This weekend just gone by was the anniversary of the great fire at Bedford School on the night of 3rd March 1979. You have heard a lot about this recently. Firstly, we had Josh Taylor’s wonderful artistic memorial to the fire, when he burnt his own excellent painting and then projected it onto the building itself on last year’s anniversary; then an assembly from Mr Eadie, who taught here for 45 years and remembered the fire personally; and then Mr Baker’s own story, that before he had even taken up his appointment at the school, his father phoned him to tell him that it was on the news, burning down.
Earlier this year, someone asked me if we would be closing for snow this winter. I responded that of all schools, this school would never close; it is not that sort of place; we get on with things no matter what is thrown at us. If we don’t even miss a lesson when the main school is burnt down, we will not be missing one for snow.
The reason for mentioning it now is that three key Bedford men have died just recently, all within three months of each other, and all of whom are central to the story of the fire; part, therefore, of our key history has just been lost to this school, and so today I pass on a little about these men to you for safe keeping.
Just before half term I attended the memorial service for Ian Jones, popularly known as CIM (due to his initials C-I-M), the headmaster at the time of the fire. You can see his portrait three to the right as you leave the Hall. CIM Jones was a boy at Bishops Stortford School, where Mr Silk was deputy head recently; he then went to Cambridge University where he won four hockey blues and also played first class cricket for the University; on leaving, he played cricket for Hertfordshire, hockey for Southgate Hockey club, where Mr Mee has played in recent years, and then hockey for Great Britain. Whilst embarking upon a teaching career, he played hockey in the 1960 Rome Olympics and the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. After retiring from the game, he coached the England Under 19 team and then managed the full England team in 1968. Only seven years later, he was appointed Head Master of Bedford School. To those of you playing hockey today, CIM Jones should be a genuine hero. It was he that sparked a revival of hockey at the school. He appointed a number of ex-GB hockey players to the staff, including Mr Watson, and raised the profile significantly, through being an ex-international himself. Those in the U14C team at the moment, do make sure you ask Mr Watson about him. It was also CIM Jones who delivered a speech to the school that all OBs from the time remember, on the Monday morning after the fire, which can even now be read in various publications. It was instructive that at his memorial service in Norwich, international hockey players and old Bedfordians made up a large percentage of a full church.
The second of the trio from that period to die recently was his Bursar, Donald Mantell. Donald Mantell was in fact an OB himself. He was born in Egypt and then sent to the Inky aged 10 to spend his childhood years boarding at Bedford School. Even at that young age, he saw his parents briefly only twice a year – they visited England at Christmas and then he went home to Egypt in the summer. Consider this. The trip home took 12 days by boat (and he had to get himself to London first), so he managed just 3 weeks with his parents before starting out alone on the journey back – all at the tender age of 10. Leaving Bedford in the middle of the second world war, he joined the East Riding Yeomanry, an armoured regiment, and found himself part of the initial assault force on D-Day. Amazingly, the tank landing crafts that they were supposed to be using were not available due to a dock workers’ strike, so they had to use bigger ships, from which each tank was offloaded onto its own smaller barge half a mile off shore, before being towed to the beach under full fire from the batteries overlooking the bay. Aged 20, with unbelievable bravery, he fought his way through France, Holland and Belgium before leading an assault across the Rhine into Germany. Who better, then, to be in place as Bursar of Bedford School in its greatest hour of need? It was he, alongside CIM Jones, the ex-international Hockey player, who masterminded the swift response to the fire, thus setting up a legend that survives in the spirit of the school today.
The third character in the story did not play a central part, per se, but instead recorded it. Peter Stileman was Head of English. Stileman had been a Housemaster and one of the editorial advisors to a radically alternative magazine to the Ousel called Mosaic. It was he that co-authored the book you can find in reception entitled “Bedford School and the Great Fire”. In it you can find the words of CIM Jones on that Monday morning assembly. Jones said that he expected the entire school to play its part in the coming months, by being “the best they can possibly be in work, in games, in music, in drama, in general standards, in all our activities and interests.” But most of all, with the building burned to the ground, the Head Master of the day, said this: “we want people to say of masters and boys and everyone at Bedford that they have big hearts.”
So, three men of Bedford, who played a significant part in our history, who died just recently. May we all continue to remember them today as men who had big hearts.