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Dock Road bus tragedy victims remembered on 70th anniversary as Royal Marine Cadets lead service at Woodlands Cemetery in Gillingham


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The victims of a bus crash which saw 24 young cadets killed while marching along the road have been remembered 70 years on from their deaths.

The Dock Road tragedy in Chatham on December 4, 1951 remains Kent's worst road disaster claiming the lives of the young lads and injuring another 18.

As they walked along the road on their way to a boxing match inside Chatham Dockyard on a dark evening, the double decker bus ploughed into the column of 52 cadets.

The 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.

But due to poor lighting along the street, the bus ploughed into the back of the line.

On Sunday, today's cadets, military representatives along with relatives of the victims carried out a remembrance service at the Woodlands Cemetery in Gillingham where 22 of the 24 boys are buried in the naval section.

The graveside service was attended by about 40 people in additional to some 70 members of the Chatham Royal Marine Cadets and other military representatives.

70th anniversary of Dock Road tragedy when 24 marine cadets lost their lives in a bus crash recognised in service at Woodlands Cemetery in Gillingham. Picture: Barry Goodwin
70th anniversary of Dock Road tragedy when 24 marine cadets lost their lives in a bus crash recognised in service at Woodlands Cemetery in Gillingham. Picture: Barry Goodwin
70th anniversary of Dock Road tragedy when 24 marine cadets lost their lives in a bus crash recognised in service at Woodlands Cemetery in Gillingham. Picture: Barry Goodwin
70th anniversary of Dock Road tragedy when 24 marine cadets lost their lives in a bus crash recognised in service at Woodlands Cemetery in Gillingham. Picture: Barry Goodwin
70th anniversary of Dock Road tragedy when 24 marine cadets lost their lives in a bus crash recognised in service at Woodlands Cemetery in Gillingham. Picture: Barry Goodwin
70th anniversary of Dock Road tragedy when 24 marine cadets lost their lives in a bus crash recognised in service at Woodlands Cemetery in Gillingham. Picture: Barry Goodwin
The last post is played at the 70th anniversary of Dock Road tragedy when 24 marine cadets lost their lives in a bus crash recognised in service at Woodlands Cemetery in Gillingham. Picture: Barry Goodwin
The last post is played at the 70th anniversary of Dock Road tragedy when 24 marine cadets lost their lives in a bus crash recognised in service at Woodlands Cemetery in Gillingham. Picture: Barry Goodwin

A private lunch held at the Brompton Barracks in Gillingham hosted by the Royal Engineers was attended by about 95 military personnel, families and civic dignitaries.

The colonel-in-chief of the Royal Marine Cadets and captain of the Sea Cadets Corps – both based at Portsmouth – attended the graveside service and short dedication at the plaque on Dock Road located near to where the crash happened 70 years ago.

Richard Wood, chairman of the Chatham Royal Marine Cadets, said: "It was lovely to see that. That gives solace to the families that we still remember.

Mandy Brown attends the grave of her brother James Blomeley. Picture: Barry Goodwin
Mandy Brown attends the grave of her brother James Blomeley. Picture: Barry Goodwin
70th anniversary of Dock Road tragedy when 24 marine cadets lost their lives in a bus crash recognised in service at Woodlands Cemetery in Gillingham. Picture: Barry Goodwin
70th anniversary of Dock Road tragedy when 24 marine cadets lost their lives in a bus crash recognised in service at Woodlands Cemetery in Gillingham. Picture: Barry Goodwin
70th anniversary of Dock Road tragedy when 24 marine cadets lost their lives in a bus crash recognised in service at Woodlands Cemetery in Gillingham. Picture: Barry Goodwin
70th anniversary of Dock Road tragedy when 24 marine cadets lost their lives in a bus crash recognised in service at Woodlands Cemetery in Gillingham. Picture: Barry Goodwin
Families attend to the graves on the 70th anniversary of Dock Road tragedy. Picture: Barry Goodwin
Families attend to the graves on the 70th anniversary of Dock Road tragedy. Picture: Barry Goodwin
70th anniversary of Dock Road tragedy when 24 marine cadets lost their lives in a bus crash recognised in service at Woodlands Cemetery in Gillingham. Picture: Barry Goodwin
70th anniversary of Dock Road tragedy when 24 marine cadets lost their lives in a bus crash recognised in service at Woodlands Cemetery in Gillingham. Picture: Barry Goodwin
70th anniversary of Dock Road tragedy when 24 marine cadets lost their lives in a bus crash recognised in service at Woodlands Cemetery in Gillingham. Picture: Barry Goodwin
70th anniversary of Dock Road tragedy when 24 marine cadets lost their lives in a bus crash recognised in service at Woodlands Cemetery in Gillingham. Picture: Barry Goodwin

"They were pleased and said the service went well and to plan and what we had hoped to do.

"It was to instil respect and for the younger generation to remember.

"There are still survivors like the sister of one of the cadets who greatly appreciated that her brother is still remembered. That's what it's about.

"If we can't spend just two or three hours of our day doing that then it's a pretty sad state of affairs.

"For me personally, I don't want that to happen."

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.

70th anniversary of Dock Road tragedy when 24 marine cadets lost their lives in a bus crash recognised in service at Woodlands Cemetery in Gillingham. Picture: Barry Goodwin
70th anniversary of Dock Road tragedy when 24 marine cadets lost their lives in a bus crash recognised in service at Woodlands Cemetery in Gillingham. Picture: Barry Goodwin

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.

70th anniversary of Dock Road tragedy when 24 marine cadets lost their lives in a bus crash recognised in service at Woodlands Cemetery in Gillingham. Picture: Barry Goodwin
70th anniversary of Dock Road tragedy when 24 marine cadets lost their lives in a bus crash recognised in service at Woodlands Cemetery in Gillingham. Picture: Barry Goodwin

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.

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. Picture: Kent Our Century By the People Who Lived It'
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. Picture: Kent Our Century By the People Who Lived It'
The victims were awarded the honour of a military funeral at Rochester Cathedral before being buried in the naval section of Woodlands Cemetery in Gillingham. Picture: Images of Medway
The victims were awarded the honour of a military funeral at Rochester Cathedral before being buried in the naval section of Woodlands Cemetery in Gillingham. Picture: Images of Medway
Kent's worst road disaster occurred in Dock Road, Gillingham on 4 December 1951, when a double-decker bus ploughed into Royal Marine cadets marching to a boxing tournament
Kent's worst road disaster occurred in Dock Road, Gillingham on 4 December 1951, when a double-decker bus ploughed into Royal Marine cadets marching to a boxing tournament
The memorial service for the cadets at Rochester Cathedral on December 12, 1951. Picture: Kent Our Century By the People Who Lived It
The memorial service for the cadets at Rochester Cathedral on December 12, 1951. Picture: Kent Our Century By the People Who Lived It

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.

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