Remembering ancient tragedy

02 November 2006

ABERFAN, Beslan - any tragedy that involves the death of a large number of children stays harrows generations to come.

Most of the 78 who died in the horrific fire in 1727 in Burwell village, Ely diocese, were children. They had crowded into a barn to watch a puppet show, a rare treat for which they had each paid a penny. So many tried to crowd in, with or without pennies, that the barn door was barred and a table pushed against it. But a man who had come to feed the horses put down his lantern and climbed into the hayloft for a sneak view.

The lantern caught the hay, and soon the whole barn with its thatched roof was alight. Thick clunch walls and the barred door prevented escape, and strong winds carried the flames to nearby cottages. Within a few hours there was little left of the buildings or the people in them.

It is the 278th anniversary this year, made special because the local history society has at last established just where the barn stood, and has erected a plaque on the site. And it was made an occasion for a remembrance service round the memorial stone in the graveyard: children similar in age to those who perished dramatised poems they had written themselves about the event. The Revd Stephen Earl tells me 150 people came, including representatives from the Cambridgeshire Fire and Rescue Service. A senior fire officer told him that the Burwell Barn Fire was the largest loss of life in a single building ever recorded in the UK.

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