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Kent's forgotten disasters: From HMS Bulwark to Staplehurst rail crash and Chatham bus tragedy of 1951 to Faversham gunpower explosion

With each passing year, memories begin to fade of some of Kent's darkest moments.

While the likes of the Herald of Free Enterprise tragedy or the IRA bombing in Deal remain frequently referenced, there are an increasing number of people unaware of some of the county's most horrific incidents.

The memorial for those killed on HMS Bulwark in Woodlands Cemetery, Gillingham
The memorial for those killed on HMS Bulwark in Woodlands Cemetery, Gillingham

In the first of a two-part feature, we take a look at some events which forever changed communities and the lives of those involved and those they left behind.

Bus disaster

Along Dock Road towards Chatham town centre is a blue plaque erected in memory of a heart-wrenching tragedy which resulted in the deaths of 24 children aged between nine and 13.

They had been part of a group of more than 50 Chatham Royal Marine Cadet Corps marching three-abreast down the road on a dark and gloomy early evening on December 4, 1951, en route to watch a boxing tournament at the dockyard.

As they walked wearing dark uniforms with white belts and lanyards, an experienced bus driver with some 25 years experience approached in his vehicle on the road behind them. As was the practice then, the bus had only its side-lights on.

The funerals of some of the 24 young cadets killed in Dock Road, Chatham
The funerals of some of the 24 young cadets killed in Dock Road, Chatham

Spotting the bus approaching them, the adult leading the group shouted at the boys to keep to the kerb to allow the bus to pass them. A failed street light made the road particularly dark.

It ploughed into the back of the group. Some 17 youngsters were instantly killed. Another seven would die in hospital.

The driver would tell the inquest into the tragedy he had not seen the cadets and was only aware something was wrong when the bus felt as though "it had run over a lot of loose stones or something".

At the time it was the most deadly road accident in British history.

Thousands lined the streets for their funeral service at Rochester Cathedral.

Funeral of the bus crash disaster in Chatham in 1951
Funeral of the bus crash disaster in Chatham in 1951

The bodies of those children killed can be found in Woodlands Cemetery in Gillingham.

Driver of the bus John Sansom was found guilty of dangerous driving and after the jury's plea for leniency was banned from driving for three years and fined £20.

The blue plaque on Dock Road was unveiled to mark the 50th anniversary in 2001 by the Duke of Edinburgh.

Gunpowder explosion

Faversham's wider national significance over the centuries has revolved around beer and gunpowder.

The coffins of those who died in the 1916 gunpowder explosion in Faversham
The coffins of those who died in the 1916 gunpowder explosion in Faversham

While the likes of Shepherd Neame continues to define the town to many, for several centuries the town was perhaps better known as the centre of the British explosives industry between the 16th and early 20th century with its gunpowder sites creating jobs and bringing prosperity to the market town.

But on the afternoon of Sunday, April 2, 1916, an event would take place which would change all that forever.

The gunpowder factory in Uplees had been busy. With the First World War making unprecedented demands on the sector, the year before had seen a 'shell crisis' as the prolonged nature of the conflict on the Western Front saw weapons running short.

Workers were outputting in excess of regular capacity and vast quantities of supplies were stockpiled at the site.

The fateful day was a glorious one with recent wet and cold weather conditions replaced with dry and sunny conditions.

The memorial to the Faversham gunpowder explosion at Faversham Cemetery
The memorial to the Faversham gunpowder explosion at Faversham Cemetery

At some point in the morning a small fire was found and extinguished - caused by sparks from a chimney on the site.

It is assumed it also sparked another blaze later that morning. As dozens of workers fought to extinguish the blaze a foreman demanded staff evacuate the site. As they left the area a store of some 200 tons of TNT exploded.

The enormous blast shattered windows as far away as Southend and the tremor could be felt in Norwich.

The crater made by the explosion was 40 yards across and 20 feet deep.

It claimed the lives of 115 men and boys.

The funeral procession for those killed in the explosion at Uplees gunpowder work
The funeral procession for those killed in the explosion at Uplees gunpowder work

Their remains were buried in a mass grave at Faversham Cemetery.

News of the blast was kept secret due to the wartime sensitivities at the time. It is now recognised as the worst ever disaster in the UK explosives industry.

Most of its site now forms the Oare Marshes Nature Reserve.

Rail crash

On June 9, 1865, passengers who had just crossed the Channel by ferry boarded the daily boat train which would whisk them from Folkestone to London. On board that fateful service was an author of global renown - Charles Dickens.

A drawing of the scene of the Staplehurst rail crash
A drawing of the scene of the Staplehurst rail crash

Travelling back from a visit to Paris, what would occur that day would change him forever and, according to his son, hasten his death.

After travelling through Headcorn at 50mph, a red flag alerted the driver to stop. Up ahead a stretch of track crossing the Beult viaduct had been removed for engineering works. Despite slamming on the brakes the train could slow only to 15mph before it derailed, spewing carriages onto a dry river bed.

The driver had not been notified of the works and the warning flag waved too close to the site.

Ten people were killed and 40 people injured.

Dickens, who had been travelling with his mistress, Ellen Ternan, was in a carriage which did not derail but hung over the bridge. Relatively unharmed he helped other passengers, filling his top hat with water to try and aid and comfort the injured.

Charles Dickens, pictured with his family at his Gads Hill Place home
Charles Dickens, pictured with his family at his Gads Hill Place home

He later wrote in a letter: "The scene was so affecting when I helped in getting out the wounded and dead, that for a little while afterwards I felt shaken by the remembrance of it."

Dickens' son Henry would later say his father "may be said never to have altogether recovered" from the incident. He died five years to the day to the disaster after suffering a stroke, aged 58, at his Gads Hill Place home in Higham.

HMS Bulwark

Off the coast of Kingsnorth in Hoo lie the shattered remains of one of the deadliest disasters to have ever struck the county.

HMS Bulwark was a sea-going battleship built in 1899 and which spent its early life as a flagship of the Royal Navy's Mediterranean Fleet.

The doomed HMS Bulwark
The doomed HMS Bulwark

But when the First World War broke out she was called into service in the Channel, protecting the soldiers heading to the Western Front and guarding against attack by sea.

On the morning of November 26, 1914, the 15,000-tonne ship, with a crew of just over 750 men was moored at Kethole Reach on the Medway estuary, taking on coal from Kingsnorth in Hoo.

At around 7.50am she exploded with such force debris was said to have fallen on Sheerness - four miles away.

Some 745 men were killed immediately. The few survivors all suffered serious injuries.

In the House of Commons, Winston Churchill, then First Lord of the Admiralty, broke the news to MPs. He said: "There was apparently no upheaval in the water, and the ship had entirely disappeared when the smoke had cleared away. The loss of the ship does not sensibly affect the military position, but I regret to say the loss of life is very severe."

A plaque in Sheerness to remember the HMS Bulwark disaster
A plaque in Sheerness to remember the HMS Bulwark disaster

The cause was believed to have been cordite charges stored too close to a boiler room.

Sailors on the battleship HMS Implacable, moored next to the Bulwark recalled seeing: "A huge pillar of black cloud belched upwards followed by a thunderous roar. Then came a series of lesser detonations, and finally one vast explosion that shook the Implacable from mastheads to keel."

The remains of HMS Bulwark - and few parts of it remain on the bed of the estuary - are today under the Protection of Military Remains Act which means divers are forbidden to explore the wreck site unless permitted by the Ministry of Defence.

A number of the bodies recovered, and which could be identified, are buried at Woodlands Cemetery in Gillingham.

Channel plane crash

The Swissair plane six days before it crashed into the English Channel
The Swissair plane six days before it crashed into the English Channel

As the pilot of a scheduled flight from Geneva to Heathrow crossed the English Channel on June 19, 1954, his fuel gauges revealed an alarmingly low quantity of fuel.

Moments later one of the engines stopped mid-air.

Rapidly running out of power, the pilot of the Swissair Convair CV-240 headed to Thanet's Manston Airport - then known as RAF Manston.

But when the second engine failed too he had little choice but to ditch into the sea, around one-and-a-half miles off the coast of Folkestone at around 11pm at night.

The plane had nine people onboard, five passengers and four crew.

"But when the second engine failed too he had little choice but to ditch into the sea, around one and a half miles off the coast of Folkestone..."

Remarkably, all survived the crash landing on the water as lifeboats from Dover and Dungeness and helicopters rushed to the scene.

However, three of the passengers drowned before they could be rescued. At the time, vital life-saving equipment was not required for flights over water of less than 30 minutes.

One of the bodies washed up in St Margaret's Bay a little over a week later; another off the Netherlands.

At an inquest into the disaster the probable cause was "complete loss of power of both engines through fuel exhaustion attributed to negligence on the part of both pilots".

Fuel had been ordered for the plane in Geneva but not delivered - and pilots had not reported any problems at take-off. The flight crew were criticised for not helping the passengers following the crash and both attendants later sacked.

Part two of this feature will appear next week on KentOnline.

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