It was shortly before 4pm on June 6 when plumes of smoke began rising over Knightsbridge. The Mandarin Oriental, a five-star London hotel that has stood near Hyde Park for 115 years, was on fire. Some 250 members of staff and 36 guests were evacuated, the singer Robbie Williams among them. The blaze, which was caused by some welding work, spread across several floors and took 120 firefighters six hours to put it out.
Nine days later, a second devastating fire took hold of another of Britain’s historic piles, the Mackintosh building at Glasgow School of Art. Flames tore through the world-renowned institution, causing what the fire service described as “exceptionally significant” damage. Again, 120 firefighters were brought in to tackle the blaze at its peak. So intense was the heat it could be felt by residents several streets away, where chunks of burning wood and debris landed.
Two landmark buildings in flames within days would be cause enough for concern. But within the next three months, two more massive fires were to tear through other monuments to our country’s architectural heritage.
In August, a major blaze engulfed Belfast’s five-storey Bank Buildings, a landmark in the Northern Irish city dating from 1787, which was housing a branch of Primark at the time. The flames could be seen across the skyline and took firefighters three and a half days to extinguish. Left behind was just the badly charred sandstone facade; the rest of the structure was gutted. Yet it could have been even worse, had firefighters not managed to prevent the fire spreading to the extension at the rear of the buildings.
In September it was Liverpool’s turn, when a fire destroyed the city’s famous Littlewoods building. The inferno took about five and a half hours to bring under control, reaching temperatures of around 1000°C at its height. Formerly the headquarters of Littlewoods Pools, the art deco building dated from 1938 and had lain empty since 2003. Some 50 firefighters battled the blaze at its peak, with crews having to smash wooden panelling that had been used to board up the windows, to access the upper floors.
Miraculously, no injuries or deaths were reported in any of these four major fires, but the loss to our cultural heritage was huge. And these were just the particularly high profile fires of the 200-plus recorded in historic buildings in 2018 alone. Less well-publicised was the blaze on December 17 at a Clarks store in Ledbury High Street in Herefordshire, an 18th century Grade II listed building, where a fault with an electric heater caused a fire that badly damaged the shop.
Likewise, the blaze at the disused, 118-year-old Annan hotel in southern Scotland in November. And that which tore through the 18th century Wheaton Aston Old Hall building in South Staffordshire in October, and which was tackled by six different crews. Even this list represents just a very small fraction of the lengthy roll call of fires in historic buildings that have occurred, either accidentally or due to arson, in the past year.
Yet at a time when the Grenfell Tower fire in west London, and its terrible loss of life, quite rightly dominates the public consciousness, the impact of fire on Britain’s historic architecture can risk going under the radar.
Protecting heritage buildings from fire goes in and out of fashion, suggests Steve Emery, fire safety adviser at the University of Oxford and chair of the special interest group for heritage buildings at the Institute of Fire Engineers. But the risks to the buildings themselves remains no less acute.
In some cases, fires can occur during building work. Indeed, restoration work had been ongoing at the time of the Glasgow School of Art fire, following a previous blaze four years earlier. Likewise, the Bank Buildings in Belfast were undergoing a major refurbishment at the time of the summer’s fire.
For other old buildings, lack of occupation, and also dereliction, can expose them to an increased danger of fire. “Then you’ve got the issue of water damage, vandalism and potentially arson,” says Emery. And if there’s no electrical supply to the building, there won’t be a functioning fire alarm either, he points out. In such cases, the fire will only be discovered after it’s gone through the roof – by which point the damage may well be irreperable.
The full scale of fire damage to historic buildings remains unknown, he adds. “We have fire statistics for domestic buildings but there’s no tick-box on the fire report [about whether the building is historic] and without these statistics it’s really difficult.”
He would like to see such statistics collected as a first step towards outlining the scale of the problem: “Then we can start making provisions to protect them.”
Although he estimates more fires occur in modern than historic buildings overall, if no-one is injured or killed, he argues fires in the latter are of far greater consequence: “If a modern warehouse burns down they can just build another one.”
The same cannot be said of a Victorian-era warehouse. And as much as we may celebrate the aesthetics and historical significance of such places, he believes it is “very worrying” that we are losing so so much archaic architecture to fire.
Fire fighters therefore have a unique, if sometimes overlooked, role in helping the owners of historic buildings prevent fires from occuring, as well as helping to minimise the damage when they do. But although they can find themselves at the frontline of saving our heritage from the ashes, it’s a relatively unsung part of their job.
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“It can be really challenging for fire fighters,” says Charlie Pugsley, deputy assistant commissioner for fire safety at London Fire Brigade. “You can have quite complex and convoluted layouts in [historic] buildings that have been altered a lot over the years. You might have stairs around corners, basements... Once the fire’s started it can been really difficult if it’s within voids or behind panelling. You’ve got to keep cutting away to ensure the fire hasn’t spread but you’re also trying to do as little damage as possible.”
As well as working hard to save whatever they can of the building in question, fire fighters also try and salvage the contents wherever possible. In some historic buildings, these can be of great value, but extracting items like paintings and artefacts from a burning building while prioritising human safety is far from a straightforward job. As Dept Asst Commissioner Pugsley points out, “many of these items are irreplaceable.”
Fire fighters play a critical part, then, in helping save old buildings and their contents for future generations. “It’s a role we do take very seriously,” he says. “Because once [something’s] lost in a fire, it’s never coming back.”