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Tributes to Dickens Festival performer Keith Ford, the Rochester Lamplighter

A popular performer at the Dickens Festival for more than 25 years has died.

Keith Ford, better known to many festival goers as the Rochester Lamplighter, passed away on New Year’s Eve after a year-long battle with mesothelioma caused by asbestos exposure during his teenage years as an apprentice at the Chatham Naval Dockyard. He was 78.

Keith Ford as William Tompkins the Lamplighter
Keith Ford as William Tompkins the Lamplighter

Keith was born in Gillingham in 1941 and lived in the Medway area all his life. He developed a passion for local history which saw him perform as historical characters and in re-enactments for more than 25 years at Dickens festivals, as well as other events throughout Kent and the south east.

His best loved and most recognisable character was the Rochester Lamplighter, William Tompkins, which he based on the real life lamplighters of Victorian times who climbed ladders to light the gas lamps by hand in every street at twilight, and extinguished them again at dawn.

Best remembered halfway up a ladder against a lamppost somewhere in Rochester High Street, he took great pride in the meticulous research he undertook for the part, combining witty tales, cheeky songs, and real life news articles from the era to combine humour along with historical accuracy in his performances.

His wife Yvonne said the Dickens Festival was always his favourite event on the calendar and he looked forward to performing as the lamplighter every year.

His health prevented him from participating in 2019.

Telling stories from high above the street. Picture: Steve Crispe (26806519)
Telling stories from high above the street. Picture: Steve Crispe (26806519)

In his final weeks, Keith, who lived in Lordswood for many years, wanted to thank the people of Rochester for their time and appreciation of his performances and penned a heartfelt message as the Rochester Lamplighter.

He wrote: “It has been my pleasure and my honour to have served as Rochester’s Lamplighter for so many years.

“From the top of my ladder I see the upturned faces of the crowd smiling and laughing as I tell my tales and sing a song or two from yesteryear.

“Their joy is mine, and I thank you all heartily for stopping by to share it with me. And now my days as the lamplighter are over, as my own light fades.

“I hope you remember the lamplighter with happy thoughts and fond memories.”

Keith loved to perform Picture: Steve Crispe (26806450)
Keith loved to perform Picture: Steve Crispe (26806450)

Keith leaves behind wife Yvonne, daughters Louise and Claire, and granddaughters Annabel and Imogen.

Keith’s life will be celebrated at Medway Crematorium, Blue Bell Hill, on January 28 at 2pm.

The family kindly request there are no flowers, but donations instead to Mesothelioma UK at www.justgiving.com/fundraising/keithford1941

If you’ve been affected by mesothelioma, you can find support from Mesothelioma UK at www.mesothelioma.uk.com

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