On the 20th of November 1992, almost 27 years ago, a spotlight and a curtain caused a major royal upset.
The curtain was ignited by the heat of the light against it and the blaze that ensued devastated the largest inhabited castle in the world. Six people suffered minor injuries but fortunately, no one lost their life.
The castle is so large it has its own fire brigade operating around the clock.
It is somewhat ironic, that at the time of the fire the castle was undergoing refurbishment in the upper ward, with extensive rewiring and installation of automatic fire detection. Almost all works of value had been removed from the 56-meter-long St George’s Hall.
The private chapel adjoining the hall linked by the double-sided organ was being utilised as a working area for art experts to assess works before sending out for restoration. This was where the fire started. The curtains screening the alter were ablaze and the fire quickly spread to the roof and floor of the private chapel.
At 11:36am the Royal Berkshire Fire and Rescue Service were informed, and a special team was despatched; two water tender ladders, one water tender, one hydraulic platform and one salvage pump. By this time, the first crew from the Windsor Castle Brigade were reporting that the load-bearing timber of the gallery was at the point of collapse and the fire was spreading rapidly at higher levels.
Further assistance was immediately requested.
By 2:30pm a major incident room was set up to work alongside the control room so that all appliances being directed to the fire could be tracked. Nine brigades were involved, 25 officers, 36 pumps, 31 jets,7 specialised units, 200 personnel and 3 monitors.
Due to the 2.5m voids piercing the 4m thick walls, the fire was fed plenty of air which facilitated the rapid spread. The heat was ferocious. At the initial point of the fire, the art packaging materials and carpets aided the spread along the floor. However, the path most favoured by the flames was upwards across the alcove offering little resistance as the roof void was shared by the hall. The vestry tower was soon alight and then the Brunswick Tower.
The corridor behind the chapel ignited and from there the fire travelled into the upper kitchen area, glazed panelling fuelled the spread but the many voids behind panelling and ceiling cavities contributed to the destructive power of the flames. The Crimson drawing-room was the next damaged.
At 2:30 am the fire was finally extinguished. The fire had been contained to the Northeast wing thanks to aggressive firefighting by a dedicated team. Six rooms and three towers were damaged or destroyed.
The Queen was informed by telephone call by her son Prince Andrew and was said to be devastated.
250 Castle staff and contractors, 100 military 20 estate personnel and members of the royal family all worked together to salvage items that were under threat and relocate them to other parts of the castle.
Over the next few years at a cost of £36.5 million, the castle was restored.
Initially, because Windsor Castle is owned by the Government and not the Royal Family, it was suggested the tax payers would foot the bill. The resultant raging debate over the estimated £60m bill found its way to parliament where increasing pressure was placed to cut the cost of the Royal Family to the people. There was also pressure from public opinion to make the Queen pay income tax.
As a result, the Queen paid tax on her private income and restricted which members of the Royal Family were paid from the public purse. She also met 70% of the restoration work and opened parts of Buckingham Palace to the public to generate income.
The restoration was completed ahead of schedule on the fifth anniversary of the fire.