Fire at the Richmond House in December of 1791

On 21 December 1791, at half past eight in the morning, a fire broke out on the second floor at the Richmond House. It began in the bedroom of Henriette Le Clerc,* who was referred to as the “Poor Orphan” and may or may not be the daughter of the Duke of Richmond. Apparently, Le Clerc awoke to find that an ember from the fireplace had landed on the bedroom curtains, which then sparked the fire.  

Henrietta le Clerc, Richmond House

Henrietta le Clerc. Public domain.

Clothed in nothing more than a dressing gown, she escaped the room and made her way downstairs to the library where her father, Charles Lennox, 3rd Duke of Richmond, was writing a letter. She sounded the alarm, and she, the Duke, and the Duchess, carrying her favorite dog under her arm, then escaped the house.

Safe from the fire, the Duke and Duchess were soon in despair as no engines appeared and there was “very little readiness either in the astonished servants, or the populace, to afford assistance.”[1] In fact, several newspapers claimed that, “he seemed likely to be, in a very short time, witness to the destruction of his entire property there.”[2]

Mary, Duchess of Richmond. Public domain.

Fortunately, some helpful citizens, about eight or nine, willingly returned to the house and saved valuable items from the second floor — either carrying them down the stairs or lowering them from the upstairs windows — three looking glasses and two large cabinets. As the fire raged on, all the furniture, papers, books (thrown from a window onto a mattress), valuable paintings and busts, and wall hangings were retrieved and saved from the first floor.

At one point, one of the Duke’s favorite spaniels was seen at a Richmond House window in an upper apartment frantically jumping and trying to force his way through the glass. The Duke offered a reward to anyone brave soul willing to rescue the spaniel. A courageous waterman volunteered. Using a ladder, he climbed to the window and tore open the sash. He then retrieved the spaniel and brought it to safety. The waterman’s reward was eleven guineas, and the person who held the ladder, received two guineas.

3rd Duke of Richmond, Courtesy of Wikipedia

3rd Duke of Richmond. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

About an hour after the fire began at the Richmond House, the fire engines appeared. The fire engines were operated by the guards wearing dress uniforms. However, they found it difficult to control the fire as indicated by the Norfolk Chronicle who reported:

“Before the engines arrived, the flames had got to such a height that it was a considerable time before they could be in any degree reduced.”[3]

The Duke of York also appeared with about 300 men from the Coldstream regiment, who then assisted the watermen. Around the same time, other noblemen, including the Duke of Clarence also appeared. The Duke of Clarence then assisted, “particularly with the floating engines; … [and] was frequently nearly up to his knees in water.”[4] Fighting the fire was no easy task. the Norfolk Chronicle reported:

“The flames raged with great violence till about twelve o’clock, when the roof falling in, the conflagration was prevented from spreading any further, though great fears were entertained for some time, that Lord George Lenox’s house adjoining would share in the calamity, but by the exertions of the firemen and people who assisted, this was prevented.”[5]

During the fire a large crowd of spectators congregated to watch it, just like spectators did when a fire broke out in 1925 at Madame Tussaud‘s wax museum where three of Napoleon Bonaparte’s irreplaceable carriages were destroyed and where witnesses reported seeing 50-foot multi-colored leaping flames.

In the case of the Richmond House fire control of the crowd was left to the Duke of York. As he was giving directions to his men, a stranger got in his way and reportedly used “the most abusive language.”[3] The police were called, and the interfering man was arrested and held for about two hours before he was released. Additionally, at some point, a pickpocket got close enough to the Duke of York to steal his gold watch.

Duke of York, Painted by Sir Joshua Reynolds, Courtesy of Wikipedia

Duke of York by Sir Joshua Reynolds. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Around noon, shortly after everyone had evacuated the building, the roof of the Richmond House collapsed. When it fell in, a great quantity of bricks and coping stones came down with it. The fire continued to burn slightly at the back of the house after the collapse, thus control over the fire was not achieved until about four o’clock in the afternoon. Fortunately, no lives were lost, and although the Duke had no insurance and lost the value of Richmond House, most of the contents of the house were saved as his estimated losses related to the contents amounted to fifteen hundred pounds. As to those things saved, the Hereford Journal reported:

“Upon the whole it appears, that the endeavours then used for the preservation of the valuable furniture and effects, were so far successful, that all the papers in the office fronting towards the garde, and appropriate by the Duke to ordnance business are saved; all the furniture on the first floor, even to the hangings of the Duke’s bed; all his private papers with the letter which he had left unfinished, and the valuable paints, are saved. One looking-glass of great value was broken and left behind, the others were carried down the great stair-case.

The books in the library were saved by being thrown from the windows … The model of the new house intended to be built by the Duke at Goodwood, and all the valuable busts from the library, were also saved.”[6]

*There seems to be a lot of confusion over Le Clerc’s heritage. Some sources claim she was the Duke of Richmond’s natural daughter with his wife Mary Bruce. Others maintain she was his illegitimate daughter by his housekeeper, and still others claim her mother was a Frenchwoman and there was no relation to the Duke.

References:

  • [1] “London, Thursday, December 22,” in the Hereford Journal, 28 December 1791, p. 1.
  • [2] Ibid.
  • [3] “Fire at Richmond House,” in Norfolk Chronicle, 24 December 1791, p. 2.
  • [4] “Fire at the Duke of Richmond’s,” in Oxford Journal, 24 December 1791, p. 2.
  • [5] “Fire at Richmond House,” p. 2.
  • [6] “Fire at the Duke of Richmond’s,” p. 2.

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