Van 132 and Funerals of National Importance

The Cavell Van is currently undergoing conservation work in our workshops. It often resides in the siding at the rear of Bodiam Station platform, but as an item of national significance, it sometimes is used elsewhere on the K&ESR and occasionally loaned to other organisations - please contact us (call 01580 765155 or email) in advance should you intend making a special visit to the van. Please note that, due to the historic nature of the Cavell Van, it is not accessible to wheelchair users.

Nurse Cavell's Funeral

The Cavell van is a historically important prototype luggage van that entered service in 1919. As the South Eastern & Chatham Railway's most modern van, and as one able to run with all types of passenger stock, it is not surprising that a few weeks after its completion, No. 132 was used to convey the body of Nurse Edith Cavell on its return from Belgium, giving rise to the name of "Cavells" by which vans of this type were known to the older generation of railwaymen.

Edith Cavell was born in 1865 as the oldest of four children of a Norfolk vicar. After leaving school she worked as a governess, including six years in Brussels. After training as a nurse she returned in 1906 to Belgium, to organising a training school for nurses on British lines. In 1910 she was appointed matron of the newly-built Saint-Gilles hospital in Brussels.

With the outbreak of the Great War in 1914, invaded France through Belgium, and the German army entered Brussels on 20 August. Most British nurses working in Belgium were repatriated, but Edith Cavell and a few of her colleagues were allowed to remain treating wounded soldiers. Edith Cavell became involved in undercover resistance as early as September1914, when two escaping British soldiers were hidden at the school of nursing, before being passed on to another safe house. She was soon playing an important part in organising the escape network, especially after early 1915, when the Germans took over the Saint-Gilles hospital and brought in their own nurses.

Miss Cavell came under suspicion and on 5 August 1915 she was arrested and with twenty-six other defendants she was brought before a German military court on 7 October 1915. The verdict of guilty was inevitable; she and four others considered to be leaders of the escape network were sentenced to death the following day. Despite efforts by the United States and Spanish legations to secure a delay, she was executed by firing squad in the early hours of 12 October.

cavell van restoredThe Restored Cavell VanWith the end of the war, it was decided that Edith Cavell's body should be returned for burial at Norwich Cathedral, with a memorial service at Westminster Abbey. Her body, which had been buried at the execution ground in Brussels, was exhumed on 17 March 1919, the site having been visited by King Albert of Belgium and King George V and Queen Mary. In May 1919, she was returned to England with military honours at each stage of the journey. Her coffin was escorted through Brussels to the Gare du Nord and carried by train to Ostend on 13 May and was then brought aboard the destroyer H.M.S. "Rowena". Accompanied by a sister ship, H.M.S. "Rigorous", the "Rowena" steamed across the Channel and entered Dover Harbour at 5.45 pm on a cloudless day, whose sunshine was belied by a cold east wind. The dockyard tug "Adder" and a lighter brought the flag-draped coffin to the Naval Pier, together with many wreaths and the party of relatives accompanying the body. It was met by the naval and military commanders and their staffs, placed on a wheeled bier and covered with a Red Cross flag. At the pier head, the coffin was put on a hearse accompanied by sixteen pall bearers from the women's nursing and other services. With a military guard the procession moved along the seafront. At the recently opened Marine station, van No. 132 was waiting, suitably prepared with a catafalque and the coffin and wreaths were placed in it and hung with drapes. It stood there overnight, with a guard provided by the Buffs.

Cavell interiorCavell Van interiorOn the following morning, 15 May, a fine spring day, the van was attached to the 7.30 am train, together with a special saloon carrying the funeral party. The train ran via Faversham and Chatham (as the line through Folkestone Warren had not yet been reopened after the great landslide of 1915). The Times recorded that "at almost every station along the line and at windows near the railway and by the bridges there were crowds of children quietly and reverently watching the passing. Schoolboys and schoolgirls in bright summer clothes had been brought by their teachers to the rail side and stood in long lines three and four deep on the platforms.''

The van and saloon were detached from the train at Herne Hill and taken on separately to Victoria, where they arrived shortly after 11.30 am. Here the train was met by a small party including nurses, and the coffin was placed on a gun carriage drawn by six horses and covered with a Union Jack and the procession made its way along Victoria Street to Westminster Abbey, watched by a silent crowd that filled the pavements on both sides.

After the service at the Abbey the procession moved on to Liverpool Street station through Westminster and the City, again with large crowds on the pavements to pay their respects. At Liverpool Street, the coffin was placed in the GER hearse carriage, No. 512. The special train carrying the coffin left at 2.30 pm for Norwich, where it arrived at about 5 pm. The coffin was placed on a gun carriage and taken through the streets of Norwich, escorted by soldiers from the Norfolk Regiment, to the Cathedral.

Captain Fryatt's Funeral

After Edith Cavell's funeral, the next time van No. 132 is known to have been used was the repatriation of the remains of Captain Charles Fryatt, whose death aroused almost as much indignation at the time as had that of Nurse Cavell

Charles Algernon Fryatt was born in Southampton in 1871, the son of an officer in the merchant marine. Charles Fryatt followed his father to sea, and by 1913 he had risen from the rank of Able-Seaman to be master of the cargo steamer "Ipswich". The outbreak of the Great War naturally disrupted cross-Channel services, but the GER attempted to maintain a service to ports in the Netherlands, which remained neutral throughout the War. He came to command the GER ship "Brussels" and on 28 March 1915, the "Brussels" was approaching the Maas light vessel when a submarine U-33 was spotted on the surface. The U-boat made the flag signal for the "Brussels" to stop, but Fryatt continued to take evasive action, finally steering straight towards the U-33 at full speed. The U-boat made a crash dive and narrowly escaped being sunk. Fryatt became a popular hero as "the pirate dodger" and was presented with gold watches and certificates of appreciation by both the Admiralty and the GER.

However on night of 22 June 1916, the "Brussels" left the Hook of Holland carrying Belgian refugees, one fare-paying passenger and a cargo of foodstuffs. Once out of Dutch waters, she was surrounded by German torpedo boats, boarded and taken as a prize into Zeebrugge in German-occupied Belgium and from there along the ship canal to Bruges. There is a suggestion that the interception had been planned in advance, and that the German ships had been alerted to Fryatt's departure.

At first, the British crew were interned in Germany, but on 27 July Captain Fryatt was returned to Bruges, where he was tried by a hastily convened court martial, found guilty of being a "franc-tireur" - in effect, a pirate - for his attempt to ram the U-33, and executed by firing squad . Public opinion, not only in Britain but also in neutral countries such as the United States and the Netherlands, was outraged; the German action was considered indefensible.

As with Edith Cavell, arrangements were made to return Captain Fryatt's body to England after the end of the war. On Friday 4 July 1919, his body was exhumed from the communal cemetery and conveyed to Antwerp by special train. On Monday 7 July, the cortege was escorted by British and Belgian troops through the streets of Antwerp to the riverside, before it was taken on board the destroyer H.M.S. "Orpheus". The "Orpheus" was then escorted down the river and arrived in the Admiralty Basin at Dover at about 4pm, escorted by the destroyers H.M.S. "Teazer" and H.M.S. "Taurus". The coffin was transferred from the destroyer to the dockyard tug, "Adder", and brought to the pier steps. , escorted by military and civic dignitaries to the Marine station. Here it was placed in van No. 132, which had been draped inside with purple, and the wreaths were arranged on and around the catafalque.

After standing at Dover overnight, the van was attached to the 7.35 am up train the following morning. The van was detached at Chatham and coupled to a special train which carried a naval detachment and band. As with Nurse Cavell's train, schoolchildren had been drawn up on the platforms of many of the stations to pay their respects, and flags on the towers of village churches near the line flew at half-mast. At Charing Cross, where the train arrived at 11 am, the platform was reserved for those taking part in the proceedings, but a big crowd had gathered elsewhere in the station and outside it. The naval escort alighted from the train and paraded in front of the van containing the coffin. The coffin was placed on a gun carriage and drawn through the streets to St Paul's Cathedral. From St Paul's, the coffin was taken through the City to Liverpool Street station, where the special train waiting to carry it to Dovercourt again included the GER hearse van, No. 512.. Arrival at Dovercourt, where the station had been decked with flags, was at 3.25 pm. The coffin was escorted through the town to All Saints Church, where the burial service was conducted by the Bishop of Chelmsford.

A permanent memorial over the grave was unveiled by Lord Claude Hamilton, chairman of the GER, on Friday 18 June 1920. There is also a memorial plaque to Captain Fryatt at Liverpool Street station, erected in 1917 by subscriptions from Dutch sympathisers and refurbished and relocated next to the GER war memorial during the rebuilding of the station in the 1980s.

The Journey of the Unknown Warrior

The third important public event which involved van No. 132 was the burial of the "Unknown Warrior" in Westminster Abbey in November 1920.

The Government had decided quite early in the war of 1914-18 that the bodies of servicemen killed overseas would not be returned to Britain but would be buried in military cemeteries near the battlefields. However because of this the need to provide an alternative focus for public and private grief which resulted in war memorials in towns and villages throughout the country. In London, the national war memorial, the Cenotaph in Whitehall, was supplemented by a grave containing the body of one of the many unidentified dead as a representative of all those who had been killed and it was considered appropriate to combine the ceremony with dedication of the Cenotaph on 11 November, the second anniversary of the Armistice.

On the night of 7 November, one body was selected from the remains of four unidentified British soldiers brought to the Army headquarters at Saint-Pol, near Arras, from different parts of the Western Front. . It was placed in a coffin and the following day it was taken under escort to Boulogne, where it was placed in an oak coffin sent out from England. The coffin bore the inscription "A British Warrior who fell in the Great War 1914-1918" and was banded with two iron straps, through one of which was fixed a Crusader sword from the Royal collection. On the morning of 10 November, the coffin was covered with a soiled and torn Union Jack which had been used by an Army chaplain throughout the war, and was taken through the streets of Boulogne, escorted by French troops it was then carried aboard the destroyer H.M.S. "Verdun" - selected as a tribute to France -which then set off into the mist to a nineteen-gun salute to meet its escort of six destroyers of the Atlantic Fleet.

At 3.30 pm, H.M.S. "Verdun" came alongside the Admiralty Pier at Dover and the coffin was carried ashore towards the Marine station along a route was lined by troops. The coffin was placed in van No. 132, which had been decorated with laurels, palms and lilies, and covered with wreaths and flowers which were brought by the crew of the "Verdun". Four sentries, one from each Service, stood guard until the time for departure.

A passenger coach was attached for the escort of one officer and fifteen men, and at 5.50 pm the special train pulled out of the Marine station. People gathered at every station on its journey to London. As the Daily Mail reported, "The train thundered through the dark, wet, moonless night. At the platforms by which it rushed could be seen groups of women watching and silent, many dressed in deep mourning. Many an upper window was open, and against the golden square of light was silhouetted clear cut and black the head and shoulders of some faithful watcher.... In the London suburbs there were scores of homes with back doors flung wide, light flooding out and in the garden figures of men, women and children gazing at the great lighted train rushing past."

Arriving some three hours later at Victoria station (platform 8) where there was a crowd of silent watchers behind the barriers. As the correspondent of The Times put it, "the carriage, with its small shunting engine, came in very slowly. The few civilians who awaited its coming on the platform took off their hats. Officers and the Grenadier Guardsmen drawn up at the end of the platforms saluted. There was great silence.... One heard a smothered sound of weeping. The smoke in the roof bellied and eddied around the arc lamps. The funeral carriage stopped at last. The engine-driver leaned from his cab." The coffin remained in the van at the station for the night, watched over by Grenadier Guards.

The next morning, 11 November 1920, was a lovely autumn day with mellow sunshine. The coffin was taken from the van and placed on a gun carriage drawn by six black horses; on the coffin were a steel helmet, webbing bell and bayonet. With admirals, field marshals and generals as pall-bearers and led by massed bands, the procession set off from Victoria through Grosvenor Gardens and Grosvenor Place. It went down Constitution Hill, past Buckingham Palace and along the Mall to reach Whitehall. At 10.45 am, the procession stopped opposite the Cenotaph. King George V laid a wreath on the coffin, and as Big Ben began to strike eleven, he pressed a button which caused the Union Jacks which had shrouded the Cenotaph to fall away. For two minutes there was silence, not only in Whitehall but throughout the country. With the King following the gun-carriage on foot as the chief mourner, the procession continued to Westminster Abbey for the burial service. During the six days before the tomb was sealed with a temporary stone, more than a million people filed past to pay homage.