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Windsor Castle – The Great Disaster

Windsor Castle is the world's largest and oldest inhabited castle and has been the family residence of the British monarchy since the 11th century. It's currently an official residence of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II and remains a working royal palace.

Home to some 150 people, it is used for state and ceremonial occasions, such as visits from overseas presidents and monarchs. The castle's luxurious state apartments house an amazing collection of the Crown's greatest treasures, known as the Royal Collection. The castle also houses the Royal Archives, the Royal Library, the Print Room and the Royal Photograph Collection.

Located in the grounds, St George’s Chapel is the spiritual home of the oldest order of chivalry in the world, the Order of the Garter - which was founded in 1348 by Edward III. The Order today consists of Queen Elizabeth, the Prince of Wales and 24 Knight Companions.

The Queen spends the majority of her private weekends at Windsor Castle, taking up official residence there for a month every spring for the Easter Court. She also spends a week there in June, when she attends the Service of the Order of the Garter and also Royal Ascot.

Windsor Castle was originally constructed by William the Conqueror as a Wooden Motte and Bailey castle. Building work started in 1070 and took 16 years to complete. It later became a massive stone fortress and survived siege warfare and later the English Civil War. It was saved from demolition in the 17th century: A Bill to demolish the castle was discussed at the English Parliament in 1649 but was eventually defeated by just one vote. The castle had been neglected but it was later transformed into the luxurious palace that we know today.

Windsor Castle survived two World Wars but in 1992, a horrific fire almost destroyed it. On the rather chilly morning of 20th November 1992, Windsor was packed with tourists visiting the castle and nearby Eton College. In the castle, the staff were going about their business as usual.

In Queen Victoria's private chapel, picture-restorers were packing away some of the historic works of art in readiness for refurbishment work to begin. It was around 11.30am, when they spotted smoke coming from behind a curtain in the altar area - the curtain was found to have been ignited by a spotlight. The workers quickly called for assistance and fire extinguishers were used.

Meanwhile, the watch room fire alarm sounded to alert the castle's fire brigade, where Chief Fire Officer Marshall Smith could see the location of the blaze on a grid map of the whole castle. At this point, the Brunswick Tower was lit up as being on fire but soon, lights began flashing all over the grid, showing how the fire was spreading to neighbouring rooms.

Some staff fought the blaze, while others began taking the works of art, including paintings, sculptures and other historic artefacts of national and personal significance from the burning building. The castle's fire brigade coordinated the initial fire-fighting effort, using sirens, pagers and radios. The Royal Berkshire Fire and Rescue Service was called at 11.37am.

Three pumps, a salvage unit, a hydraulic platform and a support pump arrived within around seven minutes. Within one minute of arriving, Mick Koza, the officer in charge, realised the severity of the blaze and called for more pumps to be sent.

Tourists continued to stroll around the courtyard at the round Tower, unaware of the seriousness of the drama that was unfolding. The blaze spread into St George’s Hall but fortunately, water supplies were readily available thanks to the many hydrants and emergency water supply tanks.

However, at 1.20pm, the dome above the chapel collapsed and firefighters realised they had a major battle on their hands. They were forced to accept that the chapel area was lost and instead worked to stop the blaze from spreading to the Chester Tower and Clock Tower. By this time, dramatic images were appearing on television.

Royal household staff, soldiers and Prince Andrew managed to remove many personal items from the Waterloo Chamber, including books. The iconic Brunswick Tower, the castle's highest point, was badly damaged.

At the height of the fire, crews attended from all over southern England including Royal Berkshire, Surrey, Hampshire, Buckinghamshire, Oxfordshire and London. Appliances were drafted in from further afield including Cirencester, Watford and Devizes. A total of 39 pumps and 225 firefighters used more than one million gallons of water to put out the fire. At 8.35pm, a message was sent out among firefighters to say the blaze was finally surrounded.

An investigation confirmed the most likely cause of the fire had been a tungsten electrical spotlight which heated and ignited the rear of a curtain in the chapel's altar area. The cost of repairing the damage was around £37 million. In February 1993, the Queen agreed to meet 70% of the cost of the restoration work herself and Buckingham Palace was opened to the public to raise enough money to pay for the remainder of the work.

Windsor Castle was made safer and as a consequence of the tragedy, fire and safety was improved in many other heritage premises to prevent a recurrence of the disaster.

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