The Great Fire of St. Mary’s

Good intentions go astray, with an unusual twist at the end

By Wendy A

When I was at boarding school in the 1960s we had a Housemistress, Miss Sophie Hill, who had a reputation for realism. She taught chemistry and her experiments were always on an industrial scale; if there is going to be an explosion then it had to be a big bang. Often her experiments had to be moved outside to avoid damage to the chemistry labs or a conflagration. There were often complaints from her fellow teachers who were not amused by the regular disruptions to their lectures when there was a loud explosion. She was much loved by her pupils who seemed to learn and remember chemical formulas by the spectacular reactions that could be produced.

We had regular fire drills during the year to ensure that our house could be evacuated in less than 10 minutes of the alarm sounding. There was a sort of competition between houses as to which could evacuate the fastest. It had got a little out of hand in recent years and it was not unknown for the Housemistress to give prior notice with the girls already lined up ready to go downstairs and out into the garden.

In my last year at St Mary’s, when I was the Senior House Prefect, Miss Hill decided to have an additional fire drill. This was to be as realistic as possible. She planned to have dustbins filled with paper and garden rubbish and place these around the House as areas blocked by fire. It would be like a maze with only two possible ways to leave the House and some pupils would be taken to her area of the House and hidden. How long would it take to ascertain how many, and who, was missing? The contents of the bins would be soaked with paraffin which would result in plenty of smoke and make her drill all the more realistic.

Miss Hill would not be able to make all the arrangements by herself even with the help of her assistant Housemistress, Susan Wills, a recent graduate on a year’s teacher training. She had chosen 6 pupils to assist with her plan. We were a mixed crew, 3 six formers, 2 from the fifth and a junior. Miss Hill arranged a meeting of her ‘fire simulation crew’ at which we were all sworn to secrecy; anyone breaking this rule would be in serious trouble. Of the two sixth formers two were prefects and one was in the lower 6th.

She set out her plans; she would choose a dark night, not a full moon or cloudy, and one that was mild and dry. No need to get everyone soaking wet in their bedclothes. The 4th former would take three other girls and go to Miss Hill’s flat where they would hide in the kitchen. Similarly one of the 5th formers would select 3 other 5th formers and also make their way to her kitchen where she would set out drinks and biscuits. They would speak to and select their squads earlier in the chosen evening without telling them the full reasons for their expedition to the Housemistress’ flat.

The three 6th formers and the remaining 5th former would man the obstructions in order to ensure nobody passed that way by saying the passage was blocked further down. They would also light the fires in the dustbins at the appointed time.

Miss Hill then advised us of her plans as to the location of the dustbins and the two escape routes that would be the only unobstructed means of escape. She, Susan and Matron would be strategically placed, one on each floor, in order to handle any unforeseen problems. She said that a further meeting of the ‘crew’ would be called a few days before the fire drill.

Mrs Hill seemed very happy with her plans and was sure that she would be congratulated by her peers and the Governors for her initiative. She had not however taken into account that girls can not keep secrets and were bound to tell their close friends. The warning of ‘serious trouble’ may have resounded on a 4th former and even the two 5th formers but that was unlikely.

Angela was the other prefect chosen for the ‘crew’. The others were; Sheila (lower 6th), Ann & Pat (5th) and Mary (4th year).

One evening I suggested to Angela that we go for a walk together to discuss the upcoming fire drill. I started by suggesting that we should make it even more realistic, for example by calling the fire brigade. We then discussed the possibility of augmenting the supply of paraffin and other combustible materials, setting fire to such as furniture, use of fire extinguishers to add to the potential mess, etc.

We pondered over whether to involve other members of the ‘crew’ and decided, with the possible exception of Shelia (lower 6th), we would not involve the juniors, firstly because of the risk of our plans being leaked and secondly a possible reluctance to go against Miss Hill’s authority. We did speak to Sheila and she agreed to assist us but did not wish to participate in enlarging the potential conflagration. In the end she was given the job of phoning the fire brigade.

Miss Hill had a further meeting of her crew some 2 weeks later. This meeting was attended also by Susan Wills and Matron. Mary (4th) and Pat (5th) were designated to divert 3 pupils each to Miss Hill’s kitchen. The remaining four of us would each man a dustbin. Angela and I chose to man the east wing on the third and second floors. Sheila and Ann would take the dustbins in the west wing, with Sheila being allocated the first floor which was adjacent to Matron’s flat.

The bins would be prepared earlier in the day, Angela and I would spike bins with extra provisions for the bins that would be set up in the east wing. The four of us manning the bins would bring the bins in at about 10.30 pm and set them in place. The drill would start at 11.00 pm and we were each issued with a box of matches. The four of us would also be responsible to ensure that no pupils remained in the dorms after the bell rang and chase up any stragglers. Extra fire extinguishers were also going to be placed near each bin to be used if any of the fires got out of hand.

Three days later Miss Hills informed Angela and me that the drill would be held that evening. We were to inform the others and start the bin preparations. I did suggest to Pat and Mary they could encourage some more of their close friends, two or three, to go to the kitchen on the basis they had simply followed the others thinking it was the way to escape.

At 10.30 we set up the bins, trying to make as little noise as possible. We checked watches and planned to be at our action stations by 10.55. I, and I assume Angela, would be spreading the paraffin and some more paper on the floor near our two bins. On time, we lit the bins and allowed 5 minutes for the fires to take. I then broke the fire alarm glass and the bells sounded.

Doors opened and pupils started to flood out. I directed the first few and told them not to go near the bins on fire. I was surprised by the amount of smoke which soon became choking and told everyone to stay low and crawl if necessary. My bin was well ablaze and the fire had spread and entered one of the dorms. It was time to make use of the fire extinguisher. I had never used one before and was surprised at the force of the foam that it produced, it was difficult to aim the nozzle and foam went everywhere. I went into the three dorms in my area and found them empty. I kicked over my bin which let the fire spread further, despite the foam. The foam ran out so I set off one of the larger permanent extinguishers, this had the desired effect and the fire was soon extinguished.

I made my way to the fire escape and met Ann. She confirmed that all her dorms were empty and the fire extinguished. We reached the first floor where we found Angela and Sheila. Sheila nodded and smiled indicating that she had called the fire brigade. They had also checked their dorms and extinguished the fires. Angela did say that her fire had got somewhat out of hand and that she had used a second extinguisher. We made our way down the stairs and finally out into the garden.

There was organised chaos with the girls being herded into groups from each dorm.

At that moment the fire brigade arrived with several police cars; there was even an ambulance. The noise attracted the attention of adjacent houses and each window was jammed with spectators.

Miss Hill was rushing around to each group but, as the fire brigade arrived, was distracted. She shouted at several prefects and Susan to check each group to find out whether any pupils were missing.

Even after half an hour the roll call was still not complete and it was not totally certain who was missing; there were certainly more than the 8 who should have been absent.

The fire officers had covered every area of the school and had found the kitchen party who were escorted out to cheers from their fellows. In the end there had been 15 of them. With these latter it was finally established that all pupils were accounted for.

It was getting a lot colder as midnight had come and gone; most were only in nightclothes and few had put on dressing gowns and slippers. With permission from the chief fire brigade officer we were allowed back into the ground floor. Matron and Susan had organised hot chocolate from the kitchen and a supply of biscuits.

After a while the fire brigade decided that those with dorms in the east wing could return to bed, their dorms had suffered little despite the mess made by the extinguishers. Those with dorms in the west wing would have to make do with other rooms used for studies, etc. Matron had found some spare blankets and arrived back with two prefects and the blankets which were handed round.

It was then about 1.30 in the morning and Miss Hill’s study had become a temporary meeting room. There were two fire officers, a couple of police officers, Mrs Hill with Susan and Matron, half a dozen prefects and several staff from nearby houses.

The chief fire officer took charge. He informed us that the east wing 1st and 2nd floors were cordoned off. His officials would return at 8.00 in the morning and make an initial assessment. Then and only then would pupils be allowed to collect clothes and other items. He suggested to Mrs Hill that she arrange alternative accommodation for the east wing pupils for the next several nights, the sanatorium was suggested and some of the adjoining houses would be asked to help, possibly using the gym as a temporary dorm. The meeting broke up and we prefects went to our study to spend the remainder of the night.

At breakfast the next day the poor pupils in bedclothes were an object of some amusement. After that, they were told to go back to our house to collect as much clothing as they could and take it to the main gym changing room to get dressed for lessons. Any that had lost some or all of their clothes were told to report to Matron. Lessons would continue as normal in the main school buildings. The fire drill crew were told to go to Miss Hill’s dining room.

Angela and I, together with the other 4, went to Miss Hill’s flat where there were several fire brigade and police officers waiting. We learnt that Miss Hill, Susan and Matron were meeting with senior officers in her study.

We each sat with a police officer and made a statement of our involvement in the fire drill. The 4th former and two 5th formers were released after about half an hour. They seemed to be concentrating their enquiries on Angela, Sheila and myself. Shelia was finally released which just left Angela and me. They were interested to understand why the damage in our areas was so great compared to the west wing. I did mention that I had kicked over the bin in the hope of putting the fire out faster but that this had had the opposite reaction, hence the use of the additional extinguisher. Angela mentioned that some of the bins’ contents had spilt onto the floor.

The next week was one of further questions as the reports from the police and fire brigade were completed. Workmen had arrived to make good the damage, mainly in east wing. School routine got back to normal for most, the exception being Angela and I; we were clearly being considered as culprits for the extra damage.

About one week later we were both called to a meeting held in a conference room. A senior police officer took the chair.

“We still have a number of questions for which we require further information. Firstly, who called the fire brigade? The call was made from Matron’s sitting room. It was a female voice but too brief to identify the caller. Secondly, the bins in the east wing appear to have contained extra paraffin; it seems unlikely that this was a simple mistake. The spreading of the fire on the second floor, your bin Wendy, was caused by the bin being tipped over. Your explanation does not seem logical although you did get it under control reasonably quickly with the extra extinguisher.

“We also have some comments about the organisation, mainly the use of bins to set fires; realistic perhaps but excessive in my opinion. The fire brigade should have been advised in advance and have been present from the start. Fortunately nobody was hurt but there have been some cases of difficulty with breathing following smoke inhalation. I am advised that this will reduce over time with appropriate medication.

“The final reports will be sent to the Headmistress in due course, copied to the Governors and the local Education Board. The police do not intend to take any further action as there is not sufficient proof that anyone acted in a way that was likely to endanger life and the organisation in place ensured that the building was evacuated quickly although some improvements are required to avoid the apparent chaos that reigned when we arrived.”

At that the meeting ended.

The following day Angela, Sheila and I were called to a meeting with Miss Hill. Susan was also present. Mrs Hill informed us that they had been making their own investigations and summarised their findings:

  1. a) Pat and Mary had been followed by a few of their friends assuming that they knew the way out. Rather than sending them back, the smoke was getting thicker, they had allowed them to follow to the kitchen.
  2. b) The bins had been loaded by the three of us and Ann. The conclusion had been that the bins in the east wing, mine and Angela’s, seemed to have been overloaded with combustive material.
  3. c) Nobody had admitted to the phone call to the fire brigade.

Miss Hill closed by adding that there would be further investigation and action may be taken later. She singled out Angela and myself as having contributed to a worsening of the situation by either design or error.

My relationship with Miss Hill was never the same again. She was convinced that I had been involved in a plan to humiliate her in front of her peers. Our dealings were very formal after the night of the fire. My heart would sink whenever I was asked to see her and she clearly thought I should have been caned, but lacked the proof to justify such action.

My A level results were expected to be excellent and a place at a good university was assured.

On the very last evening at St Mary’s, Miss Hill held a sherry party for the leavers. We all attended and I had a feeling of relief that the fire fiasco would be behind me. She was polite when we spoke but there was not the warmth she had for some of the others present. She even joked with Angela. No matter, the following day would close a rather unfortunate chapter.

Miss Hill thanked us all for coming. As we were leaving she asked me to remain behind. Once the others had left she started.

“Wendy, I have always suspected that your involvement in the fire fiasco was not totally innocent. Until that time we had, I believe, a good relationship and strong mutual respect. Something changed that night. Something triggered in you a wish to humiliate me in front of my peers. I have always sought to understand what could have set this in motion. What had I done, or not done? What started a train of events that ended in the fiasco? As a direct result of the events of that night I have been asked to find another job by the start of the autumn term.

“I am sure you persuaded Angela and perhaps Sheila to help you in your endeavours. I know you launched a vendetta which has now resulted in my dismissal. I have often wished that I had found the proof that would have permitted me to cane you.”

It took me a few minutes to compose my reply.

“Miss Hill, I have always looked up to you as a role model. Your lessons were always entertaining and without them I would not be seeking to continue chemistry at university. In our house you would always encourage your girls to excel, always be first, any failure you took as a negative reflection on you personally. For example, the normal fire drills were organised for us to empty the house first, even to the extent of cheating, warning us in advance.

“The special fire drill struck me as an occasion when I could manipulate things so that a great success would turn into a disaster. Rather than being congratulated by your peers, you would be humiliated. You would, for once, feel how us lesser mortals felt when we had not achieved all that was expected of us. You did on occasion mock those who failed in front of their peers. You would also wield the cane to produce additional humiliation. I have to admit that you never did find a chance to mock or humiliate me personally but others did suffer.”

Miss Hill sat in silence for several minutes and then said: “I have so often dreamt of caning your bottom during these last few months, of having you bent over my desk for 6 of the best, of humiliating you to the extent that you have orchestrated my own humiliation.”

I sat on her sofa reflecting on the last few months. I was no longer in school uniform but rather a trouser suit that I had chosen for an interview the following day. What motivated me to submit is a mystery to me. I think I wanted release and to suffer for the suffering that I had imposed on Miss Hill. I stood slowly, took the few steps to her desk, removed my jacket and bent over, holding the far side.

She herself stood and walked over to the cupboard where she kept her canes. She took one of the longer and thicker ones, came round the desk and stood to my left. I felt the cane touch my trousers. A moment later the cane struck a full blooded blow. The pain was worse than I had imagined. Many other girls had suffered this pain, but not me, that is, not until now. I remained still. Another stroke landed, I did not move and was silent. Another and then another landed on my bottom, the pain was increasing. Two more landed, possibly even harder. I did not flinch and remained bending.

“Stand up, Wendy.”

I did and turned to face her, cane still clutched in her hand. She put the cane down and then hugged me hard.

“Friends,” she said.

“Friends,” I replied.

The next day I climbed behind the wheel of my MGB GT and slowly drove down the long school drive. One tear ran down my cheek, a chapter closed and a lesson learnt. Never humiliate someone; one day they may have their revenge.

The End

© Wendy A 2015


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