Newells Preparatory School

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The Fire

Posted by Chris Matthews on May 14, 2012 at 3:15 PM


I contacted the headmaster Graeme Owton last week inquiring about an Old boys (&girls) site and he kindly directed me to this site. Memories came flooding back, seeing familiar names ,as up to now the only person I have had contact with is Edward Trewhella.

I further contacted Graeme on a subject that has vexed me all these years, that is the death of Alexander Parker in that fateful fire.

I asked if it was possible for some form of memorial could be made to him because I cannot recall any mention of him again when we reassembled at Handcross Park. I know at the time we had to “put a brave face on it” and today all too frequently therapy is banded about, but in this case it was wrong not to!

I am delighted that Graeme is of the same mind and after again thinking of the incident over the weekend inquired whether it was possible for a scholarship to be started in his memory. Greame swiftly responded and said that was one of the avenues he was exploring!

It was a fateful incident which up to now I had not given too much thought, although at my wedding I noted Alexander’s death with sadness. I copy my recollection of that night which I passed to Greame, as he asked my about Nurse Mary :-


As you progressed up the school you were allocated smaller dormitories. When I returned for that fateful term I was overjoyed that I had been allocated a small 2 bedroom room at the top, in what was the old servants quarters.


 Both nurses had their rooms on this floor.


 I recall waking up in the middle of the night to thick smoke in our room. I remarked to my fellow dorm pupil, "Who would be having a bomb fire in the middle of the night!"

 Shortly after this we heard Nurse Mary Wyatt shout "Fire leave the building" The fire alarms never sounded, presumably they were engulfed in flames rapidly.


 On this we assembled to exit and I recall the great difficulty in breathing as we stood in line to exit via a window and scramble over the roof tops to get to the fire escape ladder.


 It was a credit to Captain Hope- Lang for his military insistence on fire drills as we went into "auto pilot" to evacuate.


 Without Mary Wyatt's leadership and quick thinking I believe many more would have perished, as when we exited I noticed (with misplaced glee) my classroom ablaze, which was two floors below!


The other nurse whose name I do not recall, (could have been Marion?)who had not been there long lost her small dog in the fire I believe.


 We all had blackened sooted faces and were housed in the theatre by the stable block for the night.


 I also recall Matron stuck in her window in her bedroom in the annex, but thankfully the fire brigade, (infact Edward corrects me that it was Charlie) when they arrived, got her out, as she supervised the theatre, trying to get us to sleep on wooden chairs, but to no avail!


 I also recall watching Captain Hope-Lang re entering the building, which was by now totally ablaze, before the fire brigade arrived, in a valiant attempt to find Alexander.

 Again superb organization that a roll call was quickly taken to ascertain if any boys were missing.

 Unlike the dorms on the lower floors, which had direct fire escapes attached to the windows, the top floor, where I was, did not. You had to walk along the corridor to exit via the window onto the roof, then make your way across to a fire escape.

 Looking back we were the most vulnerable and it is due to Mary's action that we were saved, as had it been any later, I don't think I would be here today.


The only boy that had foresight was Nigel Aveline (but it may well not have been him!) as he threw all his clothes out of the window!  It was a great shame he did not return after the fire.


I know that on arrival at Handcross Park I could not sleep for at least 2 weeks, as I was fearful of another fire. I suspect many felt that way, but of course we never discussed it, maintaining "A British stiff upper lip!"

I was told off by my mother for not retrieving my new dressing gown!


My future blogs will be more light hearted, but this is a subject that has vexed me for all of these years and I am so glad that Alexander will hopefully have a fitting tribute to his memory!



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