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Page last updated at 09:02 GMT, Monday, 11 October 2010 10:02 UK
Memorial wanted for 15 deaths in 1929 Gillingham fire

Eric Cheesman
Cadet Eric Cheesman lived in Watling Avenue, Chatham

Lori Oschefski, from Ontario in Canada, is calling for a permanent memorial to those who died in a fire at the 1929 Gillingham Park Fete.

Lori was researching her family history when she discovered that her mother's cousin was killed in an horrific accident in Gillingham Park.

She made the pilgrimage from Canada to Gillingham to find the grave of Eric Cheesman and the others who died in the tragedy in October 2010 and is pushing Medway Council to erect a permanent memorial in Gillingham Park.

Lori tells the story of the fire:

On 11 July 1929 the local fire brigade held a fire demonstration during the annual Gillingham Park Fete.

During the afternoon two of the men dressed up as a "bride" and "groom" and went around collecting contributions for the local hospital. In the evening they headed to a 40 foot structure made out of wood and canvas.

This house was filled with "wedding guests" played by local firemen, naval cadets and sea scouts.

The plan was to light a fire in the house to make it appear that the house was on fire. The "guests" would cry for help and the Gillingham Fire Brigade would "rescue" them.

Somehow this fire became real, trapping the people in the structure.

 Eric Cheesman's grave. Photo by Geoffrey Gillon
The last resting place of Eric Cheesman in Woodlands Cemetery

All 15 men and boys who participated in this demonstration died including Cadet Eric Edward Cheesman.

He was the son of Edward Cheesman, brother of William, my mother's father and my grandfather.

Eric was only 12 years old when he died.

The others killed were:
(age in brackets)

  • Scout Reginald Henry Lewis Barrett (13)
  • Cadet David Stanley Brunning (12)
  • Leslie George Neale (13)
  • Cadet Leonard Charles Searles (10)
  • Cadet Ivor Douglas Weston Sinden (11)
  • Scout William Herbert Jack Spinks (13)
  • Robert Dennis Usher (14)
  • Scout Leonard Gordon Winn (13). [Died at St Bartholomew's Hospital]
  • Fireman Francis Bull Cokayne (53)
  • Royal (Ronald) George Mitchell (37). [Died the following Saturday]
  • Fireman Albert Joseph Nicholls (56) - Secretary of Fire Brigade. [His body was identified by the Mayor, Councillor A.S.J. Treacher, who was Nicholls' dentist]
  • Petty Officer John Thomas Nutton (37) [played the "Auntie"]
  • Fireman Arthur John Tabrett (40) - [played the "Bridegroom"]
  • Frederick Arthur Worrall (30) - [played the "Bride"]

Reporting the tragedy

The tragedy was reported worldwide, with the Sydney Morning Herald of 15 July 1929 reporting: "Those inside did not doubt for a moment the seriousness of the fire. 'For God's sake, call the brigade' was their instant cry. Firemen ran up the escapes, but it was obvious that little could be done.

"When the flames finally died down most of the bodies were found near the top. They had apparently died of suffocation."

The funeral

The streets of Gillingham were lined with thousands of mourners
The streets of Gillingham were lined with thousands of mourners

There was a special service for five of the boys in the morning of 17 July at St Augustine's Church in Rock Avenue.

In the afternoon the streets of Gillingham along the two mile funeral route were packed with thousands of mourners. The cortege consisted of 10 coffins carried on fire appliances and five coffins on gun carriages. All the shops in the town were closed for the funeral.

The 15 victims are buried in Woodlands Cemetery, Gillingham.

The funeral memorial cards
The funeral memorial cards for the 15 people killed in 1929

The inquest

After retiring for about three quarters of an hour the jury returned with a verdict of "misadventure". They were of the opinion that the fire was started from the premature lighting of a fire on the ground floor by persons unknown. There was not sufficient evidence to show who lit that fire.

No demonstrations involving the Fire Brigade were staged at the annual Gillingham fete again.


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