The Windsor Castle fire was a devastating fire that broke out at Windsor Castle, the world’s oldest and largest occupied castle, on November 20, 1992. The fire started in the Queen Mary’s Private Chapel and quickly spread to the State Apartments, causing extensive damage. The fire was finally extinguished after 15 hours, but over 115 rooms had been destroyed.
When and where did the fire occur?
The Windsor Castle fire occurred on November 20, 1992, at Windsor Castle, Berkshire, England. The fire started in the Queen Mary’s Private Chapel, the northeast corner of the Upper Ward of Windsor Castle. The chapel was a small, private chapel that the royal family used for worship. The fire started around 11:30 a.m. on November 20, 1992, quickly spreading to the adjacent State Apartments.
The cause of the Windsor Castle fire in 1992 was a faulty spotlight that ignited a curtain in Queen Victoria’s Private Chapel. This is confirmed by the Royal Collection Trust, which manages the castle’s collections and public opening.
- Fire starts in Queen’s Private Chapel at 11:15 a.m.
- Royal Household agents were inspecting works of art at the time.
- Castle Fire Brigade watch room detects fire and shows the location on the grid map.
- Fire spreads quickly to neighbouring rooms, including Brunswick Tower.
- Building contractors attempt to extinguish the fire with fire extinguishers.
- 30-foot-long curtains ignite and drop to the floor, continuing to burn.
- Those present hurry to remove paintings from the chapel but are forced to leave due to intense heat and raining embers at 11:32 a.m.
- Castle fire brigade chief presses a switch to alert the Reading fire station control room at 11:36 a.m.
- Castle activates the public fire alarm and telephones Royal Berkshire Fire and Rescue Service.
- Castle’s fire brigade, equipped with Land Rover and pump tender, arrives on the scene at 11:41 a.m.
- At 11:44 a.m., appliances from the Fire and Rescue Service arrived.
- Seventeen pumping appliances were ordered by 11:56 a.m.
- The operation to save furniture and works of art commences in rooms adjacent to the fire, involving castle staff, building contractors, and Prince Andrew.
- By 12:12 p.m., there were 20 fire engines on the scene, and by 12:20 p.m., there were 35.
- Over 200 firefighters came from London, Buckinghamshire, Surrey, Oxfordshire, and Berkshire.
- David Harper, the Deputy Chief Fire and Rescue Officer of the Fire and Rescue Service was in charge of the fire incident.
- The fire affected the biggest State Apartments, St George’s Hall, at 12:20 p.m.
- There were now 39 fire appliances on the scene, with 225 firefighters in attendance.
- Hoses targeted all floors of the building around the fire.
- There had been just one 30-appliance fire in Greater London since 1973, which indicates the scale of the Windsor Castle fire.
- Tradesmen had constructed fire breaks by 1:30 p.m. at the northwest corner of Chester Tower, which connects with the Grand Corridor, and at the southern wall of the Green Drawing Room at the east end of St George’s Hall.
- By this time, the firefighters had started to bring the fire under control. However, the State Apartments’ roof had started to crumble.
- At 3:30 p.m., the floors of the Brunswick Tower collapsed.
- Firefighters had to temporarily withdraw to locate three men who were briefly lost in the smoke and withdrew again because men were temporarily unaccounted for when part of the roof collapsed.
- Fire revived in Brunswick Tower at 4:15 p.m.
- Fire concentrated in the tower by 6:30 p.m., flames up to 50 feet high.
- The roof of St George’s Hall collapsed at 7:00 p.m.
- After burning for nine hours, the fire was under control at 8:00 p.m., but it continued to burn for another three hours.
- The main fire was extinguished at 11:00 p.m., and the last secondary fires were extinguished at 2:30 a.m.
- Pockets of the fire remained until the early morning hours, some 15 hours after the fire began.
- For many more days, sixty firefighters and eight appliances were on duty.
- The fire spread quickly because of the enormous cracks and gaps in the roof.
- 1.5 million gallons (7 million litres) of water from the mains water supply, reservoir-fed hydrant, swimming pool, pond, and nearby River Thames were used to fight the fire.
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The Aftermath of the Windsor Castle Fire
Employees and tradesmen assisted the castle’s volunteer salvage corps and fire department in removing furnishings and artwork from the apartments that were in danger. This included a 150-foot (46-meter) long table and a 120-foot (37-meter) long carpet from the Waterloo Chamber, which were moved to the safety of the castle’s riding school.
Three hundred clocks, a collection of miniatures, thousands of valuable books and historical manuscripts, and old Master drawings from the Royal Library were also saved. Heavy chests and tables were left behind on the instructions of fire officers. All other items were placed on giant tarpaulin sheets in the North Terrace and Quadrangle.
The police called in dozens of removal vans from many of the home counties to transport items to other parts of the castle. The 13th Earl of Airlie and other members of the Royal Household assisted with the operation.
With Sir Geoffrey de Bellaigue as director, Christopher Lloyd as surveyor of pictures, Mrs Roberts the librarian as curator of the Print Room, Hugh Roberts as deputy surveyor of the Queen’s art, and Oliver Everett as librarian, the Royal Collection Department was particularly busy.
The Household Cavalry arrived from nearby Combermere Barracks, and 100 officers and men of the Life Guards proved invaluable for moving bulky items.
The recovery effort includes 125 employees of the castle, 125 contractors, 100 military soldiers, and 20 employees of the Crown Estate.
There were no serious injuries or deaths, but Dean Lansdale, a decorator in the Private Chapel, burnt his hands while removing the three or four pictures he rescued and was taken to hospital. A royal spokesperson refuted media claims that the Queen’s photo surveyor had suffered a heart attack. Minor injuries forced the hospitalisation of five firefighters.
The Windsor Castle fire was a major event in British history, and it continues to be studied by fire safety experts today.
Windsor Castle Fire Damages
Structural damage to Windsor Castle in the 1992 fire
The fire caused the most damage to the fabric of the castle.
The fire at Windsor Castle spread rapidly due to the false ceiling in St George’s Hall and the space for coal trucks beneath the floor. This allowed the fire to spread to the Chester Tower and caused the ceilings of several rooms to collapse, including the Crimson Drawing Room, Green Drawing Room, and Queen’s Private Chapel. St George’s Hall survived, but the ceiling collapsed. The State Dining Room and Grand Reception Room were also severely damaged.
A total of 100 rooms were affected by the fire, including the Star Chamber, Octagon Room, Brunswick Tower, Cornwall Tower, Prince of Wales Tower, Chester Tower, Holbein Room, and Great Kitchen. The heat also severely damaged the external wall above the bay window of the Crimson Drawing Room.
Items Lost in the Windsor Castle Fire
The most damaged rooms had been emptied of their valuables. Still, some items were lost, including a large painting by Beechey, a sideboard, porcelain, chandeliers, the organ, and part of the Great Exhibition carpet. The Secretary of State called the fire a national disaster.
- The primary damage occurred to the structural integrity of the castle.
- The false ceiling in St George’s Hall and the void for coal trucks beneath the floor allowed the fire to spread.
- The fire burned as far as the Chester Tower.
- Several ceilings collapsed.
- The Crimson Drawing Room was completely gutted in the fire.
- The Green Drawing Room, while badly damaged, was only partially destroyed by smoke and water.
- The Queen’s Private Chapel suffered damage, which included the double-sided 19th-century Henry Willis organ in the gallery between St George’s Hall and the Private Chapel, as well as damage to the oak panelling, glass, and the altar.
- St George’s Hall, while mostly preserving its walls, experienced a collapsed ceiling.
- The State Dining Room within the Prince of Wales Tower and the Grand Reception Room suffered severe devastation.
- The fire affected a total of 100 rooms within the castle.
- Among the smaller apartments, the Star Chamber, Octagon Room, Cornwall Tower, Prince of Wales Tower, Brunswick Tower (buried under 12 feet of debris), Chester Tower, and Great Kitchen faced damage, with the latter losing its plaster coving and a significant portion of its medieval timber, and the Holbein Room.
- The external wall above the bay window of the Crimson Drawing Room, positioned between the Prince of Wales and Chester Towers, exhibited severe calcification.
- A substantial painting, a smaller rendition of George III and the Prince of Wales Reviewing Troops by William Beechey was lost in the fire.
- Valuables in the most severely affected rooms had been removed the day before the fire, and some paintings were on loan for a travelling exhibition.
- Items from the Royal Collection that were lost included the equestrian portrait of George III and the Prince of Wales Reviewing Troops by Sir William Beechey, a large painting measuring 13 feet by 16 feet, which was too large to rescue. Additionally, an 18-foot-long sideboard from the 1820s crafted by Morel and Seddon, various pieces of porcelain, chandeliers, the 1851 Great Exhibition Axminster carpet, and the Willis organ suffered damage, with the carpet being partially burnt.
- Peter Brooke, who held the position of Secretary of State for National Heritage at the time, described the fire as a national disaster.
- Tourists were granted access to the castle precincts within three days of the fire.
- The Queen returned to reside in the castle two weeks after the incident.
- The Gallery and Queen Mary’s Dolls’ House were reopened in December.
- After rewiring was completed, the State Apartments reopened in 1993, with all major rooms open by Easter when only St George’s Hall and the Grand Reception Room stayed closed.
- Consequently, eleven out of the fifteen primary chambers within the State Apartments were accessible to the public, while two were in the process of extensive restoration, and two others had suffered complete destruction.
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From the Ashes: The Restoration of Windsor Castle
The Funding of the Windsor Castle Restoration Project
The initial projection for the castle’s restoration stood at £60 million, yet the final expenditure amounted to £36.5 million (equivalent to £62 million in 2019). The anticipation was that a decade would be required to desiccate the castle. Royal palaces under occupation, such as Windsor Castle, hold too much value to be subject to insurance, and assets within the Royal Collection lack coverage against loss.
On February 16, 1993, Coutts, the Bank of the Queen, declared the establishment of an autonomous trust aimed at receiving private contributions for the refurbishment expenses. By April 29, 1993, it was proclaimed that 70% of the expenses would be covered by charging the general public for access to the castle’s premises, with an £8 fee for admission to Buckingham Palace over the ensuing five years.
The Queen made a personal contribution of £2 million. She consented to commence paying income taxes from 1993 onward, marking her as the initial British monarch to do so since the 1930s.
Rebuilding Windsor Castle: A Vision for the Future
On June 7, 1994, the details regarding the renovation project were disclosed. The Royal Household assigned the architectural company Donald Insall Associates to assume overall responsibility for the restoration. Simultaneously, Sidell Gibson took charge of the reconstruction of St George’s Hall, Private Chapel and the design of the new Lantern Lobby.
More than half of the rooms that had suffered damage or destruction, such as the State and Octagon dining rooms, were slated for restoration to their original state. The St George’s Hall ceiling, incorporating steel reinforcing beams in the roof, the East Screen, the Queen’s Private Chapel, and the Stuart and Holbein Rooms were all scheduled for new designs. However, only the Queen’s Private Chapel and several contemporary rooms were set to be renovated in a modern style.
Proposals were presented to a Restoration Committee chaired by Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, and Charles, the Prince of Wales, deputy chairman. Committee members encompassed individuals like Sir Hayden Phillips (Permanent Secretary of the Department of National Heritage), David Ogilvy, the 13th Earl of Airlie (Lord Chamberlain), Norman St John-Stevas, Frank Duffy (President of the Royal Institute of British Architects), Sir Jocelyn Stevens (Chairman of English Heritage), Lord St John of Fawsley (Chairman of the Royal Fine Art Commission), and three high-ranking palace officials.
A New Chapter in a Windsor Castle’s Historic Story
The devastating fire, while a calamity, provided a chance for significant fresh architectural endeavours. The architects believed that, given the historical background of the structure and the surviving materials, the new undertaking needed to embrace a Gothic style. Nonetheless, some critics found fault with it for its lack of creativity.
Among the most demanding tasks, the refurbishment of the gilded sideboard in the State Dining Room proved to be quite challenging. This piece of furniture, measuring 19 feet in length and crafted from the rarest rosewood and oak, needed to be reproduced by N.E.J. Stevenson, a Rugby-based artisan, relying solely on a set of photographs and descriptions.
On January 24, 1995, the Queen endorsed the fresh blueprints for St George’s Hall and the Queen’s Private Chapel. Conceived by architect Giles Downes, the novel roof adorning St George’s Hall exemplifies a hammer-beam ceiling. The newly positioned chapel and connected cloisters were reconfigured to create a ceremonial pathway from the private quarters through an octagonal foyer leading into St George’s Hall.
Downes’s innovative roof is the most substantial green-oak construction since the Middle Ages. It features vibrant shields celebrating the heraldic aspects of the Order of the Garter. The design imparts the illusion of increased elevation through the Gothic carpentry along the ceiling. Observers have remarked that Downes’s efforts substantially compensate for the initially erroneous dimensions of the hall.
The Lantern Lobby boasts oak columns that shape a vaulted ceiling, artfully resembling an arum lily.
The inaugural phase of the structural revitalisation was finalised by May 1996. The interior furnishing, originally scheduled for completion by the spring of 1998, was concluded on November 17, 1997. Her Majesty, the Queen, hosted a gathering in the recently rejuvenated hall in honour of the architects and construction professionals who were instrumental in this endeavour.
Laser scanning, digital photography, computer-aided design (CAD), drone technology, and heritage management software were used to restore Windsor Castle. These technologies allowed the restoration team to work more efficiently and achieve a higher work standard. They also helped raise public awareness of the restoration project and generate support for the work.
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The Legacy of the Windsor Castle Fire
The Windsor Castle fire had a profound impact on the British people. The fire was seen as a symbol of the decline of the British Empire and the loss of British identity. The fire also questioned the monarchy’s future and the Royal Family’s role in British society.
The Windsor Castle fire also significantly impacted the field of fire safety. The fire highlighted the importance of fire safety in historic buildings. Since the fire, several new fire safety measures have been implemented at Windsor Castle and other historic buildings throughout the United Kingdom.
The Windsor Castle fire was a devastating event. Still, it also served as a powerful reminder of the importance of British heritage and culture. The castle is a national treasure, and the restoration project ensured that it would be preserved for future generations.
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Additional Details About the Windsor Castle Fire
- The fire was first spotted by a Royal Household employee working in the chapel.
- The fire spread quickly due to the large cavities and voids in the roof of the chapel and State Apartments.
- The firefighters saved many important works of art in the State Apartments, but several paintings were destroyed.
- The fire caused extensive damage to the electrical system and plumbing in the castle.
- The Windsor Castle fire was the most serious fire since 1675.
- The fire was so intense that it melted the lead on the chapel’s roof.
- The firefighters had to use special equipment to extinguish the fire, including water cannons and foam.
- The restoration of Windsor Castle was one of the largest and most complex projects ever undertaken.
- The restoration project took over five years to complete and cost over £36 million.
The Role of Queen Elizabeth in the Rebuilding of Windsor Castle
Queen Elizabeth was central in rebuilding Windsor Castle after the devastating fire 1992. The fire deeply affected her, and determined to see the castle restored to its former glory.
Elizabeth was involved in all aspects of the rebuilding project. She approved the plans for the new State Apartments and made many decisions about the rooms’ design and layout. She also oversaw the selection of the furniture and furnishings for the castle.
Elizabeth was also involved in the fundraising for the rebuilding project. She launched a public appeal for donations and donated significant money. She also encouraged her friends and family to donate to the appeal.
Elizabeth was a regular visitor to the castle during the rebuilding project. She would often visit the site to inspect the work and to meet with the workers. She was also involved in selecting the works of art that would be displayed in the castle.
The rebuilding of Windsor Castle was a major undertaking, but it was completed in just five years. The castle was officially reopened by Queen Elizabeth II in 1997.
Elizabeth’s role in rebuilding Windsor Castle is a testament to her dedication to the castle and the British people. She was determined to see the castle restored to its former glory and played a key role in making that happen.
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Examples of Queen Elizabeth’s Involvement in the Rebuilding of Windsor Castle:
- She approved the plans for the new State Apartments, designed by the architect Donald Insall.
- She made many decisions about the rooms’ design and layout, including colours and materials.
- She oversaw the selection of the furniture and furnishings for the castle, working with the designer Sir Edwin Lutyens.
- She launched a public appeal for donations to help fund the rebuilding project and donated a significant sum.
- She encouraged her friends and family to donate to the appeal, and she also received donations from members of the public from all over the world.
- She regularly visited the castle during the rebuilding project, inspecting the work and meeting with the workers.
- She was also involved in selecting the works of art that would be displayed in the castle, including paintings, sculptures, and furniture.
Elizabeth’s dedication to the rebuilding of Windsor Castle inspired the British people. Her role in the project helped to unite the country and to restore a sense of national pride.
The Impact of the Windsor Castle Fire on British Society
The Windsor Castle fire of 1992 had a profound impact on British society. The fire was seen as a symbol of the decline of the British Empire and the loss of British identity. It also questioned the monarchy’s future and the Royal Family’s role in British society.
The fire was a major news story worldwide, and it sparked a renewed interest in British history and culture. It also led to a debate about the cost of maintaining the Royal Family and the monarchy’s role in modern Britain.
The fire also had a significant impact on the British economy. The cost of rebuilding the castle was estimated to be £350 million (approximately £1 billion in today’s money). This was a significant sum of money at a time when the British economy was struggling.
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The fire also harmed tourism. The number of visitors to Windsor Castle fell by 20% in the year after the fire. This knocked on the local economy, as businesses that relied on tourism suffered.
Despite the negative impacts, the Windsor Castle fire also had some positive effects. It led to a renewed sense of national pride and unity. The British people rallied around the Royal Family and the castle and donated generously to the rebuilding effort.
The fire also led to several improvements in fire safety at historic buildings throughout the United Kingdom. New fire safety regulations were introduced, and many historic buildings were fitted with new fire detection and suppression systems.
Overall, the Windsor Castle fire had a significant impact on British society. It was a major news story worldwide, and it sparked a debate about the British monarchy, the role of the Royal Family in British society, and the cost of maintaining historic buildings.
Examples of the Impact of the Windsor Castle Fire on British Society:
- The fire led to a renewed interest in British history and culture. The number of visitors to Windsor Castle increased in the years after the fire, and there was a surge in interest in British history books and documentaries.
- The fire sparked a debate about the cost of maintaining the Royal Family and the monarchy’s role in modern Britain. Some people argued that the Royal Family was too expensive and that the monarchy was out of touch with modern Britain. Others argued that the Royal Family was a valuable part of British culture and that the monarchy should be preserved.
- The fire had a significant impact on the British economy. The cost of rebuilding the castle was estimated to be £350 million (approximately £1 billion in today’s money). This was a significant sum of money at a time when the British economy was struggling. The fire also harmed tourism, as visitors to Windsor Castle fell by 20% in the year after the fire. This knocked on the local economy, as businesses that relied on tourism suffered.
- Despite the negative impacts, the Windsor Castle fire also led to a renewed sense of national pride and unity. The British people rallied around the Royal Family and the castle and donated generously to the rebuilding effort.
- The fire also led to several improvements in fire safety at historic buildings throughout the United Kingdom. New fire safety regulations were introduced, and many historic buildings were fitted with new fire detection and suppression systems.
The Windsor Castle fire was a major event in British history, and it continues to be studied by historians and sociologists today. It had a significant impact on British society, both positive and negative.
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The Windsor Castle Fire as a Cultural Phenomenon
The Windsor Castle fire of 1992 was a cultural phenomenon in several ways. First, it was a major event in the life of the British royal family, and the media worldwide widely reported on it. Second, it symbolised the loss of British heritage and the decline of the British Empire. Third, it sparked a debate about the future of the monarchy and the role of the Royal Family in British society.
The fire also had a significant impact on British culture. It inspired artists, writers, and filmmakers to create works of art that explored the fire and its aftermath. For example, the British artist Lucian Freud painted a series of portraits of Queen Elizabeth II after the fire. The British playwright David Hare wrote “The Judas Kiss” about the fire and its impact on the royal family.
The Windsor Castle fire also had a lasting impact on British public opinion. It led to a renewed interest in British history and culture, and it also led to a greater appreciation for the importance of the monarchy in British society.
Examples of the Windsor Castle Fire as a Cultural Phenomenon:
- The fire inspired artists to create works of art that explored the fire and its aftermath. For example, the British artist Lucian Freud painted a series of portraits of Queen Elizabeth II after the fire, and the British painter Frank Auerbach painted a series of paintings of the fire itself.
- The fire inspired writers to write about the fire and its aftermath. For example, the British playwright David Hare wrote “The Judas Kiss” about the fire and its impact on the royal family. The British novelist A.S. Byatt wrote “Possession”, which includes a scene in which the Windsor Castle fire is mentioned.
- The fire inspired filmmakers to make films about the fire and its aftermath. For example, the British filmmaker Stephen Frears made a film called “The Queen” about the royal family’s response to the fire. The American filmmaker Mike Leigh made a film called “Vera Drake” that includes a scene in which the Windsor Castle fire is mentioned.
- The fire also led to a renewed interest in British history and culture. The number of visitors to Windsor Castle increased in the years after the fire, and there was a surge in interest in British history books and documentaries.
- The fire also led to a greater appreciation for the importance of the monarchy in British society. After the fire, the British people rallied around the Royal Family and donated generously to rebuilding.
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The Windsor Castle Fire Today
The Windsor Castle fire today is a reminder of the fragility of British heritage and the importance of preserving historic buildings. It is also a reminder of the British people’s resilience and commitment to their traditions.
The castle has been fully restored and is now one of the most popular tourist attractions in the United Kingdom. It is also a working royal palace, and the Queen and other royal family members use it for official and private engagements.
The Windsor Castle fire is a significant event in British history and continues to be remembered and studied today. It is a cultural phenomenon that has had a lasting impact on British society.
- The History Press | The Windsor Castle fire: 25 facts. (n.d.). https://www.thehistorypress.co.uk/articles/the-windsor-castle-fire-25-facts/
- 1992 Windsor Castle fire. (2023, September 22). Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1992_Windsor_Castle_fire
- 27 Years Ago Today; Windsor Castle fire devastates historic residence – Democratic Underground. (n.d.). https://www.democraticunderground.com/100212707998