Fire and the Country House

by Christopher Ridgway

Eighty years ago, in November 1940, Castle Howard in North Yorkshire, almost died. A calamitous fire broke out and nearly destroyed the building: between the early morning and lunchtime of 9th November there was a real battle to save Castle Howard from incineration.

Castle Howard ablaze on 9 November 1940, seconds before the dome collapsed

The fire was eventually halted and the house was saved: mercifully without any loss of life or injury, but not before numerous rooms and treasures had been consumed by the flames. Since 1940 there has been a long programme to restore, repair, and improve this architectural masterpiece and its surrounding estate, and to ensure that it has a sustainable future – not least of all as a large and popular visitor attraction. Sadly this episode has been all too common in the history of country houses; the stark fact that fire and country houses are common bedfellows. This is perhaps understandable in earlier centuries when open fires and naked flame lighting presented so many risks which, coupled with erratic water supplies and the absence of any dedicated emergency services, meant that a small fire could easily become a major conflagration. Thus in 1871 Warwick Castle was partially destroyed in a fire that began in the early hours;

Warwick Castle burning in 1871 with a melee of people fighting the flames and rescuing contents

six years later fire destroyed the central section of Inverary Castle, first spotted as a gleam in the windows by a fisherman; problems with hoses and water supply meant that fire could not be properly checked, but large parts of the building was protected by its thick walls. This was a bad decade for country houses, much of Clumber Park in Nottinghamshire was destroyed in a huge blaze sparked by a charcoal fire in a bathroom; and two years later a fire in the kitchen chimney caused a blaze at Lanhydrock in Cornwall: high winds fanned the flames, parts of the house had to be dynamited in order to create a firebreak, and the aged Lady Robartes had to be rescued from a window only to die a week later.

In the 19th century country house fires were remarkably commonplace, on average something like two large properties every year. With the exception of Clumber each of these residences was rebuilt. But the list could go on – Belvoir Castle in Rutland in 1816, started in the carpenter’s room in the west wing; Bramham Park in Yorkshire, gutted supposedly by drunken carousing among the servants while the family was away; Dupplin Castle, near Perth, destroyed in 1827, rebuilt, and burnt again in 1934 (before being demolished in 1967); and in 1883 Wrotham Park in Hertfordshire was destroyed, but not before the ancient Lord Strafford had been dragged from the building along with a few possessions; it was immediately rebuilt using modern materials.

Salutary lessons can be drawn from these experiences: defective fireplaces and flues, careless behaviour, unattended fires, slack working practices, high jinks and misdemeanours as at Bramham. In 1826 the Marquess of Sligo’s great library at Westport House went up in flames after a maid had gone into the room to borrow a novel and left a candle burning (one can’t help wondering what was the novel she had gone in search of). In 1855 the cook at Carton House was woken by a crackling sound as flames took hold in a hot air flue.  And in 1861 the central block of Capesthorne Hall in Cheshire was devastated, the fire believed to have been caused by Arthur Davenport deciding to cook himself supper over the fire in the library late one evening. Many households had rudimentary fire-fighting equipment: these might be no more than buckets of sand strategically placed throughout the building, or small hand-pumped tenders;

A hand-pump tender from Tredegar House, Cornwall

in a few cases there were crews of liveried firemen (as was dramatized in one episode of Downton Abbey). We have to remember this was well before the days of a professional fire service. These initiatives were taken by individual houses or in many cases at the prompting of commercial insurance companies. But generally these were meagre resources with which to tackle a blaze in complicated, large buildings. Often the local population would turn out to help, if not with fire-fighting then to rescue people or salvage items from the house. This wasn’t always a welcome involvement. At Naworth Castle in Cumbria in 1844 locals were more keen on rescuing the contents of the wine cellars much to the chagrin of Lord Morpeth. 

But even the 20th century might justifiably be termed the incendiary century with such notable disasters in the first three decades as: The Hook, Hampshire in 1908; and Sledmere House, North Yorkshire in 1911.  The next two decades were no kinder and losses included Stoke Edith, Herefordshire, in1927; and Witley Court, Worcestershire, in 1937. And after the war, Foots Cray Place, Kent, in 1949, and Assington Hall, Suffolk, in 1957. These are just a few isolated examples from a very long list that runs up to the end of the century and beyond: Hampton Court, 1986; Uppark, Sussex, 1989; Windsor Castle 1992; Aldby Park, North Yorkshire, 1999; Tangley House, Hampshire, 2000 which claimed the lives of MP Michael Colvin and his wife; Allerton Castle, North Yorkshire, 2005; and more recently Mourne Park, Co. Down in 2013, and Clandon Park, Surrey, in 2015.

In some instances these properties have risen from the ashes. Sledmere was rebuilt within five years of the blaze; Uppark was restored to textbook perfection; as was Windsor at great expense; and at Allerton the fire damage has been repaired. But for many houses the prospect of repair or restoration was too forbidding; a good number remained gutted shells until ripe for demolition, and others fell to pieces through neglect until they too were torn down. Thus today Mavisbank House outside Edinburgh ravaged by fire in 1973 remains a wreck. Stoke Edith is essentially a hole in the ground, and Witley Court an empty shell under the guardianship of English Heritage; for both the damage was simply too great. Foots Cray and Assington no longer survive; Tangley has been demolished; the future of Mourne Park is uncertain, but the National Trust has embarked on restoring Clandon Park. Castle Howard survives too, but much of the fire damage remains to be tackled. The road to recovery can be long and expensive. But these are all examples of accidental fires. Their occurrence may have lessened in modern times through legislation and compliance, expert advice and professional services, new technologies, and house occupants generally more watchful of risk. But how can a house be protected against deliberate fire?

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