The Leysdown Tragedy

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On the 4th of August 2010, I walked from Leysdown to Warden on the Isle of Sheppey in Kent. I went to remember the Leysdown Tragedy, which had taken place 98 years to the day, in 1912. The Tragedy was the drowning of nine boys, eight of whom were scouts from Walworth and one a cadet from a training ship. They were caught in a sudden squall as they sailed up the Thames estuary to their camp on Sheppey. The tragedy caught the public mood and the funeral procession was attended by well over a million people. The grand procession started on a Royal Navy Destroyer and it ended at Nunhead Cemetery where the nine boys are buried. Every time I pass the scouts’ memorial I’ve thought about children, about losing them, about what we expect of them and how we prepare them for adulthood.

So I decided to make a series of photographs and a piece of creative writing to explore those thoughts. This was exhibited in the roofless chapel at Nunhead Cemetery. A short book by Rex Batten of the Friends of Nunhead Cemetery is the source of facts and quotes in the piece that follows. For the full set of photos see here.

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In memory of

Harry Gwynn, aged 13

James Skipsey, aged 12

Thompson Filmer, aged 12

Noel Filmer, aged 14

William Beckham, aged 12

Edward Smith, aged 11

Albert Dack, aged 11

Percy Huxford, aged 12

And Frank Masters, aged 14, of the training ship Arethusa

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The scouts were from poor and crowded houses in Walworth. People in this area worked in the docks of the Port of London and in the many food factories nearby. The Thames was still the vital industrial core of London. Most of the boys lived in and around Brandon Street, near Elephant and Castle. This was later to be one of the most heavily bombed places in Britain in World War II, though many Victorian terraces on Brandon Street survive. The bomb sites were filled up with flats from the 1950’s to 1970’s, the Heygate Estate being the most brutal and notorious. This is being demolished for a £1.5 billion luxury development.

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There was good news and bad news in 1912, and both stories were big news: Scott reached the South Pole and the Titanic hit an iceberg. Meanwhile, the Germans were building dreadnoughts and forming alliances in Europe. The British were worried. They were anxious about the capacities of their young people if war was to strike. There was much talk about the need for children to be better fed, fitter and tougher.

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Some believed fitness would improve with selective breeding. Most thought that exercise and adventure would do the trick. In 1912 the Boy Scouts Association became incorporated into the British Empire, with “the purpose of instructing boys of all classes in the principles of discipline, loyalty and good citizenship”.

It’s sometimes said that the 1st World War happened because people thought it would. There was such a fervent build up of nationalism, global competition for imperial territories and a rapid advance in military technology, that the war couldn’t help but erupt with the slightest spark. In 1912, my great grandfather was a young Petty Officer in the Royal Navy, having been in training from his teenage years, like his father before him. He recalled a sense that they were preparing for an inevitable war. They had to learn how to handle much bigger ships and new secret torpedoes, so it felt really serious.​

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It was against this background that the Walworth scouts learned how to sail.

Scouting was all about adventure. The scoutmaster, Sidney Marsh, had taken the troupe to camp on Sheppey in 1911 without incident, so it should have been an easy journey. They set off in the evening, slept in the boat, then carried on at dawn. The weather was grey that summer, and the rain and wind intensified that morning. The low-lying land made the wind whip up the waves in shallow water. The Coastguard at Warden was keeping watch for them. He saw the boat keel over in a squall and launched the lifeboat. They picked up twenty survivors and ‘a number of caps, but that was all’. Later they must have retrieved more bodies. The scoutmaster had tried hard to rescue many boys, diving in yet again when he was exhausted. The news stories tell of how villagers took the survivors in. One of the boys, Pat, wrote home: “All our wet things were taken off and we were put into the coastguards houses. We were fed with jellies and beef tea, and when our gear was dry we got up.” He wrote how they had no socks or boots because their routine was to take them off and be barefoot in the boat. Churchill was then First Lord of the Admiralty. He arranged for the Navy to provide a ‘warship hearse’ to take the bodies to London. While scouts and relatives watched, heads bowed, the white coffins shrouded in flags were taken in pairs on rowboats out to the warship, which took them quietly down the Thames. The Port of London stopped work when the ship arrived. The coffins were taken by hearse to St John’s Church in Walworth where more than 100,000 people came to pay their respects. There was a storm during the service. Then a procession through Camberwell and Peckham to Nunhead Cemetery, watched by over a million people.

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I wasn’t looking for evidence of the tragedy. I was thinking more of the distance between 1912 and 2011, how evidence and memories fade. I told several people in Leysdown why I was there, but only one person had a hazy recognition of the story. The boys were gone on that day in 1912 and they are still gone now. They were famous for dying. But their fame was eclipsed by the 21 million total casualties of the 1st World War.​

While I wasn’t looking for direct evidence, my eyes did seek out markers: Uprights. Standing pieces of stone or concrete facing the sea. Unintentional henges. Geodes in mud. Harder objects that resisted erosion.

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Thoughts came to me as incidents happened on the walk. The first thoughts were forced on me, about children and safety. I hadn’t taken my lens cap off when a woman rushed to rescue her child from my camera. Seconds later a father blustered down from the caravans, shouting at his two small children who had wandered a few steps away onto the beach. As I walked on, I could see several adults in red T-shirts, some watching the sea and others playing cricket with a few children. Before long, I was warned by one of them, a lifeguard, not to take pictures of children. Now 43% of British adults think children shouldn’t play unsupervised until they are 14. In my 1970s childhood I was allowed to roam in the country all day. I never met a stranger or had an accident that made a mark on me.

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The Scouts were formed to give children the opportunity to build character through adventure in unknown terrain, especially away from cities. Experience of the unknown, combined with challenges, allows children to judge risks, to make decisions to ensure their safety and be resilient. The younger children I saw were being surveyed and terrorised by their carers’ sense of panic about the dangers of mud, broken glass, flies, strangers and cameras. I walked up the street, lined with amusement arcades of endless depths where children were exposed to the dangers of hot dogs, candy floss and coke.

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Further along, on Warden Point, I met different kinds of children. They were young teens, unaccompanied. They were playing in the mudflats and clambering on the military buildings that had been thrown down off the eroding cliffs. They were doing what they would have done much younger, 60 years ago. This is not to say that the past was a golden age for children. If they had been working class teens then, they would have left school at 14 to be part of the industrial machine, and from 1939 to 1960 would have been heading for national service.

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It’s well known that most of “the casualties in World War One were young unmarried men, many of whom had gone to battle at sixteen. British children have lives that are richer now, more free of disease and more full of entertainment. However, the sea and signs of erosion on the shore were telling me that our children’s luck may be changing. Here are some of the bigger signs about what is happening…

On the south east USA coast, a third of children have suffered mystery illnesses since the oil spill at Deepwater Horizon.

Pollution by oil and plastic, and the oceans’ function as a carbon sink, has turned 40% of our seas to acid. Acid seas cannot absorb CO2 to help reduce global warming.

The islands of plastic junk in the Pacific occupy more surface than the USA.​

Communities are already losing land to the rising seas.

At current rates of action to tackle climate change, the sea may rise as much as 2 metres within 90 years. Because the rise won’t be even around the globe, there will be much higher levels around the Equator.​

As the sea warms and loses plankton, its storms are much more severe causing more flooding and erosion.

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At Warden you can see war buildings, gun emplacements and pill boxes, smashed onto the shore, defunct now and only useful for children’s play. We might think from this that war and wartime thinking are over, but they are not. We are still a nation at war. We still send young men to their deaths. We believe that strangers walking amongst us are the greatest threat to “our children’s safety. But we fail to notice that the greatest threat is our attitude to the planet.

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On 4th August 1912 a sudden storm, unexpected on a summer day, overturned a boat full of children. The sudden storms will return. As we left Sheppey, the long hot summer broke with a heavy black cloud and torrential rain.

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