On this day in history : 8th September 1727 – A puppet show being held in a barn in the village of Burwell, Cambridgeshire ends in tragedy when fire breaks out…. The doors had been nailed shut to prevent people from entering….

Burwell barn fire memorial – Image credit : Senra, John McCullough – own work CC BY 3.0

The fire broke out around 9pm, the cause believed to be a lantern that had carelessly been left unattended…. The barn, which was located close to the village centre, was packed with people watching Robert Shepheard’s travelling puppet show…. Many more had wanted to watch but the barn could not accommodate them – to stop people forcing their way in the doors had been nailed shut….

New straw had recently been laid on the floor and the fire spread rapidly, soon reaching the thatched roof…. There was some difficulty in getting the nailed doors reopened and once they were those inside rushed to try and get out, climbing over those already dead inside…. 78 out of the 140 or so inside perished, 51 of those were children…. Included were Robert Shepheard, his wife and his daughter….

The dead were buried in the churchyard of St Mary’s Parish Church, Burwell…. On the 8th of September 2005 a memorial plaque was unveiled at the site of the fire….

Back of memorial stone – Image credit : Senra, John McCullough – own work CC BY 3.0

Nearly 50 years after the fire an unidentified old man, on his deathbed, apparently made a confession – stating that it was he who had set the barn ablaze deliberately, as he had a grudge against Shepheard…. Whether this is true or not – we will never know….

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