A Tragedy at Chartwell
Sometimes stories pop out at you and this one (indirectly) involved one of our greatest statesmen.
Geoffrey’s grave is the celtic cross – ‘Geoffrey H. Crabb who was accidentally drowned, June 6th 1927, aged 23 years’
Headstones that state the cause of death show a remarkable frankness and public demonstration of loss; it’s acknowledgment of private grief. These are the words that strangers will associate with the name, perhaps unfairly as it overshadows anything else the person confirmed may have accomplished. It’s a collar-gripping statement from the family.
I reckoned there would be at least a mention of his death in papers of the time, so, as Mark took some snaps, I fired up The British Newspaper Archive to see if I could find anything that related to poor Geoffrey. There were one or two articles and what’s remarkable (and perhaps this is where Cemetery Club readers could help reveal a bit more of the finer detail) is that it was linked to Winston Churchill.
Norwood News – Saturday 11 June 1927 Image © Trinity Mirror. Image created courtesy of THE BRITISH LIBRARY BOARD.
Geoffrey resided at 164 Penge High Street, which is now the Moon and Stars Wetherspoons pub; a stones throw away from what was once London’s oldest Police station. He belonged to the 18th Beckenham Troop which was based at Holy Trinity Church, Lennard Road, Beckenham and alongside his brother who was a Scoutmaster, was well known locally. Geoffrey was also a clerk in the city and undertook the Scouts supervision in his spare time.
Whilst Churchill had completed the purchase of Chartwell, a beautiful country house in Westerham in 1922, the building work and maintenance of it would become a constant financial worry to him and his beloved wife Clementine. Despite being Chancellor of the Exchequer tragedy muddied what was to be the happy family home – Churchill’s mother had died the previous year, as had his daughter Marigold. Grappling with appendicitis and the loss of his parliamentary seat in Dundee, the Churchills, although bowled over by the beauty of this part of the Weald, must have had an enormous sense of trepidation as the future cast them in Chartwell’s direction.
© Cecil Beaton Studio Archive, Sotheby’s London
Amidst disgreements with the architect overseeing renovations and mounting costs in getting the building in order, this retreat would become the forefont of his political life and he welcomed many of his colleagues and friends to spend time there. Churchill clearly loved community and in this sense I’m guessing he offered the expansive grounds and purpose built lake to the Scouts to give suburban children a sense of nature and adventure.
In June 1927 a number of Rovers – young men who had outgrown the Scouts and who were aged between 18 and 25 years old – probably clutching their handbook written by Sir Robert Baden-Powell himself – were sailing on Churchill’s lake, allegedly on a raft that Churchill had built himself out of planks of wood and empty oil drums.
Perhaps because of its construction or an issue regarding weight distribution, the raft capsized and all aboard were cast into the water. Some members couldn’t swim but they were luckily rescued. Geoffrey however, was not so fortunate. Despite being an able swimmer, his body became entangled in underwater reeds and he disappeared from view; his fellow Rover Neil Galbraith flung off his shoes and rescued him from the depths. He was dragged to the lakeside and attempts to rekindle his life began.
A concerted team effort then followed. Bricks were heated to keep his feet warm and mouth to mouth resucitation was applied; Churchill’s own brandy was snatched from the house in an effort to revive him. Even with a stiff drink, it was to little point – Geoffrey died shortly afterwards.
Reading about Geoffrey’s life at his graveside. © Mark Small, 2019
The inquest in newspapers of the time barely gets a mention. All who were present did what they could given the circumstances and he died an accidental death. Although Churchill himself wasn’t present, many of his staff would have been and you only have to think of the modern era to think how the tabloids would handle the death of someone on the grounds of a celebrity or politician.
A painting of Churchill by Walter Sickert, who journeyed to Chartwell to give him painting lessons just a few months after the tragedy – Churchill disliked this piece and gave it away shortly after its completion. © National Portrait Gallery, London
Now, I’m no Churchill expert but I can’t find any mention of the incident in any books regarding the history of Chartwell or Churchill himself. It would have been an awful thing to happen considering the troubles both Churchill and his wife encountered in acquiring this beautiful house; have you seen any mention of it in an archive or collection? A few months after Geoffrey’s death Churchill started writing his Chartwell bulletins detailing life and progress on the house to his wife who was abroad; was this the event that helped form this correspondence? And did the Scouts continue using the lake?
As ever, the subseqent research sometimes poses more question than it answers.