A fire which broke out 25 years ago today in Windsor Castle would cause damage which took five years and cost more than £35m to repair.
Windsor Castle is the world’s largest inhabited castle and one of the official residences of Queen Elizabeth II, who was celebrating her 45th wedding anniversary to Prince Philip on the day the devastating fire broke out.
It started at 11-15am in the Queen’s Private Chapel, where a spotlight had inadvertently been pressed up against a 30ft long curtain. Heat generated by the spotlight caused the curtain to ignite and, once alight, the fire quickly spread. The castle had its own fire brigade, who were soon alerted when an alarm went off in its watch room, manned at the time by the Chief Fire Officer.
The alarm showed the location of the fire on a grid map of the castle, but other lights quickly began flashing, indicating that the fire was spreading at alarming speed to other rooms. As well as alerting his own men, the Chief Fire Officer activated the public fire alarm and used a direct line to alert the Royal Berkshire Fire and Rescue Service.
Building contractors working in a room near the chapel tried to tackle the blaze using fire extinguishers, while others began hurriedly removing paintings and other valuables from the chapel before the intense heat and falling embers forced them to evacuate just after 11-30am.
When the castle’s own Land Rover fire engine arrived on the scene at 11-41am, a large part of the castle’s State Apartments was already ablaze. The first external fire crews arrived a few minutes later and quickly called for backup, realising they would have a major fire on their hands. Eventually around 250 firefighter and 40 fire engines would be used to fight the blaze, which took nine hours to bring under control and another six to finally extinguish.
As firefighters began tackling the blaze, a major operation was launched to salvage valuable furniture, works of art and other artefacts from rooms threatened by the spreading fire. Prince Andrew, who had been in the castle when the fire broke out, played a part in directing the salvage operation, which initially involved castle staff, contractors working on site and other volunteers. They were soon aided by soldiers from the Household Cavalry and the Life Guards who rushed to the scene from their barracks.
In total almost 400 people were involved in the salvage operation. Fire officers told them to leave heavy tables and chests behind and concentrate on smaller, more portable items. They managed to save 300 clocks, thousands of valuable books, historic manuscripts and old master drawings from the Royal Library, dozens of paintings, wall hangings, carpets, rugs and a large quantity of furniture.
Initially they were placed outside on tarpaulins until the police called in dozens of removal vans from across the home counties to transport the salvaged belongings to other safe parts of the castle. Mercifully, no-one was killed or seriously injured in the blaze, although five firemen needed hospital treatment for minor injuries and a decorator who had been working in the chapel needed treatment for burnt hands sustained while rescuing paintings.
Not everything could be saved and many artefacts were lost forever, including a very large painting which was too big to move, an 18ft long sideboard, an organ and several chandeliers. Irreparable damage was also caused to the structure of several buildings which themselves had significant historic and artistic worth. The floors of the castle’s Brunswick Tower collapsed, followed by its roof, leaving the tower completely gutted. In the evening the roof of St George’s Hall, a lavishly decorated banqueting hall, caved in and flames could be seen leaping 50ft into the air.
The fire was finally extinguished in the early hours of the following morning, having had 1.5 million gallons of water pumped onto it through the firemen’s hoses. The early focus was on assessing the damage, but it soon turned to who would foot the bill for repairs and restoration. The castle is owned by the British government rather than the Royal Family, but there was hostility to any suggestion that the taxpayer should foot the bill when the Queen did not even pay income tax.
In the end the Queen agreed to meet 70% of the restoration costs, contributing £2m of her own money and opening up Buckingham Palace to the paying public to help generate the extra cash. Windsor Castle already held public tours, which quickly resumed, with the proceeds channelled to the restoration fund. As a side-effect of the debate, the Queen also agreed to start paying income tax from 1993, the first British monarch to do so since the 1930s.
The final cost of the restoration was £36.5m and it was completed almost five years to the day since the fire, officially ending in November 1997. As part of the work, new and state-of-the-art fire prevention measures were installed throughout the castle.