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The "Fireman's Wedding" Tragedy


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There was a week in July, 1929, when disaster and tragedy made the headlines heavy with sensation, and burdened with grief the hearts of all those who lost loved ones. It was a week of shock and grim surprise. It seemed as though fate were making a sport of human life in many spheres - in the bowels of the earth, in the depths of the sea, even on the greensward in the people's leisure hour. There was a submarine calamity, a cinema fire, a mine explosion and a pit cage crash, taking toll of nearly fifty lives. Then to crown this succession of sad and terrible events came a catastrophe that is the most poignant of its kind on record. A mock wedding at a Gillingham hospital fete ended in an inferno which devoured "bride" and "groom" and "wedding guests." Six men and nine boys, who had volunteered to thrill and entertain the crowds, lost their lives. Most of them were burnt to death in full view of the throng. The rest lingered on only a little while in hospital, in an agony which made death, when it came, a merciful release. To this day the precise cause of the disaster remains a mystery. It will never now be solved. The one thing that is certain is that he who committed the fatal blunder himself perished in the flames.

The entire world was shocked by a calamity which had many features of profound human pathos. Not the least of these was the fact that wives and mothers, brothers and sisters, saw their dear ones die before their eyes, powerless to help them, to do anything to avert so ghastly a doom, able only to cry out in their anguish as they saw the blaze devour them. Tragic, too, was the fact that the Gillingham Fire Brigade, standing by, fought in vain to control the flames that many in the crowd at first thought to be part of the show, cheering and joking as the mock house which had been built for the "wedding reception" became a raging furnace. But the saddest aspect of all was the fate of these young boys who, a few moments before, had been so gay and bonny, and so full of life and promise. When the news of the disaster spread the hearts of parents everywhere shared a common grief. For it is at such times as this that those who have boys and girls of their own experience emotions of intense pity and sympathy - and thankfulness that such tragedy has never come their way.

For many years the "Fireman's Wedding" had been a popular and successful annual attraction at Gillingham. It was, in fact, a traditional event to which thousands in the district looked forward, youngsters and grown-ups alike. In years gone by dummies had been used to represent the "wedding guests" engaged in the spectacle, but more recently, to introduce more drama, realism and fun, firemen and boys had played these parts. And on the night of Thursday, July n, 1929, it was once again to be staged as a fascinating climax to a fete and fayre on behalf of the St. Bartholomew's Hospital Extension Fund. The crowds were in the mood for a show which they knew to be both exciting and amusing. They had had their fill of the flower show, swings and side-shows, and the many diversions which go to make up a provincial fete, and now awaited, towards ten o'clock, their old favourite.

The mock house, a structure of wood and canvas, had been erected on a grassy space in the park. It was about forty feet high, its wooden floors connected by ladders. The plan was that, when the "bridal party" had taken possession and the noise and jollity was at its height, a crimson glow - caused by harmless flares - was to be seen suddenly at the windows, shrieks for help were to be heard, and the Gillingham Fire Brigade was to dash bravely to the rescue. Not until every living person taking part in the performance was safely away was a "bonfire" on the ground floor to be ignited, whereupon the structure would burst into flames for the first time, and burn to the ground. As usual, every possible precaution had been taken to ensure that there was no danger to any one. Similar displays had been given for years, not only in Gillingham, but in other parts of the country, with perfect safety and success. The fireman in charge of the "effects" had had considerable previous experience. He was known to be a man who would not take foolish risks.

The "bride" was Mr. F. A. Worrall, aged thirty, who had filled a similar role the previous year. He was a popular young man in Gillingham, a favourite dance M.G., a familiar figure at local concerts, one whose happy personality never failed to appeal to the crowds. Fireman J. A. Tabrett, a Corporation storekeeper of forty-five, who had been a fireman for eighteen years, was the "groom," and the "wedding party" consisted of firemen and boys, including naval cadets and scouts.

The procession to the house was the usual gay affair. Worrall was a ludicrous figure in his quaint feminine attire, his quips and antics stirring the crowds to laughter with every step he took. The "groom" was also cutting merry capers, and at least two of the "guests" were wearing fancy costumes to contribute to the fun. One was a clown; the other a grotesque "auntie" in long, trailing skirts. Just before ten o'clock they entered the "fireman's house" to take up their places for the show. Occasionally they could be seen waving their hands from the roof and windows. Their jokes and laughter carried to the boisterous crowds, who shouted back in cheery response. There was no doubt that the younger members of the party were both pleased and excited at their experience. Many of their relations picked out the little figures of the boys and called a greeting. It was to be the last in this world for many of them. One boy was seen suddenly to leave. Little did he realise that he had escaped with his life.

Near-by waited the Brigade, with their engines, escapes and modern, efficient equipment. A special dam had been constructed, holding over a thousand gallons of water - enough to deal with the mock blaze they expected, but tragically little in view of the events that transpired. Officers and men, acquainted with their duties down to the smallest detail, were anticipating with pleasure a demonstration that would prove once again their skill. None among them could have imagined that, within the space of a few minutes, they would encounter as heart-breaking a job of work as any they would ever know, that they were to fight against impossible odds in a vain effort to save the lives of comrades and little children whose laughter, even now, was ringing in their ears.

The eyes of the crowds were fixed on the windows of that fragile house of wood and canvas, waiting for the crimson glow that would signal the beginning of the show. Inside the house the strangest of all "wedding parties" was in full swing. Firemen and boys laughed and joked together, ran up the ladders, peeped down at the throng below, arranged who should be the first to be "rescued," asked question after question, inspected the flares on each floor and the "bonfire" below. On the roof the "bride" and "groom," and the clown were making their comic gestures. By the irony of fate they were playing with fire to their heart's content. id that house and all around that house there was happiness. Disaster and tragedy seemed things apart. On with the show!

The summer sky was darkening. Death was coming on the wings of night.

Suddenly there came a great shout from the crowds - "Look!" A tongue of fire was seen licking the window of the ground-floor "room." Not the expected crimson glow, but vivid, living flame that shot and curled around like a school of blazing snakes. The crowd roared - and laughed. This was better than they had expected. This was almost the real thing. Many times they had seen the "Fireman's Wedding," but never had it opened with such thrilling realism. The blaze grew in size and strength. The excited spectators cheered it on, fanning it with their enthusiasm. "Help! Help!" Now came the familiar cry from the mock building. And the crowd roared again. On the roof and at the windows they could see the gesticulating "wedding party." It was certainly the best performance of its kind Gillingham folk had ever seen.

Now the flames had the entire base of the structure in their grip. Fierce and hungry, they crackled and hissed, mounting upward in a surge of fury. Still the spectators laughed and cheered, straining their ears to catch the shouts of the "victims," their eyes to see how quickly the Brigade would "rescue" them. And all the time the flames bore upwards.

Only a few seconds had elapsed since the first burst of flame, but already the twenty members of the Brigade who had been standing by were in action. Only for a flash had they been staggered by the mysterious and unexpected outbreak. All they knew now was that this was the real thing, that this house of make-belief was doomed, that human lives were at stake, that burlesque had turned to tragedy. Chief-Officer Frederick White and First Lieutenant Edwin Parker Bines raced across the greensward with hand extinguishers, hoping that they could quell the outbreak at its source. So strong and ruthless was the blaze, however, that this manoeuvre was abortive. Two escape ladders were rushed towards the structure. Two motor pumps were set in motion. Volleys of water now gushed from the hoses on to the flames that were leaping towards the roof. But those limited jets of water seemed only to stir the flames to fresh conquests. No such conflagration as this could reasonably have been anticipated. One can only admire and honour these fire-fighters for their plucky struggle against desperate odds.

"Eric's burning!" screamed little Molly Cheesman, whose brother was among the boys in the house. In vain they attempted to pacify her, to convince her it was all in fun, that in a moment she would see Eric brought down to earth safe and sound. This little girl was one of the first of the spectators to realise that the "Fireman's Wedding" had become a ritual of death. Her cries rose above the laughter, cheers and encouraging shouts of the throng, at once a revelation and a warning.

Now the house of make-belief was a raging furnace. The crowds knew that they were witnessing disaster stark, terrible and true. Children screamed and woman fainted. Men turned away, unable to bear the strain of seeing a funeral pyre such as this before their very eyes. Those who still looked on were fascinated, chilled with fear and awed by apprehension. Through the gloaming and the smoke they could see human figures at the windows and on the roof, their arms outstretched in awful pleading for release, perhaps for death. Listening, they could hear their cries, their shrieks of agony and despair.

A searchlight stabbed its way to the scene, a robot eye that served to intensify the horror.

Meanwhile, the men of the Brigade, working with courage, energy and resources, were fighting a losing battle. Nothing they could do could stem this inferno. The sheets of flame were devastating. They caught and devoured the escapes. When Chief Officer White made a gallant attempt to reach the roof, the charred rungs of the ladder broke beneath his feet. A number of his men were badly burned. It was impossible to do more than rescue those on the lower floors - and they were dead or dying. At great personal risk Sergeant Neech, of the St. John's Ambulance Brigade, dragged two victims from the flames.

Several of the victims jumped, their clothes ablaze, their cries fearful to hear. One of these was Petty Officer John Nutton, who, a few minutes before, had been amusing the crowds as "Auntie." That poor, pathetic fancy costume was blazing as he dropped. "That's 'Auntie,'" shouted several among the spectators. Another who took the leap was Robert Mitchell, who had been attired as the clown - a tragic jester. His wife and daughter were among those who saw him jump, a human torch, pick himself to his feet, and run to the water dam. In spite of his escape he died later in hospital, after his wife had spent a thirty-hour vigil at his bedside. Some declare that they saw Fireman Cokayne make the jump, with a boy under each arm. More than once Cokayne had proved himself to be an intrepid fireman, and such an action would have been typical of his courage.

One of the most sickening sights of all was the frail, burning figure of a boy, half-hanging over the edge of the roof, his hands dangling in death. Ever so slowly he slipped back from view into the holocaust. Whose son? More than anything else, perhaps, was this a symbol of the sheer poignancy of the disaster. The searchlight caught and held it. The eyes of the watchers closed in horror.

It is impossible to assess the mental agony of the wives and mothers who saw their loved ones perish or sustain burns and injuries from which they afterwards died. One poor, demented woman had an added reason - if that were possible - for sorrow. She was the mother of Cadet Leonard Searles, whom she saw throw up his hands and die amid the flames. "I know he is gone - I know he is gone," she cried. Earlier in the evening at the fete she had attempted to persuade the boy to go home, but had eventually yielded to his insistent demands to be allowed to stay and take part in the show.

In such a disaster as this much can be packed into the minutes - the seconds even. Although to me victims time must seen interminable, impressions run through the mind of an eye-witness with the speed of a moving picture. This shocking fire had lasted little more than five minutes, but what an intensity of incident, terror and destruction. Dazed, shaken and overpowered, the crowds watched the flames die down. They could not as yet grasp the full significance of the calamity. Where there had been the familiar "fireman's house" they had seen a torch of fire flaring skyward. Now, where that torch had been, there was a skeleton of charred, blackened poles, and a heap of smouldering ashes. The hiss of water from the hoses and the rhythmic beat of the pumps had ended. The screams of pain and despair had ceased. There was no more shouting. But in place of it all there was the convulsive sobbing of women, that sound that breaks down the barriers of the strongest heart and nerve.

Now began the search among the ashes for the remains of those who had borne the fullest fury of the fire, a quest that went on through the long hours of the night. Fragments of clothing, pathetic whisps of hair, rings and watches and pocket-knives, marbles and pieces of string - every clue was precious. Some of the victims were identified by their frame or figure. Some - how heart-breaking the thought - -just by "appearance." A dentist identified one man by his false teeth. Slowly and successfully this painful duty was carried out until finally the nearest and dearest of the dead were assured of at least the consolation of burying what little there was left mortal of those they loved.

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