The Windsor Castle Fire

Windsor Castle has been the family residence of the British royal family since the 11th century, making it the world's oldest (and largest) inhabited castle. It remains a working royal palace and is currently the official residence of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II.

The castle is a major tourist hotspot, coming in at number 19 on the list of the world's most visited castles, with 1.32 million visitors annually.

© Chris Lofty / Adobe Stock

Royal treasures

Home to around 150 people, it showcases some of the Crown's most valuable treasures in the Royal Collection, the Royal Archives, the Royal Photograph Collection, the Royal Library and the Print Room. It is used for state and ceremonial occasions, including visits from overseas monarchs and presidents.

The mighty Waterloo Chamber celebrates the English victory over Napoleon Bonaparte in 1815, while the State Apartments house paintings by some of the greatest artists in history, including Rubens, Rembrandt and Canaletto.

Founded in 1348 by Edward III, St George’s Chapel at Windsor Castle is the spiritual home of the Order of the Garter, the oldest order of chivalry in the world.

The Queen takes up official residence at Windsor Castle for the annual Easter Court and also spends most of her private weekends there.

William the Conqueror originally constructed Windsor Castle, with building work commencing in 1070. It took 16 years to complete. Initially, it was built as a wooden motte-and-bailey castle - a keep standing on a raised earthwork, known as a motte. It was rebuilt as a stone fortress and survived many sieges and also the English Civil War.

Horrific blaze

In the 20th century, the castle survived both world wars, but it was a horrific fire which caused the most damage in 1992. Windsor is open all year round and on the morning of 20th November 1992, it was packed with tourists and staff, who were getting on with their duties as usual.

A team of picture-restorers were hard at work in Queen Victoria's private chapel, packing away the historic works of art prior to the commencement of refurbishment works. At around 11.30am, they noticed smoke billowing from behind a curtain in the altar area.

Closer examination revealed a 1,000-watt spotlight had become overheated, as it was pressed up against a curtain, setting it alight. The staff called for help and fire extinguishers were used to douse the blaze, but it had taken hold very quickly.

Due to a lack of firebreaks and other fire-stopping materials in the roof voids and cavities, the blaze spread quickly into Brunswick Tower, across St George’s Hall and through the east wing's private apartments.

Alarm raised

The fire alarm in the watch room sounded, alerting the castle's fire brigade. A grid map revealed the fire had already gripped the Brunswick Tower, and in a very short space of time, Chief Fire Officer Marshall Smith could see lights flashing all over the map.

As the flames spread, employees tried to fight the blaze, while other castle staff and soldiers formed a human chain to try and save the historic works of art, furniture and antiques. They were assisted by Prince Andrew, Duke of York, who had been working in the castle at the time. It was fortunate that due to rewiring works taking place, many valuable artefacts had already been removed.

Comprising 20 firefighters, the castle's fire brigade launched the initial fire-fighting effort - they were on the scene within minutes. Water was readily available, thanks to emergency water supply tanks and a large number of hydrants at the castle.

At 11.37am, the Royal Berkshire Fire and Rescue Service was called and within seven minutes, a hydraulic platform, three pumps, a salvage unit and support pump had arrived. Mick Koza, the officer in charge, realised how severe the blaze was within one minute of his arrival and called for back-up.

Devastation spreads

Sadly, at around 1.20pm, the dome above the chapel collapsed. Firefighters were forced to accept the chapel area was lost. They had to concentrate their efforts to stop the fire from spreading to the Clock Tower and Chester Tower. Dramatic images of the blaze were appearing on news channels around the world by this time.

Many personal items were removed from the Waterloo Chamber by the household staff, Prince Andrew and the soldiers, including valuable books. Sadly, the castle's highest point, the iconic Brunswick Tower, was badly damaged.

At least 225 firefighters, using 39 appliances, were fighting the blaze at its height. Greater London had suffered only one other blaze since 1973 which had required more than 30 appliances.

Tradesmen were asked to hastily build firebreaks to block off most of the castle to stop the fire from spreading. This work was carried out at around 1.30pm, by which time the roof of the State Apartments had started to collapse.

Fire crews attended from across southern England, including Buckinghamshire, Berkshire, Hampshire, Surrey, Oxfordshire and London. Further appliances had to be drafted in from Watford, Cirencester and Devizes. More than one million gallons of water put out the fire.

At 3.30pm, the Brunswick Tower floors collapsed and as darkness fell, the fire blazed on in the tower. By 6.30pm, flames up to 50ft high had engulfed the tower.

Under control

Finally, at 8.35pm, almost nine hours after it broke out, the blaze was finally surrounded by the firefighters. It continued to burn until around 10pm, with secondary fires remaining until 2.30am before they were completely extinguished.

Around 60 firefighters and eight appliances remained on duty in the days after the fire in case of further outbreaks. As well as the fire crews, 125 castle staff, 100 military personnel, 125 contractors and 20 Crown Estate staff had been involved in the operation.

Among the saved items were around 300 clocks, thousands of books, Old Masters' drawings, many historic manuscripts and a valuable table and carpet from the Waterloo Chamber.

Sadly, other items from the Royal Collection were lost, including an equestrian painting by Sir William Beechey of King George III and the Prince of Wales reviewing the troops. At 13ft high and 16ft wide, it had been too large to remove.

An 18ft Morel and Seddon sideboard, the Willis organ, several porcelain items, chandeliers and the 1851 Great Exhibition Axminster carpet were partially burned.

Investigations confirmed the tungsten electrical spotlight had overheated and ignited the rear of the chapel curtain in the chapel.

Restoration project

The cost of repairing the damage was around £37 million. Windsor Castle and the Royal Collection are too valuable to insure against loss, as is the case for most occupied royal castles.

The Queen agreed to pay 70% of the costs herself, raising funds by opening Buckingham Palace to the public and donating £2 million of her personal wealth.

It took five years to complete the restoration project. In addition, work was carried out to make Windsor Castle (and many other heritage properties) safer as a result of the fire, to prevent the tragedy from recurring.

Thankfully, no lives were lost during the Windsor Castle fire, but it served to highlight the importance of health and safety wherever you are - proving that nobody is immune from a fire once it takes hold.

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