knepp fire

  Transcribed from the West Sussex County Times and Standard 23  January 1904

Knepp Castle was destroyed by fire in the early hours of yesterday morning. So sad and disastrous an occurrence will awaken widespread sympathy with Sir Merrik Raymond Burrell and Lady Burrell, and deep regret will also be occasioned throughout Sussex at the destruction of one of the historic houses of the county. The fire was a very terrible one, and the works of devastation was so complete that scarcely anything but a few pieces of rare china were saved. As not only the castle, but its valuable contents, including the famous collection of pictures and the library, and nearly the whole of Sir Merrik and Lady Burrell’s personal belongings, were destroyed, it is impossible to state definitely the amount of damage done, but it is estimated at between £50,000 and $60,000. It is understood that the damage is by no means covered by insurance. Lady Burrell has lost £6,000 worth of furs, which were not insured; and the insurance on the pictures, it is understood, was scarcely more than nominal. The library and the historic manuscripts were insured for over £3,000, but their value was very great, and some of the MSS were of priceless historic importance.


.The whole story of this most lamentable fire can be told very briefly. Sir Merrik and Lady Burrell, with their two young children, one just a year old, and the other an infant of nine weeks, reached Knepp Castle from London last Friday, accompanied by a few servants. The visit to their Sussex home was mainly die to the need of rest and quiet and change of air for Lady Burrell. There was no house party; no guest, indeed, was in the Castle, and only three male servants, the others being maids. Sire Merrik and his wife retired to rest early on Sunday night. Their bedroom was over the library, in the main block of buildings, facing the lake, one of the most magnificent pieces of water in Sussex. It was in the library – an enormous and stately apartment – in which the fire undoubtedly originated. The library opens on the great hall, which was in the middle of the Castle, and from which immediate access could be had to most of the important rooms. Sire Merrik Burrell awoke soon after midnight, and although he then saw neither flame nor smoke, he felt sure something was wrong, and went into his dressing room. Nothing seemed to be wrong there either, but he was more than ever convinced that a fire had taken place, and he went into the great hall. It was then that he was confronted with a dense smoke and heat pouring up from the ground floor, and on ascertaining that fire had broken out, he at once called the servants, and rescued Lady Burrell and the children, the bed clothing becoming ignited while Lady Burrell was effecting her escape from the bedroom.


By this time flames were pouring out of the library, and the fire had already obtained so strong a hold that the wonder is the ceiling had not given way. It was absolutely impossible to enter the library; it was simply a raging furnace, and no hope could be entertained of saving the thousands of books and manuscripts, which were in it. Had Sire Merrik Burrell not awoke in time – that is, before the flames reached the hall and set fire to the great staircase – it is certain that he and Lady Burrell would have been in much greater peril than fortunately happed to be the case. As it was, Lady Burrell had to make a hurried flight from her bedroom to the rear of the Castle, and the fire spread so rapidly that of their personal attire Sire Merrik and his young wife were able to save scarcely anything besides the clothes,which they quickly put on when the alarm was raised. It was only too evident that very few of the contents of the Castle could be saved. Lady Burrell and her children having been got out of harm’s way, and sent in a carriage, hurriedly brought from the stables, to West Grinstead Park, the property of Sire Merrik Burrell, but now tenanted by Mr J Rolls Hoare, every possible effort was made to save the most valuable heirlooms.


The house occupied by Mr Rolls Hoare is, it may be mentioned, in the Park, but on the other side of the long lake which lies within three hundred feet or so of Knepp Castle. There was thus a limitless supply of water, but unhappily the Fire Brigades had to come from Horsham, some seven miles away, and Warnham Court, about the same distance from Knepp Castle. No doubt, had it been possible to have adequate fire-extinguishing appliances promptly on the scene, much of the Castle might have been saved; but it stands in what ….. at once a beautiful and an isolated position; the night, moreover was very dark. Messages were at once sent for the Horsham and Steyning Brigades, and the private appliances kept at Warham Court were also sent, but before the first Brigade arrived, at 2.30, the Castle was practically ruined; and the roof had fallen in. Outdoor servants and others came early to the rescue, but it was obvious almost from the first discovery of the outbreak that the stately pile was doomed. Sire Merrik Burrell and those assisting him nevertheless did everything in their power to save some of the most precious treasure, and every precaution was taken to keep the fire from spreading into the servants’ quarters, a smaller wing of the main building, and indeed this part of the Castle was not injured, although it would certainly have been destroyed also, but for the efforts of the firemen. A good many things were rescued from the drawing-room, including the valuable china referred to, and Superintendent Byrne, from Horsham, and other constables, succeeded in saving a quantity of plate; but most of the artistic treasures were in the library and the dining-room, and these were totally destroyed.


Among other works of art, the following celebrated paintings were burnt to ashes:-

“Anne of Cleves” by Holbein.
“Cromwell, Earl of Essex” by Holbein.
“Stafford, Duke of Buckingham,” by Holbein (this famous work has been engfaved by Hollar).
“Sir Henry Guldeford, Comptroller of the Household of  King Henry VIII.,” by Holdbein.
“Lady Guldeford,” by Holbein.
“Sir Richard Rich, Chancellor to Edward VI.,” by Holbein.
“Algidus” (a savant employed by the Emperor Francis I, to visit the East), by Holbein.
“A Woman of Rank” (name unknown), by Holbein.
“Sir Robert Cotton” (founder of the Cottonian Library), by Vansomer.
“William Herbert, Earl of Pembroke,”by Vansomer (this work was engraved by Papaeus in 1617).
“Cornelis Van Tromp,” by Frank Hais.
“Loyens, Chancellor of Brabant,” by Philip de Champagne.
“Queen Henrietta Maria,” the celebrated full-length portrait by Vandyke.
“Charles II.,” by Sir Peter Lely.
“Lord Lumley,” by Vansomer.
“A Head,” by Quintin Matsys.
Sea views by Vandervelde; a battle-piece by Bourguignon; two pictures by Albert Duner; &c…..

There were many more pictures; and happily some of the family portraits were saved. The night, as stated, was very dark, but there was scarcely any wind. The fact that the servants’ quarters still stand intact is probably due to the absence of wind, for, owing to the inevitable delay in the arrival of the Fire Brigades, it is to be feared that , with a strong breeze blowing across the lake, the whole castle would have been wrecked.



next page >>