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25th Anniversary of Bedford School’s Great Fire 

This week marks the 25th anniversary of one of the biggest and most expensive fires ever to hit the County. The Great Fire of Bedford School began in the early hours of Sunday 4 March 1979. The result of an arson attack, the imposing main building was totally devastated by the flames which reportedly leapt to an astonishing 130ft high. The initial alarm was raised at 11.58pm when the Post Office emergency switchboard received the first of thirty-six calls to a fire at Bedford School in De Parys Avenue. By the time the first fire crew arrived at the scene, the blaze had engulfed the building and the roar of the flames could be heard along Bedford’s embankment and seen as far away as Barton le Clay All of the county’s 13 fire stations were called to the scene and crews battled with the flames throughout the night. The supply of water proved inadequate for the height of the flames and at 0024 hours the Water Authority was requested to increase the pressure. In the meantime, the Fire Brigades turned to the School’s open air swimming pool but that supply was quickly exhausted. The event was watched by hundreds of people including local residents and boys and staff from the nearby boarding houses. Many recall the devastating moment when the 50ft copper clad spire toppled and crashed to the ground below; The late Mr A C Fitt (OB) and the then Head of Biology at the School, later recounted how on impact “a great fountain of flame shot well over a hundred feet into the air and sparks showered all around”. By the following morning, the full extent of the damage was clearly visible. Over 90% of the building had been destroyed by the blaze and 30 classrooms lost. Remarkably, almost all of the pupil-records were recovered, but the extensive collection of portraits, books and furniture were destroyed. With a loss of this scale, the implications for the day to day running of the School were enormous. Within hours, the School’s management team had identified emergency spaces (including rooms in boarding houses) which could be used as teaching space. Many boys were astonished to find that School was back in full operation first thing on the Monday morning. Over the next two years, the building was painstakingly reconstructed. Today, the building has retained its historic exterior whilst benefiting from a brighter, more modern interior. It is now difficult to imagine the School looking any different, but few who witnessed the events of that night in 79 will ever forget the dramatic and devastating scenes as one of Bedford’s finest buildings went up in flames.
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Bedford School is part of The Harpur Trust: a company limited by guarantee. Registered in England: Company No. 3475202.
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