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The "Fireman's Wedding" Tragedy page 2


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The crowds in the park had dispersed quietly and reverently. It had been an evening of sorrow and horror which they would remember all the days of their lives. They had come to the park in high spirits, imbued with the spirit of carnival. They left it in the shadow of death. With white faces, silent or speaking only in hushed whispers, their minds tortured by visions of the disaster which had crossed their lives, they drifted homeward. The news had already circulated in Gillingham and the surrounding districts. At street corners there were little crowds seeking details. Motor cars dashed by at high speed, carrying relations and friends, in an agony of fear, to the park. Hundreds of parents dreaded that their boys might have been drawn, unknown to them, into the "Fireman's Wedding" display. In some cases, where their lads had not returned home at a late hour, they felt the worst had happened. There wore scenes of re-union that night that taught many the strength of their love for their children. Many offered up prayers of thankfulness who had not prayed for a long time.

In the hospital the few survivors, crippled, burnt and almost blind, held on to a life that could not be theirs for long. One of these was Sea Scout Leonard Winn, a gallant little man of thirteen years of age, whose calm and courage was an inspiration. As he lay dying in St. Bartholomew's Hospital, Rochester, he asked his father to sit beside him on the bed. He was in agony, and almost blind, but his thoughts were mainly for his pals and companions in the disaster. "Daddy," he inquired, "how are the other boys? Did they get away?" Of his own experience in the fire, he said: "Suddenly the whole building seemed to turn into a blaze. There was no time to do anything. The heat was terrible. But I rushed to the end of the roof and jumped."

From these words it is possible to picture to some extent the scenes in the "Fireman's House" when the flames sprang from below. Many on the lower floors - where the majority were supposed to wait - must have rushed instinctively towards the ladders leading to the roof, stumbling and falling, perhaps, and then, if they did reach the top, finding that the only hope was to jump. Some, it is known beyond doubt, did not succeed in ascending to the roof, for four bodies were seen lying on the second floor before it gave way and crashed in flames. The first sheet of flame must have been a sweeping, devouring one.

Winn's father tells in his own words of his own personal tragedy and loss, one of many, but typically sad. "My boy was asked only last night to play his part," he said the day after the fire. "It was late and I asked Len not to go. The boy was so enthusiastic, however, that his mother asked me to grant him permission, and I did. I was not at the park myself, and the first news I had was when a telephone call came through to say that my son had been injured. I raced to the scene of the fete in my car. My little boy, his clothes burnt and still smouldering, lay on the ground. The poor little fellow could hardly see. He was terribly burned. I lifted him gently and placed him in my car, then raced along the road to the hospital. All through the night I sat by his bedside. He was brave - oh, so brave!"

Another tragic parent was the father of Robert Dennis Usher, a boy of fourteen. The news that his boy was missing came to him as a devastating shock. "My daughter and I were in Folkestone all day," he said, "and we did not know that my boy had even gone to the fete. When we returned home, soon after 10 p.m., and did not find him in bed we thought he was spending the night with his great friend, Jack Spinks. It was nothing out of the ordinary for him to do that, and we were not alarmed until soon after midnight Mrs. Spinks came to tell us that her boy had perished, and that no one knew anything about my boy. When I first saw the bodies I could not recognise Robert. Later I recognised him by a piece of his clothing, as he was neither a scout nor a cadet and had been wearing plain clothes. He was the type of lad who would be the first in rushing into every type of adventure, and was always keen on joining in with everything other lads did." Mr. Usher, a retired naval officer, had suffered the loss of his wife only three years previously.

Behind the deaths of Usher and Spinks lay a very human story. They had been devoted and inseparable pals, a veritable David and Jonathan. Where one went the other was almost certain to be found. They were unhappy when not together. Both of them had recently been terribly upset by the fact that shortly Spinks would be going to Shepherd's Bush to live. They dreaded the parting. The charred remains of their little bodies were found together in the mound of ashes at the foot of the burnt-out house. Death had spared them the separation that life had planned to thrust upon them.

The day following the disaster Gillingham was a place of mourning. Many of the shops were shut. The grief of the townspeople and the anguish of the bereaved was shared, too, by the outer world. Messages of sympathy poured in from everywhere, and among them was the following: "The King and Queen are shocked and distressed at this terrible disaster at Gillingham, resulting in the loss of so many lives, the majority of them being boys full of promise. Their Majesties ask that you will be good enough to convey their expression of warmest sympathy to the relatives of the sufferers. - Stamfordham." To this went the reply: "Your loyal subjects deeply grateful for your Majesties kind expression of sympathy. - Mayor of Gillingham." A relief fund was opened, to which 2,500 was subscribed within a few days, eventually reaching a very substantial total.

Not a single one of those who had been in the "Fireman's-House" when the flames spread survived. The boy victims were Cadet Leonard Searles (10), Leslie Neale(13), Scout William Herbert Spinks (13), Robert Dennis Usher (14), Scout Reginald Barrett (13), whose brother was scalded to death a few years previously, Cadet Eric Cheesman (12), Scout Leonard Winn (13), Cadet Ivor Sinden (11), and. Cadet David Stanley Brunning (12). At least three of their mothers saw them perish in the conflagration.

Of the men of the "wedding party," Fireman F. B. Cokayne (51), a house decorator, left a widow and ten children. The others were Petty Officer John Nutton (37), who had been so popular as "Auntie," Mr. F. A. Worrall (30), the "bride," Fireman J. A. Tabrett (45), the "groom," Donald Mitchell (37), a lorry driver, and Fireman A. J. Nicholls (56), a dockyard worker who was also the Secretary of the Fire Brigade. Nutton, who could possibly have explained something of the disaster, did not refer to it as he lay dying in hospital. He spoke only of his wife and children.

The funeral - a public one - was a ceremony as pitiful as it was impressive. The town was enveloped in gloom. All along the route to the cemetery the streets were thronged with silent citizens. Many wept openly as the coffins passed by. Scores of women fainted and were attended by members of the St. John's Ambulance Brigade. Never in its long history had Gillingham known an occasion so touching and overwhelming. The days that had passed since the tragedy itself had brought full realisation of the significance of that terrible night. Almost every one knew somebody who had been touched, either directly or indirectly, by the fifteen deaths.

A draped fire engine headed the procession from the Town Hall, in which were represented all branches of civic life. The bands of the Royal Naval Barracks and the Salvation Army, with muffled drums, made slow and moving music. The coffins were mounted on ten fire engines and five gun-carriages. Nearly 400 firemen, some of them from distant parts of the land, were present to pay tribute to the memory of those who had died in the most ghastly tragedy ever associated with their movement. They made an imposing sight in their fine, brass helmets, but their hearts were laden with a deep and sincere sorrow. These men, who had so often seen and faced death in the course of their duty, were as affected as any. Two hundred sailors and 400 scouts were also in the ranks of the solemn cavalcade. A pathetic unit was the company of little naval cadets - brave little chaps who marched steadily behind the coffins of their dead comrades. Any one of them, thought the onlookers as they passed by, might have been among the victims in the burning house oi make-belief.

In the cemetery itself the scenes were harrowing. It was the peak of a July heat-wave; a scorching sun beat down upon the multitude which had assembled there. The procession was long overdue in its arrival, and in the interval of waiting many had collapsed around the graves. When, at last, the deep hollow music of the bands in the distance signalled its arrival, pent-up emotions burst in a flood of tears. Many were so overcome that they could not wait to witness the final rites of the interment. The strain was beyond their powers of endurance, and they hurried from the scene.

During the committal service the atmosphere was tenser dramatic and supremely sad. Over 200 relations stood in a solid circle around the open graves. Widows and orphans were among them. Many of the children there were of the same age as those who had perished. They stood there wide-eyed with wonder at all this strange manifestion of grief. It was an ordeal to test the resistance of the strongest heart, yet these mourners bore it all with an amazing calmness and fortitude. Until - a mother, unable any longer to stand the tension, screamed: "My boy! My boy!" Whereupon sights and scenes that are best forgotten made that summer's afternoon a nightmare.

The preliminary stages of the inquest had been held prior to the funeral. All that the Coroner had been concerned about had been the identification of the bodies. He, with the whole town, was anxious to spare the relatives the pain of long proceedings in court so soon after their grievous loss. But, even so, the formalities were tinged with lamentable distress on the part of those who were compelled to give even the briefest evidence. One father, as he was about to declare that he had identified the remains of his son, suddenly begged to be permitted to visit once more the mortuary and make certain that the poor, charred body was really that of his boy.

Tremendous interest was evinced in the full inquiry which opened after the victims had been laid to rest. Not only Gillingham, but the entire country was anxious to know how such a dreadful calamity could have occurred. So far, it was a mystery. Despite rumours and general speculation there was little, if any, evidence as to the cause. Indeed, even after this searching investigation, it remained more or less a mystery still. Those who could, perhaps, have told the whole story, were dead. Even those who had lingered on in hospital were unable to furnish any concrete facts.

Chief Officer White, of the Gillingham Brigade, had no theory to advance. He was satisfied that all due precautions had been taken and that his men understood their orders. Exhibitions similar to the "Fireman's Wedding" had been given many times before, by his and other brigades, without danger or mishap. Life-lines, life-saving hooks and slings had been placed in readiness in the house, and the engines and escapes, with the water supply, was waiting only fifty yards away. Such a display, he claimed, was of sound practical value as well as being a popular spectacle. It taught children to remain calm and to use their heads during an alarm of fire. The boys who had taken part had been only too willing and anxious to volunteer their services. He denied that any had been roped in at the last moment.

The building of the house had been supervised by Edwin Parker Bines, a foreman carpenter of the Gillingham Corporation and First Lieutenant of the Brigade who contributed valuable evidence. The structure, it appeared, was of wood and canvas. On the first and second floors were old dust-pans and on the top floor an old drum, all containing small portions of oily waste for flares. For greater safety they were placed on stones. There was also, on the first floor a drum containing four gallons of "a liquid such as paraffin," the contents of which had been decided by one of his men, whose duty it was. Then, on the ground floor, there was an old oil barrel, with both its ends cut, which had been filled with machine shavings.

It was the duty of Fireman Cokayne to light the flares on the first, second and top floors. Then, having shouted the alarm from the roof, he was to return to the front door and report. Not until the rescue had been effected was the house to be really set on fire from below. Cokayne usually carried a box of matches, but no one in the house was allowed to smoke.

The sensation of the inquest was the evidence of Jack Lewis Richards, a sixteen-year-old dockyard employee. His was the evidence that alone provided any tangible theory. With a party of sea scouts, he told the court, he went into the building before the demonstration. He had thought about staying there to see the show through when he realised that he had his "best clothes" on, whereupon he decided to leave. Just as he was about to go he saw Fireman Cokayne standing in a corner on the ground floor. "I saw him take out a box of matches and light some rubbish in the centre of the building," declared Richards. There were shavings on the floor which, the boys had been playfully kicking about. As soon as these shavings were smouldering Cokayne went up the ladder to the first floor, returning almost at once. Richards then asked Cokayne if the rubbish would not flare up quickly, and he replied that it would only smoulder. And then Richards left the house - with his life.

In the face of stern cross-examination Richards at first stuck firmly to his story. He was certain that it had been a fireman who had ignited the shavings, and he was equally certain that that fireman was Cokayne. "I know him. I saw his face," he said. Later, he wavered a little. Asked bluntly if the fireman who lit the shavings was the same fireman who came down the ladder just afterwards - if, indeed, it were Cokayne on both occasions - he replied, "Well, I am not quite sure." Thus the weight of his evidence diminished, in spite of the fact that a friend declared that, just after the fete, Richards had told him what he had seen Cokayne do.

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