The devastating fire that raged through our Main Building in the early hours of Sunday 3 March 1979 will be forever etched in the memories of all the boys, staff, firefighters and eye witnesses who were present on that fateful night. The fire destroyed 30 classrooms and 90% of the school, but that did not stop the Head Master of the time, Mr Ian ‘CIM’ Jones, running lessons as normal the following day and leaving a legacy of stoicism and resilience which remains woven into the fabric of our school ethos today.
On the 40th anniversary of the fire, around 130 Old Bedfordians, past staff members, firefighters, parents, past parents and local residents gathered for a special Evensong service in our chapel to remember that fateful night. We were honoured to welcome the Revd Michael Hepworth back to school to give the sermon – Revd Hepworth was our school Chaplain at the time of the fire and he shared his vivid memories from the night, and also from the days that followed, describing the marvellous operation put in place to get the school back up and running for the Monday morning (you can read his full sermon here) Hymns from the service the day after the fire were chosen including ‘Jerusalem’, which was sung with much gusto by the congregation. It was a blustery evening and the chapel windows and doors whistled and creaked as a gale blew around outside, in stark contrast to the warmth of the community who had gathered within its walls.
The service was followed by drinks and canapés served in the Great Hall, which proved a poignant yet heartening reminder of how the Main Building and the school has risen since the fire. Some guests brought their own memorabilia along with them to add to the display of archive material, which included photos, books, newspaper cuttings and paintings. It was a wonderful opportunity for everyone to share their memories of that night and the days that followed. Firefighters told how all of the Fire Stations in Bedfordshire contributed to tackling the fire and described the incredible task they had to keep the fire contained. Everyone had their own story to tell and all were hugely fascinating. Lower Sixth Formers Jack O’Donovan and Oliver Burridge-Dean recorded many of these stories so that they can be stored in the school’s archives for future generations wishing to research the story of the fire.
The assembled guests also watched a short film put together by the school, which recounted the story of the fire. It included original footage from the fire interwoven with interviews from firefighters and eye witnesses, including local residents and past parents, Christopher and Jean Brown. It was Christopher who took those iconic colour photos of the fire that we know today. The film culminated with the Head Master’s address to the school on the Monday after the fire – a powerful, Churchillian and inspirational speech. You can view the film here:
The school would like to express their thanks to everyone who came to the event. The fantastic turn-out is testament to the strength of the school and local community.