Gillingham Bus Disaster
It is surprising how obvious certain safety precautions seem after the events in which their use would have saved lives. Such is the case with the Gillingham bus disaster in December 1951.
In the early evening of December 4th 52 Royal Marine cadets aged between 10 and 13 were marching from one barracks in Gillingham to another in Chatham to watch a boxing tournament. Accounts of the conditions differ: according to the sole adult with them, a Lieutenant Carter, it was reasonably clear. According to the driver of the bus involved in the accident it was dark and foggy.
The boys were mostly in dark uniforms, albeit with white belts, and they carried no lanterns or torches to signal their presence. Just before 6pm as they were passing the entrance to Chatham Royal Naval Dockyard , where a street light was out of operation, a double-decker bus approached them from behind. Again accounts vary: the driver, John Samson, told the later inquest he was doing at most 20mph; Carter estimated at least double that. As was then apparently common, but remains inexplicable, the driver was only using sidelights. Perhaps he was concerned about fuel consumption.
Had the boys carried warning lights, or the bus used headlights, the accident would in all likelihood not have happened. But it did. The bus ploughed through the column, killing 17 boys instantly. Another seven died later in hospital.
In spite of the driver not braking by his own admission until 25 yards beyond the carnage (50 yards per Carter), and not using headlights when others that night were, the coroner ruled the deaths accidental – though the courts later found Samson guilty of dangerous driving and fined him £20, banning him from driving for three years.
The Gillingham tragedy remained the worst road accident in British history until the Dibbles Bridge coach crash in May 1975 , where 33 people perished.
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