The Leysdown Tragedy of 100 years ago

The sea off Leysdown, Isle of Sheppey, in quieter times

It was my old friend Nic Lucas who drew my attention to the Leysdown Tragedy, in which nine boys – young Sea Scouts and helpers – drowned when a sudden storm struck their open boat 100 years ago this month.

Writing on his Facebook account, Nic said that as a 14 year old (this would be in the 1960s, I’d guess) he had taken part in Sea Scout flotilla that set out from the RRS Discovery (yes – that Discovery) in London and sailed to France.

The boat my friend was on board was a whaler similar to the ones pictured here, and it was a great adventure for a lad and one that he has remembered all his life.

However, Nic added that this month is the 100th anniversary of the Leysdown Tragedy, in which a group of Sea Scouts and helpers sailing from Waterloo Bridge were capsized by a sudden squall opposite Leysdown on the Isle of Sheppey, just around the corner from the Swale.

They were a young group – the oldest boys were barely teenagers, and on the way, they had slept under their sails at Erith.

The capsize was seen from the island by coastguards (which wouldn’t happen now!) and valiant efforts were made to save the 23 on board the whaler,  though only 14 were rescued alive.

Nic said he thought of those young Sea Scouts as pioneers for his own trip, and for the spirit of adventure that builds fine people including his own son Sam Lucas, who was due to carry the Olympic Torch on the day my pal addressed us all via Facebook.

There’s a BBC news story describing the Leysdown Tragedy on the BBC website, and further sources are here, here and here.

The disaster was one of those that made a big impact on the public, and a striking memorial to the lost youngsters paid for by public subscription was erected at Nunhead Cemetery in South London (see the BBC link for a photo). It stood until 1969 when it was vandalised, and a modern, much simpler memorial now stands in its place.

I’ve been sailing past the site of the Leysdown Tragedy for years without knowing a thing about it. I’ll pause for thought myself, next time I go that way.