Fire at the Cuming Museum, London (c) London SE17, @se17 /

Investigators believe Cuming Museum fire started by building contractors

Patrick Steel, 14.05.2013
Fire started accidentally by roofers using blow torch
The Cuming Museum fire was caused by roofers using a blow torch, investigators for the London Fire Brigade (LFB) believe.

A report into the incident, completed last month but only now made public, reveals investigators believed that the fire was caused by building work being carried out on the roof.

According to an LFB spokeswoman, it is believed that the fire was started accidentally.

The council is carrying out its own investigation into the incident, which saw the loss of two out of three of the museum’s displays and water damage to a number of objects in storage as over 100 fire fighters struggled to contain the blaze.

A council spokeswoman said: "We are close to completing our investigations on the cause of the fire, including the possibility that the fire may have resulted from work being carried out on the roof of the building.

"The council will give full consideration to the final report and will need to properly consider what, if any, further action it wishes to take."

Meanwhile, it was revealed that following the fire thieves broke into the burnt-out museum building and stole an ornate Asian tray along with some personal possessions belonging to museum staff.

The crime has been reported to the police, and the council believes that the tray was the only object stolen from the museum.

The thieves risked death by entering the museum building where parts of the roof have collapsed and asbestos has been discovered.

Veronica Ward, cabinet member for culture, said: “Anyone entering this building without the proper safety equipment and expertise is literally taking their life in their own hands.

“We are devastated that in addition to the losses suffered in the recent fire, we have now lost at least one other artefact to a thief.”

The museum's onsite services remain closed. The council’s conservation team is collaborating with English Heritage on the recovery of the listed fabric of the building.


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Malcolm J Watkins
MA Member
Director, Heritage Matters
15.05.2013, 12:26
This sounds remarkably similar to the incident at Uppark (if I recall correctly) where the fire started due to contractors with blow torches causing fire to occur out of sight. I don't remember the details, but do recall that it was an incident which was avoidable, and that as a result we were advised to require contractors to avoid the use of hot methods for work. Not always possible, perhaps, but is it something which could be mitigated by the requirement of perhaps temporary smoke detection systems around the areas of work?
As for the thieves........
Patrick Steel
MA Member
Website Editor, Museums Association
15.05.2013, 12:35

It's important to reiterate that in the case of the Cuming, the LFB's finding was that the fire was started accidentally, and the council is still carrying out investigations. At this stage, no party has been deemed liable for the damage.
Malcolm J Watkins
MA Member
Director, Heritage Matters
16.05.2013, 09:55
I reflected the statement ‘The Cuming Museum fire was caused by roofers using using a blow torch, investigators for the London Fire Brigade (LFB) believe’ which seemed unequivocal given that it was originally alleged a month earlier and now made public, but I made (and make) no suggestion that any individual or organization is responsible for the Cuming fire. The situation is open.
The Uppark fire was blamed on accidental causes arising from hot works in the building. The recommendation was therefore that we should enact rules governing the use of hot works. It is a lesson worth remembering. The roofs of many historic buildings and museums are largely open spaces with good conditions for spreading fire. Have we learned to control the use of hot works, as recommended? If not, should the profession not adopt such controls with as immediate an effect as possible?
If readers are unfamiliar with the Uppark case, it was disastrous for the building, but clearly showed the value of well-tested and understood procedures for the emergency evacuation of the collections.