Published: 06:00, 11 July 2019
| Updated: 16:02, 15 July 2019
It should have been the exciting and fun-filled climax to a happy annual event, staged to raise money for St Bart’s Hospital.
Instead the Fireman’s Wedding turned into tragedy, in which 15 people, including nine young boys, were killed.
The disaster happened exactly 90 years ago today at the Gillingham Park Fete.
The Fireman’s Wedding was something of a pantomime. It was also an opportunity for local firefighters to demonstrate their skills.
Throughout the afternoon, Frederick Worrall, 30, a driver for Gillingham Council, had capered and joked with visitors to the fete while dressed absurdly as a bride.
The culmination of the fete was to be his “wedding” to fireman Arthur Tabrett, 45, and the reception in a mock house, from which the “guests” would all be rescued after it caught fire.
The plan was to first simulate fire using a red glowing light and smoke.
Only when everyone was safely out, would shavings on the ground floor be set alight, and the house – constructed of poles and tarpaulin – burned down for real.
Somehow, the real fire was started too early. Everyone inside perished. Some were burned to death, others were injured when they leapt from the top of the structure, already badly burned.
At first the hundreds of people watching, including close relatives of the “bridal party”, thought the fire was all part of the fun. Laughter and cheers accompanied the roar of the flames and the screams of those inside.
It was not until little Molly Cheesman, aged six, screamed: “Eric’s burning, Eric’s burning,” that they realised things had gone disastrously wrong. Molly’s brother was among the “wedding guests” inside.
Firemen, standing by to carry out their part of the demonstration, now rushed to deal with a real inferno.
Their first efforts with portable extinguishers, made little difference.
Even when powerful fire engines were brought up, there was little they could do.
Men and boys, some with their clothing alight, were leaping from the top of the fake house.
Others were overcome before they could even attempt an escape and fell into the flames.
Most heartbreaking of all was the vision, picked out in the beam of a searchlight, of a young boy, his body burning, hanging over the top edge of the blazing house, his arms hanging down, until slowly he slid backwards and fell.
John Nutton, a naval petty officer, outrageously dressed in his costume as “Auntie”, was seen to leap from the top of the house with his costume ablaze, clearly identifiable to disbelieving watchers.
Robert Mitchell, dressed as a clown, was a human torch as he jumped, and then dashed to the firemen’s water supply where he doused the flames. Both his wife and his daughter watched speechless.
Hero of the night was fireman Francis Cokayne.
He dashed from safety into the blazing house, in an attempt to save lives.
He was later seen leaping from the top with a boy under each arm. All three perished.
The boys who died ranged in age from 10 to 14.
One of the youngest, Leonard Searles, was seen by his mother to throw up his arms and fall into the inferno.
“I know he’s gone I know he’s gone,” she was heard to cry.
Gordon Winn, whose son Leonard was fatally injured, had not been at the fete.
“I raced to the scene in my car,” he said.
“My little boy, his clothes burnt and still smouldering, lay on the ground.
"The poor little fellow could hardly see. He was terribly burned. I lifted him gently, placed him in my car, then raced along the road to the hospital. All through the night I sat by his bedside. He was oh so brave – oh so brave.”
From start to finish, the fire had lasted little more than five minutes.
Just a brief interlude of time, that devastated and forever changed the lives of 15 families.
The picture above has been sent to us by Canadian Lori Oschefski, who in researching her family history, discovered she was related to Eric Cheesman, 12, one of the boys who died.
Lori mounted a campaign which led to the refurbishment of the graves of the fire victims in Woodlands Cemetery, Gillingham, and also the establishment of a memorial in the park in 2011.
She believes the photograph has never been published.
On June 30, a Scout group gathered to mark the anniversary.
The 5th Gillingham Scouts, relatives of the deceased and members of the community, gathered at St Augustine's Church, Rock Avenue, Gillingham, to remember the six men and nine youngsters.
This was followed by flower laying at the memorial in the park and at Woodlands Cemetery.
Speaking about last month's event, Scout group leader David Lawrence said: "It was a great day, there were 30 to 50 people at the memorial.
"The relatives of the deceased were very pleased with the day."