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Frogs restaurant explosion in Canterbury claimed the life of its troubled owner


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As people slept on a dark and bitterly cold December morning, the quiet still of Canterbury high street was broken by an explosion that would shake the city to its core.

Deserted by his wife on Christmas Day and in a state of desperate depression, restaurant owner Oskar Rudolph had hatched a plan to end his life in spectacular but horrific fashion.

Firefighters run from the burning building as it collapses around them

His actions would live long in the memory of those who witnessed and survived it.

The twice-divorced businessman had been running Frogs in an historic 15th century building in St Peter's Street for three years.

But as his private life crumbled, debts mounted and his mood darkened, he told another nearby restaurant owner: "I have nothing to live for and you shouldn’t be surprised if one day you see my restaurant blown up."

His warning proved tragically true. By the time dawn broke on December 29, 1986, he had perished in an inferno while others - including firefighters - had been lucky to escape with their lives.

With fatal intent, he had placed gas cannisters and spread cooking oil around the restaurant, which was set alight.

Firefighters flee the collapsing building in Canterbury. Picture: YouTube
Firefighters flee the collapsing building in Canterbury. Picture: YouTube

He then loaded his Volvo estate with fuel cans before accelerating into the front of the building at 5.55am, sparking a raging fireball.

A report by the Kentish Gazette - KentOnline's sister paper - read: "There were several explosions.

"The blaze quickly engulfed the brasserie and flat above and spread to other properties."

Up to 60 firefighters, drawn from the surrounding area shortly before 6am, bravely battled the flames.

A woman in an upstairs flat and an elderly couple in an adjoining building fled to safety in the nick of time.

But more drama was to unfold for the heroic firemen.

Firefighters battling the Frogs restaurant inferno in 1986
Firefighters battling the Frogs restaurant inferno in 1986
A firefighter watches the flames rage on
A firefighter watches the flames rage on

Two of them had been sent into the burning building to fight the flames, when the fire chief saw a crack appearing in its frontage, with smoke pouring out.

Several times he blew his whistle to call on his men to evacuate before bravely dashing inside to warn them.

Seconds later the whole front of the period building came crashing down into the street, smashing into ladders and other equipment.

The remarkable video (above) shows the crews fleeing for their lives with inches to spare from the falling masonry.

Miraculously, the firemen in the building managed to escape out of the rear of the property but it took the crews two hours to gain control of the fire.

Former Kentish Gazette photographer Derek Stingemore
Former Kentish Gazette photographer Derek Stingemore

Among those who fled the collapsing building was former Gazette photographer Derek Stingemore, who had rushed to the scene to capture the drama.

He recalls it as the "closest shave" of his long career, in which he covered many incidents.

Now long-retired and speaking from his home in Sturry, Derek says he got the shout that a big fire was raging in Canterbury from a friend in the service.

"I got there pretty quickly and the building was already well alight with dozens of firefighters battling the blaze," he said.

"In those days things were a bit more free for the media and I was even able to climb aboard one of the fire engines to get pictures.

Firefighters examine the rubble of the collapsed the Frogs restaurant in Canterbury in the aftermath of the blaze in 1986
Firefighters examine the rubble of the collapsed the Frogs restaurant in Canterbury in the aftermath of the blaze in 1986
About 60 firefighters were called to the scene following the huge blast
About 60 firefighters were called to the scene following the huge blast

"When I heard the whistle sounding, I wasn't sure what it meant until I asked and was very quickly told to 'run!'.

"When the building came crashing down you could feel the ground shudder.

"I got out of the way just in time and it was certainly the closest shave of my career."

The Gazette's front page report of the fire days later describes how resident Lisbeth Petersen was woken in her top floor flat over the laundrette opposite by the noise of the explosion.

"I looked out and saw flames coming out of the middle window of the first floor above the restaurant," she told reporters.

Several firefighters were seconds away from being crushed by the collapsing building
Several firefighters were seconds away from being crushed by the collapsing building

"The whole room was alight. It was quite extraordinary and so distressing."

Two doors away, Jane Winsper saw the middle of Frogs blow out "like a big explosion".

The building was completely destroyed in the fire, in which German-born Mr Rudolph, who was 50, tragically died.

As well as his marital problems, he had been due to appear before city magistrates on food hygiene charges.

Among those who knew him is local historian John Hippisley, who runs Canterbury Ghost Tours.

Local historian John Hippisley washed dishes at Frogs
Local historian John Hippisley washed dishes at Frogs

As a young man John worked as a washer-upper in his restaurant and recalls Mr Rudolph being "a nice bloke, quite friendly and good with customers".

"He was working very long hours to try and make it a success but the restaurant wasn't in the best location back then and he was struggling," he said.

"It was never that busy and I think he got saddled with a lot of debt, including VAT and the taxman.

The site in St Peter's Street had to be completely rebuilt after collapsing and is now occupied by Chicken Cottage
The site in St Peter's Street had to be completely rebuilt after collapsing and is now occupied by Chicken Cottage
The Kentish Gazette front page on January 2, 1987
The Kentish Gazette front page on January 2, 1987

"Then his wife left him and that was the final straw."

Another former restaurant owner at the time, Graham Redmond, who ran Marlowe's, added: "He was clearly in a quite unbalanced frame of mind to do what he did and put other people's lives at risk."

The destruction of the building, which had only just been restored in recent years, resulted in it having to be completely rebuilt.

It has been variously occupied, and is now home to Chicken Cottage.

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