Disasters in Medway
The Gillingham Bus Disaster
The Gillingham Bus Disaster is the most recent of the disasters described here. There are still many people alive who remember it. Before I got around to writing about it, I was contacted by Richard Bourne, who has written a book on the Chatham Traction Bus Company, who operated the bus involved in the crash.
Richard has given his permission for me to copy his article here:
The Marine Cadets Accident
As with many disasters, a number of habitual practices whose flaws were normally of no consequence combined to involve innocent and good people in a single chance event.
In the dark early evening of Tuesday 4th December 1951 Chatham Traction bus GKE 69, crewed by Driver John Samson and Conductress Dorothy Dunster, was nearing the end of a routine journey on service 1 from Luton to Pembroke Gate. Marching in the road in full uniform on their way to watch a boxing tournament in the Dockyard were 52 members of the Chatham Royal Marine Cadet Corps, aged between 9 and 15. In the darkness the bus came upon the cadets and as a result 24 of them died. Still more were injured.
Reaction to the incident was immediate, and spontaneous support for the bereaved families was widespread. The incident was reported world-wide.
Driver Samson was due to receive a long service award at a company function the following evening. Samson was 57 at the time, with 40 years' service on both trams and buses. In January 1952 he was tried at the Old Bailey and found guilty. The jury recommended that he "should be shown as much leniency as possible". The sentence was a 20 pound fine and a three-year driving disqualification, but the Judge Mr Justice Pilcher added that the mental punishment Samson had undergone, and would continue to endure, far exceeded anything the law could apply.
There was much subsequent debate about the need or otherwise for a public Inquiry. Eventually in June 1952 the Government Committee on Road Safety reported to the Minster of Transport in response to a remit "to consider the accident which occurred at Gillingham on 4th December, 1951". The abstract of the report summarised the conclusions, advising that "there were three main features of the accident; the inadequacy of the street lighting, the lack of proper safeguards for the marching cadets and the failure of the omnibus driver to use his headlights". Recommendations were made to address all three of these issues.
Richard also supplied me with photos, reproduced here, of the memorial plaque which was unveiled on the 50th anniversary of the tragedy. The first shows the view along Dock Road towards Chatham town centre. The plaque is on the wall, in the centre of the photo.
The second photo was of the plaque itself. The text reads:
In Everlasting Memory
24 Royal Marine Volunteer Cadets
Aged 9-13 Years
Who Tragically Lost Their Lives
In Dock Road on
The 4th Day of December 1951
Ever Remembered By
Family, Friends And The
Chatham Marines Cadet Unit
Unveiled By His Royal Highness The
Prince Philip Duke of Edinburgh, KG, KT.
This Day 2nd December 2001
Soon after I first posted details of the Royal Marines Cadets Disaster, I received two emails about it. The first was from Ian, whose blog is at EyeBee. He said:
I was born in Gillingham, and was a resident there for many years ... For a long time, the 1951 bus disaster ranked as Britains worst road accident. It was finally surpassed, in terms of total deaths, by a pensioners coach crash up north some years later. In Gillingham Cemetery in Woodlands Road there is a whole section of graves for these unfortuate victims.
There was a tidy sum of money collected for a fund for the victims and their families, and a row ensued for some time afterwards as to what the money should be used for.
Chatham Traction Bus Company had been formed around 1930 when the towns' tram network was dismantled. They had been owned by British Electric Traction (BET) but subsequently BET sold the undertaking to The Maidstone & District Motor Services Ltd, with the proviso that the company would be operated as a distinct and seperate concern for at least 25 years. This is what indeed did happen, and it wasn't until 1955 that the brown and cream vehicles finally disappeared from Medway's Streets. They had been based at the former Luton Road Depot, and had largely mimicked the old tram routes, such as the route from The Strand, Gillingham to Borstal (after the demise of Chatham Traction this route still operated for many years under the auspices of M&D as the 145, with a branch from this to Cookham Wood running as the 146). Most of the former Chatham Traction routes actually hung on until deregulation in 1986.
As an aside the old trams that were withdrawn in 1930 ended up in a field in Lidsing until they were finally broken up in 1966. My grandmother told me how she used to buy the old tramway sleepers for the fireplace. They burnt well, as they were soaked in creosote.
The second e-mail was rather unexpected; when I first added this section I didn't think for a moment that I would be contacted by someone who was in the area at the time of any of the disasters it covers. However, the sender of this e-mail was:
I remember being in Chatham with my mother when the accident happened. I recall it being very foggy, which it often was in those days in December. We heard and saw ambulances and my mother asked someone what had happened. I can still remember the sense of shock and it being one of those occasions when everyone was talking to each other.
I notice that the report you have does not mention the fog and of course gives a balanced view. I remember that there was a lot of talk about the fact that neither the boys nor their officers were carrying lights, although they were marching in the road, and that the driver would not have seen them in time anyway because of the fog.
There was always a lot of local sympathy for the driver and I remember that in the early 1970's, probably the 20th anniversary, when there was another lot of comment about the use of the money in the fund that was set up, someone I worked with in the Dockyard saying that the driver lived near him and neighbours always tried to protect him at times like this, when some elements of the media were trying to find him and talk to him. I can still feel the sadness after all these years as I think about it.
A huge amount of money was collected by public appeals after the crash. Some was spent on memorials for the boys who died, and some was spent on the boys who were disabled. The mayors, who were looking after the money could not agree what to do with the rest and, after a court case, it was decreed that as it could not be returned to the donors (a lot of it was collected on the streets) it had to be kept in an account. It wasn't until the 1990s that some of the money was spent restoring the cadets' graves and putting up the memorial shown above.
Most of the Royal Marine Cadets were buried in Woodlands Cemetery, one in Chatham, and one in St Margaret's Churchyard, Rainham. The original memorial stone to them in Woodlands Cemetery reads:
THESE MEMORIALS WERE ERECTED
BY PUBLIC SUBSCRIPTION
TO THE MEMORY OF THE
ROYAL MARINE CADETS
WHO LOST THEIR LIVES IN THE
DOCK ROAD BUS DISASTER
OF THE 4TH DECEMBER 1951
The stone lies in front of 19 of the graves, in the naval section of the cemetery.
On 2nd December 2001, on the same day that the memorial in Dock Road was unveiled, a new memorial was dedicated to the north of the cadets' graves.
This memorial is engraved:
AT THE GOING DOWN OF THE SUN
AND IN THE MORNING
WE SHALL REMEMBER THEM
SACRED TO THE MEMORY OF OUR FELLOW CADETS
WHOSE LIVES WERE LOST ON 4TH DECEMBER 1951
Then, in two columns, are the names and ages of the cadets who died.
JOHN BURDETT - 10
DAVID TICKNER - 11
JOHN THORNDYCROFT - 11
WILLIAM STONE - 12
JAMES SHEPHERD - 11
JAMES SCOTT - 9
ALBERT ROSE - 11
RICHARD ONGLEY - 11
GARTH MOSSOP - 11
RODNEY McBRIDE - 11
JOHN LEE - 10
PETER EYRE - 11
ALLAN EVANS - 11
RAYMOND CROSS - 10
DAVID CHARLES - 13
ARTHUR CALVERT - 11
BRIAN BUTLER - 11
JAMES BLOMELEY - 9
COLIN BATTY - 12
JAMES CUNNINGHAM - 12
LAURENCE MURPHY - 12
KEITH WALKER - 12
ANTHONY AINDOW - 13
JAMES TRIGG - 13
THIS MEMORIAL, WHICH REPLACES THE ORIGINAL WAS DEDICATED ON 2nd DECEMBER 2001
AND ERECTED ON BEHALF OF CHATHAM MARINE CADET UNIT No 501
ASSISTED BY GENEROUS PUBLIC AND PRIVATE SUPPORT
THEIR NAMES LIVE FOREVER
Three of the cadets who were Roman Catholic were buried in the Roman Catholic section of the Naval Section of the cemetery, a short distance from their fellow cadets.
These photos were taken in February 2008. The ground around the graves in half of the Naval Section had no grass at all around them, just bare earth. There were signs around though, saying that the Commonwealth War Graves Commission were renovating the area, and around half of the section was already covered in the standard CWGC bright green grass which always seems to be freshly cut.