31 March 2008
By John Prendergast
Good Friday has just come and gone, but if you passed through Rochester in Kent at the start of the Easter weekend in 1912 you would have witnessed the self sacrifice of a Bermondsey man that led to him being declared a hero.
Percy Henry Gordon was only 26 when a day out in the Kent town saw the unassuming man from 60 St James’ Road save a young girl's life - an act that would lead to him being immortalised on the town's esplanade.
Gordon and his friend Charles May from Clapham were said to have missed a train home and decided to take a stroll along the waterfront. While passing away the time the men heard screams coming from the water.
Without hesitation Gordon stripped off his waistcoat and coat, dived in the water and held a young girl who had just fallen in afloat. A nearby boat came past a few minutes later and he was able to pass her safely on deck.
What happened to Gordon after that is unclear. The reports at the time vary from saying he suffered cramp to having a heart attack, but he then went under the water for a period. It was not until half an hour later that he was rescued, by which time he had drowned.
The news of Gordon's deeds swept through the town and the local papers devoted many column inches to the event.
The report of his inquest stated the following:
"The Coroner said the deceased died the death of a hero. There was no more noble way of departing this life than in endeavouring to save the life of another. The conduct of the deceased was somewhat in accord with the act of self sacrifice which was celebrated on Good Friday, and this act was all the more worthy inasmuch as he gave up his life for that of a child."
The verdict of the inquest was accidental death in endeavouring to save another, but the report was the spark to commemorate the noble deeds of Gordon.
Word was already rumbling around town that Gordon's self sacrifice should not pass unmerited, and a member of the Medway swimming club, John Brand, sent a letter to a local paper that enabled a committee to be set up to garner opinion.
The response was unanimous and widespread, and it was decided to erect a commemorative tablet on the waterfront in Gordon's memory. Before the tablet was unveiled his parents were awarded an In Memoriam certificate, and the Carnegie Hero Trust awarded him a bronze medal posthumously.
The unveiling of the plaque in November 1936 must have been a breathtaking moment for Gordon's family, and his fiancé Miss Hilda Southend, who were all in attendance. For rather than a small gathering with a select band of officials, reports suggest that 10,000 people turned out for the ceremony.
Among the throng was Dorothy Foster, the young girl who was saved, and her family who would forever be in debt to Gordon. The girl was said to be in tears as she handed over a framed photo of the tablet to the Countess of Darnley.
The unveiling ceremony was conducted by the Countess, as well as members of the public, the Fire Brigade, policemen and boy scouts who attended so they could pass on their respects. In a moving ceremony hymns were sang by a local mission choir, who performed alongside the town’s Salvation Army band.
One dignitary on the day commented: "I say today in the name of the City of Rochester, that we are proud of our brother from Bermondsey, who on Good Friday reflected to us the greatest act of love that has ever been performed when our Saviour of the world gave up his life for many."
In attendance from London was the Mayor of Wandsworth, where Gordon's father was born and the ceremony was finished as the Countess took the hand of Gordon's fiancé in order to express her sympathy, but words were said to escape her.
A stroll along the seafront today sees the tablet still prominent as a testament to one of Bermondsey's lesser known heroes, whose deeds stand alongside those of the great and the good of the area.
We would like to thank Mrs Maureen Hodges from the Four Squares Estate and Rochester Local Studies Library for their help in putting the article together.
1. At 07:45 AM on 08 Jun 2011, Reg Miles wrote:
I visited Rochester on 7 June 2011 and parked in the Esplanade. When I looked up I saw the plaque to Mr Gordon. I took a photo and today have looked him up and found the story of his heroic deed. It is really wonderful that his brave deed can be read on line and thank you for putting it up for all to see so it will never be forgotten.
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