Know Your School – Barker Ablaze
Friday, 31 July 2015
This week we recount the effects of fire on Barker’s built environment.

It was in 1935 that a Barker building was first affected by fire. On the night in question, Headmaster Leslie had placed a box of ducklings in front of the banked up fuel range in the Kitchen. It was assumed that the fire from the fuel range fell onto the wooden floor, causing the whole building to catch alight. The College Barker (1935, pp. 368-369) reported: “The most important event during second term was the fire that destroyed the School dining hall, with all its records, honour roll, photographs of football, cricket and athletic teams, prefects and examination boards.  The only thing rescued was the Archer Shield, which had been won by the cricket team last year. The fire broke out in the kitchen at about 1.30 on Thursday morning June 27.  Soon the flames had a good grip and it was only good work by four brigades that saved the Headmaster’s residence.  We are now having our meals comfortably in one of the lower dormitories, where satisfactory arrangements have been made.  It is expected that the new dining hall will be in use early next year.”

It was not until 1980 that fire again broke out on campus, this time in the School’s Science Block, located where the Library now stands. The event was reported in The College Barker (1980, pp. 22-23): “At 5.20am on the 13 March, the inhabitants of the Carter Senior Studies Block and the Hood family, were abruptly awakened by a passerby who had noticed smoke billowing above the school’s dawn-grey roofs.  They were all soon watching in awe as flames engulfed the Science Block’s Chemistry Wing.  The sparks spat out, smoke climbed skywards, incendiary objects spewed out and splattered on the pathway and the burning debris rumbled and clattered as it collapsed within the walls.  As a bleary-eyed group of boarders joined the throng of dressing gowned spectators, the fire engines and police arrived. The fire had consumed the building’s interior, scarred the exterior, devastated the equipment; but was contained by an efficient band of firemen before it could endanger any more property.  As the fire subsided, so did the drama and excitement, and smoke filled eyes drifted off to face another day.”
During the course of 1982, there was a series of arson attacks on North Shore schools. Barker was not immune and consequently West Wing-The Palace was damaged by fire. The Old Barker (October 1982, p. 1) provided a detailed summary of the excitement: “A large fire at the school destroyed the main staff common-room on the third storey of the Palace early on Sunday morning, August 1. The alarm was raised by an attendant at the Ampol petrol station on the Highway who contacted the Hornsby Fire Brigade nearby.  It took the Brigade 23 minutes to respond to the alarm and arrive at the school.  Firemen from four stations took more than two hours to control the flames that gutted the roof.  The blaze was contained in the top storey of the Palace and the classrooms below were saved intact except for water damage. Police believe that the blaze was deliberately lit however, so far there have been no leads in the investigation.  The estimated cost of the fire was $150,000. The Headmaster reports that the school responded very well to the inconvenience caused by the fire. The Common Room was relocated in Rooms 20 and 21.  The lower classrooms in the Palace were cleaned up and quickly back in action.  The Fifth Form examination papers stored in the gutted Common Room were able to be used for the exams starting the next day because of a lucky twist of fate.  While inspecting the damage early on Sunday morning the Headmaster discovered the examination papers intact and in a corner of the gutted room. The normal routine of school life has been maintained.  Occasionally though rain causes flooding and an interruption to classes being held in the lower floor of the Palace as it pours through the now porous ceiling come “roof”. It is hoped that the Palace will be rebuilt ready for use by the beginning of the 1983 school year.”

The School’s built environment is crucial to the teaching and learning activities that occur at Barker on a daily basis. It is hoped that devastation of this environment by fire is as limited in the future as it has been in the past.

Caption: West Wing-The Palace after the top floor was destroyed by fire in 1982.