SUNDAY SUPPLEMENT: Many of the fixtures and memorials in Croydon Minster often get overlooked. One, once seen, is rarely forgotten. Here, DAVID MORGAN charts the tragic story of John Cambridge
Just inside the entrance to Croydon Minster, on the west wall, there is a memorial plaque.
Many people fail to notice it.
Few, after reading it, ever forget it.
It reads: “Drowned while saving the life of a stranger”.
John Cranmer Cambridge was born here in Croydon. His father was Frederick Cambridge, the organist and choirmaster for more than 40 years, from 1868 until 1911, of what was then known as the Parish Church.
Frederick and his wife Lucy, both originally from Norfolk, had four children, Frederick, John, Lucy and Violet. Frederick, senior, advertised his services as a Professor of Music teaching pupils to sing and to play the piano.
John, the second son, became a clerk at the London County Council when he left school.
In August 1901, the four Cambridge siblings were holidaying in Ostend, staying in the Marion Hotel. Ostend, on Belgium’s North Sea coast, was a favourite holiday destination back then, not only for Brits but also for the French, Germans and the Dutch, too.
A train ride from Croydon to the south coast and a ferry journey across the Channel was an easy way to reach Belgium.
On Thursday, August 8, John and his brother, Frederick, and sisters went down to Ostend’s West Front to enjoy a day on the beach. The weather was fine and sunny. They hadn’t been there long when they heard a cry for help. One report said that the cry was “some distance from the shore”.
Frederick said that John was a good swimmer and that on hearing the cries for help, he immediately swam out to help the woman who had got caught in a strong current and was in imminent danger of drowning.
John reached her and managed to keep her afloat.
In the meantime, other holidaymakers on the beach had sounded the alarm and a “bathing boat” was launched. The craft reached the stricken woman, who they pulled into the boat, along with a second lady who had also got into difficulties with the current.
The bathing boat brought the two women safely back to the shore.
But according to Frederick, the crew of the boat declined to go back out for John, despite his pleas and protestations. He offered them additional payment but, for whatever reason, they wouldn’t go back out again for his brother. John was left in the water, with the cold sea and the current sapping his strength. By the time other officials had ordered the rescue boat back into the sea, John had slipped beneath the waves and could not be rescued.
His body was washed up on the beach later that day. He was 23 years old.
Newspaper articles failed to name any of the other people involved in the incident. The Manchester Courier described the two women who got into difficulty as “two of a party of four English tourists”.
The reports were not consistent either.
The Nottingham Evening Post only mentioned one woman who “got into difficulty in a strong current and who was kept afloat by Mr Cambridge until she was rescued”.
Frederick was so incensed by the inaccurate reporting that he wrote to the Nottingham paper with his version of the tragedy that the record might be corrected.
Various accounts then reported the funeral. It must have been a most sombre occasion.
“With all the honour due to one who had so acquitted himself, he was buried in Belgian soil, the flag of England wrapping his coffin round. Among the attendants at the funeral was a member of the Corporation of Ostend, in witness of the respect that the townspeople felt for the citizen of another land who could thus give his life so save that of one of their own countrywomen.”
The story of John Cambridge’s sacrifice continued to circulate. There was even a short entry in the Boy’s Own paper about him under the headline, “Brave Deeds”.
Often a tragic story strikes a chord in the community psyche and this one certainly did. An act of self-sacrifice, going to the rescue of someone you don’t know and with little regard for one’s personal safety touched the hearts of many.
As a result, a plaque was put up in Postman’s Park, near to St Paul’s Cathedral where there is a wall dedicated to heroic acts of self-sacrifice. In 1900, the park had become the location for George Frederic Watts’s Memorial to Heroic Self-Sacrifice, a memorial to ordinary people who had died while saving the lives of others and who might otherwise be forgotten. This took the form of a loggia and a long wall housing ceramic memorial tablets.
Alongside John Cambridge’s tablet are ones for a woman who gave her life saving a child from burning house and another for a lad who having been rescued once, went back into the water to try and save his brother.
The wording on the plaque in Postman’s Park is different to the one in the Minster and in the Ostend church. It reads:
“drowned saving the life of a stranger and a foreigner”.
Watts added the last three words for further dramatic effect, even though it might not actually be true. The story had been told and retold so many times that it became unclear whether the woman he rescued was a Belgian resident or a British holidaymaker.
Watts’ addition, however, was read by thousands of visitors to the park and it is his version of the story that over time has become widely accepted.
John Cambridge was buried in the churchyard at the English church in Ostend, a wooden cross marking his grave. Colleagues at the LCC raised money for a memorial, very similar to the one in Croydon Minster, to be placed on one of the interior walls of the church. It can still be seen today as the Ostend church has been recently restored.
Cambridge’s father continued as organist at Croydon Parish Church until he eventually retired at the age of 70. Although he was a highly successful musician and teacher, the tragedy of losing a son stayed with him daily.
Every time that he entered the church he would see the memorial and be reminded how one’s life can be changed in an instant.
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