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, 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.
Public Spiritedness
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.
Soapbox Moment!
The miss-use of speed and poor street lighting remain issues today almost 70 years on from this tragedy.

– Speed limits are not a ‘target’ – they are advisory.
– Drive at a speed and in a manner that allows for the ‘unexpected’.
– One accident can end lives and disrupt the lives of hundreds of others.
There was never any suggestion that George Samson had been drinking but at this time of year many will be driving having had a drink – so they perhaps they need to be particularly mindful that the unexpected can occur, accidents can and do happen, and that that one lapse / accident could destroy their life and the lives of many others.
Sources – The British Newspaper Archive.
Dundee Courier, 5 December 1951.
Birmingham Gazette, 15 December 1915.
Belfast Newsletter, 17 December 1951.