KNEPP CASTLE

A fire in a country house. The night a mansion burned to the ground

Knepp Castle Fire (Knepp Wildland)
The year 1904 was a disastrous one for fires in country mansions. In total, there were 14 fires, including Knepp Castle near West Grinstead. The house was built in 1806 by the Regency architect John Nash, ­commissioned by Sir Charles Burrell, the son of Sophia Raymond, a Sussex heiress, and William Burrell, a local lawyer. (Image: Knepp Castle).

Soon after midnight, on the morning of Monday 18th January 1904, Sir Merrick Burrell, 7th Baronet, woke in the south wing at Knepp Castle and found that something was amiss. There was a strong smell of smoke and his greatest fears were about to be realised. Stirred into action he quickly surmised that the old mansion was on fire. Sir Merrick aroused Lady Burrell and called the household, but it seemed the fire had got such a strong hold that escape was the obvious option. As everyone made a hasty exit the instruction was given to summon the Horsham and Warnham Fire Brigades.

Sir Merrick returned to Lady Burrell’s room to find the bedclothes alight and the floor burning. He quickly retreated and within minutes the floor gave way, collapsing onto the room below. So rapidly had the fire progressed, it became apparent that all ordinary means of extinguishing it were useless. The only thing left to be done was to save as much portable property as possible.

It was dark outside, the only illumination coming from the flames, and the occupants could only watch as the house burned. In the confusion, Lady Burrell and the frightened children were whisked through the night to West Grinstead Park, the home of Mr and Mrs Rolls Hoare, where they would remain for weeks.

The air was thick with dense smoke, the fire running around each room between the plaster and the walls, until walls, floors and ceilings all blazed together, the roof falling in shortly before the arrival of the Horsham Fire Brigade at 2.30am, an hour-and-a-half after the discovery of the fire. Fortunately, they were quickly followed by the Warnham Court Brigade, but were endangered by the flow of molten lead falling from the building.

It was a scene of chaos as firemen struggled to get water from the lake in Knepp Park and onto the flames. Bravely they battled, but it was a long time before they could be satisfied it was under some sort of control. In fact, it wasn’t until the afternoon before an air of calm descended over the scene.

In the light of day nothing much was left of Knepp Castle except for blackened walls and a mass of ruins, and it was perhaps a miracle that nobody had been killed. Practically whole of the old portion of the house had been destroyed and all that remained was a water and smoke damaged servants’ wing.

Knepp Castle - Country Life Archive - 1830 print showing large lake to east (CL)
A view of Knepp Castle from an 1830 print showing the lake to the east. Water from the lake was used to fight the fire in 1904. Afterwards there was criticism of the Horsham Fire Brigade. (Image: Country LIfe Archive).

Knepp Castle had been a splendid Gothic castellated building erected in 1806 by John Nash for Sir Charles Merrick Burrell (3rd Bt.), about two miles away from the fragments of an ancient castle. The interior of the mansion had been in the highest degree elegant and commodious. The principal rooms had been spacious and lofty, especially the Library, Dining-Room and Drawing-Room, of which the first two were 36ft x 20ft, the circular staircase was 20ft in diameter and 30ft high.

Sir Merrick Raymond Burrell (1877 – 1957) was educated at Eton, became a lieutenant in the 1st Royal Dragoons, and served in the South African War. He owned about 9,000 acres and married, in February 1902, Miss Wilhelmina Winans, daughter of Walter Winans, an American millionaire. He had succeeded his father in 1899.

In the days after the fire there was the realisation that a great deal more had been lost. Knepp Castle had a fine collection of valuable paintings. The most valuable of these were housed in the gallery, collected by Sir William Burrell, 2nd Baronet, who had been a Fellow of the Royal Society, and according to Murray’s Handbook, included eight Holbein portraits, notable examples of Van Somer and, more important still, a few Van Dyck’s.  Thankfully, the Drawing Room pictures, which included two Romneys, had been saved. The safe, plate and many valuable items had also been secured but the Burrells had lost virtually all their personal clothing.

Lady Burrell’s grandfather, Mr Winans, was in the Russian fur trade, and the family had a splendid opportunity of acquiring the finest furs. A chinchilla mantle, which had only arrived the day before the fire, was valued at £200. It had come by rail and had been fully insured for the journey. In the ordinary course it would not have been sent up from the station until the following morning, but unluckily the staff thought, from the heavy insurance, that the parcel was important and delivered it immediately. Lady Burrell ruefully commented that “promptitude is not always a virtue.”

According to Central News Telegram, the damage was estimated at £60,000, with furs belonging to Lady Burrell valued at £6,000 alone.

Knepp Castle - Postcard from 1904 (eBay)
The fire at Knepp Castle started behind the entrance hall fireplace and quickly spread to the library, immediately below the bedrooms. The floor fell in only a few minutes after Sir Merrick and Lady Burrell had escaped. The nursery was not in any danger, and the two children escaped unharmed. (Postcard from 1904).

As might have been expected, the fire at Knepp Castle was talked about for weeks afterwards. The fire appeared to have started at the back of a recently altered chimney in the entrance hall, taking hold of bookcases in the library behind, quickly running around the room, and at length setting fire to the ceiling and floor of the bedroom above, in which Lady Burrell had been sleeping.

Most interestingly was a war of words that appeared in local newspapers about the worthiness of the fire brigade. The West Sussex County Times reprinted a letter that had originally appeared in the February issue of the Parish Magazine:

‘Criticism of voluntary workers, though in this case necessary, are undesirable in the pages of our magazine. Still, in the public interest, we cannot help stating one fact plainly noticeable to all the onlookers, and that is the fact that the Horsham Fire Brigade, in spite of many willing helpers at the pumps, were comparatively useless in a fire of such magnitude, and could not have controlled the fire without the help of the Warnham engine (which threw up more water than the combined efforts of the other two), a serious state of things when one considers the money residences in the district whose owner would naturally look to Horsham for help, should occasion require.’

This prompted an angry response the following week from an angry reader called Ernest G. Apedaile:

‘I should like to point out that the Horsham Brigade is purely a volunteer one, and, personally, I feel strongly that all honour is due to its members for their splendid turn-out, especially when it is borne that the fire occurred in the middle of the night, when the men had to leave their beds, and that many of them must have lost the following day’s work and pay. Considering that their engines are manuals, and the many disadvantages they had to labour under, I think they acquitted themselves well on this occasion.’  

Another reader made a rather subtle suggestion. ‘It would be a great advantage if the Fire Engine Station were on the telephone!’

And the dialogue continued until there was a more realistic comment from Onlooker, also in the West Sussex County Times:

“I would like to ask him (Sir Merrick) if, for a small town like Horsham, with a voluntary brigade, supported by voluntary contributions, he can expect to have sufficient apparatus to cope with an outbreak satisfactorily. Most of the large residences are ‘said to be dependant on Horsham for help’ have got at least some description of fire appliances of their own. C.J. Lucas (Warnham Court), Sir Henry Harben (Warnham Lodge), Sir Edmund Loder (Leonardslee) and others are very well equipped, but although there are always tons of water close at hand at Knepp, by some mysterious reason or misfortune any provision for dealing with an outbreak of fire seems to have been a secondary consideration.”

(Note – After a fire at Warnham Court in 1901, Charles Lucas created the Warnham Court Fire Brigade, with a horse-drawn steam appliance and fire crew made up from the estate).

Sir Merrick Burrell found it quite impossible to answer all the kind letters of condolence which had been written to him after the fire. He reflected the loss of the entire library, nearly all the pictures, practically all valuable furniture, all clothing, lace, furs and nearly all Lady Burrell’s jewels, thought to have been safe in the ‘warranted fireproof’ safe.

03-rebuilding-knepp-castle-jan-18th-1905 (familyhistorymusingsbymarian)
The rebuilding of Knepp Castle. Plans were drawn up shortly after the fire. The outside walls, which were left standing, were practically kept in their original condition, but the interior was slightly rearranged. Once completed the house had to be refurnished, as nearly all its contents had been destroyed in the fire. (Image: familyhistorymusingsbymarian).

Two months after the fire, Sir Merrick announced his intention to rebuild Knepp Castle as soon as possible. Externally, the castle was to remain like its former appearance, as the outer walls, with their castellated towers, were to be preserved.  It turned out to be a complete reconstruction of Nash’s original with the addition of a third floor Bachelor Wing.

The start of the new century turned out to be a bad one for Sir Merrick. He allowed his agricultural tenants an abatement of fifty per cent on their rents to show his sympathy with them in what turned out to be a bad season. In 1907 he was granted a decree nisi in the Divorce Courts because of Lady Burrell’s misconduct with Henry James Phillips King, an officer in the Royal Horse Artillery. She had stayed, it was stated, at Bournemouth and at Nice with the co-respondent. A year later the engagement was announced between Sir Merrick and Miss Coralie Porter Porter, the daughter of John Porter Porter, of Belle Isle, Co Fermanagh.

Knepp Castle was the headquarters of the 1st Canadian Division during WW2 and narrowly escaped being burned down a second time when a desert stove exploded in the pantry.

Knepp Castle -The Tatler - 1 Dec 1948 (BNA)
Happier days. This image appeared in The Tatler on 1st December 1948. Knepp Castle was a regular meeting place for local hunts. The restored country house shows no evidence of the fire, some 44 years earlier. (Image: British Newspaper Archive).

Note:
In the week that this was written, Eleanor Doughty in The Telegraph, wrote about Knepp Castle. Within this article, Isabella Tree, the writer and wife of Sir Charles Burrell, 10th Baronet, who both live in the house, revealed a piece of handed-down information from the fire:

“Charlie’s grandfather had just been born, so there was a nursemaid up tending to the baby, otherwise they’d have all gone up.” 

A farce ensued. “They were trying to get the furniture out, and got the grand piano stuck in the front door, so nothing else could get in or out. Meanwhile, a new under-footman had been sent to get the fire brigade, but he got lost, so the fire brigade wasn’t coming, the piano was stuck in the front door, and eight Holbeins went up in smoke in the dining room, with ­everything under-insured.” 

Knepp Castle (Paisley Pedlar)
A modern-day image of Knepp Castle, whose parkland is now a 3,500-acre wild estate. Over the last 20 years, Knepp has become an open landscape where animals roam free. The estate is home to 450 deer, 30 Tamworth pigs, 30 Exmoor ponies, and some turtle doves. (Image: Paisley Pedlar).

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