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'Arson dragnet': How inferno reduced Bury Free Press editorial department to smouldering ruins in April 1980



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It was the spring of 1980. Unemployment stood at a two-year high of more than 1.5 million, the Iranian Embassy siege was about to begin, Blondie were at number one in the charts and in Bury St Edmunds police were hunting the ‘firebug’ behind three devastating arson attacks across the town.

In the early hours of Thursday, April 24, the Bury Free Press offices in King’s Road were the arsonist's third target.

As the blaze took hold the newspaper's editorial and administrative block were consumed by flames and surrounding roads sealed off as more than 40 firefighters fought the inferno.

How the Bury Free Press reported the arson attack on its own offices in April 1982 (52930761)
How the Bury Free Press reported the arson attack on its own offices in April 1982 (52930761)

It was the third Thursday morning blaze in the town within five weeks. First Bury Leisure Centre, in Beetons Way, was ‘completely gutted’. The second arson attack saw Howard Middle School targeted.

The Bury Free Press blaze – the third inferno – destroyed the ‘reporters’ room’, administration and process departments, while the front office suffered water and smoke damage.

Initially, the extent of damage to the works department – where the newspaper was put together – was not known, but it was thought to have suffered water and smoke damage.

How the Bury Free Press reported the arson attack on its own offices in April 1982 (52930765)
How the Bury Free Press reported the arson attack on its own offices in April 1982 (52930765)

Also destroyed in the blaze were many old files and archive copies of the Bury Free Press.

Nothing in the editorial department survived. Typewriters were reduced to ‘smouldering ruins’ while papers, records and files were lost.

Three separate fires were started in the buildings, with a smaller fire in the advertising department quickly extinguished, causing minimal damage.

Firefighters attend the blaze at the Bury Free Press offices in April 1982
Firefighters attend the blaze at the Bury Free Press offices in April 1982

Alan McAndrew, fire service divisional commander, said there was ‘no doubt’ the fire was anything other than arson. He added that the blaze was ‘going like a dingbat’ when he arrived with six appliances and 42 firefighters.

The fire was spotted at 4.30am by a West Suffolk Newspapers delivery driver and a nearby resident.

Sid Lawrence was returning to the office from delivering our sister newspapers the Haverhill Echo and Suffolk Free Press.

How the Bury Free Press reported the arson attack on its own offices in April 1982 (52930763)
How the Bury Free Press reported the arson attack on its own offices in April 1982 (52930763)

He said: “I belted down into Everards Hotel but I couldn’t make anyone hear.

“We moved the vehicles as best we could out of the car park and tried to break into the building but there was no way we could do anything. It was too bad.

“You could only stand and watch. It was like a battlefield, with all the windows going off like guns.”

He said everything had been normal when he left the offices for Sudbury and Haverhill at 2.45am.

An arsonist targeted Bury Sports Centre – pictured here – and Howard Middle School before targeting the Bury Free Press in April 1980
An arsonist targeted Bury Sports Centre – pictured here – and Howard Middle School before targeting the Bury Free Press in April 1980

“I just couldn’t believe it when I came back two hours later and there was nothing left,” he added.

Frank Smith, of King’s Road, called the fire service at about 4.30am.

“I was upstairs in my bedroom when I saw all the smoke in the air and fire,” he told the Bury Free Press.

An arsonist targeted Bury Sports Centre – pictured here – and Howard Middle School before targeting the Bury Free Press in April 1980
An arsonist targeted Bury Sports Centre – pictured here – and Howard Middle School before targeting the Bury Free Press in April 1980

“It seemed to start one end and all the flames came right across the road. The wind, thank goodness, was blowing towards the town. If it had been blowing this way we would have caught it.”

A telephone exchange next to the Bury Free Press was temporarily evacuated while the blaze was brought under control.

It was thought the arsonist got into the building through a skylight.

An arsonist targeted Bury Sports Centre – pictured here – and Howard Middle School before targeting the Bury Free Press in April 1980
An arsonist targeted Bury Sports Centre – pictured here – and Howard Middle School before targeting the Bury Free Press in April 1980

How did the Bury Free Press get published that week?

Despite the inferno, the Bury Free Press was still published as usual the day after the blaze.

A letter from the editor said news and sport coverage had been drastically curtailed as a result of the fire, along with the advertisement service.

Thanks to Drake and Scull Engineering Ltd and Rutters estate agents, the newspaper’s editorial and advertising teams moved to temporary office accommodation at 86 Guildhall Street.

Meanwhile, by 3pm on the Friday the classified department was ‘back to normal’.

“The Free Press is extremely grateful to all those who have offered help and sympathy, in particular the emergency services, the post office, Drake and Scull and the Everards Hotel, which housed us from the early hours of Thursday so we might produce this emergency edition,” added the editor.

What else was happening in Bury during April 1982?

Bury Free Press adverts from April 1982 (52934176)
Bury Free Press adverts from April 1982 (52934176)

Monty Python's Life of Brian was the main showing at Studio 1 and 2 cinema in town, while 'Flesh Gordon' was the X-rated screening.

A Bury Free Press report from April 1982 (53047815)
A Bury Free Press report from April 1982 (53047815)

Pensioners petitioned for Mid Suffolk District Council to scrap a new £1.50 charge for concessionary bus passes.

Bury Free Press adverts from April 1982 (52934189)
Bury Free Press adverts from April 1982 (52934189)

Sid's Country and Western Dance was taking place at Bury's Corn Exchange on Saturday, with Patsy Powell and The Goodtimers, Stateline and Mick Potter performing – tickets were £1.50 each.

Bury Free Press adverts from April 1982 (52934195)
Bury Free Press adverts from April 1982 (52934195)

You could buy a new Barratt home in Bury on 'Raedwald Hill' (we think this is probably now Raedwald Drive). Three bedroom homes cost from £19,950 and four bedroom homes were from £32,950.

Bury Free Press adverts from April 1982 (52934187)
Bury Free Press adverts from April 1982 (52934187)

CRS, in the Buttermarket, was holding a one-day sale on corner sofas and lounge suites, with prices starting at £149.95.

Bury Free Press adverts from April 1982 (52934185)
Bury Free Press adverts from April 1982 (52934185)

Four more entries were received for Bury Round Table's carnival queen competition, with Karen Wadey, Wendy Stares, Clare Peck and Susan Borley all in the running for the title.

Bury Free Press adverts from April 1982 (52934183)
Bury Free Press adverts from April 1982 (52934183)

The ITT 16in portable colour television was for sale at Lawson's, on Cornhill, for £286.

Bury Free Press adverts from April 1982 (52934179)
Bury Free Press adverts from April 1982 (52934179)

CRS groceries was selling cans of Coca Cola for 15p and McVities digestives for 19 1/2p.

Bury Free Press adverts from April 1982 (52934181)
Bury Free Press adverts from April 1982 (52934181)

And finally, Mulleys Motorways was offering an excursion to Wales for £5 return.

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