Clandon fire 'caused by electrical fault'

November 27 2015

Image of Clandon fire 'caused by electrical fault'

Picture: BBC

The Surrey Fire and Rescue Service has published its report into the fire at Clandon Park. It makes for depressing reading. Here are the headline details:

Prior to the time of call to the fire service, a member of the Surrey Infantry Museum staff was working in the museum basement office when his computer lost power. He went to the fuse board to investigate the loss of power and on opening the cupboard discovered that there is a fire inside.

He has contacted National Trust Staff, who responded to the basement area, isolated the power at the main electrical intake in the plant room and then at 16:08 hours dialled 999 on her mobile phone and requested the fire service.

The report later notes that the fire began at approximately 16:00. Take a note of what time it is now, and ask yourself in eight minutes time if that's too long to wait before alerting the fire brigade to a fire you've just discovered in the basement of an 18th Century stately home.

The fire service began their investigation by excavating the area around the fuse box, and:

The forensic examination of the distribution board shows evidence that there had been a connection fault on the lower left hand side neutral bar.

The distribution board was manufactured by the company MEM and is estimated to be about 20 to 25 years old.


It is possible, if not probable that this distribution board would have been supplied with the internal wiring complete. It could be assumed that this distribution board was delivered from the manufacturer with this fault. 


It is believed that the rapid fire spread observed at this incident occurred when the fire quickly reached the lift shaft allowing the smoke and fire to rapidly spread to each floor of the building and into the roof space.

It is believed the fire was able to spread in to the room above the distribution board cupboard due to a lack of fire compartmentation above the board.

An electrical contractor's report in 2010 noted a lack of fire stop/barrier to the ceiling recesses of the distribution board cupboard.

This report did not recommend any remedial work regarding this issue.

Additional evidence of this comes from the fire alarm panel information.

In addition to the lift shaft this building had horizontal ceiling voids in between each floor and many other hidden voids that accommodated unseen, rapid fire spread.

In response, the Trust said:

The Trust said none of its staff would have been able to identify this as a potential issue. The fault had not been detected during a number of previous professional checks by electricians.

Which is a curious first sentence. And though the fault might not have been detected, we know the lack of insulating material around the decades old fuse board was detected.

There is nothing in the report about the circuit board's capacity to deal with the demands placed on it at Clandon. For example, the Surrey Infantry Museum, which was in the basement, used a great deal of lighting. The museum opened in 1985, and 'major upgrades' took place in 2001 and 2011. Evidently, these did not include the electrics. 

As the Trust stresses, the fire was 'accidental'. But it should not have been the case that an electrical fault discovered almost immediately could lead to the destruction of such an important house in the Trust's care. The report may say that the circuit board 'probably' had a fault in it all along. But the fault waited over two decades to manifest itself. In other words, it failed because it was old. A precious 18th Century house under the guardianship of a well funded institution like the National Trust should not be at the mercy of an old bit of circuitry without appropriate fire containment measurements around it. It's that simple.

The Trust's statement does seem to admit, albeit obliquely, that more could have been done in terms of fire prevention, and that lessons will be learnt:

Despite having some measures in place to limit the spread of fire, these had not been enough to slow the blaze once it had taken hold. The Trust said it was committed to working closely with the fire service to identify any areas for improvements in its processes – and would act on any they found.

The charity is also in the process of carrying out its own in-depth review of its fire prevention policies at all its properties to see where they can be strengthened further.

The Trust has still not released a full list of what treasures were lost in the fire.

Update - the image below shows the distribution board before the fire. The part that caught fire is the small covered box with the white and blue sticker on it. Above that are the large number of fuses that the distribution board was connected to, each one being a circuit somewhere in the house. The photo at the bottom of the fuse board after the fire gives a better idea. In other words, that distribution board was serving many, many appliances and outlets. It appears that while the distribution board was in a cupboard, the unit itself was not enclosed by a door.

Update II - according to The Mail, the Trust is expected to get a £65m payout in insurance. The current Earl of Onslow says the house shoud be left a ruin, and the money spent on something else. Beanbags, I presume.

Update III - doubtless a coincidence, but the fellow in charge of the relevant arm of Zurich UK, who were insuring Clandon, has left the company.

Update IV - I have asked Eaton, the company that owns MEM (who made the distribution board) for a comment on the allegation that a pre-existing fault in one of their parts has been suggested as the cause of the fire.

Update V - a reader writes:

Clandon Park: It is surprising that the report does not mention any failed attempt by the staff who discovered the fire to extinguish it with a fire extinguisher. Ordinarily, one would expect fire extinguishers near major fuseboards or in utility spaces such as the one described as a ‘cupboard’.

The main findings by the report, as well as the comments (or lack thereof) by the Trust seem to indicate simple incompetency in terms of building management. More importantly, and worryingly, this seems to indicate a serious naivety with regard to the extraordinary value and conservatory needs of these extraordinary historical houses and their collections.

Looking forward to the rebuilding plans, although buying a piece of beachfront may indeed be a more befitting alternative.

I'm all in favour of rebuilding. Yes, it won't be 'original', but there are many original features to put back, and the design any restoration will follow will be as original as the day it was created. Above all, I'm instinctively against the thought that a place like Clandon can burn down - because (let's face it) the people looking after it were not as careful as they could have been -and the resulting £65m windfall can be used for something else entirely. To ensure the highest possible standards of preservation and diligence, any insurance payout must be put back into preserving or rebuilding the original site. 

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