Reality behind Crystal Palace blaze that shocked London

PUBLISHED: 11:37 05 December 2013 | UPDATED: 11:37 05 December 2013

Barrie McKay at the Crystal Palace museum.

Barrie McKay at the Crystal Palace museum.


One of London’s greatest mysteries, which has baffled historians and spawned numerous conspiracy theories, may have been solved thanks to volunteers at a museum.

The cause of the great fire that destroyed the Crystal Palace in 1936 has been blamed on Nazi spies, and one woman even went to her grave believing she had caused it after a game of badminton.

To mark its 77th anniversary, Crystal Palace Museum has launched a virtual reality tour exploring the cause of the blaze and documenting its history.

A year of painstaking work piecing together information about the fire has enabled volunteers to come up with a theory that may end the debate once and for all.

Barrie McKay, who is one of 12 volunteers at the museum, said although they are not certain, their theory of the fire’s cause was one of the more likely put forward.

“Nobody was in the building except two night watchmen who smelt smoke and saw flames from the floorboards,” he said.

“Within two hours the whole palace was razed to the ground.

“It’s still one of the greatest unsolved mysteries whether it was arson or an accident. We believe we know how it started.”

The fire broke out at 7pm on November 30, 1936 and, it is said, the glow from the fire was visible across eight counties.

Sir Henry Buckland, who was in charge of the board of trustees in the 1920s, was walking his dog Crystal (named after the palace) when he noticed a red glow inside.

When he went inside the two night watchmen were battling a small office fire.

More than 400 firemen and almost 90 fire engines attended the blaze but they were unable to extinguish it before vast amounts of damage was caused.

An estimated 100,000 people battled high winds to watch the fire ravage the palace.

Theories about what started the fire have varied over the years as people sought to understand what caused the catastrophe.

These have ranged from a gas explosion to insurance fraud.

One even blames a German man who people thought was a spy and had set fire to the palace to get the ground levelled ready for a German invasion.

One woman died thinking she’d started the fire after a game of badminton when she dropped her cigarette through the floorboards of the women’s cloakroom.

Mr McKay said: “These theories are not founded on facts. Through research we have established the location from the fire bridge.”

So how exactly do the volunteers believe the fire started?

Mr McKay said: “The headed flue pipe that came from the night watchman’s office.

“It seriously was an accident. Had it been better maintained over the years, the accident might not have happened – maybe there’s some blame for neglect in maintaining the heating system.”

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