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Local Fire Tragedies

The Burwell Fire 1727

burwell-fire-heart burwell-fire-stone

The tombstones in Burwell churchyard – erected as memorials to the tragic loss of life in 1727.

On September 8, 1727, 51 children, and 27 adults, were killed in a horrific fire in a barn at Burwell, where they had crammed in to watch a travelling puppet show. Astonishingly, the door of the barn had been nailed up after they had gone inside.

The story of the Burwell fire in Cuckolds Row is remembered in the graveyard of St Mary the Virgin church, with a memorial depicting a flaming heart. On the tombstone are the words: “To the memory of the 78 people who were burnt to death in a barn at Burwell on September 8, 1727.”

The story is told in Burwell’s parish register: “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 lightning 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.”

A footnote to this story is that a local newspaper reported n 1774 that an old man living in a village near Newmarket had made a deathbed confession – admitting to starting the fire deliberately.

The newspaper reported: “He said he had a burden to disclose. He then confessed that he had set fire to the barn at Burwell on September 8th 1727. 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.”

The Newmarket Town Hall Fire Tragedy of 1907

In September 1907, a great tragedy occurred in Newmarket Town Hall, which was in use as a temporary bioscope (cinema). The hall was overcrowded and the projector, which used incandescent limestone as the illuminating medium, was knocked over resulting in a fire. Panic ensued and there were many casualties. As a result of this fire and other similar tragedies the Cinematograph Act of 1909 was passed, which laid down safety standards.


Our late Chairman, Eric Dunning had a great deal of information on this fire and the effect it had on legislation to improve safety in theatres and cinemas. Unfortunately, at this time of the virus lock down, we cannot access his notes…they will be added here when it becomes possible. The link to the Newmarket Journal records of this event is no longer operative.