Published: 05:00, 04 December 2021
As a group of young cadets walked along the road on a dark December evening full of excitement and anticipation, disaster was about to strike.
In a tragedy which rocked the entire community, 24 boys from the Royal Marines Cadets at Chatham were killed when a double decker bus drove through the column of young lads marching along Dock Road.
They were heading to a boxing match for an evening together at Chatham Dockyard exactly 70 years ago and the crash became Kent's worst road disaster.
The company of 52 boys were aged between nine and 13 and were walking from their base at the Melville Barracks in Gillingham to the Royal Naval Barracks at Chatham on December 4, 1951.
But due to poor lighting along the street, the bus ploughed into the back of the line killing the 24 and injuring another 18.
James Keith Scott, who aged nine was one of the youngest victims, died when the Chatham and District Traction Company vehicle driven by John Sampson collided with the group.
Seventeen of the group died instantly and the other seven died later that night.
Maddy Hooker, who was seven, will be attending a commemorative service tomorrow (Sunday) to mark the 70th anniversary – an event which is held every year.
Although she remembers very little details of the day itself, she recalls that her mum was working late and did not arrive home before her brother, Keith – as he was known – set off to meet up with his fellow cadets.
"Mum tried to get back before he went to met his pals to march to this boxing match," Maddy says.
"But she didn't and so she never got to say goodbye to him.
"It's a very sad time and only three weeks before Christmas Day so that year it really wasn't much and everyone was feeling very sorrowful. It was such a shock for mum and for everyone.
"I was only a kid of seven and from then I was having to walk to school on my own.
"I said that to the Duke of Edinburgh on the 50th anniversary.
"He just said 'can you really remember things like that so long ago?'.
"I shook his hand thinking of my mum because she was no longer with us then.
"Mum took it very badly as you would with your first born."
Maddy says she tries to attend the commemorative service every year and her sons also visit Keith's grave when they are able to.
"It's important to go and it makes me wonder what life would have been like if he had been here to with us," Maddy says.
"My thoughts are with my mum and saying 'we're doing our best to attend every year for you'.
"Now we're 70 years past the accident we're going down in numbers, maybe soon there won't be a service anymore."
The family lived in Chatham and Maddy and Keith went to the former Glencoe Road School – now Phoenix Academy.
Maddy says she got on well with her older brother and remembers the family would take trips to a holiday chalet in Leysdown where she and Keith would play with their cousins.
Keith is one of the 19 boys buried together in the naval part of Woodlands Cemetery in Gillingham and three of the victims who were Catholic were laid to rest in the Catholic naval section. Two boys were buried privately by their families in Chatham and St Margaret's in Rainham.
A service tomorrow morning will see Royal Navy and Royal Marines representatives join today's recruits from the Chatham Royal Marine Cadets and other dignitaries and victims' families to remember the boys who died.
This will see a service take place at the graves of the 22 boys buried at Woodlands Cemetery from 10.30am after a short dedication at the plaque unveiled by the Duke of Edinburgh on the 50th anniversary in 2001 on Dock Road where the crash happened.
The colonel-in-chief of the Royal Marine Cadets and captain of the Sea Cadets Corps based in Portsmouth will attend along with a bugler from the Royal Marines Band Portsmouth to play the Last Post and Reveille and Rochester and Strood MP Kelly Tolhurst is also set to attend.
Military funerals were held for the 24 victims at Rochester Cathedral before the burials and thousands of people lined the route the coffins took to the Woodlands Road cemetery.
Richard Wood, chairman of the Chatham Royal Marine Cadets, says the 70th anniversary commemorations are an important day for the unit to look back and help teach today's cadets.
"It's part of our heritage and we look back to celebrate our history and use that as a positive for our youngsters to give them life skills," he says.
"They were tragically taken away and for us as cadets and me as chairman, that is embedded in our history. It's part of Kent's history and Chatham's.
"It's to remember the tragic history of what happened and not to forget the lives of the youngsters who were looking forward to their futures when it was sadly taken from them.
"It's very important to us and right that our young people don't forget what happened to our forefathers. It's the least we can do.
"We've got 70 cadets and staff (taking part) so it will be quite a display and memorable and a sombre moment."
An inquest held at the Royal Naval Hospital, Gillingham just two weeks after the accident heard the cadets were walking in a column about 15-yards long, three abreast on the left hand side of the road.
They were wearing Royal Marines dark blue battledress and berets with white belts and white lanyards on their shoulders. The boys at the back of the line – where Keith was positioned – were the more junior members and had not yet been issued with uniforms.
There was no street lighting and the court was told the bus was using only its sidelights as headlights were not a legal requirement at the time and considered to be normal practice.
Mr Samson, who had been a bus driver for 25 years, said he thought he was driving at about 15-20mph at the time of the crash.
As the cadets walked through a particularly dark area on the road due to a failed street light the bus crashed into the back of the column.
The unit's adjutant Lt Clarence Carter RM was in command and had been walking up and down the line. When he saw the bus coming, he told the boys to move into the kerb as far as possible, the inquest heard.
But Samson said he never saw the cadets and told the inquest he was only aware of driving into something when the bus started to move around.
He said it felt as though he had "run over a lot of loose stones or something", the court heard but it was reported he had felt bumps and heard screams of the cadets as he drove through the column.
By the time he had braked and stopped, the conductress Dorothy Dunster called out to ask what had happened, witnesses said the bus was between 25 and 50 yards down the road.
Lt Carter was knocked down but uninjured.
The jury at the inquest returned a verdict of accidental death and the coroner found neither Carter or Samson had been negligent legally.
Samson was convicted for dangerous driving after being found guilty at the Central Criminal Court in London but jurors recommended leniency.
He was banned from driving for three years and fined £20.
The bus company paid £10,000 to the parents of the 24 boys.
As a result of the tragedy, improvements in street lighting in the Medway Towns was introduced and all military services agreed a red light would be shown at the rear of all groups marching on roads at night.