Today (February 9) in London History – England’s Hollywood Burns Down

It was the worst fire in the history of British motion pictures. England’s Hollywood – Elstree Studios – went up in flames on February 9, 1936. This, our Today (February 9) in London History podcast tells the tale.


The English Hollywood burned down today – February 9, 1936. 

The English Hollywood is of course the legendary Elstree Studios.

The superlatives tell the story of the towering inferno. As do the statistics.

It was the most disastrous fire – the most destructive fire – in the history of British motion pictures.

It was one of the most spectacular fires ever seen in the country. 

An eyewitness described it as “a roaring inferno.”

The flames roared up into the sky over 100 feet above the structure. Clouds of black smoke could be seen for miles. Corrugated iron roofs buckled like burning paper. Girders and pipes writhed like snakes in the terrific heat. 

Hundreds of firemen and nine engines fought the blaze. All brigades of the neighbourhood were called out.

The fire broke out shortly before 2 am. It was finally brought under control at 5.30 am. 

Five acres of studio buildings were destroyed.

Six of nine studios were destroyed. The affected studios were a wreck of hot, twisted metal. 

The whole five-acre complex became a glowing pile.

A glowing pile that illuminated the country for miles around.

The damage was estimated at £450,000 – £34 million pounds in today’s money.

British & Dominions Film corporation lost three stages, 40 dressing rooms, 24 offices, three reception rooms, a converting room and a wax shaving room. British International Film Corporation lost three of their nine sound stages, their central recording department and 36 dressing rooms and offices.

About a thousand employees were thrown out of work. 

It took some six months to rebuild.

Cause of the fire? Unknown.

One mercy, no lives were lost.

And after the big picture, the vignettes, the personal details. They’re no less arresting. No less telling.

One of the dressing rooms that went up in flames was actress Helen Vinson’s. She lost her entire wardrobe, a gramophone given her by husband, Fred Perry, the tennis star, photographs of American friends and the make-up box given her by her mother when she first went on the stage. She said it had been her mascot throughout her acting career.

The actor Clive Brook lost his collection of wigs – every wig he had ever worn on stage and screen.

The walls of the office of Captain Richard Norton, one of the directors of the British and Dominion Corporation had been covered with photographs of his film friends, most of them stars. After the fire, only one remained undamaged – a photograph of Charlie Chaplin.

It was some comfort, I suppose, that the British & Dominion office safe was recovered intact – it had done its job, protected the £11,000 that it held. 

Ok, well, that’s the story except for perhaps a bit of context. Elstree, the Hollywood of England was just a youngster when the fire broke out. It got started in the 1920s when a young British film producer Herbert Wilcox and Hollywood producer J.D. Williams plumped for the location because of its easy access by road and rail to central London. And because it was out of “pea-souper” range – the infamous London fog – of the inner city.

And from signing up-and-coming director Alfred Hitchcock – who gave the world ‘Blackmail’, the first British talking film – right through to the Star Wars and Indiana Jones films, Elstree has been a world-beater. Notwithstanding that spot of bother on February 1936. 

Good night from London. See ya tomorrow. 

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