Monday, 29 March 2021

From the Parish Magazine - Eton Wick History Group Meeting - The Great fire of Windsor Castle

The History Group meeting on the 29th September 1999

The meeting started on a sombre note when Mr. Tony Cullum sadly informed the audience of the death of John Denham's wife, Elizabeth, and two other local residents; Bill Welford and John Frith. Elizabeth was a strong supporter of the local branch of the Women's Institute; John Frith was a professional photographer and used to manage Hills and Saunders; and Bill Welford,- well, Bill was always ready with a smile and a cheerful word. Our sincere sympathies go out to the bereaved. 

The Group was cheered to hear that a Millennium Grant of £4,200 had been awarded to complement the money the Group had already raised to fund the Millennium Book, with which good progress was being made. Mr. Cullum reminded the group that the 10th November meeting would comprise a social evening the with punch and food and a celebration of the 100th anniversary of the railways coming to Windsor; admittance for that evening would be £1.

Image of Windsor Castle scanned from the November 1999 Parish Magazine.

Mr. Cullum then welcomed Sheila and Patrick Rooney who were to talk about 'The Fires and Restoration of Windsor Castle'. We heard first that the origins of the present Castle went back to the 11th century and that there was mention of Windsor in the Domesday Book in 1086. This actually referred to the old Saxon Palace at what is now Old Windsor, but a timber fortress had been under construction on the mound at the present site since 1070; its rebuilding in stone took place during the 12th century. Henry Ill arranged for many improvements to the buildings including the construction of apartments fit for royalty; however, much of his work was lost in a fire in 1295. There are few records of early fires at the Castle; there was a fire in the Deanery in 1604; and what is referred to as "The Great Fire" in 1853 which occurred in the Prince of Wales' Tower. It was Easter and Queen Victoria, Prince Albert and the Royal Family had just arrived on the Saturday evening for their Easter holiday; during the course of the evening one of the staff found his room full of smoke and smoke was seen issuing from behind panelling; fire brigades were sent for, including the London Fire Establishment. By 11.00 p.m. the fire was at its height and all the local brigades (including Eton) were in attendance, as were Scots Fusiliers and 2nd Life Guards. With the help of an abundant water supply, fortuitously designed and installed at the instructions of Prince Albert and from a source at Cranbourne. the fire was almost extinguished by 2.00 a.m. when the London Fire Brigade arrived, by train, with two powerful pumps. The Queen, who was eight and a half months pregnant with Leopold, then calmly went to bed; and by 4.00 a.m. the fire was completely out. Unfortunately, the royal food supply had gone too, in that the troops, when tired of fighting the fire, had repaired to the royal kitchen and eaten everything! The cause of the fire was not confirmed, but it may have been that the new gas-fired central heating system overheated a chimney and the surrounding timbers caught fire. There was much relief that the Royal Family had not been harmed in this fire and certainly no question of argument about the cost of restoration. More recent records list minor fires at the Castle: in 1971, a fire in the roof of the Brunswick Tower; in 1983, a fire in the Cloisters - caused by a magnifying glass setting fire to papers; and later in that year, a fire in the roof space of the King Henry VIII gateway.

This brought us to 20th November 1992 and the great fire which destroyed or greatly damaged the Prince of Wales' Tower, the Chester Tower and the Brunswick Tower, the State Dining Room, the Crimson and Green Drawing Rooms, the Private Chapel, the Grand Reception Room and St. George's Hall. It happened at a time when considerable renovation work was in progress, including rewiring and the installation of a new fire alarm system. Fortunately, because of this work many of the Castle's treasures and pictures had been removed for cleaning and so much was saved which would otherwise have been lost. Pictures from the Waterloo Chamber had been removed to the Queen's Private Chapel, where they were packed up to be restored. It was thought likely that the fire had stated in there; that a tungsten spotlight had inadvertently been left switched on and had come into contact with a curtain against which a picture was leaning, pushing the curtain back against the spotlight. The burning curtain would have fallen into combustible material on the floor, and the flames would soon have travelled along St. George's Hall and also towards the Brunswick Tower. 200 Firefighters attended from Berks, Bucks, Middlesex, Oxford and Surrey; 350 people took part in salvaging all the contents (and to you know that the order is that the first item to be rescued must be Henry VIII's armour - because if it go too hot it would be immovable! it is now on display in the Lantern Lobby); each work of art was listed and removed to an appropriate location. The troops laid metal roads over the lawns of the Quadrangle in case the heavy vehicles should crash through into cellars which run underneath. The 9 Fire Brigades' 36 pumps used 500,000 litres of water per minute from 19 internal hydrants and from the Thames; and from a high pressure pumping station at Romney Lock, specifically designed for this purpose (after a little difficulty in finding someone who knew how to switch it on). The restoration and refurbishment took five years and was completed on 20th November 1997 for the 50th Wedding Anniversary of The Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh.

During the 1990's the Parish Magazine of Eton, Eton Wick and Boveney reported on the meetings of the Eton Wick History Group. A member of the audience took shorthand notes in the darkened hall. This article was published in the November 1999 edition.

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