On the night of Saturday 7 July/Sunday 8 July 1962, a fire swept through the western end of Abbey House, destroying a 50 ft stretch of the roof and a second floor dormitory.

The alarm was raised at 1.30 am by Harold West, the School’s head gardener, who lived opposite Abbey House in Abbey Cottage (now the School Bursary).  Harold was woken in the night by the sound of something falling and then saw flames coming out of a second-floor window at Abbey House.  He rushed across to the house to alert the Housemaster Micky Walford, the matron Miss M. Hocking, and the 61 boys who were asleep in the house.

Luckily, all the boys and staff managed to escape unharmed and were afterwards provided with hot tea, mattresses and blankets at Abbeylands.  It was feared at one stage that the fierce blaze might spread to the neighbouring properties, including the adjoining housemaster’s residence, a 2,000 gallon oil tank in the house yard and, across the road, the wooden School gymnasium (now the dining hall).

The Sherborne Fire Brigade were the first to arrive at the scene with two fire engines.  Station Officer R. Baker called Fire Force HQ for help and they were soon joined by crews from Yeovil and Weymouth.  At the height of the fire, eight jets were being used to bring the fire under control.

The following morning the clear-up and salvage operations began at 6 am.  Local firms put a temporary covering over the roof, restored the hot-water system, and checked the wiring.  The boys helped clear the site and by 6.45 pm that evening they were able to eat a meal in the house dining room cooked in the house kitchen.

Three studies, the Reading Room, the top dormitory (Carey’s) and the top washroom were destroyed by the fire and the 30 boys who slept in the top dormitory lost all their clothes and personal possessions.

Room was found for the boys who had lost their studies in the remaining studies and also in a room at Cutler’s (A.B. Gourlay’s house).  Additional beds were found for six boys in the surviving dormitories, with five boys in Cutler’s, four in the house sick room, five in Mr Walford’s spare room, and nine in a ward at the San.

Abbey House, Summer 1962.

Two Abbey House sixth formers (Alan White and John Russell) were later rusticated because they were found to be missing that night when the house roll was called.  Although the two boys were rusticated for being out of bounds that night it is believed they may also have inadvertently caused the fire by interfering with the house electrics when setting up an early-warning system outside their study.

The story of the fire, and the two boys believed to have caused it, appeared in the national press, including the Daily Telegraph, the Daily Mirror, and the Daily Mail who went so far as to photograph Alan White at Waterloo station while making his way home having been expelled.

Thankfully, the Bursar thought the losses would be fully covered by insurance!

Rachel Hassall
School Archivist
14 December 2018

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