Events & Anecdotes
Any organisation whose business is conducted in public and which is much ingrained into the life of the community will generate stories and experiences. We’ll aim to expand on this theme but as a start here are a few contributions, and the story of a deeply tragic disaster.
Mike Hodges was a pupil at what was then Chatham Technical School, and clearly remembers an English teacher using a 1950s remark by a local woman to her companion at a bus stop to illustrate to his class the alleged sloppiness of Medway speech. When an approaching Chatham Traction bus was sighted she had exclaimed “ ’Ere comes ve brahn bus, duck!" Can’t imagine why he should think it was sloppy - we all understood each other, didn’t we?!
The Magpie Hall Road Top show.
One dark evening in the early 50s a Chatham Traction Inspector began to wonder what had become of buses on service 2 from Magpie Hall Road Top. Upon investigation they were found sitting at the terminus on Walderslade Road with the crews watching from the top deck some entertaining cavorting involving a man and a woman in the bedroom of an adjacent house! Not at all what one would have expected to see in this posher part of Chatham……
Mind the new Lino!
As a young boy Eddie Lane travelled to school by Chatham Traction. One day in 1951 a shiny, newly re-bodied Bristol appeared. Boarding to meet up as usual with a friend Eddie was greeted with a proprietorial “Good morning Eddie - let me show you round!”
Brothers David and John Watts were raised through the 40s and 50s by parents Winnie and Vic at 72 Connaught Road, Luton. John reports that Vic, a butcher, had neither the inclination nor the finances to own a car, so like the majority of residents within Luton Parish the family were reliant upon sturdy shoe leather, bicycles or the Traction buses for their transport. The Watts brothers have many memories of Chatham Traction and Luton – here’s just a couple:
“Route 1 which originally ran between Luton ‘Hen and Chickens’ PH and the Dockyard, was extended just before the war then post war at weekends and Bank Holidays to reach the “Wagon-at-Hale” PH, which still stands in a rural location at the junction of Pear Tree Lane and Capstone Road. It was a popular starting and finishing point for countryside ramblers. The Watts family enjoyed many summer picnics from here and would think nothing of walking to Hempstead, Bredhurst, Lidsing or Boxley and back, collecting blackberries from the hedgerows en route.”
“Luton Road Methodist Church was situated on the corner of Luton Road and Connaught Road and during the run up to Guy Fawkes night each year it became the ideal location for Mickey Freeman’s gang to ambush passing Traction buses en-route to Chatham. Lighted jumping jacks were tossed onto the rear platforms and the conductors and clippies would demonstrate varying techniques of Highland dancing. On one occasion the fearless Michael lobbed a lit tuppenny Brocks “boy scout rouser”, and whilst there were no travelling boy scouts to rouse, the resulting explosion certainly surprised both passengers and crew who were riled enough to stop the bus and return fire with a volley of expletives. But the fleet of foot Connaught Road gang had long disappeared into the murky shadows.”
The late Win Rolfe was born in Luton in 1928 and as a child lived in Edinburgh Road, only a short walk from the second bus stop on Luton Road coming from Luton village, by Reeves Dairy and opposite the “Brickmakers Arms”. In 2005 she recalled: “Brahn buses, my life line between Luton School and Pembroke Gate. I worked in the Dockyard from 1946/7 onwards, starting work at 8 a.m. It made good sense to catch a bus before that time, as the fare was only three halfpence from Luton to Pembroke Gate – it was two and a half pence after 8 o’clock!”
The brown buses’ 25 years of loyal service was marred by one single incident, still remembered by many for the deep tragedy it was. As with many disasters, a number of habitual practices whose flaws were normally of no consequence combined to involve innocent and good people in a single chance event.
In the dark early evening of Tuesday 4th December 1951 Chatham Traction bus GKE 69, crewed by Driver John Samson and Conductress Dorothy Dunster, was nearing the end of a routine journey on service 1 from Luton to Pembroke Gate. Marching in the road in full uniform on their way to watch a boxing tournament in the Dockyard were 52 members of the Chatham Royal Marine Cadet Corps, aged between 9 and 15. In the darkness the bus came upon the cadets and as a result 24 of them died. Still more were injured.
The bus was examined at the scene by Chatham Traction staff and the police. The picture here, which appeared in contemporary newspaper accounts, conveys the quiet grimness and deep concern that must have surrounded the scene.
Ray Macey’s father was a Driver: “ I remember waiting for Dad to come home from work. He was on a late turn which meant that it would be at least 10 p.m. We had no phone at that time. We sat and listened to the news but never voiced our fears. When he finally arrived he looked drawn and grey and was obviously under some stress………he never mentioned the accident at all that evening. All the buses were running about half an hour late because the Drivers all knew what had happened. There was no counselling in those days.”
Reaction to the incident was immediate, and spontaneous support for the bereaved families was widespread. The incident was reported world-wide. That such an everyday object could be the instrument of such tragedy added to the disbelief.
John Samson was due to receive a long service award at a company function the following evening. The event went ahead, but in very subdued fashion. Chatham Traction Chairman, R P Beddow, said “our sympathy goes out to driver Samson, who has spent so many years of his life in the service of the company and the public”. Samson was 57 at the time, with 40 years’ service on both trams and buses. In January 1952 he was tried at the Old Bailey and found guilty. The jury recommended that he “should be shown as much leniency as possible”. The sentence was a £20 fine and a three-year driving disqualification, but the Judge Mr Justice Pilcher added that the mental punishment Samson had undergone, and would continue to endure, far exceeded anything the law could apply.
There was much subsequent debate about the need or otherwise for a public Inquiry. Eventually in June 1952 the Government Committee on Road Safety reported to the Minster of Transport in response to a remit “to consider the accident which occurred at Gillingham on 4th December, 1951”. The abstract of the report summarised the conclusions, advising that “there were three main features of the accident; the inadequacy of the street lighting, the lack of proper safeguards for the marching cadets and the failure of the omnibus driver to use his headlights”. Recommendations were made to address all three of these issues.
GKE 69 was subsequently involved in several minor accidents, including one in Luton Road on 16th January 1952 when it was in collision with a lorry. Ray Macey remembers seeing the bus lying partly on its side against a lamp standard at the bottom of Constitution Hill. Reportedly Drivers were not happy with its continued use, and it saw little further service. It was broken up at Luton depot in November 1953.
On the 50th anniversary of the event in 2001, a memorial plaque was unveiled by the Duke of Edinburgh at the site.