1951 – Death of 24 Cadets in Dock Road, Gillingham
Bishop of Rochester denounces the idol of speed on the road.
Hopefully reader you will understand why I decided to blog on this subject at what should be a time of happiness, when you realise that as a walking-rambler (as opposed to a verbal-rambler) I frequently have to dive into hedges to avoid speeding traffic – including buses with projecting wing mirrors.
It is right that memorial plaques mark the location of significant events but their value and significance is limited unless the circumstances of the event are also appreciated. Without this information we lose an opportunity to learn from the event.
24 Marine cadets lose their lives.
Many thousands of people have probably walked passed the memorial plaque in Dock Road marking the place where 24 Royal Marine Volunteer Cadets aged 9 – 13 years lost their lives on 4 December 1951. Many not have noticed it, others may know of the event but few will know of the circumstances or indeed that it marks what was, at the time, the site of worst road accident in British history.
A column of cadets were marching along Dock Road, by Chatham Dockyard to attend a boxing match, when a double-decker bus ploughed into the back of their column. The driver of the bus, George Samson (57), attended the inquest although he was told he would not be required. He was clearly distressed as the names of those who had lost their lives was read out and needed to be taken home by police car. At a subsequent sitting the driver insisted on giving evidence although he was not required to do so,
The subject of the speed of the bus became a significant point of interest to the inquest. The driver stated that he was cruising along the road at between 15 & 20mph and didn’t spot the column of cadets, who were wearing blue battle dress, as there were intermittent black patches between the lamp posts. The back of the column was also not marked by a light. Other witnesses stated that the bus was travelling at between 40 & 45 mph along a road that was regarded as fit for speed, others said the bus was not going any faster than usual – without indicating what the usual speed may have been.
After deliberating for 1 hour 20 minutes the jury returned a verdict of ‘accidental death’ on the cadets that died in this tragedy but added a rider that the speed of local buses should be reduced.
The dead and injured – some very seriously injured – were taken to St. Bartholomew’s, All Saints and the Royal Naval hospitals. Police cars from Chatham toured the Medway towns making emergency calls at the boys’ homes. Parents were taken to Gillingham Police Station where an information centre had been set up to receive news from the hospitals. Hundreds of car-owners in the Medway towns ran a shuttle service carrying parents first to the police stations in Chatham and Gillingham, and then to the various hospitals.
The Funeral of the Cadets.
2,000 people attended the funeral in Rochester Cathedral of 20 of the cadets. (Three had a catholic funeral in the Church of Our Lady, Gillingham, and the forth was buried privately in Chatham Cemetery.) Silent crowds standing five or six deep, listened outside the cathedral to the relayed service. Thousands more lined the four mile route from the Cathedral to Gillingham Cemetery were the internments took place.
Condemnation of the speed of traffic on our roads.
Bishop Chavasse used the opportunity during his address at the funeral service to condemn “the social sin of the continuous slaughter of innocents on our high roads”.
Driver forgiven by survivors?
As a sign of considerable generosity and forgiveness six injured cadets who were being treated in St. Barts sent the driver of the bus a parcel of chocolate and fruit. It appears that the driver was regarded with great affection by the children who travelled on his bus to school. He was also an experienced driver having received a long service award from his employer, the Chatham & District Traction Company, for whom he had worked for 40 years.
George Samson, the driver, of Albany Road, Chatham, pleaded not guilty to the charges of
dangerous driving and driving without due care and attention, and elected to go for trial at the Old Bailey. He was granted £50 bail.
His defence lawyer in his opening address to the jury which included four women (press regarded this as significant) stressed that Mr Samson was not charged with manslaughter as he was not driving with utter regard for the well-being of others. He also asked the jury to disregard what they may have read in the press.
It was clear that Mr Samson had to take a significant amount of the responsibility for the tragedy. He was driving without lights. Samson claimed this was because he did not want to dazzle on coming traffic – although it seems to have been accepted there was none. It also seems to have been accepted that the bus was travelling down Dock Road at about 15 to 20mph. Other bus drivers gave evidence that it was customary to travel at this speed down Dock Road. However the fact that the bus finally stopped 10 yards past the head of the column was taken as evidence that the speed of the bus was excessive.
The bumps / stones in the road were the cadets!
Mrs Dorothy May Dunster who was the conductress on the bus said she noticed nothing unusual about the way the bus was going. She confirmed that the blind behind the driver was down so he would not be affected by the bus’s on board lights. At the time of the accident she said she was on the platform of the bus sharpening her pencil. Chillingly she said she thought the bus had gone over some stones of bumps in the road. When the bus came to a stop, Mrs Dunster went round to the front of the bus where she found Mr Samson out of the bus, dazed and continually repeating “I didn’t see them.”
Lieut. Clarence Carter was in charge of the cadets at the time of the accident.
Lieut. Carter was was questioned about why there was no back-marching person carrying a lamp; why the cadets were marching along the road when then was a pavement that could have been used. Carter claimed he was marching the boys on the road in line with military discipline – despite the fact that had the boys been on a school trip they were of an age (one as young as 6) where they would have been expected to walk on the path.
Lieut. Carter in his evidence stated that he had never read the Highway Code and was not aware that pedestrians should face oncoming traffic.
The judge in summing up highlighted that Samson should have been aware of the dangers of driving at speed, without his lights on in an area which was known to be dark – (as street lights had been turned off to save money.)
The jury found George Samson guilty however they also asked the Judge to show him leniency. Witnesses were clearly not on trial but the jury – based on the reported evidence – would have been aware that the actions of other which contributed to the tragedy. Lieut. Carter for instance not having a lantern carrier at the rear of the column – although he would have been ware of the lack of street lighting; requiring the boys to march as a column – rather than as a crocodile (as that would have not have been the military way); and being unaware of the rules contained in the Highway Code concerning pedestrians.
The Judge recognised the request of the Jury and accepted that Mr Samson had already suffered tremendous anguish but felt that the crime could not go unpunished. He therefore fined Samson £20 and suspended his driving licence for three years. (£20 would have been the equivalent (2018) to approx. £700.)
George Samson was given one month to pay the fine but he told the Judge that he had brought his life-savings to Court and would pay the full amount immediately.
Some of the parents – many of whom had attended the trial – were outraged that the sentence was so light. In order to avoid their anger George Samson left the Court by a side door.