St Andrew's Turi 1945 Part 1: The Fire

Mon, 15/01/2018 - 10:30 -- James Oakley
Logo of St Andrew's School, Turi

From 1984 to 1988 I was fortunate to attend St Andrew's School, Turi, in the highlands of Kenya. The school had a pleasant climate. At an altitude of c. 8,000 ft, it was often still very warm, but the cooler nights meant that the school had what we used to call "real grass". Contrast much of the lower lying parts of Kenya, where the grass is brown in the dry season and so always has a wiry texture. The school aimed for an admission that was a third African, a third European and a third Asian, making for a thoroughly cosmopolitan education. It taught an English curriculum to the age of 13. (The year I left, they started a secondary school; some of my classmates formed the pilot year of the new secondary stage).

The school also had an interesting history. In 1944, the school was burnt to the ground. Every year the story was retold, around a bonfire of course. We heard how the askari (security guard is the closest translation, although like any foreign language these things don't translate exactly) arrived in the morning for work, and exclaimed, "Wapi skuli?" The school was gone.

But the school was rebuilt under the leadership of the headmaster and his wife, "Ma and Pa Lavers", and re-opened. To this day, the logo of the school is that of a phoenix with upturned wings.

All of that is pre-amble to say that someone recently tracked down an old copy of the school's magazine from 1948, the year the school re-opened. It tells the story of the fire, and how the school recovered. There's a beautiful mixture here of old fashioned English spirit, from the heart of the colonial era; of trust in God to see them through (the school had a solidly Christian foundation); and of sheer hard work and sacrifice by many people.

Here is the story of the fire. (The opening sentence makes me wonder if the askari's legendary role in the saga was in fact an embellishment) I'll follow in due course with some other extracts:

In the middle of the night of February 29th, 1944, Hassan, the Night Watchman, blew the alarm and within two minutes every child was awakened and got out of the building. The fire began in the kitchen, how—no—one knows. The fire had been put out according to rule and there was no flicker of anything from nine till ten—thirty during which time many people passed and re-passed that building, but some- time after midnight (no-one had time to look at a watch) the kitchen went on fire. Happily the flames had not reached a dangerous stage when the alarm was given so that all the children got out without undue alarm and the calm, almost cheerful demeanour of the staff added to the children’s acceptance of an emergency. Not one child gave the slightest trouble, each obeyed without murmur and there was never one moment’s panic. There were tears that loved dolls and teddy bears had been left, but even those natural tears were bravely ‘ hidden. The children assembled in the chapel and the roll call proved that every child was there. No one will forget the quiet, firm voice of “Flynny” calling each name and small voices saying “He’s here,” but “Flynny” calmly going on, “I must hear him myself” and then “Wake up—John” until each small voice had replied. Mrs. Lavers and Mrs. Bourdillon felt every bed and knew no one had been left behind and then all the staff who could be spared from care of the children went to salvage all the children’s clothes that could be taken out.

Meantime, Mr. Lavers had the pump at work and had sent the watchman to call all the nearby boys and neighbours, but the fire gained rapidly. There had been no rain for many weeks, things were tinder" dry, the trees above the building caught and the fire spread along their dry branches and inside the ceilings, and in half an hour one whole wing was ablaze. As the children said, “There never was a fire like our fire”.

All the tinies were taken to the cottage near the station or to Mrs. Underwood’s so they were soon asleep after their rude awakening and saw little of the final blaze. St. George’s School came to our aid, first by sending a. group of guides with stretchers and first aid. kit, none of which, happily, were needed. They took many of our children to their school where their older girls gave up their beds to let the smaller ones sleep and then they brought us buckets and buckets of hot tea. As the night wore on only about forty children remained and they tried to. sleep on the forms in the chapel, but it was difficult to sleep with the Wild crackling of burning timber and explosions of lavatory tanks.

The work of salvage went on as long as it was possible, clothing and bedding were flung out of windows and doors by one gang whilst another collected everything and took it to safety and well away from the flames. But, even so, the losses were serious. The field was lined With native totos who came to take what they could find and but for Brin our losses would have been worse. All night long our Great Dane tore up and down the field keeping looters at bay with fair success but—he could not be everywhere. Gradually we collected much made the old play room on the field and there Peris, an ayah sat all night With one Deitz lamp guarding out things.

Neighbours were roused by their boys who saw the fire and they came by car or lorry to help. We never quite knew who had come for no one ever waited to be told what to do. They dashed into the building and threw out what they could lay hands on and went at dawn before anyone could thank them.

Morning rose over a heap of smoking ruins with a few stumps where fireplaces had once been and a filthy swimming bath full of soaking mattresses and blankets which had been flung there to save them. Children were wandering round in dressing gowns with blankets draped round them and so were staff. Mr. Layers lived in his dressing gown for several days until a few of his clothes were found where a name had carefully hidden them for him. Mrs. Lavers washed at the garden tap and dried on a curtain, hobbled about on a badly sprained ankle still in a few odd garments which were supplemented by kind neighbours and Mr. Lavers bristled until someone provided him with a razor.

From six in the morning the residents of Molo arrived to collect children and take them to homes for the day, and by eleven in the morning only nine children were left in Turi and St. George’s School looked after them. All the salvaged clothing was taken to St. George’s put in piles so that parents could collect everything possible there Iii some miraculous way St. George’s found breakfast for everyone 'and food for those staying on farms—no easy matter in days of rationing.

As soon as the Post Office opened wires were sent to every parent and a Wireless message arranged. The difficulties of remembering each address. when every record was burnt, the difficulties of getting accommodation for transport were all met and weary staff went on coping With. successive emergencies after a sleepless night and after a struggle which shewed to what heights women could rise. Shall we ever forget “Blighty" calmly and quietly getting out her food stores at one door whilst the other end of the same store was blazing furiously, or “Marshy” actually lifting the bonnet of a car to turn it out of the garage for it was locked, or “Simpy” hurling her precious lockers out of “Snow White” dormitory into the garden—and yet, they lived to tell the tale. Whenever we hear that “Altitude and Tropics make one deteriorate” we shall smile a superior smile knowing that in facing a grave emergency and undoubted danger we saw a band of women work with unperturbed speed and efficiency which set an example to every child in the school.

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