Was the 1984 fire arson?

The Battle of Britain House burned down on the 17th of August 1984 – apparently a very hot summer day. The following – second hand – account of what happened on the day of the fire was related to me by Mr John Bates, on a social media conversation we had in June 2020 :

“From memory I recall the loss of this beautiful building. From what I understand (it may not be totally accurate but came from my friend, a Fireman who attended the fire). Building and redecoration work had been started and paint stripper, or some other similar flammable product had been used to remove paint from wooden fittings (doors, skirting etc). The workman broke for lunch and went off, the room(s) were not left ventilated (windows left open) and I believe the build up of flammable fumes reached a critical point, when they came back from lunch something or someone triggered the blaze (a workman smoking, or someone turning on something electrical which possible caused a spark?) My friend who was based at Hillingdon Station attended this fire (Ruislip would have attended first being the nearest – assuming they were not already out on a ‘shout’). He said the blaze was so intense they they could not put enough water onto it to try and control the blaze, more units were called in from the surrounding area and to get more water onto it they brought in hose laying fire trucks to tap into other water supplies. My friend and his wife were meant to be holding a BBQ that evening, I arrived with my then girlfriend at 7pm to help them set up only to find he was not there and she was trying to do everything! He arrived home just after 8pm looking rather blackened from fighting the fire, after a quick shower and change of clothes he told us the reason why he was late getting home (he should have finished his shift at 6pm). When he left crews were still in attendance damping down to prevent any possible re-ignition of the fire. Again, this was a very long time ago and my memory may not be what it once was but I think its fairly accurate.”

There are two photos of the house shortly after the fire that ruined it (published by Colin Bowlt of the Ruislip, Northwood & Eastcote Local History Society in a 2011 journal). The photos show the destruction caused by the immense blaze. It appears that the roof and 1st floor have all but collapsed to the ground, apart from the chimney stacks. We also get an idea about the size and layout of the mansion.

The nature of the fire was accidental

All accounts show that the fire was accidental as much as it was catastrophic. In November 2020, I have been asked by Jo Good on BBC Radio London as to whether it could have been arson. I am on record stating that I have no reason to suspect otherwise.

There are two points, however, that should concern everyone who is interested in the history of the site. Following the fire, there was a prolonged period of consultation between the council between and local citizen groups. This lasted for nearly a decade : there were proposals to turn it into a Woodland Centre, a Youth Hostel, a Conference Hall, or more housing for the borough. However, the delays and setbacks owing to the prolonged consultation process resulted in the ancillary dormitory buildings, which had survived the 1984 fire, being vandalized, eventually rendering any development on the site much more complex and costlier than originally thought. Then there were those who argued that the site should be returned to the woods, which is what happened in the end, in dramatic fashion : an unexpected flash by-election appears to have swung the council’s opinion towards green conservation. This 1993 change finally decided the fate of the site, eventually returning it to the woods. The consultation between the local citizen groups and the council (described in detail by Colin Bowlt of the Ruislip, Northwood & Eastcote Local History Society in a 2011 journal) was by all means intense, and could have gone either way. Despite the outcome, however (which by all means I consider favourable), more could have been done to preserve what remained of the mansion and its heritage. In the end, and perhaps for lack of broader awareness about the secret history of the site, the discussion about its future happened between groups that didn’t really saw a reason to preserve it at its present state, as it was at the time..

Ruislip Lido being built 1935 . (Photo by Staff/Mirrorpix/Getty Images)

Then the nearby Ruislip Lido comes to mind. The 1935 Modernist marvel by George W. Smith was vandalized and eventually set ablaze in 1993, leading to its demolition a year later. Alongside the Ruislip Woods mansion, the old Lido would been another most beautiful historic building in the borough. The fact that both of these great buildings have been lost to fire is probably a coincidence… if we’re looking for crimes, it’d probably be ignorance, before arson – but always allowing for mitigating circumstances which was the top secret history of the site, which was still being declassified in 1993. The buildings of Ruislip Woods represented a great, irreplaceable loss of heritage for Ruislip.

Nevertheless, if you’ve seen, heard or just want to come forward with any information about the fires – please contact me at explore@explorabilia.co.uk or by using the form below :