When a fire rips through a museum with devastating results, precious artefacts with unique stories potentially lost, how can you salvage and restore what is left behind?
When a fire rips through a museum with devastating results, those unique stories can be lost.
Surrey Infantry Museum, which was based at 18th century Clandon Park for over 30 years, suffered such an incident. With our help and restoration experts Farcroft, we responded to save the collection from being lost forever.
On 29 April 2015, fire engulfed Clandon Park destroying the Grade I listed stately home. The Surrey Infantry Museum, situated in its basement that houses artefacts and archives from the Queen’s Royal Surrey Regiment, was also destroyed, and the 85 firefighters tackling the blaze gave evacuation orders at 7.30pm as it was too dangerous to continue.
Among the museum’s collections, was approximately 2,300 pre-1936 medals presented on an impressive display wall, in cabinets with Perspex tops, and in a multi draw metal cabinet.
The collection contained four replica Victoria Cross (VC) medals, the highest award for gallantry. One of these was awarded to WWI serviceman Arthur Fleming-Sandes in November, 1915 for most conspicuous bravery. Under bombing
and heavy machine-fire, and surrounded by exhausted men, he picked up some of the bombs, stood on the parapet in full view, and threw them at the enemy. His gallantry revived and rallied the men and saved the situation.
A third of the medal collection and all the medal ribbons, plus other irreplaceable artefacts such as the football famously kicked across No Man’s Land at the Battle of the Somme, were lost in the fire.
The salvage operation took two years, after which the gargantuan task to identify and sort the artefacts ensued. Farcrofts, restoration specialists, were appointed by us to lead the restoration.
Ashley Clarke, Director, Farcroft says the trustees set to work building an inventory of the medals that had been recovered from the debris. “All pre-1936 medals have a surname on the rim and we were able to clean up most to make them identifiable. The trustees have detailed written records of the medals as well as a phenomenal knowledge of stories about the soldiers they were awarded to. This was invaluable as we arranged the medals into sets and decided which were viable to restore.”
Around 1400 medals that remained in the debris have since been painstakingly recovered and carefully processed to minimise the risk of contamination. Many were covered in aluminium, which had melted onto them during the fire so they had to be ‘freed’, before identification.
Paul Humphris, Claims Specialist Consultant at Ecclesiastical says that his first site visit and initial inspection showed what appeared to be very little left of the museum. The team sifted through, they found gems that had survived.
Over three years since the fire, the restoration project continues. Over two thirds of the medal collection have now been accounted for but a significant number remain missing.
Stephen Johnson, Manager at the museum, says The Surrey Infantry Museum can once again be proud to be the custodian of a medal collection of national importance. “We look forward to returning them to public display, initially in our current temporary location at the Surrey History Centre in Woking and, after completion of its refurbishment and expansion project, at Guildford Museum which will become Surrey Infantry Museum’s permanent home.”