A Georgian Era tragedy at a puppet show in 1727 resulted in 78 people dead, many of them children. The story begins with a man who owned a family-run puppet show who was named either Richard Shepherd (or perhaps Richard or Robert Sheppard). As he was passing through the village of Burwell, about 10 miles (16 km) north-east of Cambridge, with his wife, his daughter, and two servants, he decided to put on a show and rented a barn on 8 September.
Word quickly spread that Shepherd was going to perform a puppet show that evening in a barn built of Warble stone and thatched with straw. (The site where the barn stood is today located in Cuckolds Row.) Young people and children were particularly excited to see the show, and attendance promised to be high because people would not have to travel far and because Shepherd was charging an entrance fee of 1d.
As predicted, a huge crowd arrived that evening hoping to see the puppet show. Unfortunately, the barn could barely accommodate the 140 people who gained entrance, and there were plenty of people outside wanting to attend. Among those who wanted access to the puppet show was an ostler named Richard Whitaker of Hadstock, near Linton. He thought that he should get in for free as he worked for the farmer who owned the barn. Shepherd did not think so and told him at the door that he had to pay just like everyone else.
The crowd eventually became so great and space so limited some of the people became disorderly, and those in charge of controlling the crowd became worried. They decided that the best way to prevent any trouble and stop more people from entering was to bar the small barn door that allowed entrance and exit. However, there was no lock bar, so it was decided to nail the door shut, which was done from the inside.
When the show began at 8pm the opening performances included a conjuror and a two-handed piece performed by the Shepherds. Whitaker, in the meantime, was determined to see the show, and so after he fed and tended to the two horses belonging to Shepherd, he climbed into the hayloft and over a partition between the stable and barn that was a room where the floor functioned as a ceiling above where the performance was taking place. To light his way, he carried a wooden lanthorn with a short candle.
Whitaker soon found a hole in the straw that allowed him to watch the performance. The hayloft contained dry straw and the area where Whitaker was watching from was also dry, as was the thatched roof that covered the barn and stable. The next thing any one knew was that a fire was started. A Mr. Howe, the narrator was seated on a beam in the barn and he was the person who first spied the fire. However, at the time the flame was so small, he mentioned that he thought he might be able to hold it his hand.
Because the hay and roof were so dry it took no more than a moment for the entire ceiling to be suddenly ablaze. When people realized there was a fire, they made a mad rush towards the door, but no one could exit because the doors were nailed shut. People became hysterical and tried to break down the door, while embers and large flakes from the false roof began to fall onto the crush of people attempting to exit.
After the fire erupted, instead of trying to put out the fire, Whitaker immediately absconded. As the fire raged, people outside realized that a fire had erupted and that the people inside expecting to see a puppet show were trapped. According to one newspaper, “[No one was] getting out till a Man run his Head against the weakest part of the Door and broke it.” This man who broke down the door from the outside was a “very stout man” named Mr. Thomas Dobedee of Wicken, and once people could escape, they eagerly streamed out but because the door was so small, they tripped over each other, blocked the exit, and stampeded or fell over those who fell down.
One person attempting to help those fleeing was a man named Andrew. Papers noted that as “he was endeavouring to help People out, the Flames set Fire to his Shirt, and burnt to his Bowels; he lived but a Day and a Night.” The ensuing fire was terrible, and the Cambridge Chronicle and Journal reported:
“Some [people] … escaped into an ajdoyning yard where was built round with thatcht houses … but [as they could not escape because it created a ring of fire around them, they] were forcd to lie down and perish in it. An Excise man and his child perishd there and his wife is since quite distracted. After the fire abated they found here an arm and there a leg, here a head there a body, some burnt with their bowels hanging out, a most deplorable sight.”
One description of the devastation stated:
“When the roof fell, which was scarcely half an hour from the commencement of the fire, the shrieks and anguish of the helpless sufferers were momentarily ended in universal silence and death. The bodies, reduced to a mass of mangled carcasses, half consumed, and wholly undistinguishable.”
Newspapers also provided details of the horrific scene. For instance, the Ipswich Journal reported:
“Men, Woman and Children, as near as can be computed, perish’d in the Flames, some had their legs, some their Hands, and some their Heads burnt off, and others burnt to Ashes. … They are taking the Bodies out of the Ruins.”
The fire was so devastating journalists reported that it was “melancholy” work for relatives and families to find and remove the mangled and burnt bodies of their loved ones. This was noted in the following account:
“The heart-rending scene at day-break on the morning after the fire was indescribable. The relations of the unhappy sufferers flocking thither to find and own the bodies, some of their husbands, some of wives, parents, or children, for there was scarcely a family in the town but had lost some member of it; and the difficulty of identifying them was great.”
Whitaker was later found and jailed at Cambridge Castle. The farmer’s son who was with him around the time of the fire reported that Whitaker was to blame and that he had “beat the langthorn about, and seem’d greatly provok’d for not being let in and presently after, the hay and Thatch was on Fire.” Moreover, before Andrew died, he made an identification of Whitaker, whom he claimed had threatened to burn the barn down before the show began:
“[A]s soon as he [Andrew] saw him [Whitaker] he said, ‘That was the Man that said he would set the Barn on Fire over their Heads, if he did not let him in to see the Sight for Nothing.’”
Besides the barn and stable burning, there were also some outhouses and four to seven houses in town that also caught fire. In fact, the Ipswich Journal reported that “an ancient Woman and Child were burnt in one of the Houses that were destroyed by the Fire.” In addition, also among the dead was Shepherd, his wife, his daughter, and one servant. The Ipswich Journal also discussed the cleanup efforts that ensued after the devastation and reported on some of those who died:
“[T]he dead Bodies taken out of the Barn were carry’d in Carts and put into a Hole in the Church Yard; there was among them several Young women of considerable Fortunes, and … Mr. James Brinley, a Wholesale Turner, and Elizabeth his Wife, who had been marry’d but that Morning.”
The following Sunday a sermon was preached by Reverend Alexander Edmondson, the vicar of the parish. He asserted that it was God’s vengeance that had burnt the townspeople as punishment for their sins. He also stated in part:
“Their visage is blacker than a coal: they are not known in the streets: their skin cleaveth to their bones: it is withered, it is become dry like a stick.”
The burned victims were buried in a mass grave located in the church yard at St. Mary the Virgin Church, which was described as an elegant structure and situated at the south end of the village. A memorial with a flaming heart and angel wings was also constructed, and on the backside of it the following words were inscribed:
“To the memory of the 78 people who were burnt to death in a barn at Burwell on September 8, 1727.”
Later accounts noted that 51 children and 27 adults died. Whitaker was tried about six months after the fire, on 27 March 1728. The Newcastle Courant gave the results of the trial in a matter-of fact way with no explanation:
“At the Assizes at Cambridge, held at the Castle for the Count of Cambridge, before Mr. Baron Hale, … one Richard Whitaker, committed by Sir Roger Jenyne, … and charged upon Suspicion of setting Fire to a Barn in Burwell, in which about 125 persons that were in it to see a Puppet-Show, were burnt, or otherwise destroy’d, was try’d and acquitted of the Fact.”
Interestingly, about a half century later, a year before Jane Austen was born, an old man living in a village near Burwell made a deathbed confession in 1774. It was Whitaker. He admitted that he deliberately started the fire, and his admission was printed by the Ipswich Journal:
“It is reported that an old man died lately near Newmarket, who just before his death, confessed that he set fire to the barn at Burwell, in this county, on the 8th of Sept. 1727, when no less than 80 persons lost their lives, and that his having an antipathy to the puppet-shew man was the cause of his committing that action.”
-  Ipswich Journal, “London. September 14.,” September 9, 1727, p. 4.
-  Ibid.
-  Cambridge Chronicle and Journal, “Extraordinary Accident at Burwell,” Saturday August 17, 1844, p. 2.
-  J. Dugdale, The New British Traveller: Or, Modern Panorama of England and Wales; Exhibiting … an … Account, Historical, Topographical, and Statistical, of this … Portion of the British Empire … Interspersed with Biographical Particulars of Eminent and Remarkable Persons v. 1 (London: J. Robins & Company, 1819), p. 209.
-  Ipswich Journal, p. 4.
-  History, Gazetteer and Directory of Cambridgeshire (Peterborough: Robert Gardner, 1851), p. 380.
-  Ipswich Journal, p. 4.
-  Ibid.
-  Ibid.
-  Ibid.
-  J. Dugdale, p. 209.
-  Newcastle Courant, April 6, 1728, p. 3.
-  Ipswich Journal, “Cambridge, Feb. 24,” February 26, 1774, p. 2.