Next time anyone walks down the iconic green Hammersmith Bridge in London, the halfway mark on the Oxford Cambridge Boat race on the Thames River, look out for and spare a thought for a very brave South African who is forever remembered on a historic plaque on Hammersmith Bridge itself.
So how do we have a South African’s name so honoured on such an iconic London Bridge? Lieutenant Charles Campbell Wood’s story is a very moving one of selflessness and bravery.
Born on 8 December 1891 in Bloemfontein, Charles Campbell Wood was drawn to the military as a young man when World War One broke out, he initially joined the South African Medical Corps as a Private and took part in the German South West African Campaign (now Namibia), for which he was awarded his World War 1, 1914-15 Star on 7 September 1914.
His aspirations later took him to the United Kingdom where he resigned from the South African Medical Corps and by 1919 he had already joined the 9th Brigade of the Royal Air Force as a flying officer and held the rank of Lieutenant.
Two days after Christmas in 1919, Lt. Charles Campbell Wood earned a small place in history, but he earned it the hard way. Near midnight on a cold London winter evening Campbell Wood heard a call for help from the Thames. Rushing onto the western, upriver side of the Hammersmith Bridge, he saw a woman in grave danger, she had fallen in the Thames River, which is a tidal river with a very fast flow.
Caught in the river’s rapid current she was at death’s door. Diving into the river to rescue her from the upstream footway of Hammersmith Bridge, was our hero, Lt Campbell Wood, who in turn saved the woman’s life. But in so doing, he also severely injured his head, this in turn caused him to contract tetanus (the Thames at the time was a known cesspool) and he died in hospital some days later in the new year on the 10th January 1920.
Today the only reminder of his story is a small brass plaque on a handrail, which marks the spot on the bridge where Lt. Campbell Wood dived into the Thames to risk his life to save the life of a complete stranger.
He was survived by his mother, Mrs Grace Ellen Wood who lived in South Africa and his estate forwarded to her. His death was registered, aged 28 years, in Barnet, Hertfordshire. If you would like to visit him he is buried in Plot I. 16. 136. at East Finchley Cemetery & Crematorium, 122, East End Lane, East Finchley, N2 0RZ.
An iconic space in London will always be the preserve of a selfless and brave South African, yet another one of South Africa’s brave servicemen who we can be eternally proud of, next time you are in London make the journey to Hammersmith and continue his memory.
Written by Peter Dickens with profound thanks to Derek Walker and Andrew Behan for the background research as well as additional reference from Sandy Evan Hanes. Picture source of Lt Charles Campbell Wood: Record No.7786 of the Royal Aero Club Aviators’ Certificates held at RAF Hendon as published on ancestry.co.uk, content reference www.plaquesoflondon.co.uk – Lieutenant Charles Campbell Wood.