Burwell Puppet Show Fire
In our history perhaps only the Sunderland Theatre Disaster and the Paisley Cinema Blaze exceed the Burwell Puppet Show Fire in the brutal terms of children’s lives cut short in tragic accidents.
On the evening of September 8 1727 a group of itinerant puppeteers was giving a show in the Cambridgeshire village of Burwell. A hay barn had been rapidly converted into a makeshift theatre, though little if any of the hay stored was removed. More people than the barn could accommodate turned up for the entertainment; so the showmen squeezed as many as possible in the building then actually nailed the doors shut to prevent rowdy elements forcing their way inside.
Either by accident or design – an ostler was acquitted of arson in the case, but either he or another is said to have confessed to the crime nearly half a century later – an oil lantern was overturned just outside the door, its flames quickly spreading inside. The dry hay within and the thatched roof above spread the blaze through the building almost instantly. When the nailed doors were forced the crush to get out was such that the opening swiftly blocked. The few to escape climbed over the mass of bodies jammed there. In all 78 died in the disaster, among them 51 children.
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From Laurence Wilson on 27th April 2013
Two of my ancestors, John and Ann Palmer died in that fire, they have a separate grave,in the Burwell Parish Church churchyard. Along with other members of the Palmer family. My Grandma was called a Vera Priscilla Palmer and she often spoke about the tragedy of the fire. My Mum has shared this story with my children who were moved by the terrible events of so long ago.