Every year we set up our nativity scene, made up from simple materials, polystyrene puppet heads with window-blind fabric bodies made up the characters, a wood and cardboard stable was the setting all laid out on a few bales of straw borrowed from the local farm. The “stained glass” windows are painted onto tissue paper which was glued to the window with wallpaper paste. We assembled this for a few years in the bottom of the stairwell as shown in this photograph, but a surprise visit from a fire officer one year prevented us from placing it there in subsequent years. I’m not surprised either, had a fire occurred it would have blocked the staircase and also prevented the use of the lift which was adjacent, also, of course, we have blocked an external door.
This photograph was taken in 1971 and shows five of our youngest children in residence at that period, I can narrow the date down a little more to between the 22nd November and 2nd December. I don’t really remember much about any of these youngsters apart from the little boy on the right who I recall was just learning to walk again having been in plaster for a very long while with a hip problem. The photograph was taken on Kodachrome 64 slide film with my little pocket Kodak Instamatic camera.
This tale though is about two years later when we assembled our nativity scene, this time in another location, once again with six borrowed bales of straw, but it was to end in disaster. Very early on the evening of 6th December, when I was off-duty and relaxing in the staff quarters, the fire alarm went off. This was not unusual, it often went off and we’d have a quick look round to ensure there was no fire and then turn it off. But a fire there was, the straw was alight and burning fiercely. I ensured staff were dealing with the kids then picked up the hot-line to the fire service. What no one had obviously thought of was the positioning of the fire bell, it was right over the emergency phone, I couldn’t hear them and they couldn’t hear me, I abandoned it and ran for the nearest conventional phone and dialled 999; they were now on their way at least.
Dashing downstairs I ascertained everyone was out and decided to do the brave thing, foolish now looking back on it, I went back in and pulled the fire hose from its reel and twisted the nozzle to turn it on; nothing, we had a completely useless fire hose, no water whatsoever. Back outside I went and waited for the fire engines which seemed to take an eternity but was probably no more than ten minutes. We now had eighteen youngsters out in the cold, we’d grabbed a few blankets on our way out, thank goodness it wasn’t raining. Fortunately one of the local residents who we knew well had seen the blue lights and come to our rescue and offered to take all the children to her house until we could sort out other arrangements for them.
I stayed behind as they needed someone on site with full knowledge of where everything was located in the home, electric cupboards etc. The fire was out in moments but by then the thick black smoke from the polystyrene had got everywhere blackening the walls in the main entrance-way and corridor, it really was a sorry mess. Once I was allowed back in I telephoned the Manager to explain what had happened, I expected a verbal explosion, but she remained very calm and was with us within half an hour. We were able to clear all the smoke and fortunately all the bedrooms remained mostly unaffected so we arranged for the youngsters to come back to us, it was only to be for one night anyway as they were all due to finish their holiday in the morning. We were also able to contact some of the parents who came to collect their children but more than half stayed the night.
In the cold light of day we could see how much damage there was, all the suspended ceiling panels had slumped and many fallen out, they were supposed to be fire proof, and of course the walls were black and stinking. On a Friday the staff would normally leave at midday and not return until Monday midday in readiness for the next group of children, this weekend though some of us volunteered to stay and help clean-up, there were 23 children due to arrive on Monday afternoon. It was a tough day or two but by Monday we had cleaned up enough to be able to admit the youngsters and were able to provide them a fun time in the run-up to Christmas.
Repairs to the home were carried out in January of 1974 which included full revision of the fire-fighting facilities, apparently the hose had to be unreeled fully before a valve was activated to turn on the water, we had never had instruction in that. A number of fire extinguishers were also supplied, previously we’d had none. It was getting close to the end of an era though as the holiday home closed down in September that year through lack of funds, I’d been there through six Christmases, 1973 was to be the last.