At the top of Higher Gunstone in Bideford there is a two-storey building that started life in 1838 as a primary school for the children of non-conformist parents.
By 1892 the building was known as the Bideford Board School and had become an all boys institution. In March of that year, however, a disaster hit which was described as ‘a profound sensation’.
One Friday at 3.30pm some 80 infants were being taught in the classroom on the first floor when ‘without a moment’s warning the whole ceiling from end to end fell bodily upon the occupants of the room.’
The children were completely buried under a ‘mass of beams, joists, laths, plaster, gas pipes and pendants.’ Anyone who has replaced an old ceiling will know just how heavy plaster can be and how potentially disastrous the event was.
The headmaster Mr Baxter and three teachers rushed upstairs and began to claw at the wreckage fearing the worst. As news of the collapse spread parents rushed to help clear the rubble – and against all expectations boys began to be pulled out alive in ever increasing numbers until the final one was extricated.
Amazingly not one child was killed or even badly hurt – an outcome which left the rescuers ‘dumbfounded at the almost miraculous escape of the little ones.’
The ‘miracle’ was down to two factors; firstly, the ceiling came down in one unbroken mass and fell on to the high wooden desks which held it up and left a small space beneath. Secondly, the boys were so small that they ‘slipped or were knocked under the desks and forms and thus, though well-nigh smothered and horribly frightened, they were not crushed.’
At the enquiry afterwards the reason for the collapse was blamed on the joists having been attached to the walls by old fashioned three inch tapering iron nails ‘that drop out when the holes get loose.’
The school authorities rebuilt the ceiling as quickly as possible and to allow time for this gave the children a week’s holiday – which doubtless was needed to get over the shock they must have experienced.
The Gazette printed a drawing of the room following the collapse – a very rare contemporary illustration at a time when newspapers didn’t usually publish such things.