The challenges faced by members of the royal family have historically been many, not least the devastating fire in 1992 to the greatest building of the royal estate, and Her Majesty The Queen’s primary residence, Windsor Castle. Amid all the mythologising and symbolism surrounding the fire itself and its use as a metaphor for the troubles then engulfing the royal family, what has now been forgotten is the fact that the fire itself was dealt with effectively and within 12 hours.
There has been a castle in Windsor since the 11th century when William the Conqueror built a formative structure on the site. Occupied ever since by a series of royal dynasties, the castle has evolved from a primitive defensive building (or symbol of oppression) overlooking the Thames at a strategic point, to an opulent and lavish home. It had incorporated the 15th century St George’s Chapel, and renovation and rebuilding by Charles II and both Georges III and IV created many new staterooms at enormous expense in the early 19th century. Queen Victoria made some minor changes in her reign, during which the Castle became the centre of royal entertainment for her family.
Fire and Windsor Castle are not unfamiliar with each other. In fact, fire was one of the principal tools of subjugation in medieval times where fire or the threat of firing was sufficient to surrender the castle or fortified house to a besieging army. There have been several instances of fires at Windsor and the first of note occurred in 1295, in the reign of Edward the First. In February that year, a fire broke out which destroyed many of the lavish royal apartments built by Edward’s father, Henry III. The damage was so great that the affected buildings were left in the state of disrepair for over 50 years until cleared up by Edward III.
Fire in the Tower
It was many centuries before a major fire threatened Windsor Castle again. On March 19, 1853, at around 1900, a fire broke out in the north east corner of the castle badly damaging the Prince of Wales’ Tower but was contained through the valiant efforts of Queen Victoria’s firefighters and an abundant supply of water in the castle.
The fire was discovered when smoke was seen behind the wainscoting and dado rail in the dining room. The Clerk of the Works and Master of the Household investigated and found more smoke in the Prince of Wales’ Tower and the Brunswick Tower. Using a water supply, fortuitously installed the previous summer in the Prince of Wales Tower, ten jets were got to work.
The Clerk of the Works, fearing an extension of the fire (or correctly anticipating the “worse case scenario” in today’s parlance), suggested a request be made for reinforcements from London Fire Brigade. This was done by telegraph and James Braidwood, the London Chief, sent two engines and crews by steam engine on the newly opened South Western Railway, arriving at 0200, several hours after the request and by which time the fire was all but extinguished, apart from parts of the roof which the London firefighters dealt with. By 2300 eight engines were in attendance from several volunteer and private brigades as well as military brigade pumps and crews. Firefighters were widely praised for their efforts which undoubtedly stopped the fire becoming catastrophic.
For Windsor Castle, there followed a period of calm that lasted nearly 140 years: for the royal family, the period was less tranquil having survived multiple bombing attacks on Buckingham Palace during the blitz and the V1 and V2 raids of 1944. The royal family by 1992 were going through a period of trial by newspapers with private, domestic issues plastered all over the tabloids and broadsheets. After several years of what a “normal” family would describe as a continual invasion of privacy, bordering on stalking, the last thing needed was a devastating fire in the main royal residence.
Windsor Castle Fire
The town of Windsor was crowded with tourists wrapped up against the risk breeze on that chilly day, visiting the castle and nearby Eton College on the morning of November 20, 1992. In the castle itself, staff were at work carrying out the normal duties and in the chapel area some picture restorers were packing pictures ready for improvement works including electrical rewiring.
At around 1130, the picture restorers saw smoke behind a curtain near the altar. They alerted the rest of their team and called for assistance including fire extinguishers. As some staff fought the fire, others began evacuating sculptures, pictures and other objects of national and personal importance from the building. The castle Fire Brigade was called using pagers, sirens and radios. As they made their way to the scene in their own own vehicles, a call was made to Royal Berkshire Fire and Rescue Service, timed at 1137.
Royal Berkshire Fire and Rescue Service dispatched three pumps, a hydraulic platform, a salvage unit and support pump, the first (Slough) of which arrived at 1144. Within a minute, the officer in charge, Sub OMick Koza, sent a “make pumps ten” message, the first of many over the next two hours.
Tourists continue to mill around the courtyard near the round Tower and along Castle Hill, listening to the band playing, even as the fire started to spread from the chapel into St George’s Hall. St George’s Hall is around 50m long, 15m wide and 8m high, with galleries at the end and large roof voids (2m high) above the ornate ceiling.
Fortunately, water supplies were not an issue in this incident due to large numbers of public and private hydrants, emergency water supply tanks and the presence of unlimited water from the Thames, a short distance away should the need arise.
There was, however, a difficulty locating hydrants within the Castle initially, the plates being covered over with gravel because of the unsightly mess of the hydrant covers. Castle fire crews knew the location of each hydrant but because they were inside the building fighting the fire, there was a delay as local authority firefighters tried to find the hydrants. While the supply of water was reassuring, the fire nonetheless started to accelerate and spread to the drawing rooms on one side and further along St George’s Hall on the other. As is the case in many fires where valuables are involved, a twin strategy was now adopted. While firefighters fought the fire, others including military personnel, Windsor Castle staff, and members of the public worked to recover as many pieces of the furniture, paintings, sculptures and porcelain as was possible.
The collapse of the dome above the chapel at 1320 gave the fire an opportunity to vent vertically. By this time pumps had already been made 25 and it was clear that this incident would go on for a significant period. Accepting that much of the area initially involved was lost, stop lines were selected and the Chester Tower and the Clock Tower became the focus of firefighting activities. The images on TV belied the fact that despite the flames and the glow across the now darkened skies, the containment operation was working as jets and BA crews worked at several levels in the area to prevent further spread. An assistance message had been sent from the Deputy Chief Fire Officer David Harper to make pumps 35 at 1429 to facilitate the surrounding of the fire. The Chief Fire Officer of Royal Berkshire, Garth Scotford, was at the time in Australia having one sort of “once-in-a-lifetime experience” while his Deputy was having his own.
Concern was expressed that the Queen’s private apartments in the Waterloo Chamber (built to commemorate the 1815 defeat of the French) were now being threatened but chains of soldiers and royal household staff (and Prince Andrew) managed to extricate large quantities of books and other items including a giant carpet from the building. Beyond the fire ground, Windsor started to clog up with traffic as taxi drivers from Heathrow started bringing in tourists which caused problems for police managing traffic and slowed the attendance of supporting and relieving fire crews. At around 1700, the fire was believed to be under control.
Part of the building collapsed around 1730 which did cause concern due to loss of contact with several firefighters. The Brunswick Tower, the highest point in the castle, had communication aerials fitted to it which could have aided command and control, but buckled and fell. With the loss of these communication aerials, together with the fact that there are many radio blind spots in the area, meant that the lack of communications gave rise to concern that following the collapse firefighters were missing, possibly trapped.
In order to address these communications issue, the castle was provided with an exclusive internal telephone system which had a series of red colour telephones linked directly to the fire control room. Once it was confirmed that no one was missing or injured, firefighting operations – having stopped while roll call was taken – resumed quickly enough.
A “fire surrounded” message was sent 2035. Nonetheless, there still remained the problem of organising reliefs – a 35-pump relief had been requested which was a logistical nightmare. Crews attending the incident came from all over the south and south east. Royal Berkshire had a total of only 23 pumps and so was supported by Surrey, Buckinghamshire, Hampshire and Oxfordshire fire services, and London Fire Brigade. Including standby moves, appliances came from as far away as Cirencester (Gloucestershire FRS) Watford (Hertfordshire FRS) and Devizes (Wiltshire Fire Brigade).
A total of 225 firefighters and 39 pumps attended the fire at its height and over 1,000,000 gallons of water were used during the course of operations. The iconic image of the Brunswick Tower with flames shooting 30 feet above its crenellated tower remains fixed in national memory, although by the time these pictures were taken the remainder of the fire was very much under control, despite media speculation at the time. By this time a southerly wind started to blow and directed the flames away from the remainder of the state apartments. The “stop message” was sent at 2303, at which time 31 jets, two hydraulic forms, one turntable ladder (and a royal prince) were in operation.
Then the reckoning began. Due to the willingness of castle staff, military personnel (the Household Cavalry and Gurkhas regiments, who, unlike their predecessors in 1853, were not criticised for getting in the way of firefighting operations), the Women’s Royal Voluntary Service and others, including tradesmen , only a few works of art were damaged. These included Sir William Beechey’s portrait of George III at a Review, the 19th-century organ from the chapel, a sideboard made by Morel and Seddon in the 1820s and an Axminster carpet made for the Great Exhibition of 1851 which was badly damaged but ultimately repairable.
More significantly, the list of rooms and towers damaged, although devastating on themselves, represented only a fraction of what could have been lost. The Brunswick Tower, Prince of Wales’ Tower and the Chester Tower were all badly damaged as were St George’s Hall, The Grand Reception Room, The Private Chapel, The State Dining Room The Crimson Drawing Room, and the Green Drawing Room. In total, more than 100 rooms covering area of 7,000 m² were damaged.
Royal Berkshire Fire and Rescue Service Fire investigation officers, the Metropolitan Police Forensic Science Laboratory Fire Investigation Unit and the Metropolitan Police carried out an investigation into the cause of the fire. Over 100 interviews were undertaken over an eight-day period.
The forensic examination of the site concluded that the origin of the fire was in the Private Chapel, near the altar. After eliminating all the possible causes of ignition, the team concluded that the most likely cause was that a high level, tungsten electrical spotlight came into contact with, or in close proximity to, the rear of the curtaining which was being hung in the altar area. Over a period of time, it was deemed probable that the heat from the lamp ignited the curtains. Witnesses confirm the location of the flames and also that the spotlight had recently been refitted and that the curtain had probably been pushed towards the light fitting by a large picture frame being placed upon it.
The Queen returned to take residence at the castle a fortnight after the fire. Tourists had beaten her to it and started returning within three days of the blaze. Unsurprisingly, the national and international press and media coverage was extensive and made much of this fire being linked to the remainder of the woes of the royal family.
The original estimate for the cost of the damage was put between £40-60 million, although the final cost was less than £37 million. As fires go, however, this had ramifications way beyond the incident ground. The Queen made a speech at the Guildhall on November 24, 1992, only four days after the fire and marking the 40th anniversary of her accession that will be remembered and repeated for decades to come. “1992 is not a year on which I shall look back with undiluted pleasure. In the words of one of my more sympathetic correspondents, it has turned out to be an Annus Horribilis.”
The problems did not end with the extinction of the fire. The castle is owned by the government and not the royal family and there were moves at the time for the taxpayer to foot the bill of the restoration because the building was not insured. Neither was it subject to the Fire Precautions Act 1971 due to Crown immunity. This was not the first case where the issue had been raised and uninsured losses due to fire in the Crown estate was significant – over £200 million between 1985 and 1990 including the £181 million loss at a single major fire at a Ministry of Defence Depot in Shropshire.
Perceived public disaffection with the royal family (although not with the Queen, who retained a great deal of public sympathy and affection) at the time led to pressure on the government not to pay for the repairs. It should be remembered that at that time there were a large number of “fringe royals” who received wages from the state. In February 1993, the Prime Minister John Major announced he had accepted an offer from the Queen to pay tax on her private income. She also agreed that the only members paid from the public coffers would be herself, the Duke of Edinburgh and the Queen Mother. The Queen would meet 70 per cent percent of the cost of the restoration work herself and would open up Buckingham Palace to the public to generate the income to pay for the work. This decision started the process of modernising the royal family in the UK and helped fend off some of the criticisms that they had been facing about the cost of the Royals and their estates.
The restoration committee, headed by the Duke of Edinburgh and Prince Charles, oversaw the work. The Grand Reception Room, the State Dining Room and two drawing rooms would be restored to the former state and new designs were submitted for the others. The work was expected to take five years but finished in time for the fifth anniversary of the fire and below the estimated budget.
Fires in such important and high profile buildings were not new: Hampton Court Palace was badly damaged by a fire on Easter Monday, 1986. Similarities between the two fires existed including the presence of hidden voids through which fire could spread undetected (despite the lessons from the 1853 fire), limiting fire detection systems due to the potential for compromising structural resistance by drilling holes for cables etc, and a general lack of fire resistance between compartments.
Following the Hampton Court Palace fire, a detailed survey of Windsor Castle was carried out by the Property Services Agency (PSA) which identified a works programme of £20 million to incorporate fire prevention measures including complete rewiring of the main Castle buildings, the fitting of automatic detection, installation of fire resisting doors, improved fire compartmentation, treatment of timber and separation between heating elements and combustible materials. Between the date of the report and the fire, responsibility the fire safety and royal residences was transferred from the PSA to the royal household, which employed its own consultants.
The then editor of this erstwhile tome, Val Hargreaves, raised the issue of sprinklers in historic buildings. She told one Sunday newspaper: “The fire would have been contained to one room and quickly distinguished if sprinklers had been installed”. In what was not the first, nor the last Salvo in the sprinkler debate, a Palace spokesman said: “Sprinklers can start automatically in certain circumstances, and the danger is very considerable of damage from water to works of art”. This echoed the erroneous public perception of sprinklers where whole building systems are seen as being actuated by a single match, often use as a plot device in films such as Die Hard and The Thomas Crown affair. Lord Astor, the government’s national heritage spokesman reinforced this perception in the House of Lords when he said during a debate on fire precautions in historic buildings that sprinklers are “indiscriminate in their use and can be triggered by a false alarm or smoke”. The debate still continues.
The fire at Windsor Castle proved to be a watershed, not only for fire related issues but also, wider social matters concerning the royal family. Despite previous fires such as Hampton Court Palace, there had never been such a high profile fire watched in the light of the media’s glare. It raised the profile of fire precautions in heritage buildings to an unprecedented degree.
As a result of the fire, not only was Windsor Castle made safer but safety in a range of other heritage premises was improved. The interaction between listed buildings, heritage features and smoke alarms had been a concern for many years, with a general reluctance to utilise systems because of the intrusive nature of work such as drilling holes. This has undoubtedly spurred on the development of wireless smoke alarms which protect without causing collateral damage to the fabric of buildings.
Other developments include heritage-friendly fire resistant structures and applications that helped reduce the spread of flame without destroying the look of the fabric inside. Probably the most important benefit of the Windsor Castle fire was to raise the profile of heritage fires and spurred on the creation of various specialist groups within professional fire organisations across the UK and also expanded the heritage market for the fire protection industry.
The author gratefully acknowledges the help of Carole Jeffcock and Paul Rudd of the Fire Service College Library. To find out more contact the author at A.J.Prosser@wlv.ac.uk