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Fire at Burwell - 1727
The following is an extract from the Parish Registers of Burwell:
"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."
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