80th anniversary of St Neots church rebuild after it was destroyed by fire

A FLICKERING light was the first sign that there was anything wrong at St Mary’s Church in Eaton Socon.

But the flames that were giving off the light 80 years ago soon engulfed the building, sparking a heroic act to rescue the church’s old Bible and an ‘act of faith’ that would allow for the church to be rebuilt.

The work was completed in 1932 – two years after the fire – and eight decades later the community is coming together to celebrate.

This weekend, the 80th anniversary of the re-dedication of the building – affectionately known as The Church on the Green – will be marked with a packed programme of family fun.

It also coincides with the annual Eaton Socon open garden festival, now in its ninth year.

“It really was a sign of the times they actually decided to re-build the church after it was burned down – a definite act of faith,” St Mary’s vicar Tim Robb told The Hunts Post.

“I think St Mary’s has always acted as a focal point in community life and at the moment we’re seeing a resurgence of people getting involved. This weekend is a celebration of the church – past, present and future.”

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The original 15th century church burned to the ground on February 8, 1930, after a fire started in the stoke-hole filled with coke to heat the building.

A neighbour noticed a flickering light in the east wing of the building and ran to the post office to call the fire brigade.

Ron and Peggy Barringer, of Great North Road, Eaton Socon, who were children at the time, witnessed the events that evening – in particular, an act of bravery by Mr Barringer’s father, Jim.

Mr Barringer, 92, who lived opposite the church in Ackerman Street, recalled the moment his father first saw the flames: “He went downstairs and put his coat on. Then I remember dad saying ‘quick, quick – the church is on fire – all put your coats on.”

Later he went into the burning building.

Mrs Barringer, 85, who witnessed the fire from her house on the Great North Road, continued: “They were standing under the trees watching the fire when one of the church workers came running out saying the Bible had been left inside. Jim ran into the fire, fetched it, and took it to the vicarage for safe-keeping.”

To this day the Bible remains opened on the same page it was on when rescued from the church.

Two fire crews, who pumped water from the River Great Ouse, battled the flames which melted one of the church bells and cracked the others.

“I remember the sound of the bells falling,” Mr Barringer added. “I was only a little boy at the time, but I remember.”

The blaze was eventually brought under control at 3am on Sunday, February 9, and the true extent of the damage was revealed. The church was completely destroyed inside. The stained glass windows disintegrated and the organ was reduced to ashes.

Unperturbed by the previous night’s events, 2,000 parishioners gathered for an open-air service later that day.

Following a meeting between the vicar, Rev Edgar Higham, and church officers, it was decided the church must be rebuilt.

At a cost of �18,500, the new building took shape over the next two years and the re-dedication service – described as “unforgettable brilliance” – took place in June 1932.

Rev Robb added: “Our prayer and vision as we celebrate the 80th anniversary of the re-dedication is that St Mary’s will continue to be at the centre of our community, not just as a reminder of the past – as important as that is – but that it should continue to be a place of vitality and life.”

INFORMATION: The 80th anniversary celebrations will include a flower festival in the church on Saturday and Sunday; a musical concert at 7.30pm on Saturday; a celebratory songs of praise service at 10.30am on Sunday; and a hog roast lunch on the green outside the church at 12.45pm on Sunday.

For details contact 01480 352154 or visit www.eatonsocon.org