Alexandra Palace had only been open for 16 days when in June 1873, it was ravaged by fire. Its destruction deprived London of its ‘people’s palace’ – a giant recreation centre and exhibition space.
Perched up on Muswell Hill in north London, Alexandra Palace welcomed over 120,000 visitors to its impressive 196 acres of parkland in the short time it was open. But at lunchtime on Monday, 9 June, disaster struck.
That day, a group of workmen were working on the great domed roof. A burning ember from a brazier, or ‘devil’, set fire to the timber. To make matters worse, a stiff breeze fanned the flames, helping it spread.
At first, the scale of the fire was downplayed. But it soon became apparent that the local fire brigade couldn’t cope, and the Metropolitan Fire Brigade was sent for by telegraph. Nine horse-drawn steam fire engines and seven manual engines were dispatched, along with around 120 firefighters, to tackle the blaze. But to get to it, they faced a tiring seven-mile slog up hill.
Meanwhile, frantic staff members ran from room to room ripping the paintings from the walls. Valuable books and tapestries were bundled away to safety, but an exhibition of precious English china fell victim to the fire.
At 1.30pm, the roof collapsed, destroying a giant musical organ designed by Henry Willis, valued at around £30,000. The sound of the crash was said to have been heard six miles away.
The Metropolitan Fire Brigade finally arrived at the scene, but were unable to find enough water to pump. It was all in vain anyway. By 3 o’clock, it was all over. The palace lay in ruins, and the fire would eventually claim the lives of three people.
“The whole interior”, reported The Times, “…is an unsightly ruin from beginning to end, completely open to the sky, and filled with iron material, twisted into all kinds of fantastic shapes…”.
Not for nothing are the Victorians famous for their stoicism. When a bystander asked one of the Palace’s directors what was to be done, he coolly replied, “Why, put it up again”. And so they did – in under two years and at a cost of £417,128 (£43m today), along with a brand new Henry Willis organ.