Gillingham Bus Disaster – 1951

On a dark winter’s evening in 1951 a 52-strong company of the Royal Marines Volunteer Cadet Corps set out to march from Gillingham’s Melville Barracks to the Royal Naval Barracks in Chatham to watch a boxing tournament. Regular Marines officer Lt Clarence Carter was in charge, assisted by cadet non-commissioned officers. The youthful marchers formed a column 15 m (50 ft) long, arranged into three platoons.

In Dock Road, outside the gates of Chatham Royal Naval Dockyard, they had reached a dark section of road where a streetlight had failed when a Chatham & District Traction Company bus approached from behind. According to Lt Carter, who saw it coming and told the boys to edge as close as possible to the side of the road, the double-decker was travelling at 65 kph (40 mph). To his horror, the bus did not move out to pass, but ploughed straight through the marchers before eventually stopping.

At the wheel was 57-year-old John Samson, a driver with 40 years’ experience. But he was using only sidelights, despite darkness and eddying fog, and most of the cadets wore dark-blue uniforms. Samson claimed he never saw the column and didn’t realize he’d hit anyone, saying his speed was barely 30 kph (20 mph). After stopping, he found the street strewn with dead and dying youngsters. Lt Carter had been knocked down and seemed dazed, but was otherwise uninjured.

There had never been greater loss of life in a British road accident and there would later be a grand military funeral for victims in Rochester Cathedral, attended by many dignitaries, after which thousands of local people watched the cortege proceed to Gillingham Cemetery. One positive legacy of the disaster is that British military marchers on public roads always show a rear-facing red light at night.

When was the Gillingham Bus Disaster: December 4 1951

Where was the Gillingham Bus Disaster: Gillingham, Kent, UK

What was the Gillingham Bus Disaster death toll: 17 died at the scene, some as young as ten years old, with a further seven dying in hospital, most on the same night. Another 18 were injured.

You should know: The inquest verdict was Accidental Death, but John Samson was still convicted of dangerous driving. He was fined just £20 and banned from driving for three years. The parents of dead boys shared £10,000 in compensation paid out by the Chatham & District Traction Company.

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