In the Medway Towns, we walk with history — and sometimes over history. Not only do our feet often tread over the demolished greatness of the towns’ past, we often also trample the bones of the people who made it great.
I have a particular loathing of the bureaucracy that removes tombstones to make it easier for lawnmowers. I also don’t hold with the daft nannying notion that grave markers should be “made safe” in case they tumble on a passing vandal. But this disruption of the dead is nothing in comparison with what happened in previous times. Here are two tales of exhumations near Chatham Town Hall, now the Brook Theatre.
First to write in was Ron Collins, of Lower Woodlands Road, Gillingham, who picked up on some points made by Peter Dawson about Military Road and the Brook.
Mr Collins, who lived in Nelson Road — which was demolished to make way for the Pentagon — says: “In 1941, the Army dug a tank trap in the area above Chatham Town Hall gardens. They uncovered a lot of lead coffins containing the bodies of soldiers from Victorian times — probably victims of some sort of epidemic. A lot of the coffins were broken open and put in a heap. I ‘rescued’ a skull, took it home, varnished and then took it to my school, Highfields, and presented it to the science teacher.” What a great schoolboy souvenir!
The school put it in a glass cabinet, but its whereabouts are now unknown — it vanished probably when a new school was put in the site. That was not his only gruesome memory, though. Mr Collins added: “The same year, a bunch of us ghoulish kids spotted a large pool of blood at the top of Fair Row with a trail of bloody footprints leading along the Brook. We followed the prints along the Brook and up Batchelor Street to the High Street. There, we found they started at a smashed window at the Fifty-Shilling Tailors.
“A sailor had fallen backwards through the window while drunk and cut the arteries in the backs of both legs. He then walked until he collapsed.”
In the same postbag came another corpse tale — this one from Mr Martin Schneider, who says he was working for a building firm at the back of the Gordon Chambers in 1950-51 and his gang of men discovered a series of skeletons buried under the road.
Mr Collins makes it clear that much of the Brook was pretty seedy. “Gordon Chambers was a doss house where, in Victorian times, men could pay about 2d for a sort of bed within the building or pay 1d for a blanket and two pegs,” he writes. “In the back gardens were strung strong steel wires between poles and the blanket could be pegged to these wires for use as a hammock.
“Next to the Gordon Chambers was a small general shop run by a woman called Weller. In front of the sailors’ home was a 6ft high iron railing with iron spikes on top. In 1941, I recall, a sailor fell from one of the upper windows and landed on three spikes. He died.”
Death in the air, water in the garden bomb shelter
Mr Collins had two brushes with death. “Does anybody recall the landmine that exploded in the air between the Brook and Fort Amherst?” he asks. “It blew out almost every piece of glass in central Chatham. We were told at the time that it exploded in the air because a sentry manning a machinegun at the fort fired at the object on a parachute he saw drifting past. We understood that he was killed.
“I was in an Anderson shelter almost under the explosion. If the mine had landed I would not be telling this tale today!” The Collins family’s Anderson shelter was built on the surface, rather than underground, because the water table in Nelson Road was so high.
“My father and I were digging a hole for the shelter and we got only a couple of feet down when we found a black goo — it was waterlogged. In fact we were doing that digging when war was declared. Shortly afterwards the sirens went off. I was standing there in the hole, thinking, ‘What the hell is that?’ and ‘What on earth do we do now?’”
But the shelter served them well. It was built next to a telegraph pole in the Collins’s garden and during another night raid, they were woken by an immense twang. “This sound reverberated abound the shelter and frightened us all out of our skins. In the cold light of day, we worked out what had happened. A huge piece of shrapnel had hit the pole and the noise was from the wires. We found the shrapnel tangled in the lines outside the shelter in the morning.”
A tough neighbourhood, but certainly no place for yobs
There was, however, a human decency among the indecency of the Brook. Vivienne Truszkowska writes: “My father’s family were born and brought up on the Brook (four of them are still alive from eight children) and I can remember from a very early age being taken to visit my grandparents. Their house stood to the front of the pumping station and was demolished in the early 1960s.
“The area might have had a colourful reputation and certainly many pubs and prostitution were evident while my father was living there from the 1920s to 1940s. However, my grandfather, ‘Chatham Jack’, ran a very tight ship, and although the boys (and girls) were brought up to defend themselves, there was no ‘yob’ culture as there is today.”
“Chatham Jack” was a bareknuckle fighter who ran away from home and joined the circus and took on all-comers as a prizefighter. When the circus came to Chatham he met my grandmother whose family went back generations on the Brook. He was the subject of a Channel 4 documentary in 2004.
“Everyone respected their families and the houses were cherished homes and spotlessly clean,” Ms Truszkowska adds. “The tiny front rooms being kept for special occasions and the front door steps scrubbed and polished. I am writing this on behalf of my father who is now in his eighties, as he felt upset that his birthplace and home should be shown in such a poor light.”