London Fire Brigade

LFB 150: Remembering the Cutty Sark fire 2007

21 May 2016

As we celebrate our 150th anniversary we're looking back at some of the most significant and some of the more unusual incidents that have taken place since we were formed in 1866.

The Cutty Sark is one of the last tea clippers to be built at the height of British sailing ship design before steam propulsion was introduced to ship building. Today marks the anniversary of when the fire roared across the clipper, reducing it to a charred wreck.

Eight fire engines, 40 firefighters and an aerial appliance with seven jets battled the 100ft flames that engulfed the ship in Greenwich whilst it was undergoing a £25 million restoration.

Terrible feeling

Commissioner Dany Cotton, a Group Manager at the time, was the overall monitoring officer present on scene. She recalls: "It was a Sunday morning and I was paged at home at 6 am about a fire at Cutty Sark.

"I remember feeling terrible, as I drove to the Cutty Sark, thinking, I hope it hasn’t burned down."

The police had already started evacuating residents in the surrounding buildings.

"When I reached the scene the fire was still in progress and although the brilliant work of the initial crews had managed to bring the fire under control, it was still very much alight.

"As the monitoring officer I was responsible for assessing the various risks at the site."

Hidden dangers

"During the refurbishment the workmen had stored gas cylinders on the site. Getting these out was a priority to avoid an explosion."

The ship's timber would have been impregnated with tar – an old ship building technique for preservation and waterproofing – and that helped the fire to keep on burning.

By 7am the fire was under control but the ship was a smoking, blackened wreck. The metal scaffolding around it had twisted in the intense heat framed what was left of the Cutty Sark.

"Cutty Sark is really personal to me as I remember visiting her as a child, and then I worked in the Borough of Greenwich as a Station Commander for five years, so I have an emotional connection with it – it defines what London is to me. Seeing it like that was devastating," added Dany.

Media interest

The Cutty Sark is a symbol of Britain's maritime heritage and one of London’s leading tourist attractions today.

"I have never seen so many people from the media before. I had to give interviews to reporters where the questions were in Russian, Chinese and Japanese without any interpreters involved."

The restoration experts surveyed the damage and concluded that it wasn't as bad as they first thought.

More than half of the ship's structure and other artefacts had already been removed from the site for restoration and were safe. Cutty Sark was restored and reopened to the public on 25 April 2012.

Cause of the fire

A joint investigation by the London Fire Brigade and the Forensic Science Service later established that the fire was caused by an industrial vacuum cleaner which was left running on site.

Since the incident Dany has visited Cutty Sark on a number of occasions during the rebuild and refit including the opening gala dinner where Prince Philip was the guest of honour.