Gillingham Fair fire disaster
The Gillingham Fair fire disaster (also known as the Fireman's Wedding disaster) took place on 11 July 1929 in Gillingham, Kent, England, when a firefighting demonstration went wrong, and resulted in the deaths of 15 men and boys.
Each summer in the 1920s, a fair was organized in Gillingham Park to raise funds for the local St Bartholomew's Hospital. The traditional highlight of the event, which took place at the end of the festivities, was a demonstration of firefighting and rescue by the Gillingham Fire Brigade.
Each year, a house of wood and canvas, three stories and 40 feet high, was constructed in the park. The structure was the venue for a mock wedding reception at which two firemen, costumed as a bride and groom, would be entertaining their "guests" (other firemen, and boys recruited from local naval cadet and sea scout groups) when a fire broke out, necessitating the rescue of the occupants from the upper levels of the building. In reality, flares and smoke bombs were used to give the illusion of the structure being ablaze; only after everybody had been "rescued" from the building was a real fire set, to enable the fire brigade to demonstrate their firefighting skills.
Six men and nine boys between the ages of 10 and 14 had entered the house ready to enact their staged rescue when, for reasons which are unclear, the real fire was ignited prematurely in error, with disastrous consequences. Flames instantly took hold and spread the full height of the structure, trapping all the occupants inside the burning building. The firefighters were immediately aware that they were now dealing with a genuine emergency rather than a demonstration, but initially most spectators did not realize anything was amiss, taking the cries for help they heard to be part of the performance, and reportedly cheering and applauding what they believed to be realistic and spectacular effects, until they witnessed two boys with their clothing ablaze jump to their deaths from the top of the structure.
The fire was extinguished within a few minutes, but had been of such intensity that 13 people died at the scene. Two victims were rescued alive, but both died of their injuries in hospital, bringing the final death toll to 15. The two initial survivors died in the hospital, St Bartholomew's, for which they had been intending to raise funds. The funerals of those who died were held on 17 July; all shops in Gillingham remained closed on that day and thousands of people lined the two mile funeral route.
Victims of the Gillingham Park Fire
- Scout Reginald Henry Lewis Barrett (13)
- Cadet David Stanley Brunning (12)
- Cadet Eric Edward Cheesman (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)
- Fireman Francis Bull Cokayne (52)
- Royal Marine and former Fireman (Ronald) Royal George Mitchell (37)
- Fireman Albert Joseph Nicholls (56)
- Petty Officer John Thomas Nutton (37)
- Fireman Arthur John Tabrett (40)
- Frederick Arthur Worrall (30)
- 1951 Gillingham bus disaster - 24 boys killed in a later disaster in the same area