It was 110 years ago today (Wednesday, August 3) that a party of excited Boy Scouts set sail from London for a camping holiday on the Isle of Sheppey. But the dream was to end in a nightmare when nine drowned in a violent storm. John Nurden reports on the disaster which shocked Britain and claimed the life of football star David Beckham's great-uncle...
Until the 1980s, St Clement’s Church stood beside the busy road leading to the holiday resort of Leysdown on the Isle Of Sheppey.
Now, all that remains of the building is the graveyard. A new primary school opposite shares its name.
But curious historians know the site well. For in the cemetery lies a three-tonne piece of Kentish ragstone bearing a bronze plaque.
The memorial, not erected until 1995, overlooks Warden Point which was the scene of a terrible tragedy which claimed the lives of nine young lads and shook Britain.
Just after 5pm on Saturday August 3, 1912, the training ship Arethusa set sail from Waterloo Bridge with a complement of 24 excited Boy Scouts and five adults from the London borough of Walworth.
The Scout Movement had only been founded by cavalry officer Lieutenant General Robert (later Lord) Baden Powell four years earlier with the publication of his book Scouting For Boys.
As well as teaching young men the magical art of knots and camping it also provided a chance for working-class lads from crowded inner-city streets a wonderful opportunity to spend a summer holiday by the seaside.
The boys, all from 2nd Walworth Troop and already fairly experienced sailors despite their young ages, rowed the first two-and-a-half miles to Tower Bridge and then hoisted the sail. They set off downstream in a strong breeze, dodging cargo ships, tugs and sailing barges.
By 9pm they had reached Erith and moored for the night, sleeping beneath blankets on the hold of the boat.
At the ungodly early time of 4am they set off on the final leg of their journey, planning to spend a two-week camping adventure under canvas on the Isle of Sheppey. They had been the previous year and were looking forward to returning.
But two miles off the coast and in sight of their goal, tragedy struck. A sudden gale caught the ship's sails and the boat capsized. The local lifeboat was launched and found a shocking scene.
Thanks to several acts of selfless heroism, especially the bravery of Dulwich Scoutmaster Sydney Marsh, 29, many lives were saved. But eight scouts and Frank Masters from the training ship perished beneath the waves.
Among the victims was patrol leader William Beckham, 12. His brothers John and Edward were both saved. Edward went on to become Manchester United and England footballing legend David Beckham's great grandfather.
Brothers Noel and Thompson Filmer also lost their lives. Their father, an ex-naval man, was on board the cutter and became trapped for part of the time, under a sail.
The late Tom Redman, a former Sheppey coastguard from Banner Way, Halfway, recalled 10 years ago: "Mr Filmer said his two boys were so exhausted when he tried to get them out, he just had to let them go.
"He said they couldn't help themselves and he was too exhausted as well."
A contributor to the Thames Facing East website vividly described how the tragedy unfurled.
He wrote: "A strong wind was blowing from the Kent coast but the boat was protected by keeping close to the north Sheppey shore.
"However, to get to Leysdown the boat had to turn down the east coast at Warden Point.
"At this moment, at about 2pm, a heavy squall hit them and the boat overturned, throwing the crew and boys into the stormy sea.
"Luckily, the Leysdown coastguard had been expecting The Arethusa and witnessed the sinking so they were able to launch their lifeboat immediately with a crew of two coastguards and two volunteers and set off on the two-mile trek, only powered by oars, to rescue the crew.
"The heroic bravery of the coastguards and the adult scouts, who went back into the sea time after time to try to rescue the boys, resulted in 15 of the boys being saved and the tragic loss of nine of the boys."
Prime Minister Winston Churchill, then First Lord of the Admiralty, was so shocked he ordered a Naval destroyer to transport the bodies back to London.
One of the most heart-wrenching sights was watching the survivors carrying the Union flag-draped coffins of their dead friends to the awaiting HMS Fervent.
The coffins were taken to St John’s Church, Larcom Road, Walworth, where more than 100,000 people passed through to pay their respects.
The funeral was held on August 10 on yet another thundery, rain-soaked day.
More than one million people are estimated to have lined the procession from St John’s to Nunhead Cemetery where the boys are buried. The Daily Mirror and Daily Express both printed special editions.
The Daily Express organised a collection for a fitting memorial for the boys and and raised about £400,000 in today's money.
In 1914 a life-size bronze model of a Scout, with head bowed, on a marble tomb was erected by the graves. It had been designed by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott, the man behind Britain's iconic red phone boxes, and sculpted by Miss Lillie Read.
Unfortunately, in the 1960s, Nunhead cemetery fell into disrepair and in 1969 the statue was sawn off at the ankles and taken away. It has was never been seen again, presumably melted down for scrap.
The cemetery has since been much improved and a much smaller memorial was erected in 1992.
At the base of the inscription is carved a circle of pebbles with a single stone in the centre - the Scouts' symbol for Gone Home.
A Heroes All postcard with the photos and names of the rescuers was issued shortly after the tragedy.
Among those featured was Sheppey coastguard Oliver George Sharp. His grandson is Christopher Harris who was born in Queenborough and lives in Sheerness.
Father-of-three Mr Harris, 61, from Marine Parade said: "My grandad was second from the left at the bottom of the postcard. He stayed with a lad called Martin Schofield all night until he regained consciousness.
"I still have one of the postcards. My Nan had it on her mantelpiece for years!”
He added: "My grandfather died years before I was born but my Uncle Oliver, who lived in Leysdown, had a copy of the Daily Mirror which had a photo of my grandad with the Schofield boy he saved. My grandad also saved David Beckham's great-grandfather, Edward.
"It seems weird I have this connection with David Beckham. It must have been very brave of the coastguards to have launched the lifeboat in such stormy seas. I am very proud of what my grandfather did. I've told my daughters all about it and will be telling my 18-month grandson Max all about it, too."
His cousin, Therese Smith, 64, of Eastchurch still has a copy of the hand-written letter of thanks dated August 10, 1912, their grandfather received after the daring rescue, congratulating him on showing "considerable promptitude."
David Beckham’s great-great-grandmother Harriet said at the time: “No blame should be attached to Scoutmaster Marsh who did all that was humanly possible.”
Mr Marsh, a gentleman who lived among the poor in Walworth despite having a Dulwich College education, a job in the City and was a member of the Royal Naval Reserve, saved two of her sons but had been unable to bring home their brother William.
William, the soccer star's great-uncle, had just won a scholarship to secondary school and was a talented artist. His family had high hopes for him. He was also the crew’s best sailor.
As the wind picked up, Scoutmaster Marsh sent his best boy William Beckham to handle the rope which controlled the mainsail.
They sailed passed Canvey Island and then began to cross the mouth of the Thames Estuary. At 1.30pm the coastguard spotted the cutter rounding Warden Point.
Chief Petty Officer Streeter recalled: "As the cutter put about to run for shore, a squall caught her and she heeled over.
"The lads, who had been sitting on the lee side, were thrown into the water. In a moment, she turned turtle.”
Streeter launched the lifeboat, rescuing 16 scouts, two adults and Scoutmaster Marsh, who plunged back into the water after a boy called Martin Schofield and had to be rescued again.
'Most of us tried to hang on to the boat but the sea was so rough'
Streeter said: “The scene was pitiable in the extreme and one we shall never forget."
The coastguards were hailed as heroes for setting out in such a stormy sea in their tiny rowing boat.
A few days later the Daily Mirror interviewed little Schofield, his arms bandaged where he had been rescued with a boat hook.
He said: “Most of us tried to hang on to the boat but the sea was so rough.
“At last I felt myself sort of going to sleep and I let go. After that I don’t know what happened.”
'Cruel twist of fate'
At the inquest, the distraught Scoutmaster Marsh remembered: “I shifted Beckham over to the port side to be ready to pull on the mainsheet when my helm was a little further over.”
It was last time he saw William Beckham who joined the rollcall of the dead.
Ironically, just days before the tragedy, Marsh had agreed to adopt one of the Scouts, 13-year-old Harry Gwynn. In a cruel twist of fate Harry was one of the boys who perished.
The shell-shocked survivors were taken in by the coastguards’ wives and given beds and beef tea.
On August 9 all the drowned boys, except Percy Huxford whose body was still missing, were placed in elm coffins painted white and carried in twos to HMS Fervent for the solemn journey back to London.
Percy Huxford’s body, found drifting off Margate, joined his friends’ on August 15.
Ted Beckham went on to join the Navy and rose to Chief Petty Officer.
His son Aubrey Edward “Ted” Jack Beckham also became a seaman.
And his son, David Edward Alan, also known as Ted, grew up an ardent football fan, a passion he instilled in his son David.
The lost boys of Walworth
William Beckham, 12; Harry Gwynn, 13; Albert Dack, 11; Percy Huxford, 12; Noel Filmer, 14; James Skipsey, 12; Thompson Filmer, 12; Edward Smith, 11, and Frank Masters, 14, from the training ship Arethusa.
Touching tribute from Sheppey Church Magazine - Leysdown section - published by Roger Betts on The Sheppey History Facebook page:
Leysdown Disaster, Sunday August 4, 1912
"The pens of journalists have flowed fully and freely in giving the world the sad details of the Black Sunday which will never be forgotten by those who saw the capsizing of the cutter.
"We were looking forward to the visit of the Dulwich Mission Boy Scouts who created such a favourable impression by their cheerful obedience and spirit of good comradeship during their time in camp last year.
'They were such a happy lot'
"They were such a happy lot, always doing with their might whatever came to hand; cricket or washing-up became equally a thing to be done with a fine enthusiasm.
"Fooling round doing nothing seemed to be quite an unknown way of killing time.
"Nine well-disciplined Christian lads were drowned in sight of their camping ground and we were not surprised to find that the heart of England was moved in sympathy.
"One cannot help thinking of the future usefulness of these boys if they had been spared. It would not have been fanciful to picture one of the lads as a Labour leader, another a foreman of works, another as zealous in church work; but God has ordained their lives on a different plan.
"In Paradise they will grow in the knowledge and in grace free from the temptations of the world.
'For what purpose is this waste?'
"In thinking over the sad event, one at first sees nothing but a waste of good material, useful boys thrown out of action, boys whose training cost many anxious hours, who’s characters were developing under the influence of high ideals, all to be lost under the waves of an angry sea.
"For what purpose is this waste? We cry with impatience. God knows best.
"We cannot see or understand the workings of God's mind.
"We know a calamity of this kind brings out the best qualities of a man’s nature. For example, to man the boat the difficulty was to prevent eager volunteers taking up the room required for the rescued.
"Some tried to swim out and help; everybody wanted to do something.
'All they knew was that lives were in danger'
"Why? They did not know the boys. All they knew was that lives were in danger. Self-interest and selfishness were forgotten.
"In the homes of coastguards everything had to give place to the comfort of the rescued lads.
"As long as we have such exhibitions of charity and goodwill there is no need to despair of human nature.
"We understand the Daily Express has opened a fund for a memorial: we trust that something will be done which will be of a lasting character, a camping ground for Scouts would be an excellent way of keeping the memory of the boys fresh in the minds of their comrades."