The cause of the fire is still unknown and there was never an official inquiry. There were rumours of arson at the time, but this appears unlikely. It was probably an electrical fault or cigarette end in the office area of the building.
The palace – which was erected at Hyde Park in 1851 before being moved to Sydenham Hill, south London – had been patched up extensively down the years with wood. It also contained a lot of wooden furniture, a lot of assorted junk, and wooden flooring. Having been in a greenhouse for decades, this wood was tinder-dry.
There had been several other fires in the palace before. The building itself was a natural flue, and the loss of wooden panels where glass should have been, combined with a strong wind, turned it into an inferno whose glow was visible as far away as Brighton.
Over 400 firemen fought the blaze, while 750 police officers struggled to contain the immense crowd of sightseers. The palace was 25 smouldering acres of wreckage by the following morning, with only Brunel’s two vast water towers at either end still standing. Fortunately, no one was killed.