1992 Windsor Castle fire
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The 1992 Windsor Castle fire occurred on Friday, 20 November 1992 in Windsor Castle, west of London, the largest inhabited castle in the world and one of the official residences of the British monarch, Queen Elizabeth II. The castle suffered severe damage in a fire, which destroyed some of the most historic parts of the building. Over the next few years the castle was fully repaired at a cost of £36.5 million. The question of how the funds required should be found raised important issues about the financing of the monarchy, and led to Buckingham Palace being opened to the public for the first time to help to pay for the restoration.
Progress of the fire
The fire began in the Queen's Private Chapel at 11:33 am on Friday 20 November 1992, when a spotlight ignited a curtain. The alarm went off in the watch-room of the Castle fire brigade, manned by Chief Fire Office Marshall Smith. The site of the fire was shown by a light on a large grid map of the whole castle. Initially the Brunswick Tower alone was indicated, but lights soon lit up indicating that the fire had quickly spread to several neighbouring rooms. The major part of the State Apartments was soon ablaze.
Patrolling firemen were paged by an automatic system, and at 11:37 am Mr Smith pressed the switch to alert the Control Room at Reading. He then activated the public fire alarm, known as an ER7 alert (a continuous high pitch tone), and telephoned the Royal Berkshire Fire and Rescue Service on a direct line.
Mr Smith proceeded to the Brunswick Tower to assess the situation, and to begin the salvage operations which, together with fire precautions, had been the main responsibility of the castle brigade since the county force took over responsibility for fire-fighting at Windsor Castle in September 1991.
The Castle still had its own 20-strong force, of whom six were full-time. Equipped with a Land Rover and pump tender, they were based in the Royal Mews, stables south of the castle.
The first appliances of the Royal Berkshire Fire and Rescue Service arrived at the castle between 11:44 am and 11:45 am, some 7–8 minutes after the alert was given. By 11:48 am 10 pumping appliances had been ordered to the fire and the principal officer on duty within the brigade the Deputy Chief Officer David Harper had been informed.
The Fire Incident Commander was David Harper, Deputy Chief Fire and Rescue Officer of the Royal Berkshire Fire and Rescue Service. The Chief Officer Garth Scotford was out of the country, on holiday.
By 12:20 pm the fire had spread to St George's Hall, the largest of the State Apartments, and further reinforcements were called. The fire-fighting forces by then totalled 39 appliances (including two hydraulic platforms) and 225 fire-fighters. As an indication of the scale of the fire, there had been only one 30-appliance fire in the whole of Greater London since 1973.
By 1:30 pm firebreaks had been erected by tradesmen at the southern wall of the Green Drawing Room (at the end of St George's Hall on the east side of the Quadrangle), and at the north-west corner at Chester Tower, where that tower joins the Grand Corridor. The fire-fighters had by this time begun to bring the fire under control (though the roof of the State Apartments had begun to collapse).
At 3:30 pm the fire was surrounded, and the floors of the Brunswick Tower collapsed, concentrating the fire there. Firemen had to temporarily withdraw to locate three men who were briefly lost in the smoke, and on a second occasion withdrew when men were temporarily unaccounted for when a roof fell in.
At 4:15 pm the fire had revived in the Brunswick Tower. As night fell the fire was concentrated in the Brunswick Tower, which by 6:30 pm was engulfed in flames 50 feet (15 m) high, which could be seen for many miles. At 7 pm the fire broke through the roof of the tower, and later the roof of St George's Hall finally collapsed into the conflagration.
By 8 pm the fire was finally under control, having burnt for nine hours, although it continued to burn for a further three hours. By 11 pm, however, the main fire was extinguished, and by 2:30 am the last secondary fires were put out. Pockets of fire remained alive until early Saturday, some 15 hours later. Sixty firemen with eight appliances remained on duty for several more days. The fire had spread rapidly due to lack of fire stopping in cavities and roof voids. Over one million gallons (4,500 cubic metres) of water from Castle mains and from the River Thames had been used in fighting the fire.
Forces involved in fighting the fire
Apart from the several hundred firemen directly involved in fighting the fire, staff and tradesmen helped the Castle fire brigade and volunteer salvage corps members. They removed furniture and works of art from the endangered apartments, including a 150-foot (46 m) long table, and a 120-foot (37 m) long carpet from the Waterloo Chamber, to the safety of the castle Riding School. Also removed, in an enormous logistics exercise, were 300 clocks, a collection of miniatures, many thousands of valuable books and manuscripts, and old Master drawings from the Royal Library. On fire officers' instructions heavy chests and tables were left behind. All items were placed on giant sheets of plastic on the North Terrace and in the Quadrangle, and the police called in dozens of removal vans from a large part of the Home Counties to carry items to other parts of the Castle.
Others of the Castle staff involved included Major Barry Eastwood, Castle Superintendent (head of administration), and the Governor of the Castle, General Sir Patrick Palmer. The staff of St. George's Chapel and Estate workers also assisted in various ways.
Members of the Royal Household helped, including the Lord Chamberlain the Earl of Airlie. The Royal Collection Department were especially active, including the Director Sir Geoffrey de Bellaigue, the Surveyor of Pictures Christopher Lloyd, the Deputy Surveyor of The Queen's Works of Art Hugh Roberts, the Curator of Print Room the Hon Mrs Roberts, and Librarian Oliver Everett.
The Household Cavalry arrived from Combermere Barracks, St Leonard's Road, Windsor. Some 100 officers and men of the Life Guards proved invaluable for moving bulky items. Officers of the Royalty and Diplomatic Protection Department, led by Chief Inspector K R Miller, were also present.
Elizabeth II had been advised of the fire by a mobile phone call from Prince Andrew, Duke of York. The Duke had been in the mews across the Quadrangle from the State Apartments, doing research work for his course at the Staff College, Camberley when the fire broke out.
The Queen arrived at 3 pm and stayed at the castle for an hour, returning again the following morning. The Prince of Wales visited in the evening and The Duke of York briefed the press at 3 pm.
Extent of damage to the Castle
There had been no serious injuries, and no deaths. Dean Lansdale (aged 21), a decorator in the Private Chapel, was burnt while removing pictures (of which he had rescued three). He was moved to the royal surgery, and then to hospital. Christopher Lloyd, the Surveyor of The Queen's Pictures, suffered a suspected heart attack, while five firemen were taken to hospital, two with hypothermia, three with minor burns and dust in their eyes.
The major loss was to the fabric of the Castle. The false roof above St George's Hall and the void beneath the floors for coal trucks had allowed the fire to spread. It burnt as far as the Chester Tower. Several ceilings collapsed. Apartments burnt included the Crimson Drawing Room (which was completely gutted), the Green Drawing Room (badly damaged, though only partially destroyed, by smoke and water), and The Queen's Private Chapel (including the double-sided nineteenth century Henry Willis organ in the gallery between St George's Hall and Private Chapel, oak panelling, glass, and the altar).
St George's Hall partially survived, with the wall largely intact, but with the ceiling collapsed. The State Dining Room (in the Prince of Wales Tower; which was badly damaged, as was the fabric of the tower), and the Grand Reception Room (80% severely damaged, though 20% of the ceiling was eventually saved) were also devastated.
Smaller apartments damaged or destroyed (and over 100 rooms were involved in the fire) included the Star Chamber, Octagon Room, Brunswick Tower, Cornwall Tower, Prince of Wales Tower (badly damaged), Chester Tower (badly damaged), Holbein Room, and the Great Kitchen (which lost its plaster cove, and most of its mediæval timber).
The external wall above the bay window of the Crimson Drawing Room (between the Prince of Wales and Chester Towers) was seriously calcified.
The Waterloo Chamber was undamaged, as were the Grand Vestibule, Rubens Room, Ante-Throne Room, Throne Room, Ball Room, Serving Room, and China Closet (which was not affected although it was surrounded by the fire). Overall some 80% of the area of the staterooms was undamaged.
Fortuitously the seven most seriously damaged rooms had largely been emptied the previous day for rewiring. The Castle had just completed an 18-month phase of rewiring in most of the rooms destroyed.
Items from the Royal Collection lost included the Sir William Beechey equestrian portrait George III at a Review, which was too large to remove from its frame; a large late 1820s sideboard by Morel and Seddon (18 feet long); several pieces of porcelain; several chandeliers; as well as the Willis organ; and the 1851 Great Exhibition Axminster carpet partly burnt.
Tourists were allowed into the precincts within three days. The Queen was in residence a fortnight later. The Gallery and Queen Mary's Dolls' House reopened in December. The State Apartments reopened early 1993 after rewiring was completed, with all major rooms open by Easter, when only St George's Hall and the Grand Reception Room remained closed. Thus 11 of 15 principal rooms of the State Apartments were open, with two still undergoing long-term restoration, and two more destroyed.
It was initially feared that it could cost £60m to restore the castle, though the final cost was £36.5m. A trust for donations towards the cost of fire restoration was announced 16 February 1993 by Coutts & Co (with NatWest).
On 29 April 1993, it was announced that up to 70% of the cost of restoration was to be met by charging the public £3 for entry to the Castle precincts, and £8 for admission to Buckingham Palace for the next five years. The Queen contributed £2m.
On 7 June 1994, the details of the £40m restoration programme were announced. The architectural firm Donald Insall Associates was appointed by the Royal Household to take overall charge of the restoration with Sidell Gibson dealing with the reconstrution of St George's Hall and the design of the new Lantern Lobby and Private Chapel.
Over half the damaged and destroyed rooms, including the State and Octagon dining rooms, were to be restored as original. There were to be new designs for the St George's Hall ceiling (with steel reinforcing beams in the roof) and East Screen, also The Queen's Private Chapel, Stuart and Holbein Room. However, only The Queen's Private Chapel and several modern rooms were to be restored in a modern style.
Designs were to be submitted to a Restoration Committee, whose chairman was The Duke of Edinburgh, and Deputy Chairman The Prince of Wales. Members included the Earl of Airlie (Lord Chamberlain), Sir Hayden Phillips (Permanent Secretary of the Department of National Heritage), The Lord St John of Fawsley (Chairman of the Royal Fine Art Commission), Sir Jocelyn Stevens (Chairman of English Heritage), Frank Duffy (President of the Royal Institute of British Architects), and three senior palace officials.
New designs for St George's Hall (the principal reception room in the palace), and The Queen's Private Chapel, were approved by The Queen on 24 January 1995.
The fire, catastrophic though it was, has presented the opportunity for some major new royal architectural work. Although criticised in some circles for allegedly lacking imagination, the architects believed that given the history of the building and the surviving fabric, the new work had to be Gothic. The state dining room sideboard, which was 19 feet long and made out of rear rosewood and oak and gilded, was originally designed by Augustus Pugin (1812-1852). It had to be replicated by N.E.J. Stevenson using only some photographs and some descriptions.
The new roof for St George's Hall is an example of a hammer-beam ceiling. The new chapel and adjoining cloisters were realigned to form a new processional route from the private apartments, through an octagonal vestibule, into St George's Hall.
The first, structural, stage of the restoration was completed May 1996. Final fitting out, which was originally planned to finish by spring 1998, occurred on 17 November 1997.
- Public back in Windsor Castle, BBC News Online, December 27, 1997
- Purkiss, 2007, p. 12
- Big Fire in Windsor Castle Raises Fear About Artwork, New York Times, November 21, 1992
- McDonald, 2003, p. 157
- Windsor Castle - five years from disaster to triumph, BBC News Online, November 17, 1997
- Blaze rages in Windsor Castle, BBC On This Day, November 20, 1992