SURVIVORS of one of Britain's worst road accidents, in which 24 young boys were killed, gathered yesterday to unveil a memorial to the dead.
The crash, on 4 December, 1951, happened when a bus ploughed into the back of a column of Royal Marine cadets marching along an unlit road at Gillingham, Kent. Those killed were aged between nine and 13.
More pedestrian lives were claimed than in any accident before or since, and it sent shock waves beyond the Medway towns. King George and Winston Churchill, then Prime Minister, sent messages of condolence, as did the West German government. A parliamentary committee was formed to investigate the circumstances. Thousands of people around the country wrote letters of sympathy, many enclosing money to help bereaved families and injured boys.
No memorial to the dead was created until now, however, because of a wrangle over those donations.
Some of the money was spent on headstones and the remaining pounds 7,300 taken into the charge of the High Court. It was released only two years ago when the families, who expected it to be worth pounds 300,000, learned it had not been invested or gained a penny in interest.
Yesterday, former cadets and relatives of the dead gathered in St George's Centre, Gillingham - a former naval barracks church - for a simple ceremony to unveil a wooden plaque bearing the names of the dead.
For Peter Griffiths, who was nine at the time, it was the first meeting with other survivors. There were 28 in all.
Now 51, he suffered serious head injuries and was unconscious for 10 days. 'I didn't think this was going to affect me, but it did. This memorial
is well overdue - someone slipped up along the line.'
The emotionally charged ceremony left many friends and relatives in tears, but for some it brought relief. Alan Brazier, 54, who travelled from the West Midlands to attend, said: 'I feel like I am laying a ghost. Physically I wasn't hurt but mentally I have carried this for years.'
Lottie Tickner, 71, who lost her son David, 11, said her sense of loss was still strong. 'I often think of him and visit his grave. He was so young, no one knows what life would have brought.'
One of the forgotten victims of the crash was the bus driver, John Samson, who died a few years ago. As a result of the accident he was fined pounds 20 at the Old Bailey for dangerous driving. Mr Justice Pilcher told him: 'You are a man of good character . . . it would be absurd to send you to prison. Everyone who has heard this case feels the greatest sympathy not only with the parents and relatives of these unfortunate children but also with you.' Samson never drove a vehicle again.
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