Cause of Blenheim Palace fire deaths ‘will never be known’

The remains of the cottage on Blenheim estate were discovered on November 9 (Picture by Richard Leonard)

The cause of deaths for a “polite and cheerful” elderly couple who died in a blaze at their cottage on the Blenheim Palace estate will never be known, a coroner has said.

Donald Thompson, 92, and his wife Dilys, 81, were killed in a fire which swept through Fisheries Cottage, where they had lived for 48 years to the north of the lakes in the palace grounds, last November.

It is thought the blaze occurred unnoticed in the evening before the charred remains of the cottage were discovered at 7.50am the following morning by passers-by who then called the emergency services.

The remains of Donald, a retired gamekeeper, were never found and Dilys, a former horticulturist, was only identified by the serial number of a hip replacement discovered in a downstairs hallway.

Carer Noel Douglas, who offered personal care to Donald, from north Yorkshire, visited the home the day before the fire and described the pair as “polite and cheerful”.

He was the last person to see them.

Their daughter, Annie Thompson-Lynch, spoke to Dilys, also from north Yorkshire, on the phone at 4pm on Tuesday, November 8 and said her mother “was absolutely fine”.

But disaster was to strike shortly afterwards and it wasn’t until the following morning a member of garden staff from the palace raised the alarm after the fire had naturally burnt out unnoticed.

There are no properties within site and no passing traffic, meaning there were no witnesses.

This made the emergency services’ investigation into the rampant inferno more difficult, as a forensic scientist revealed they were “not sure when it started or how long it raged for”.

He speculated that it could have been burning for several hours but that it was “not possible to narrow the timescale down at all”.

Designated fire investigator, station manager at Oxfordshire Fire & Rescue Service Bob Speakmen said: “The fire had been so severe the building had burnt itself out.”

The roof and the first floor collapsed in on the ground floor and left the walls in an “unsupported condition”, he added, causing investigations to be delayed by two days due to safety concerns.

One possible cause of the fire is that hot ember fell from the ash pan of their Rayburn cooker onto combustible material unseen.

Matthew Neilson, a Blenheim Palace Estate property manager for 10 years, said there were no requests from Donald or Dilys to repair the cooker, as they were required to do if there were faults with their home.

Mr Speakman added there could have been “three or four other causes”.

At Oxford Coroner’s Court on Thursday (March 16) Darren Salter returned a verdict of ‘accidental death’ and said they “likely died due to smoke inhalation and/or burns”, adding the deaths “must have been a great shock” for the family.

“I have to be really satisfied by a cause but what we are talking about here are possible causes,” he said.

As a result, Mr Salter will write to Blenheim Palace Estates “to get some reassurances of the safety of vulnerable residence” and to ensure maintenance on the homes that need it is carried out.

“The extent of the damage is such that it is not possible to establish the cause of the fire with certainty but there are a number of possible causes including a hot ember falling from the ash pan of the Rayburn cooker and igniting combustible material or heat conducted through the repaired panel on the Rayburn igniting combustible items,” he added.

Dr Trevor Turner, Donald’s GP, described him as “frail” and housebound after suffering a minor stroke in 1978 and having to use a walking frame.

Dilys had recently seen her GP, Dr Tanya Frankel, for fatigue and low mood issues and, after consultation, decided to get in carers to help look after Donald.

Their pet dog was never identified.

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