Bedford School Boys Double Tragedy – Philip ROGERS & John STEVEN
by Colin Woolf
Philip Rogers aged 13, and John Steven aged 14, were both pupils of the Bedford School. They spent the afternoon of Wednesday 15th June 1927 paddling in a canoe up the river near Kempston Old Church. Tragedy struck when their canoe overturned, and both boys ended up in the river.
A third Bedford School boy, Alfred Hall, of Kempston, who was in the same form as John Steven, witnessed the accident from the bank. About 4.50 p.m. he had arrived at the riverbank, on the Bedford side, close to the old “Water wheel” opposite Kempston Church. He was putting his fishing rod together when he saw Philip Rogers and John Steven in a canoe going towards Kempston Mill. He then heard a splash. He looked up and saw their two heads in the water, the canoe being upside down. Alfred Hall immediately ran along the bank until he came to a spot opposite to them. He called out to them to see if they needed help. John Steven replied ‘Yes.’ Hall pulled his blazer and belt off as he ran, and dived in and swam towards them. He saw that Philip Rogers was in difficulties, but John Steven was all right. Therefore, he went to help Philip Rogers.
Rogers took hold of Alfred Hall round the shoulders and dragged him under. Alfred Hall then hit him under the chin and he let go. He shouted at him to lie on his back, but he seemed unable to do so. Alfred Hall then took hold of Rogers’ shirt collar and started to swim with him to the bank. In the meantime, John Steven, had managed to get close to the bank. He turned round and shouted, “Can I help?” Alfred Hall shouted “Yes quick!” Philip Rogers was struggling violently. John Steven went back to help, they both told him to kick out with his feet, as he was just swinging his arms about. They then trod water, and Philip Rogers did as they told him. All three of them swam towards the bank. By this time, Philip was swimming quite well. Alfred Hall was the tallest of the three; he took the lead, so that he could reach the bank first, his idea being to help the others out on to the steep bank. As he reached the bank, he heard a splash. He pulled himself on to the bank to see what was going on, and saw the white shirts of the two boys, who appeared to be struggling with each other just under the surface of the water. Alfred Hall shouted to John Steven “Make him let go!” There was no answer.
Just then, he saw a man across the river and shouted to him that two boys were drowning. The man rushed to the bank and shouted that he could not swim. He rushed away to get some help. Alfred Hall, seeing bubbles come up, expected the boys to come to the top again, but nothing emerged. He jumped in and swam diagonally across; he landed further down, on the other side. His regret was that he could not get down to the bottom to try to get them up.
Police Sergeant Tillman and police from Bedford and several surrounding parishes worked until the evening before the bodies were recovered.
At the inquest, Police Sergeant Tillman of Kempston, said that he received information of the accident by telephone at five o’ clock on Wednesday 15th June, and went to the river. He obtained a boat and started dragging, and at 9.15 p.m. he recovered the bodies about two yards from the bank – about fifty yards from where the canoe had overturned. He found the overturned canoe and the paddles, and recovered articles belonging to the boys. This part of the river was very deep and weedy and there were overhanging trees and many roots of trees jutting out. A strong current was running.
Mr William Steven a retired merchant of 67 Ashburnham Road said his son John was a dayboy at Bedford School. It was the first time that year that his son had been out on the river, but he had been in a canoe before. He had given his son permission to go on the river on that day. He said that his son could swim and had gained his “pass certificate.”
Mr Gilbert Rogers of 32 Shakespeare Road said that his son Philip was a dayboy at Bedford School. He had passed his swimming test a week before the accident. He had his mother’s permission to go on the water.
Alfred Hall said he thought the cause of the accident was the over-balancing of the canoe. There was a snag sticking out of the water, and he did not know whether the canoe caught it.
The Coroner’s verdict was “Death from drowning through overturning of the canoe.” He expressed his admiration at the conduct of John Steven, who clearly gave his life for his friend, and for the conduct of Alfred Hall.
Both funerals were held on Saturday June 18th, 1927. John Steven’s funeral service took place in the early afternoon at the chapel of Bedford School before the interment at the Cemetery.
The funeral procession made its way across the school field to Park Avenue, and on to the Cemetery. The grave was situated high on the hill, close to the Chapel, and here many people awaited those who followed the coffin from the school. Many of the floral tributes bore messages referring to John Steven’s act of bravery in going back into deep water after he had reached safety, in an attempt to save his friend.
Philip Rogers’ remains were taken to All Saints’ Church at 11 o’clock on Friday morning, 17th, when a short service was held. At the Church on the Saturday afternoon, the special service for the burial of children was conducted. After the service his remains were conveyed to the Cemetery. Both services were largely attended.
John R. Steven – Grave ref: E5.154
Philip W. Rogers – Grave ref: F6.174
On October 29th, 1927 at the Shire Hall, Alfred Hall was presented with a silver keyless demi-hunter watch on behalf of the Trustees of the Carnegie Hero Fund for his actions to save human life.
On Sunday, November 27th, 1927, at the Bunyan Meeting, much of the morning’s service was devoted to the ceremony of unveiling and dedicating a stained-glass memorial window in memory of John Rowan Steven. The subject of the window is fitting. In a scene taken from John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, it depicts ‘Faithful’ helping ‘Christian’ up when he has fallen. It is on the west side of the church and central. For the ceremony, it was draped with the cross of St George.
Memorial Window dedicated to the memory of John Rowan Steven on the West side of the Church.
On the same occasion, a gold watch was presented to Alfred Hall from the ex-Mayor of Bedford, Alderman Barford. In making the presentation, Alderman Barford asked Alfred Hall not to look on it as a reward for bravery but as a loving gift in memory of two friends he had done his best to save.
Alfred Hall and John Steven (posthumously) received Royal Humane Society medals.
Bedfordshire Times and Independent
17th June 24th June, & 2nd December 1927
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