In the early years of the twentieth century, a fair was held every summer in Gillingham Park in aid of St Bartholomew's Hospital Fund. The finale was always a rescue and fire-fighting demonstration by the men of Gillingham Fire Brigade.
During the afternoon, two firemen would dress up as a bride and groom, and parade around the park collecting money for the hospital, and attracting people to the demonstration. They were accompanied by "Auntie", a Naval Petty Officer who was well known locally for his charity work. "Auntie" would draw attention to the bride and groom on their way around the park, and help with the collection of donations.
As the evening drew near, the bride and groom would head towards their "house" - a forty-foot tall three storey wood and canvas structure, where the reception was to be held. The plan was that once the party was under way, flares would be lit in the house so that it looked like it was on fire. The bride and groom and their guests, all played by firemen, naval cadets and sea scouts, would shout for help, and then Gillingham Fire Brigade would rescue them. Once everyone was out of the house, a real fire would be lit and this would allow the Fire Brigade to demonstrate their fire-fighting, as well as their rescue skills.
The demonstrations had always gone well in the past, and were popular with the crowds who visited the fete. However, at about 10pm on Thursday 11th July 1929, the demonstration went tragically wrong. Once all of the guests were in the house, real flames were seen at the base of the building. Presumably because of the chimney-like shape of the building, the flames spread upwards almost immediately, trapping everyone inside. Many of the spectators, who included many relatives of the people inside the house, didn't realise that this was not part of the demonstration, and didn't realise that the screams from the occupants were real. It was only when figures engulfed in flames, and illuminated by a searchlight, started leaping from the roof that the reality of the situation hit them. Two boys were seen leaping to their deaths from the top of the burning house, whilst the burnt body of another could be seen half hanging over the edge of the roof.
The Fire Brigade had swung into action as soon as the flames appeared; they rushed their pumps to the house and started hosing it with water from a dam which had been specially built for the demonstration. The flames had spread so quickly though, and the fire was so intense, that the ladders they put against the building burned before they could be used and they had to fetch a builder's ladder. At the same time other Firemen, Policemen, members of the St John Ambulance Brigade and the public were trying to rescue people trapped on the lower floors of the house. Despite their efforts, and the fact that it only took a few minutes for the Fire Brigade to put out the fire, everyone who was brought out was either dead or would die within a few days.
The following men and boys were involved with the demonstration, and died as a result of the fire:
The funeral for the victims was held on the afternoon of Wednesday 17th July. Some of the boys had been associated with St Augustine's Church (at the top of Rock Avenue) and so a special service was held there in the morning, with the bodies of five of the boys in the church.
In the afternoon, thousands of people from all over the country packed the streets of Gillingham along the two mile (3.2km) funeral route. The funeral procession itself was a mile and a half (2.4km) long, and was headed by ten coffins carried on fire appliances covered with wreathes and with muffled bells, and five coffins draped with the Union Flag borne on gun carriages. All of the shops in the town were closed, and householders supplied drinking water to bystanders and marchers, which included several hundred firemen, as the weather was extremely hot.
The procession began at the council offices in Green Street, and went up Canterbury Street, along Copenhagen Road, Gillingham Road and Livingstone Road to the cemetery in Woodlands Road, where a multi-denominational service was held, led by the Bishop of Rochester. The victims were buried facing the naval section of the cemetery.
"Now that those poor scorched remains lie resting side by side in the peaceful cemetery at Woodlands, in graves which will be lovingly tended and revered so long as this generation exists, what is our duty?" Chatham, Rochester and Gillingham Observer July 19th, 1929
Despite the well-meant sentiments expressed by the local paper, by the early years of the 21st century the graves of the victims, like so many around them, had fallen into dereliction. Kerbs were shattered and broken, memorials were on the wrong graves, and the whole area was a mess. I remember trying and failing to find the graves on several separate visits to the cemetery.
Meanwhile, thousands of miles away in Canada, Lori Oschefski was researching her family tree, and discovered that her great-Uncle Edward Cheeseman was from Gillingham in Kent. More research led her to find out about the disaster that killed him, and to discover the state of the memorials.
After a lot of work and organising, she persuaded Medway Council to restore the graves, and to erect a memorial in Gillingham Park, which was unveiled on 10th July 2011. For the full story go to Lori's site at http://www.firemanswedding.com.
All photographs © 2000 - 2006 Jason Ross unless otherwise stated.