge of the whole execution process, including the derrick. He prided himself on his efficiency.

Indeed, before the guilty party could make his last appeal to the last figure of authority – Sir John – he was gone. His death was faster than he could say “hey, Jack Robinson…”

In the spirit of such explanations, this column was held over from its usual day of Friday – we hope its non-appearance didn’t leave you hanging around.