On the 25th April 1941, Nineteen of the Twenty-One Beckenham Firemen were buried in a mass grave at the Beckenham Cemetery, after a memorial service at the parish church of St. George by Canon Boyd and a solemn procession through the town. The grave was dug entirely by their comrades and was softened by masses of daffodils. The 19 coffins were placed in St. George’s church on the Wednesday before the service and guarded by Firemen. The 19 coffins were borne from the church to the hearses by 114 bearers from the Beckenham AFS. As they left they passed between the lines of The Guard of Honour lining the path to the lychgate. The silence and peace was deeply affecting, all the traffic through the town had been stopped. The bearing of the coffins to the hearses seemed endless. As the Chopin Funeral March was played, the procession of hearses, firemen, service personnel, 19 cars with the families of the deceased and two fire appliances loaded with a mass of flowers, left on its journey to the Beckenham Cemetery. It took half an hour for the procession to pass any point on the route to the Cemetery. After the coffins had been placed in the grave, posies and bunches of flowers were dropped in and there were 350 wreaths. A plaque at the graveside read;
“We remember proudly the deeds of these bravemen, martyrs in the cause of liberty”.
Two firemen, Brothers-in-law, Norman Mountjoy and Ernest Beadle, both killed with the other 19 at Old Palace School in Bow, were buried the previous day beside their colleagues at West Wickham.
(The Funeral Cortege)
(The Funeral Cortege)
(Guarding of the Coffins in the Chapel)
(Fire Appliances Decorated with Flowers)
(Arrival at Beckenham Cemetery)
(The Graveside Burial)
(Unveiling of The Memorial Stone)
The Memorial Stone at the Elmers End Cemetery was unveiled seven months later by Mayor Sampson on Saturday 13th December 1941. Among those present with the widows and close relatives were Sir Edward Campbell MP, the Town Clerk, Mr. C. Eric Staddon, Councilor’s of Beckenham and Kent County and Officers from the Police and Fire Service. After a short service by Canon Boyd, trumpeters of the London Fire Brigade sounded the Last Post.
This story remained unpublished because of emergency Defense Regulations.
The full details were finally uncovered six decades later by the wonderful Firemen Remembered charity which unveiled a memorial in April 1997, at Lansbury Lawrence Primary School, on the site of the old school destroyed 56 years before. The story only came to light when William Somerville’s Son, Frank, discovered the story in his Father’s diaries. William Somerville was a member of the AFS Sub-Station in Millborne Street School, Hackney and he would have been at the Old Palace School that night, had he not been on leave. The other six members of his crew died that night. Realising what an effect the tragedy had on his Father, Frank decided to arrange for a commemorative plaque to be sited at the rebuilt school.
The dedication ceremony took place on Saturday 19th April 1997 at The Old Palace School Site, St. Leonard’s Street, London. The Plaque was unveiled by Cyril Demarne OBE, the former Chief Fire Officer of West Ham Fire Brigade, in the presence of The Mayor of The London Borough of Tower Hamlets, Councillor Albert Jacob, The Chair of The London Fire and Civil Defence Authority, Councillor Judith Josling, the families, colleagues and friends of those who died and representatives from The London Fire Brigade, Northamptonshire Fire and Rescue Service, Old Palace School and the local community.
“In memory of the 13 London firemen and women and 21 Beckenham firemen killed on the night of 19th April 1941 when a bomb destroyed the old school being used as a sub-fire station. This is the largest single loss of Fire Brigade personnel in English history. Details of this tragic incident were recorded in the wartime diaries of Mr W. Somerville, an off duty member of the Homerton crew. It is to him and the many thousands of men and women that made up the A.F.S and the N.F.S 1939-1945 that this plaque is also dedicated.
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