In the early hours of the morning of Thursday 20th June 1996, an electrical fault started a fire in the teachers’ Common Room on the first floor on the south side of the Mansion. The first floor was devoted to staff use, including the Warden’s and Sub-Warden’s studies and secretary’s office, and the teachers’ communal work area. Three weeks earlier the main suite of rooms on the ground floor had housed the Library – just moved into its new home in Old School. The basement contained the newly installed Reprographics Centre, a wine cellar, and the Sixth Form JCR bar. The building itself was Grade 2 listed, built in the 1720s, and contained hollow walls with a hidden staircase. On the second floor were three staff flats, inhabited by the Chaplain, David Coulton, the Archivist, retired schoolmaster Tony Money, and a history teacher, Jim Summerly. All three were sleeping the sleep of the just. David Coulton was the first to be awakened by the smell of wood:
there did not appear to be any sort of burning smell but as minutes ticked away, the smell became so pronounced and invasive that investigation was necessary.(David Coulton, The Radleian, 1996)
|David walked out to the main stairwell to investigate. By now the smell had turned to acrid smoke, but there was no sign of fire. A mist of smoke was rising from the floor below. The door into Common Room was very hot to the touch, and he could see flames through the keyhole. Forensic analysis of the fire later showed that leaving that door closed not only saved David’s life, but also saved the entire building, since the well-fitting eighteenth century wooden door withstood flames which melted metal inside the room. The fire alarm was immediately raised and the fire brigade called. David was then concerned how to alert the other sleepers. Their bedrooms were behind several doors, including locked outer doors. Tony Money, however, had already been awakened by the sound of the Common Room windows cracking and exploding directly below his bedroom. David then managed to rouse Jim banging on the wall of the guest room adjacent to his bedroom.|
The fire brigade had not yet arrived from Abingdon, and the fire appeared to be contained within Common Room. Jim Summerly takes up the story:
Intensely irritated by the fire alarm. Threw the box [with thesis] into the car and drove the car onto the lawn. Glanced at Frances Hopkins doing a racing start in the Volvo with girls and cats. No fire brigade yet. Just could not stand still. Went back up the Warden’s staircase. Aware of wrong decision. Got to the flat. … Grabbed the cameras; an armful of clothes, Remove coursework, looked at the carriage clock, grabbed a Syrian silk scarf and remembered the salesman’s line, ‘It was made in the valley next to Krak des Chevaliers.’
I turned in the doorway and looked at the sitting room: a gentle room, one of the things I was proud of. ‘It’s all going to go.’ Shut the door and went down the back stairs. (Jim Summerly, The Radleian, 1996)
|Mike and Frances Hopkins supervised the evacuation of the nearest boarding house, E Social, including their two daughters. Mike and Jim had met outside the Mansion just an hour earlier: Mike was returning from a trip to the John Radcliffe Hospital where he had taken a boy suffering from minor burns after a prank misfired. When the boy awoke in the JR he was greeted by local radio news: ‘Radley College – major fire, not many killed, foul play not suspected as yet.’When the fire brigade arrived from Abingdon they were faced with a serious fire involving about 25% of the first floor, already spreading above and below. At the height of the blaze there were ‘eight pumping appliances, hydraulic platform, rescue tender, damage control and incident control units in attendance.’ Because of the building’s architectural and historic importance, ‘Great care was taken during cutting away operations to ensure, wherever possible, materials were removed in a manner which enabled them to be reused during restoration.’ (Fire Prevention 293, October 1996)|
Jim assisted the fire brigade by drawing a plan of the building. The fire brigade later described it as an ideal fire: no casualties, good building plans, no adjoining buildings, and a very handy lake full of water. By 7.00am the school was starting to wake up, and the fire brigade allowed a few people back into the Mansion to assess the damage. The fire had been contained within the first floor rooms but the intense heat had melted computers and burned through floors and joists. There was major damage, but the building had been saved, along with Jim’s PhD thesis on floppy disc.
What to save from a fire? The water-logged salvaged contents of Common Room were spread out on the lawn over the next few days. Three photograph albums from the Archives had been on the work-table in the main room. They have been kept in the state in which they were rescued as witness to the event. The Removes were ambivalent whether they should thank Jim for rescuing their coursework. Months later, the Daily Express picked up on an embarrassing (or not) loss for the teaching staff:
Somewhere on a celestial cloud, the late Peter Cook laughs long and loud. The staff common room at his old public school, Radley College, has been ravaged by fire, while the cherished teachers’ drinks cupboard was merely scorched. The bibulous Cook would be even more heartened at confirmation that the accounts book, which records the masters’ drinks bills… was destroyed in the flames. (Daily Express, Thursday July 4 1996)
Keeping to the theme, Common Room invited the Oxfordshire firefighters and their guests to a drinks party to celebrate the restoration of the Mansion in April the following year.
|The age and complexity of the building’s construction meant there were many voids and hollow walls where fire might be undetected and could continue to spread. In 1996 the Oxfordshire Fire Service used fibre optic boroscope equipment to check the voids both during and after the actual firefighting. But in 1902, Abingdon Fire Brigade had to pay two visits to the Mansion. Just before the beginning of Lent Term, 1902, a chimney in the Mansion caught fire, and, according to George Wharton, who then lived in the rooms occupied by Tony Money in 1996, ‘nearly caused disaster.’ The Fire Brigade left their work unfinished, and had to return a fortnight later, when a still smouldering beam in Pughe’s room started another blaze. This time the professional fire fighters were assisted by the school’s own amateur fire brigade, using their own fire engine.|
The two forces brought down the ceiling in the Wilson Library with ‘Roper Spyers being just rescued when his nether parts had gone with it’:
Mr Spyers, one of the masters, was discovered hanging from the ceiling – I don’t mean suicidally, but having apparently fallen through from the room above. (Robert Cruttwell, Letter to The Radleian, 1916)
Health and safety are not solely an obsession of the 21st century. In 1866 a letter to The Radleian raised the issue of the safety of inhabitants’ of the Mansion:
May I call your attention to the want of any means of escape in case of fire in a part of the building which is almost entirely composed of woodwork. I allude to the Studies in the House. It is astonishing that nothing should have been done to secure the lives of those who have studies there in case of fire.’ (The Radleian, October 1866)
By 1927, a solution was in place:
rope-ladders have been put up in the dormitories and an iron escape has been set up against the East side of the House. This iron ladder is not beautiful and has necessitated a large chunk of the stone-coping being cut away to allow its head to reach up above the roof. However, it is on the most hidden side of the House, and of course – safety first.’ (The Radleian, July 1927)
And what about the thesis disc? Jim Summerly completed his PhD at Durham University under the supervision of Brian Dobson. He was one of an influential group of historians and archaeologists who studied aspects of the Roman army at Durham University, a trend begun by Eric Birley. In 1987, Jim published an article on troop movements under Trajan, based on four Latin inscriptions found in Satala in Anatolian Studies, but this was the only publication to arise from his PhD thesis. This article, the manuscript deposited in Durham University Library, and the floppy disc rescued from the fire were the tangible results of eleven years’ work. The floppy disc contained the completed thesis and its supporting material – and there was only one copy – no back-ups, nothing stored on a shared server, nothing in cyberspace. A blog posted by a fellow archaeologist after his death in 2012 contains this tribute:
I never had the pleasure to meet Dr Summerly. However, I am very familiar with his work as I read his PhD thesis entitled ‘Studies in the Legionary Centurionate’ during the course of my own research. I have happy memories of spending a few days pouring over the manuscript in Durham University library. The thesis was a fascinating piece of work which highlighted a number of interesting patterns in the recruitment and career patterns of legionary centurions. As far as I am aware, the thesis was never published. This is a shame, as I am sure that it would be guaranteed a wide readership among Roman military scholars and enthusiasts alike.
What would YOU save if everything you owned was about to be destroyed?
In memoriam JR Summerly, 1955-2012
Clare Sargent 21/3/2012