Crystal Palaces and Council Blocks: The Great Fires of Modern London

By Carlsson Elkins
Wednesday 13th April, 20225 minute to read

There are few more terrifying nightmares than getting stuck in a fire. While we now have incredibly intelligent systems and procedures that help us minimise the harm that fires can cause, some genuine travesties have occurred in relatively recent years.

Some of these have enabled us to improve protection, however, so it is important to remember the great fires of modern London not just for the victims or history, but also for our continued safety.

1. Crystal Palace Fire, 1936

Once located in Hyde Park and originally built for The Great Exhibition of 1851 — a spectacle showcasing the wonders of industry from around the world — the Crystal Palace was an enormous centrepiece built in just five months. 84,000m2 of plate glass were used to structure the walls and ceilings of this 563m by 139m marvel of architecture. After the exhibition ended, the Palace was disassembled and rebuilt in Sydenham Hill.

At 7pm on 30 November 1936, however, the manager noticed a small fire had broken out on site. Security guards tried unsuccessfully to contain the flames themselves, which delayed them calling the London Fire Brigade until about an hour after the fire was first clocked. Despite the best efforts of 89 fire engines and over 40 firefighters, within hours, the entire Crystal Palace structure was consumed by flames.

The cause of the fire has never been confirmed, but it is understood that it spread so quickly due to the wooden flooring, and the building being on a hill, which spurred the flames on with the breeze. Some footage of the fire survived, showing the iron frames heating up to the point of becoming unstable due to the fracturing glass. The building then collapsed, with only remaining structures being the water towers, which were removed during the Second World War to prevent them from becoming a navigation tool for the enemy.

The Crystal Palace Fire reminds us of the importance of fire detection and prevention systems such as sprinklers and dedicated escape routes, which sadly didn’t exist for this bygone building.

2. King's Cross Tube Fire, 1987

The King’s Cross Tube Fire was the worst fire ever to occur on the London Underground. It began with a lit match dropping down the gap of the wooden escalator leading to the Piccadilly Line, initiating a small fire which was first detected by a number of passengers at 7.30pm on 18 November 1987.

Unfortunately, the location of the match made it impossible to extinguish, and when the Fire Brigade entered the scene they described the fire as “the size of a large cardboard box”. Not long after, the entire escalator caught fire. At 7.45pm, the heat was so great that a burst of flames blazed up the shaft, filling the ticket hall with thick black smoke. This caused the death of 31 people and left more than 100 badly injured.

This disastrous outcome led to an inquiry that produced the Fennell Report, which resulted in a stricter smoking ban, replacing wooden escalators with metal, reviewing protective equipment, and standardising radio across institutions. There was also an improvement in training, policy and procedures in tube stations, which likely prevented many other catastrophes.

3. Camden Market Fire, 2008

At around 7pm on February 9th 2008, 50 feet high flames roared through several stalls of the famous Camden Market, as well as one of the most iconic London spots of the 2000s — The Hawley Arms. The pub, which is known for being the stomping ground for the likes of Amy Winehouse, Kate Moss, Pete Doherty and Noel Fielding, was completely burnt to a crisp. Camden residents had to be evacuated and were given temporary accommodation.

The north side of the Camden Canal Market was the focal point of the flames, blazing for over three hours — with more than 100 firefighters struggling to contain it. Despite the size of the fire, thankfully, there were no casualties: responders urged crowds into Camden Town Underground Station, while the main market building was collapsing and explosions from gas canisters were loudly booming. The main efforts were concentrated on stopping the flames from reaching further into the market, and especially preventing the fire from getting to a nearby petrol station.

Unfortunately, in 2017, a similar fire would later break out in Camden Market, again causing significant damage.

4. Lakanal House Fire, 2009

Some of the most devastating fires occur in residential buildings rather than public areas. The Lakanal House Fire is perhaps one of the most memorable ones of the noughties, with six casualties — including three children — and at least 20 injured.

At 4.20pm on 3 July 2009, a fire erupted in a ninth floor flat in Lakanal House — a 14-storey tower block located in Camberwell, South London — due to a faulty TV. While the London Fire Brigade sent over 18 engines to combat the fire, the central stairwell was quickly filled with thick, black smoke, one of the main causes of death in fires.

First responders are trained to direct dwellers to stay within their flats, as modern buildings are constructed to contain fires, with the apartment essentially acting as a shield for residents. Tragically, the safety systems did not work in Lakanal House — one of the women who died of smoke inhalation was urged to stay in her flat for 40 minutes, until the Fire Brigade Control operator could not hear her breathing anymore.

An inquiry into the fatal faults of the buildings found that the fire spread so quickly that it left people trapped within their apartments, while the exterior cladding panels burnt through in less than five minutes. As a result, Southwark Council pleaded guilty to four counts of breaking fire safety regulations, and were forced to pay £570,000 in fines and costs.

5. Grenfell Tower Fire, 2017

Perhaps the most well-remembered tragedy on this list, the Grenfell Tower Fire is widely considered one of the UK’s worst modern-day disasters. In the deadliest structural fire in the country since 1988, and most terrible residential fire since the Second World War, 72 people died and more than 70 others were injured.

The fire started with a malfunctioning fridge on the fourth floor, which quickly grew into an inferno. The fire commenced at 1am on 14 June 2017, and spread to the exterior of the building within minutes, expanding vertically to all four sides of its 24 storeys.

Grenfell Tower, located in North Kensington, West London, had a similar ‘stay-put’ policy to Lakanal House, and in the same manner, its cladding failed, trapping the residents in the flames and thick smoke. By 1:26am, less than half an hour before the firefighters arrived at the scene, the policy had already failed to protect lives.

According to the public inquiry into the disaster, it is believed that the cladding was the main reason for the fire spreading wildly. This was made of aluminium sheets bonded to a central polyethylene core, a highly flammable material that’s known to release huge amounts of energy when combusted. The situation was compounded by the fact the smoke ventilation system wasn’t working. The inquiry is still ongoing, however, and it is becoming increasingly clear that many buildings in the UK could be in a similar position.

All of these fires stress the fact that effective, appropriate fire and smoke control systems should be carefully considered and installed in all residential and commercial structures. While we have come far when it comes to protecting lives and property in the case of a fire breaking out, there’s still a long way to go to ensure the safety of everyone. If you are responsible for a building’s fire safety, don’t hesitate to contact our experts.

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