This week we commemorate the 40th anniversary of the horrific fire that devastated Bedford School’s Main Building, leaving nothing but a charred, smoking shell in its wake. The heart of the school stood strong, however, and many positives arose from the tragedy, including the tremendous community spirit and determination of its pupils, staff and wider community to get back to normal as quickly as possible.
Saturday 3 March 1979 began like any other Saturday. There was a morning of lessons, followed by a play rehearsal. At around 7pm, the heavy, velvet curtains of the main hall were drawn as approximately 100 boys gathered to watch a film. After the film ended, the Great Hall was tidied ready for school on Monday. The Head Porter locked the school up at around 10pm as usual. At around 11.30pm two boarders returned from a dance at Dame Alice Harpur School – this was to be the last time Bedford School was seen before the dramatic events of the night unfolded.
At precisely 11.58pm, the Post Office emergency switchboard received the first of 36 calls to report a fire at Bedford School. The caller, calling from a telephone box on Kimbolton Road, told the operator that he thought that Bedford School Chapel was on fire with “whopping great flames coming out of the roof and lots of smoke”.
The Fire Brigade received notification of the fire one minute after midnight at their Headquarters in Kempston. They contacted the Barker’s Lane Fire Station where Sub Officer Pat Wheeler immediately deployed two fire engines in the direction of Bedford School. Sub Officer Wheeler told us, “As we drove along the Embankment, we could already see the flames, which must have been 30 to 40 feet higher than the roof, and there was a glow in the sky.” He later recalled that a fire engine coming a while later from Luton could see the fire clearly from the hill above Barton-le-Clay.
Meanwhile, the fire grew and spread with exceptional and extraordinary ferocity. Local resident, Jean Brown, who witnessed the fire at this time, said, “We could see all the sparks go up and it was just the most amazing fire, we couldn’t believe our eyes and it was crackling. As the fire got going on the roof timbers, great piles of slates dropped down so you could hear the crashing and banging. Then suddenly the bell tower keeled right over and flopped down.”
As Sub Officer Wheeler and his crew approached Bedford School, he saw at once that the situation was desperate and radioed the base to request immediate assistance. He then directed two water jets, but with the height and grip of the flames this was pitifully inadequate, so he confined himself to a single hose in order to get more pressure. It was Fire Officer Steve Spring who had the job of climbing to the top of the fully-extended, 100 ft ladder with that hose. Recalling the moment, Officer Spring said, “Once I got to the top, I was faced with probably one of the most frightening scenes I have ever experienced.” The flames were licking way up into the sky and the wind caused timber and debris to swirl all around him. It was at this point, a mere seven minutes after arrival, that Sub Officer Wheeler sent a radio request for the police to evacuate the houses in Glebe Road (adjacent to the school) – a shrewd assessment of the situation.
Fire-fighting reinforcements continued to arrive until all 13 fire stations in the county were contributing with a total of 18 fire engines.
The fire at its height was inextinguishable. Even if a lake was poured over the building, it would at once have been turned into steam and evaporated into the atmosphere. The 400 gallons in the fire vehicles were a mere drop in the ocean. Their thirsty pumps even sought the supplies of the school’s open-air swimming pool, but that was soon exhausted. Since the flames were deemed uncontrollable, the fire brigade’s efforts concentrated on containing the fire and preventing it from spreading. Meanwhile the flames continued to develop with horrifying speed and violence, devouring the building and showering sparks into the air like a spectacular, yet macabre, firework display.
Eye witness and local resident, Chris Brown, recalls that one of his resounding memories of the night was, “Seeing the Head Master, Ian Jones, going into his study by the side door several times, dragging filing cabinets onto the grass while the fire raged above him”. It was later learnt that his priority was to secure all the documents relating to the boys.
A sizeable crowd soon gathered and amongst those present was the arsonist who started the fire. He later admitted that he had cheered at the moment the tower fell. The fire continued to burn through the night with ever decreasing vigour, and as it did so it relinquished some of its spell on the spectators who slowly began to drift away. It was at around 5am that the last of the watchers left, leaving just the fire-fighters to continue with their unenviable task.
Speculation was rife about what might happen in the next few days, weeks and months. With 30 classrooms and over 90% of the school destroyed, how could the school possibly continue? There was no question in the Head Master’s mind that the school would even consider closing or that boys would be sent home. The thought simply did not cross his mind, and he immediately set about finding 30 temporary classrooms.
The resilience and organisation demonstrated were quite remarkable. The boys did not miss any lessons whatsoever. By Monday morning the 30 temporary classrooms were in situ and off the boys went to their lessons. A notice placed at the various entrances to the school read, “Bedford School – Normal School on Monday March 5th at 9.00am”.
In the Head Master’s address to the school on that day, he said, “We must remember though that life is also about people, and fortunately this School has a very fine staff and a first rate set of boys, and together we must all set about the task of dealing with the problems that have been created for us. Our first priorities have been to ensure School continues.
We want people to say of masters and boys and everyone at Bedford that they have big hearts. So aim for the sky in your work, in your games, your music, your drama, and all your other School activities. Hold your heads up high both inside and outside the School, during term and in the holidays, so we can look back on this darkest of hours and we can be justifiably proud of our efforts.”
Amazingly, the school continued to function entirely as normal until the restored main building was unveiled in the autumn of 1981.
The stoicism, tenacity and resilient characteristics are deep rooted in the school’s character and ethos. The way the community supported one another in the aftermath of the fire is a proud reminder of this and leaves a legacy which is ever-present today.