Remembering heroes

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11 November 2016

My original plan for Armistice day was to walk to Netley and stand at the War Memorial in the military cemetery to mark the silence. This seemed to be the week for plans not working out though. CJ had an appointment in town and there was no way he would make it from there to Netley in time even if I drove him and waited. Of course, I could have walked to Netley on my own but, as he was so keen to mark the silence with me, this didn’t seem very fair. So I found myself hanging around outside Holyrood waiting to meet up with him. 

Waiting outside the bombed out church is never a hardship. There are so many stories there to ponder over. Today the stone tablets on either side of the door caught my attention. Fittingly, it is a story of heroism. It began on a normal Tuesday evening in 1837, two nights after Bonfire Night. At around eleven o’clock a fire broke out in the hayloft above the stables of King, Witt and Co, the largest mercantile house in town on the High Street close to Canute’s Palace. No one knows quite how it started but some blame fireworks let off carelessly nearby. The large brick building was filled with, amongst other things, bags of shot, turpentine, oil, varnish, wine, paint, resin, wax and around one hundred and ninety pounds of gunpowder. Much like the recent fireworks factory fire, it was a huge powder keg waiting to go off.

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The stables were connected to the main store by a shed roof. Realising the danger of the fire spreading, a crowd gathered and quickly began to move as much as possible out of the store. If the gunpowder went up the bottom end of town could have gone with it. A human chain of about one hundred and fifty people began working to get as much out of the shop as possible.

The High Street in 1839
The High Street in 1839

Thankfully the gunpowder and much of the turpentine were rescued. Sadly, it wasn’t quite enough. Despite the best attempts of the fire brigade, the upper floors of the store were engulfed by midnight. The three fire engines attending had nothing to bring down the shed roof and prevent the spread of fire. The water supply was poor and a turnkey had to rush to the reservoir on the Common to increase the flow. Soon the heat combined with the stored containers of flammable liquids to cause three huge explosions. The front of the building was blown off and around fifty people were trapped inside the burning building. Some managed to scramble to safety through windows but many were buried under the rubble.

Seventeen men were killed almost instantly. Five others died later from terrible burns and many more suffered life changing injuries. Their ages ranged from sixteen to fifty and many were so badly burned as to be unrecognisable. The fire was finally extinguished late the next afternoon. The stone tablets name each of the dead. They were certainly heroes, yet most people pass by without ever knowing their story.

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It was a day for remembering heroes and Holyrood is definitely a place for that. The ruins of the fourteenth century church have been left as a memorial to sailors of the Merchant Navy. Everywhere you look there are reminders of them from sailors during the Falklands War to those who perished on the Titanic.

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Outside the church is a propellor shaped seat inscribed with a verse from Tennyson’s poem Crossing the Bar. The words are very fitting. I was looking at it when CJ arrived.

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After the inevitable coffee stop, we made our way to the cenotaph. It was about a quarter to eleven but the place was already far more crowded than I’d expected. While I watched and took photos, CJ walked across the wet flagstones to place our little poppy on a wooden cross at the base of the memorial. We had written no name on it but, in my mind, it was in remembrance of Pappy. He may not have died in the trenches in France but the wounds he got there ended his life, even if they took almost sixty years to do so.

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There was music on a tape recorder, Rule Brittania, military songs. Then the bells of the clock tower struck eleven. The crowd, consisting of old solders, young soldiers, a group of school children and a few ordinary citizens like us fell silent. Each person with their own thoughts and memories. It may not have been the small, intimate gathering we’d have had at Netley, with the haunting sound of bagpipes at the end but we paid our respects and those who made the ultimate sacrifice have been remembered for another year.

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Marie

Writer, walker, coffee drinker, chocolate eater, lover of nature, history and the little things that make me smile

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