THE ARETHUSA

This is an extract from a one act play called ‘The Arethusa’.

The play is based on real events of August 1912 when a training ship, the ‘Arethusa’, capsized off Leysdown and nine scouts, boys from the London area of Walworth, lost their lives. Details from contemporary accounts are included. The disaster received significant press coverage and gained national attention.

In the play, the scoutmaster, William Marsh, has persuaded Harriet Huxford, the mother of Ben, to allow her son to take part in the trip despite her misgivings. The extract begins where the two narrators, figures on either side of the stage, relay news of the accident.

NARRATOR 1:                                   Danger.

NARRATOR 2:                                   Death.

NARRATOR 1:                                   Disaster.

NARRATOR 2:                                   Drowning.

NARRATOR 1:                                   They set off from Southwark

NARRATOR 2:                                   They row to Tower Bridge.

NARRATOR 1:                                   They hoist sail.

NARRATOR 2:                                   They sleep at Erith.

NARRATOR 1:                                   They set off again at 4 a.m.

NARRATOR 2:                                   The wind picks up.

NARRATOR 1:                                   They pass Canvey Island.

NARRATOR 2:                                   High seas off Sheppey.

NARRATOR 1:                                   They round Warden Point

NARRATOR 2:                                   The storm hits them.

NARRATOR 1:                                   The Arethusa capsizes.

NARRATOR 2:                                   Children drowned.                  

NARRATOR 1:                                   Gallant rescue effort.

NARRATOR 2:                                   Nine victims.

NARRATOR 1:                                   Bodies brought to shore.

NARRATOR 2:                                   Some still missing.

NARRATOR 1:                                   Danger.

NARRATOR 2:                                   Death.

NARRATOR 1:                                   Disaster

NARRATOR 2:                                   Drowning.

NARRATOR 1:                                   Danger.

NARRATOR 2:                                   Death.

NARRATOR 1:                                   Disaster.

NARRATOR 2:                                   Drowning.

The voices of the narrators die down. The lights go up on Harriet centre stage. She is clearly distressed. George enters.

HARRIET:                                           George. What’s the news? Are there any names yet?

GEORGE:                                          Yes, I’ve asked everywhere. Ben’s name isn’t there, not among the dead.

HARRIET:                                           Thank God.

GEORGE:                                          But not among the saved either. We have to wait.

HARRIET:                                           I knew. I knew. Why did I let him go?

GEORGE:                                         Don’t take on, my girl, don’t take on. We don’t know anything yet. There’s most of them still alive, they say. They clung to the boat after it turned over.  And the coastguard came out straight away.

HARRIET:                                           Straight away? So they weren’t in the water long?

GEORGE:                                         No, they rescued all of them that they could. They’re saying that Marsh of yours did a good job. He dived back in the sea and looked for more.

HARRIET:                                          Mister Marsh, you mean. That’s good. He won’t have let Ben drown. He promised, didn’t he?

GEORGE:                                         (embracing her) Yes, he promised.  Ben’s name ain’t among the dead.

He turns his head to face the audience, clearly troubled.

                                                            But his name ain’t among the saved.

The lighting changes as before.        

NARRATOR 1:                                   Eight dead.

NARRATOR 2:                                   Eight boys.

NARRATOR 1:                                   Eight bodies brought ashore.

NARRATOR 2:                                   Eight Walworth boys.

NARRATOR 1:                                   Drowned.

NARRATOR 2:                                   Harry Gwynn                         

NARRATOR 1:                                   Thirteen years.

NARRATOR 2:                                   James Skipsey.

NARRATOR 1:                                   Twelve years.

NARRATOR 2:                                   Thompson Filmer

NARRATOR 1:                                   Twelve years.

NARRATOR 2:                                   Noel Filmer

NARRATOR 1:                                   Fourteen years.

NARRATOR 2:                                   William Beckham

NARRATOR 1:                                   Twelve years.

NARRATOR 2:                                   Edward Smith

NARRATOR 1:                                   Eleven years.

NARRATOR 2:                                   Frank Masters.           

NARRATOR 1:                                   Fourteen years.

NARRATOR 2:                                   Albert Dack.

NARRATOR 1:                                   Eleven years.

NARRATOR 2:                                   All the others brought to shore.

NARRATOR 1:                                   And wrapped in blankets

NARRATOR 2:                                   And given beef tea.

NARRATOR 1:                                   All accounted for.

NARRATOR 2:                                   Except one.

There is a pause.

NARRATOR 1:                                   Body found floating off Margate.

NARRATOR 2:                                 The tides had brought it the

NARRATOR 1:                                   Aged thirteen.

NARRATOR 2:                                   Ben Huxford.

HARRIET:                                           (she screams out of the darkness) Aaaah!

NARRATOR 1:                                   Nine bodies.

NARRATOR 2:                                   Nine Walworth boys.

NARRATOR 1:                                   Danger

NARRATOR 2:                                   Death.

NARRATOR 1:                                   Disaster.

NARRATOR 2:                                   Drowning.

NARRATOR 1:                                   Danger

NARRATOR 2:                                   Death.

NARRATOR 1:                                   Disaster.

NARRATOR 2:                                   Drowning.

 

Harriet and Gerge have remained standing centre stage

MARSH:                                             (entering) Mrs Huxford? Mr Huxford?

GEORGE:                                         I’m off. I don’t know why you’re here, Mister Marsh, and I don’t bear you any grudge, but I don’t want to listen to anything you’ve got to say. Your          sympathy ain’t needed.

Talk to Harriet, she’s the one that thought you were an angel.

 

George leaves.

 

MARSH:                                            An angel. I’m afraid I made a very poor guardian angel, Mrs Huxford 

HARRIET                                            (sullenly) Yes.

MARSH:                                             I know how you feel, Mrs Huxford 

HARRIET:                                           How can you? I’ve lost a son.

MARSH:                                             I… I have too. You see, I had arranged to adopt one of the boys. I wanted to give him a better life than he could have had otherwise. I imagined him joining the Royal Navy as an officer. He was going to be my son, Mrs Huxford.

HARRIET:                                           Who?

MARSH:                                             Harry Gwynn. He’d have made a fine officer.

HARRIET:                                           So you let him die too. He was thirteen.

MARSH:                                            I don’t know what to say. It was a sudden squall. It all happened in a moment.

HARRIET:                                          I always knew it. That day you came to get permission. Ever since the Titanic, I knew it. If a ship everyone says is unsinkable can go down and drown all those poor people… What chance did Ben have?

MARSH:                                            It’s the sea, Mrs Huxford. Ben loved the sea. But the sea isn’t always kind.

HARRIET:                                          You said it was a trip round the estuary. You spoke of it like a pleasure cruise. You said the Arethusa was a fine boat. You said there was no danger.

MARSH:                                             There’s always danger.

HARRIET:                                          Then you lied, didn’t you Scoutmaster Marsh? You and Lieutenant-General Baden-Powell and the fine ship Arethusa and the Scouting Movement (she speaks all these names with scorn) have taken Ben’s life.

MARSH:                                            The scouting movement teaches the boys to overcome the greatest barriers in life, I believe. Baden Powell himself says so. They learn to defeat selfishness, religious intolerance, racial difference, class distinctions and hatred.

HARRIET:                                          I’m sorry to be angry but I don’t need the words of your precious Baden-Powell..

MARSH:                                            (persevering)  And the biggest thing they learn to face is fear. (emphatically) If you don’t face danger, you don’t learn to overcome fear.

HARRIET:                                          (equally emphatically) If you don’t face danger, you live.

 

Marsh shrugs.

 

MARSH:                                             I’ll say goodbye, Mrs Huxted. I’m sorry for your loss.

 

Marsh leaves. The lighting changes as before.

 

NARRATOR 1:                                   Mister Winston Churchill.. 

NARRATOR 2:                                   The First Lord of the Admiralty…

NARRATOR 1:                                   … sends a destroyer to collect the boys of the Arethusa

NARRATOR 2:                                   … and bring them back to London    

NARRATOR 1:                                   The survivors are landed in Rotherhithe…

NARRATOR 2:                                   … like royal princes.

NARRATOR 1:                                   The dead are brought ashore in coffins…

NARRATOR 2:                                   … and laid in Saint John’s Church in Walworth.

NARRATOR 1:                                   Ten thousand people pay their respects.

NARRATOR 2:                                   The funeral takes place.

NARRATOR 1:                                   A million people line the route.

NARRATOR 2:                                   Scoutmaster Marsh leads the procession.

NARRATOR 1:                                   There are special editions of the papers.

NARRATOR 2:                                   The Daily Express and the Daily Mirror.

NARRATOR 1:                                   They’re starting a collection for a memorial

BOTH                                                  The whole nation mourns.

 

 

……………………………………………………………………………………………………….

 

The play continues with the funding of a memorial and the wider tragedy and loss of young life of the world war.