Guest Post by BK

Leysdown Walworth Scout disaster

Leysdown Walworth Scout disaster

St Clement’s Church, Leysdown in The Isle Of Sheppey was demolished in the 1980s. All that is left is the graveyard. In the graveyard is a three-ton piece of Kentish ragstone bearing a bronze plaque. The stone, which was not erected until 1995, overlooks Warden Point the scene of one of the most emotional tragedies of The Edwardian Era.

The Scout Movement was founded in 1908; although the first camp, on Brownsea Island, had already been help in 1907. A summer holiday for working-class boys away from the inner-city slums was a wonderful opportunity and the movement spread rapidly.

In 1912 the boys of the 2nd Walworth Troop were given the chance of a holiday under canvas at the Scout Camp in Leysdown. In addition, there was the adventure of sailing down The Thames from Waterloo Bridge to the camp in their training ship, The Arethusa.

The summer of 1912 was cold and wet. In August there were no sunny days and only 9 days had no measureable rain. The Arethusa set sail on the afternoon of Saturday 3rd August with a complement of 5 adults and 24 scouts and arrived at Erith at 9:00 where they anchored for the night in a cold drizzle. They then rose at 4:00 on the Sunday to sail down to Leysdown. A strong wind was blowing from the Kent coast but the boat was protected by keeping close to the North Sheppey shore. However to get to Leysdown the boat had to turn down the East cost at Warden Point. At this moment, about 2:00 P.M. a heavy squall hit them and the boat overturned; throwing the crew and boys into the stormy sea.

Luckily, the Leysdown coastguard had been expecting The Arethusa and witnessed the sinking; so they were able to launch their lifeboat; with a crew of 2 coastguard and 2 volunteers, immediately and set off on the 2 mile trek, only powered by oars, to rescue the crew.

The heroic bravery of the coastguards and the adult scouts who went back into the sea time after time to try and rescue the boys resulted in 15 of the boys being saved and the tragic loss of 9 of the boys.

The tragedy deeply affected the nation and Sir Winston Churchill, then First Lord Of The Admiralty, sent a navel destroyer to carry the boy’s bodies back to Walworth. The bodies were taken to St John’s Church, Larcom Road where more than 100,000 people passed through to pay their respects.

The funeral was held on 10 August 1912, on yet another thundery, rain-soaked day. More than one million people are estimated to have lined the procession from St John’s to Nunhead Cemetery where the boys are buried. The Daily Mirror and The Daily Express both printed special editions.

The Daily Express organised a collection for a fitting memorial for the boys and in 1914 a life-size bronze model of a Scout designed by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott and sculpted by Miss Lillie Read was erected by the graves. Unfortunately, in the 1960s, Nunhead cemetery fell into a state of neglect and disrepair and, in 1969, the statue was sawn off at the ankles and taken away and has never been seen again. Presumably it has been melted down for scrap.

Nunhard Cemetry has been much improved over the past thirty years thanks to the activities of The Friends Of Nunhead Cemetry. A new, much smaller, memorial was erected in 1992. At the base of the inscription is carved a circle of pebbles with a single stone in the centre. The Scouts symbol for ‘Gone Home’.

The tragedy was largely forgotten after World War I. There has recently been a revived interest. Some because of the centenary but mainly because of the three Beckham brothers. One, William, perished but two, Ted & John survived. Ted was to become the Great Grandfather of David Robert Joseph Beckham.