130 years ago: disaster hits Wanstead Park

It was 130 years ago this morning that The Grotto in Wanstead Park was destroyed by fire.

An account of the fire appeared in the November 29th edition of the Essex Newsman
An account of the fire appeared in the November 29th edition of the Essex Newsman

The building, once part of the grand estate, was being used as a store room since the park’s acquisition by the Corporation of London. The fire, according to a local report at the time, initially started in a cottage adjacent to the Grotto and was discovered about 9 o’clock by a man who had been walking through the park.

Mr G. H. Sparrow, of Latimer Road, Forest Gate, raised the alarm with Wanstead Fire Brigade who, despite arriving quickly, were too late to stop the fire spreading from the cottage to the Grotto. Their efforts were further hampered because the Ornamental Water was being cleansed – a supply of water was 250 yards distant from the River Roding, a fact that cost precious minutes.

By the time the fire was subdued the place was entirely destroyed – only the outside walls and entrance remained intact, probably more or less what you can see today.

The building was composed of shells, pebbles, fossils, rare stones, looking glasses and “a fine painted window that was built at an immense expenditure by the Countess of Mornington”. Its destruction removed the only remaining monument of what was once one of the great estates in the Eastern Counties.

The Grotto seen from across the Ornamental Water
The Grotto seen from across the Ornamental Water

I’ve often wondered if the weather could have played a part in the demise of the Grotto. The monthly average for November, however, suggests not. A mean of 5.7C is over 3C colder than what we’ve seen this November and although it was a dry month with 45mm of rain – that total is nothing out of the ordinary for the month.

Conditions on the day were uncannily like this morning: bright though chilly, the temperature only rising to 7C after an overnight low of 2C. Perhaps one contributing factor was the north-westerly breeze which would have helped drive the flames through the structure.

One could also point to the fact that Ornamental Waters had no water to douse the flames. Though the fact that it was empty is nothing new as the entire lake system had retention problems from the park’s inception.

Perhaps it is a case that fires do just sometimes happen regardless of how careful we are in preventing them.

It is sad that bad luck seemed to hit the Grotto just like it saw the demise of Wanstead House decades before.


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