I got back from a dinner in Oxford early this morning to find a fire engine outside the Hall and discovered to my horror that we had suffered a serious fire in the Hall yesterday evening!
It happened at around 8.15 pm during a dinner of the Worshipful Company of Musicians. Just after the main course was served, the waitresses noticed smoke billowing out from under the right-hand chiffoniere in the Henry Ford screen under the minstrels' gallery. Ron and Paul were very quick to evacuate the 180 guests and 30 or so serving staff and to call the fire brigade. Thankfully the evacuation occurred smoothly and no one was injured in any way. Ron and Paul made some progress fighting the fire themselves before the fire brigade arrived. However the fire got hold of the old timbers in the screen and it took some effort by the firemen to get it extinguished. At one point the flames were floor to ceiling high and it looked like the whole Hall might be lost. However the fire was put out and the damage, although extensive, is limited to the south-west corner of the Hall. The fire was caused by an electrical fault in the optical fibre lighting to the chiffoniere.
I have spent the rest of today sorting out the mess with Ron, Mark Stott, our Surveyor, the Loss adjustor and Susana, our Commercial Manager. Thankfully the structural damage is limited to the screen although there is very unsightly scorching to the wall and ceiling of the Hall in that corner and a lot of smoke contamination. It is going to take some complex repairing. My priority is to minimise the disruption of the damage and subsequent repairs to Company events and commercial bookings.
My plan has three phases. The first is immediate cleaning and rendering the Hall commercially usable and I aim to complete this by the middle of next week. We have employed the services of a professional smoke damage clean-up company and they start work at 8 am tomorrow. It may also involve screening off the south end of the Hall to hide the damage. The second stage is repair work that can be done during the August close-down. This will involve a complete clean of the Hall walls and ceiling and the removal of the right-hand portion of the screen for restoration work and its replacement with a temporary structure. If we are lucky it may also include a complete redecoration of the Hall although I fear there may be no time for this. The third and final stage will take place in the August close-down next year. This will involve the re-instatement of restored screen and complete redecoration if there is no time for this in stage two.
We will inevitably lose some commercial bookings but I am confident that these will be manageable and the loss will, of course, be insured.
The accident is obviously a tragedy and it is so sad that the 350-year-old screen, which survived the blitz, should have fallen foul of 21st Century electrics! All of us here on the staff are devastated but we are determined to move forward with sorting things out and I am certain that no one is to blame for what was a simple accident. To put things in perspective, it could have been a lot worse and the main blessing is that no one was injured; the 18-month wait to get things put right will be a negligible blip in the 600-year history of our Company. I am also touched my the many messages of support and offers of help from other Livery Companies.
Lastly I would like to pay tribute to Ron, Paul, Sam and Life's Kitchen, the caterers, for ensuring that this terrible incident caused no injury or harm to our guests.