Said to be a ‘national disaster’ by Peter Brooke, Secretary of State for National Heritage, the great fire at Windsor Castle on the 20th of November 1992 was certainly spectacular.
Windsor remains the largest inhabited castle in the world. Its foundation dates back to the eleventh century when it was established by the Normans strategically in order to control the River Thames. It has been used by every single English monarch since Henry I (c.1085-1135) and has seen numerous dramatic events of British history unfold within its walls – siege during the first Barons’ War (1215-1217) and holding Charles I prisoner during the Wars of the Three Kingdoms (1639-1651) for instance. As a result of its continuous royal patronage, it stands as a national treasure trove of art, history and culture. St. George’s Chapel has been lauded for its exemplification of fifteenth century Gothic design whilst the State Apartments have been described by one art historian as ‘the finest and most complete expression of later Georgian taste.’ In 1987 the Royal Collection Trust was established in order to oversee the protection of the royal archives, furniture, art and architecture at Windsor and the Queen’s other royal residencies. The Trust employs over 600 people, giving an idea of the sheer wealth of the collections.
In 1992, however, a significant proportion of the collection came under threat when a fire broke out at the castle. The fire began in the Queen’s Private Chapel at 11.15 in the morning. It is believed that it was started when a curtain was ignited by a spotlight close to it. A brief summary of the events, facts and figures of the fire are given below:
11.15 – Fire starts in Queen’s Private Chapel, quickly spreads to the neighboring rooms in Brunswick Tower and to the State Apartments.
11.36 – Reading Fire Station are alerted and the public fire alarm at the castle is set off. Berkshire Fire and Rescue service are also contacted via direct line.
11.41 – The castle’s own 20 strong fire brigade arrive from their base at the royal stables two miles away.
11.56 – 17 Pumping appliances ordered.
12.20 – 35 fire engines are present at the scene but by now the fire had spread to St. George’s Hall, a banqueting hall and the largest of the State Apartments. 225 fire fighters are involved in the operation.
13.30 – Fire breaks are created by tradesmen.
15.00 – The Queen arrives and stays for an hour’s visit. During this time Brunswick Tower collapses.
19.00 – The roof of St. George’s Hall also collapses and there are flames up to 50 feet high.
20.00 – The main fire is said to be under control though continues to burn for another 3 hours.
23.00 – The main fire is finally extinguished but pockets of fire remain some 15 hours after the fire began.
Many artifacts were lost as a result of the fire. From the very beginning, castle staff, building contractors and even Prince Andrew began shifting furniture, paintings and other artifacts out of harm’s way. Through their courageous efforts thousands of valuable books, historical manuscripts and old Master drawings were saved from the Royal Library. They also moved various pieces of furniture – notably a 46m long table and 37m long carpet from the Waterloo Chamber and over 300 clocks. In these crucial hours members of the Royal Collection Department had to make snap decisions about what should be saved. Such decisions were made alongside the fire fighters who instructed that heavy chests and tables should be left behind with regards to human safety. This is perhaps something to consider when making a disaster plan – which items are likely to be the hardest to evacuate because of their size or accessibility? Once these are identified perhaps guardians of collections should ensure such items are as thoroughly documented and recorded as possible in case of their destruction. The items that were saved from the castle were placed in the North Terrace and Quadrangle to await transportation via removal vans to safety in other parts of the castle. It is clear that a long term plan is needed for evacuated objects as some artifacts were not returned for another three years.
The fire at Windsor Castle teaches us that there can be positive outcomes to such tragic events. Such testing times force heritage institutions to rethink and be inventive in order to overcome the setback. In this case, the fire resulted in the Queen opening Buckingham Palace’s State Rooms to the public for the first time with the admission charges going towards the costs of repairing Windsor. Additionally, such dramatic events tend to raise awareness of such institutions in the media thus leading to greater donations and support from the general public. Indeed, some have even argued that the fire saved the Queen in the public’s eye at a rather critical point. 1992 was the year she described herself as ‘Annus horribilis’ (horrible year) in a speech at the Guildhall on the 24th of November. This referenced a series of negative media events that had occurred causing the monarchy to fall in the public’s favour. The burning of the castle, however, seemed to cause the media to rally around the monarchy for the first time in a while.
Furthermore, trying to recreate some semblance of the lost information can be equally revealing. Over half of the 100 rooms and their contents damaged were to be restored as original. The act of restoration itself can reveal new information about the original artifacts which would have otherwise been unknown. For instance, the new roof of St. George’s Hall designed by Giles Downes, after the fire utterly destroyed the former, constituted the largest green-oak structure built since the Middle Ages. Much was learnt about medieval architectural design in the process of its recreation. The opportunity was also used to highlight the building’s connections with the historic Order of the Garter by the inclusion of heraldry on the ceiling. Lastly, in the aftermath of the fire, a thorough and systematic programme of photogrammetric surveying and archaeological recording was carried out by English Heritage. This was because the fire damage had revealed new evidence of previous phases of construction of the castle which had been hidden behind walls and plaster. In particular much was revealed about the little known architectural work carried out by Sir Jeffrey Wyatville in the 1820s-1830s. All these examples show how such disasters can in fact be an opportunity for heritage institutions to refocus and respond in creative ways.
St. George’s Hall, Windsor. Image from: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/0/09/Windsor_Castle_-_St_George’s_Hall.jpg
Dallas, R. W. A., Kerr, J. B., Lunnon, S. and Bryan, P. G. (1995), Windsor Castle: Photogrammetric And Archaeological Recording After The Fire. The Photogrammetric Record, 15: 225–240.