Fire at Burwell - 1727

Flaming Heart Stone in St. Mary's Church Yard
The following is an extract from the Parish Registers of Burwell:
"At about 9 o'clock on the evening of September 8th 1727, fire broke out in a barn, in which a great number of persons were met together to see a puppet show. In the barn were a great many loads of new light straw. The barn was thatched with straw which was very dry, and the inner roof was covered with old dry cobwebs, so that the fire like lightening flew around the barn in an instant. There was but one small door, which was close nailed up, and could not easily be broken down. When it was opened, the passage was so narrow and everybody so impatient to escape that the door was presently blocked up, and most of those that did escape, which was but very few, were forced to crawl over the bodies of those that lay in a heap by the door."

"Seventy six perished immediately and two more died of their wounds within two days."

"The fire was occasioned by the negligence of a servant who set a candle and lanthorne in or near a heap of straw which lay in the barn. The servant's name was Richard Whittaker, from the parish of Hadstock in Essex, who was tried for the fact at an assize held in Cambridge on 27 March 1728 but was acquitted."

Flaming Heart Stone in St. Mary's Church Yard
A book entitled "The Burwell Fire" gives a firsthand report from a survivor; he said that many more people than the barn would accommodate wanted to see the show. Therefore, when the maximum number of people were inside, the door was nailed shut to prevent rough people in the crowd from coming in. Access to the show was through a near door, into an empty space behind the new straw. At the front of the barn, within the great doors, two horses belonging to the puppeteer were in the care of Mr Whittaker

Three young children from my family died in the fire, and as I continued my research, I discovered a newspaper report dated 19th Feb. 1774 [47 years after the fire] - it reads as follows:

"Deathbed Confession; a report reveals that an old man who died a few days ago at a village near Newmarket who just before his death seemed very unhappy. He said he had a burden to disclose. He then confessed that he had set fire to the barn at Burwell on Sept. 8th 1727, when no less than eighty persons unhappily lost their lives. He said he was an Ostler at the time, and that having an antipathy to the puppet showman, was the cause of his committing that diabolical action attended with such dreadful consequences."

No name was published in the article, and a short note in the "Fenland Notes and Queries" supposes that Richard Whittaker was wrongly acquitted, but suggests delirium as he was nearing death.

Written by Jean Matthews in about 1980 for the Peterborough FHS journal
(Special thanks for this contribution to Ann McClean)

Village News
Oxford Archaeology News
Visitors welcomed to
Bronze Age Burwell Oxford archaeology
UK's biggest solar farm planned for east of England (Click on image for larger version)
Proposed Solar Farm
Latest Sunnica Proposals
Millstone Park Housing Development
(350 new homes)
This Land Web SIte
Planning Documents
Clunch Magazine
Online
BBC News - Cambridgeshire
Fuel supply: 'I'm at an Airbnb this week to avoid fuel queues'
How are those facing long queues and empty fuel pumps dealing with the current situation?
Ancient gold Kazakh treasures shed light on Saka people
An exhibition - the first of its kind in the UK - shows a nomadic horse people's culture and beliefs.
Corrie Mckeague: Credible leads needed in RAF airman probe - police
A body has never been found since Corrie Mckeague disappeared on a night out five years ago.
Bedouin's Story edges surprise win in Cambridgeshire Handicap at Newmarket
Bedouin's Story edges a surprise victory in the Cambridgeshire Handicap, coming through late to beat favourite Anmaat at Newmarket.
Bangladeshi chef facing deportation a victim of 'mistakes', says MP
Saiful Islam has been in the UK since 2003 but a mix up led to him being mistaken for sex offender.
Cambridgeshire road crash involving cow kills motorcyclist
A man on a Suzuki is killed and a cow is put down after a collision.
Northstowe to blame for empty ponds in Longstanton, says report
People began noticing the effect on water levels and wildlife when work began on 10,000 homes.
Cambridge udder the hammer cows sell for more than £250,000
The auction of 45 cows to help vulnerable children is "udderly fantastic", Cows for Cambridge says.
Covid-19 in the UK: How many coronavirus cases are there in my area?
Explore the data on coronavirus in the UK and find out how many cases there are in your area.
Covid: Should I be working from home or going back to the office?
People in England could be told to work from home once again through the autumn and winter.
What are the rules and guidance for face masks and coverings?
Face coverings could become a legal requirement in England again if the NHS struggles this winter.

To Top Of Page