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The Leysdown Tragedy - 4 August 1912

The new Scout Movement, founded in 1907 promoted fresh air and outdoor activities. Just the thing for lads from the overcrowded streets of Walworth in Southwark, on their second summer camp in Kent. On Friday 3 August 1912, the 2nd Walworth Scout Troop of 5 adults and 24 young Scouts sailed from Southwark, down the River Thames to Leysdown on the Isle of Sheppey. Some would never return alive. They set off from Southwark down the River Thames for Sheppey at 5pm, rowing the first twoand-a-half miles to Tower Bridge, then hoisted the Scouts of the 2nd Walworth Scout Group training by the old sail and set off downstream in a strong breeze Waterloo Bridge, London, before the tragedy in their ill-fated between cargo ships, tugs and sailing barges. They cutter. Scoutmaster Marsh is at the helm. would have been excited as they arrived at Erith at 9pm and settled down for the night under a blanket on the bottom boards of the boat. Saturday 4 August 1912 at 4am they set off on the final leg of the journey and a weeks camp at Leysdown. As the wind picked up, Marsh put his best boy, William Beckham, at the mainsheet (the rope that controls the mainsail). They passed Canvey Island, and then began to cross the mouth of the Medway. At 1.30pm the coastguard recorded seeing the cutter rounding Warden Point near Leysdown.

The adventurously challenging route taken from London to Erith to Leysdown

This is where a terrible tragedy occurred off Leysdown, Isle of Sheppey. The ex-naval 32-foot cutter was two miles out, turning for the shore, when there was a sudden squall (a violent gust of wind), which hit the boat mainsail and capsized the boat, causing the occupants to be flung into the sea. The boat righted, but then capsized again. All but one of the boys were swimmers, otherwise loss of life might have been much higher. Nine Scouts died, all but one from the 2nd Walworth Troop. The 9 who died were: Noel Filmer Thompson (Tommy) Filmer Albert Dack

Aged 14 Aged 12 Aged 11

Edward Smith William Beckham (Patrol Leader) James Skipsey

Aged 11 Aged 12 Aged 12 Aged 12 Aged 14

Harry Gwynn (Patrol Leader) Aged 13 Percy Baden Powell Huxford Frank Masters (a Nunhead local from the Training Ship Arethusa where he lived)

The group were neither unprepared nor novices. They had been chosen to give a demonstration at the Sea Scout Rally at Earl's Court only one month previously. The Scoutmaster Mr. Sidney John Marsh was a young city businessman, an ex-Dulwich College boy (Later these college students would play a major role in Dulwich Scouting and the South London Scout Centre), who believed he was fulfilling a Christian mission in working with less privileged boys in Walworth. He had also, since 1904, been an Assistant Paymaster in the Royal Naval Reserve.

The same journey to camp had been made the previous year by Dulwich Mission Scouts who made good friends with Leysdown's senior Coastguard, Chief Petty Officer Streeter. Marsh and Streeter had planned the Walworth Scouts' (approx 57 mile / 92 km) voyage together. Streeter had been waiting for the arrival of the cutter at Leysdown. He had word of her at 1.30pm and ran to his Lookout Station. He was unable to see the boat because of the weather, but then it cleared, and he could see the cutter about 2 miles out. The wind veered round as the cutter put about to make a run for the shore. Streeter was horrified to see her keel over, throwing boys into the water. He immediately launched a lifeboat crewed by four of his men with himself at the tiller and lost no time in reaching the shocking scene. Boys were in the icy cold water crying out for help and Scoutmaster Marsh was on the point of drowning. Marsh was rescued, but immediately plunged back in again to save a drowning boy, then another. The lifeboat rescued 20, including Marsh, but they were not able to recover any others or bodies not visible at this time, for there was a strong tide. Due to several acts of selfless heroism, especially by their Scoutmaster Sydney Marsh, many lives were saved. But 8 scouts and Frank Masters from the training ship Arethusa had drowned. Mr. John Filmer, father of two of the boys, an ex-naval man, was present on the boat when she capsized, but like the Scoutmaster, could not prevent the tragedy. He told reporters that the boat keeled over without any warning flinging him into the water. "Of course, the first thing I did was to look round for my boys." he was later reported as saying. "I saw Tommy being held up by Mr. Marsh. Some distance away, was Noel the elder boy, clinging to the dinghy we had been towing." By the time the Coastguards arrived, both lads were drowned. Like the other causalities they were not able to withstand the cold or fury of the waves. Mr. Filmer's watch stopped at five minutes to two, setting the time of the incident. Five Coastguards were assisted by two civilians, R.H. Bawden and W.J. Twinning, their role has been sometimes overlooked in what was beyond all doubt a terrible catastrophe, it should be remembered that thanks to their heroic efforts, 20 members of the party were saved.

A postcard image of the five Coastguards and two civilians who helped save the Leysdown survivors, pictured above the stricken vessel later recovered.

One of the rescued lads, Scout Schofield, was only brought round after half an hour's resuscitation by the Schafer method. The coastguards were hailed as heroes for setting out in such a stormy sea in their little rowing boat. A few days later the Daily Mirror interviewed little Schofield, his arms bandaged where he had been rescued with a boathook.

Scoutmaster Pottock of the 2nd Cobham Troop tried to assist by swimming out with a lifeline, and very nearly made the scene. Scoutmaster Picket of the Sheppey Troop helped to render first aid once the party returned to land. Immediately after the incident Chief Petty Officer Streeter said that Scoutmaster Marsh was " distracted I fear he might lose his reason." (one can only but imagine what this 29 year old man was going through at this time, having lost 8 of his Troop and blaming himself even though no one, not even parents, ever blamed him for the freak accident). The survivors were taken in by the coastguards wives on Sheppey, given beds and beef tea, the excitement of the camp (that never followed) totally forgotten by the event. One of the drowned, Patrol Leader William Beckham, had two brothers who were in the boat and saved. His mother told a reporter that she owed their lives to Scoutmaster Marsh to whom she would be eternally grateful. (David Beckham, England Football Captain 2000, is directly related to this family). Even 100 years later, details of this tragedy and the subsequent funeral are found harrowing and sad to say the least. The personal circumstances of some of the boys adds more pathos, especially that of Harry Gwynn. Harry's father had died when he was only seven, and his mother before the tragedy. Her last request was that Scoutmaster Marsh adopt her son as she believed he 'was just the father for him'. Marsh had legally adopted the boy, but was unable to save him from the water on that fateful day.

The First Lord of the Admiralty, Mr. Winston Churchill, MP ordered the destroyer HMS Fervent to bring the coffins up the Thames for burial. On 9 August all the drowned boys except Percy Baden Powell Huxford whose body was still missing were placed in elm coffins painted white and carried in twos down to HMS Fervent. The bodies of the boys were brought back to London by river in a manner befitting royalty, Rex Batten said.

David Beckham and wife Victoria Without the heroism of scoutmaster Sydney Marsh and the Kent coastguard, there would have been no David Beckham. It was a stirring highlight of the London 2012 Olympic Opening Ceremony as David Beckham proudly ferried the Olympic torch by speedboat to the stadium. Passing under Tower Bridge, along an iconic stretch of the Thames, his journey was watched by billions. Exactly 100 years ago his great-grandfather Edward Beckham made almost the same journey in a 32-foot naval cutter.

As she passed by, all shipping on the river lowered their flags in salute. There were thousands of sympathisers on hand when the ship docked at Rotherhithe. The coffins were carried off and brought to St Johns Church, Larcom Street, to which the Troop were attached and close to where the boys had lived. The Union Flag covered the white coffins on their journey to St. John's Church, where 10 000 people filed passed them. Scouts from the Walworth Group stood at attention; heads bowed in front of each coffin and by rotation remained in place throughout the night.

Boy Scouts from many different countries attended the mass funeral held on 10 August, and, despite continuous rain, the route of the funeral was lined many deep. Boy Scouts, linked together by their staves, kept back the crowd as the cortge passed by. Immediately behind the clergy and in front of the horse-drawn hearses, marched Scoutmaster Marsh who had the total sympathy of the silent crowd, lining the streets to watch the Scouts being brought to their final resting place in Nunhead Cemetery. The Daily Express estimated that there were over a million people present that day.

The horse-drawn hearses at the Leysdown funeral, eight on the day.

Baden Powell, who was in Cape Town South Africa at the time, sent wreaths in the shape of lifebuoys for each of the victims. There were many photographs of every aspect of the funeral in a special 16-page issue of The Daily Mirror on Monday 19 August 1912; some pictures are shown in this article. Only eight of the victims were buried that day. Percy Baden Powell Huxford, named in honour of Baden Powell because he was born during the Relief of Mafeking, was not amongst them. His body had been swept out to sea and was not recovered until 13 August, nine days after the tragedy. His funeral was on the 15 August, when he was interred with his friends. The pain of his parents in waiting for his body to be recovered, yet having to endure the funeral of the others, can hardly ever be imagined.

Nunhead Cemetery entrance today (picture taken in 2008) and compared to the scene reported in The Daily Mirror on Sunday 19 August 1912. What a moving experience for me to re-live this event in 2008 with the graveside visit. Andre Foot

Headquarters Gazette, in August 1914, just before the approaching carnage

of the 1st World War, showed this memorial bronze life-size Scout. The event was perceived as a national tragedy, with one million people attending the funeral. Designed by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott the architect noted for Battersea Power Station, Liverpool Anglican Cathedral, as well as designing the original red phone box, it was executed by Miss Read, funded by 100 000 penny public donations and placed in Nunhead Cemetery in the summer of 1914 in honour the nine Scouts. One of the donors wrote the following: "Dear Sir, I enclose 12 pennies towards the memorial to my brother Scouts. I feel I ought to send more than one penny as if I had not had a sore throat I might have been one of them. Yours Truly, James Cook. 2nd Walworth Scout Troop." A cast of the memorial was exhibited in the Royal Academy. There would of course have been an official inquest into the tragedy and no doubt investigations at Scout Headquarters, but to date no official findings were found, as the incident had after all been simply an act of nature. During research for this article in the Scout Archive at Gilwell Park in September 2001, the archivist, Paul Moynihan, had an amazing story to tell. He had been contacted by a scrap dealer in 1997 who wanted to know if the name Percy Baden Powell Huxford meant anything to him. The archivist recognised the name Percy Huxford

as being one of the victims of the Leysdown Tragedy. The scrap dealer said he had a bronze plate with this boy's name on it amongst others. Mr. Moynihan went to visit the dealer and found that he had the bronze name plaque from the monument. It transpires that on 4 June 1969, the Evening Standard carried an article about the theft of the actual statue, which was cast in bronze. The statue had been hacked off at the feet and stolen by thieves. The police felt that it would not be recovered, but already melted down. Its scrap value then was only a mere 40. It is not known if the separate metal nameplate was stolen at the same time, but Paul Moynihan confirmed it was the stolen plate, which was then donated to the UK Scout Archive. The story does not quite end there. The Friends of Nunhead Cemetery' group (dedicated people who have undertaken to oversee the Nunhead Cemetery with its rich history), were responsible for a campaign, which resulted in a new memorial in 1992, thanks to the generosity of Kellaways and Francis Chappell, a replacement memorial of a fine Carrara marble stone carved in the shape of an open book was put in its place. There is also a memorial at Leysdown. The Scouts have never been forgotten and Scouts everywhere should be grateful for the work of this group, as, without them, there would have been no memorial at this time to commemorate both the Sea Scouts who lost their lives, and to remind us of the bravery of those that tried to save them. We are indebted to Rex Batten of the group who has written a most instructive book on the subject, The Walworth Scouts.

Nunhead Cemetery (opened 1840) on entering the main gates, with the gothic like roofless chapel clearly visible. Below, the marble stone open book listing the names, next to 1st World War graves. Behind this memorial is the remains of the original memorial, bearing a silver plaque with the words This base is all that remains of the original memorial.

The Sea Scouts Memorial at Leysdown Cemetery (two pictures left). This stone has similar wording to the one in Nunhead. On the same date, Saturday 4th August 2012 the Friends of Nunhead Cemetery, accompanied by local Scouts and relatives of the drowned boys, commemorated this tragic anniversary at Leysdown and Nunhead. A plaque was also unveiled at Nunhead to Bert Barnes, who did much to help uncover and preserve the memory of these boys, who had died so tragically.

The old amazing monument now gone, and the new memorial now to be seen in Nunhead Cemetery Plot 10 On Saturday 3 August 2002 Ms Cheryl Stonehouse, a Daily Express reporter, wrote an article entitled A River of Tears for the Lost Boys, which concluded with an appeal to raise funds to mount a new plaque in the chapel, an old church, now roofless, in the cemetery. A resin cast (shown

here) was made of the original bronze plaque that was rescued from a scrapyard by the Association's Archivist. In June 2003 the new plaque was dedicated in a special service of This map shows the position of the grave more remembrance attended or less in the centre, with the Nunhead Station by family members of left shown at base of map. some of the lost boys, Chiswick Scouts and representatives of the Scout Association. Today it can be found on the inside back wall of the old chapel in Nunhead Cemetery, together with plaques in memory of leaders of local Scout Groups that cared for the Scout Memorial SKIPPER GANDOLFI, KIM MAYO who inspired research that gave FONC the Leysdown Tragedy and memorial that now marks the boys grave and BERT BARNES who did so much to uncover and preserve the memory of these boys.


Article compiled by Andre Foot 2012 with acknowledgement and thanks to: Boy Scouts of America Milestones Site by Colin Walker David Beckham Article on the Opening of the London 2012 Olympics in Mirror News Friends of Nunhead Cemetery (FONC) Site, especially Carol Stevenson The London Daily Mirror old sites of photographs The Leysdown Centenary Article and Kent Guardian News Rex Batten (author of The Walworth Scouts)