121 killed in puppet show fire - On this day in history

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08 September 2016
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8-September-1-10744.png News reports of the Burwell fire
Villagers were killed in a fire during a puppet show on 8 September 1727

On this day in history, 1727: the villagers of Burwell, Cambridgeshire gather for an evening performance of a puppet show in a local farmer’s barn, which ends in tragedy.

Two hundred people – men, women and children – had squeezed into the barn, and the farmer had begun to turn away people who had not paid. So keen were people to sneak in, that the farmer nailed a bar across the door to prevent the entry of any opportunist show-goers. One man in particular was extremely annoyed at being denied entry, and crept into the neighbouring stable hayloft to peep through a hole to watch the performance.

It was late summer, the loft full of hay, the adjoining barn thatch-roofed – and when the sneaky man waved his lantern in his agitation, the barn soon caught fire. Whether this was totally deliberate or not seems uncertain, but witnesses claimed that the man had sworn that he would set fire to the barn in revenge.

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By the time the jolly crowd below had realised their peril, the barn roof had gone up in flames and within minutes the crowd were engulfed – and 121 of them were to die of their injuries, many at the scene, and others in the days to follow. The puppetteer, known as Andrew Shepherd, his wife and daugther were among those who died.

The instigator of the fire, ostler Richard Whittock, far from remaining to help his fellow villagers, fled the scence, but was soon captured and imprisoned in Cambridge Castle. He was acquitted the following March.

You can read a contemporary newspaper account of the puppet show fire in the Ipswich Journal, 15 September 1727, from the impressive growing newspaper collections on findmypast.co.uk, and extracts from ‘A narrative of Burwell flames’ at http://freepages.family.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~cmtilbury/burwell/burwell_history_fire_dead.html.