Also intrigued by the identity of the factory's owner, described as the Duke of Normandy. There is a report in the London Gazette from 1843, not long after this fire, of a 'Charles Louis Bourbon, Duke of Normandy, late of Minerva House, New Cross, Deptford, Surrey, Trader, Modelist and Machinist' being 'In the Gail of Horsemonger Lane' for debt. Clearly this is the same person, name sounds very distressed French aristocracy.
'INCENDIARISM AT NEW CROSS
Late on Sunday night last the inhabitants residing in the vicinity of New-cross, near Deptford, were thrown into considerable alarm by the outbreak of destructive fire on some premises attached to the residence of the Duke of Normandy and Count Wallusee, known as Minerva-house, situated on the west side of the Old Kent-road, within a few yards of the New-cross turnpike-gate, which on inquiry was ascertained to be a manufactory carried on the Duke of Normandy for the construction of rockets, shells, and other implements of warfare.
The factory so called consisted of two back buildings, two floors in height, and occupied a frontage of about 35 feet, at the extremity of the garden in the rear of the dwelling-house, and they are said to have contained, besides machinery, a great quantity of valuable models of various missiles. For considerable time before the flames burst forth the police on duty in the immediate neighbourhood observed a strong smell of wood burning, and not being able to discover whence it proceeded, though at the same time convinced that fire must be kindling, they determined upon arousing the inhabitants residing near the near the spot, which was quickly effected, and shortly afterwards the fire was found raging in the upper floor of the premises.
The Duke of Normandy and Count Wallusee were soon at the fire, and in the course of few minutes a large number of the surrounding inhabitants came to their assistance, who exerted every effort to prevent the flames from spreading, but it was found wholly impossible to do so, in consequence of there being no water, and in very short time the principal part of the works was completely in a blaze. Immediately on the discovery being made, an express was started to the metropolis to give intelligence of the fire to the various engine stations, and in about half-an-hour several belonging to the Brigade, from the stations in Southwark-bridge-road, Morgan’s lane, Waterloo-road, and Watling-street, with the superintendant of the force, Mr. Braidwood, arrived alongside of the burning premises. The firemen, however, not being able to get the engines to work for the want of a supply of water, they were but of little avail, but ultimately the fire was prevented from extending beyond the building in which it commenced and which is totally destroyed.
From what has since been ascertained, it appears beyond doubt that the fire was the act of an incendiary, who obtained entrance into the premises by means of a skeleton key, which was discovered by the police in the door of the factory, the approach to which was a narrow dark lane at the back, and from circumstances that have transpired it is expected that the guilty party will in a few hours be in the custody of the police. About three weeks since the Duke of Normandy, in consequence of a threatening letter received, endeavoured to effect insurance on the property in the Sun Fire-office, but the directors declined the offer on account of the heavy sum which was required. The premises destroyed have only been erected few months, and were wholly detached from any other premises.
The Duke of Normandy, in an interview with the reporter yesterday, said no one worked in the factory but himself, and that the whole of his improved rockets, models, and other important inventions, were destroyed. Several them had been highly approved of by Her Majesty’s Government, and it was their intention to have introduced them into the services, but some difficulties ensued respecting the treaty of which was required 60,000 which was required by by the noble Duke, and the offer was abandoned. He estimates his loss at upwards of 4,000'.
(not sure from the report what the unit of currency was - presumably pounds or guineas)
The Duke seems to have had an eventful life - and/or been a fantasist. In January 1845 it was reported that 'Charles Louis de Bourbon, commonly known as the Duke of Normandy' was subject of an alleged assassination attempt 'at his residence, Mulgrave House, Kings Road, Fulham'. The Duke claimed that a bullet missed him by 'an inch or two' and blamed the attack on 'Roman Catholics' who were 'against him for having lately abjured their creed. Three weeks previously he had received a latter from a French priest, warning him of a plot to take his life, and he had also received two other communications informing him of a conspiracy against him amongst some Frenchmen' (Royal Cornwall Gazette, 10 January 1845).
Update: in a comment to this post, Caroline has suggested that this character appears to be Karl Wilhelm Naundorff (1785-1845), a German watchmaker and weapon designer who styled himself Charles Louis de Bourbon and claimed to be heir to the French throne (i.e. Louis XVII as the child of the executed Louis XVI). In the 1820s he was accused of arson and counterfeiting in Germany - which maybe casts doubt on his claim that New Cross fire was started by others. He was deported by French authorities to England in 1836.
|Naundorff - self-styled Louis XVII of New Cross|
An 1893 book written on behalf of a rival claimant to the throne confirms that Naundorff was the 'Duke of Normandy' living in New Cross at this time, surrounded by a court of the 'subservient disciples of Minerva House'. The author suggests that 'The truth probably was that Naundorff caused the accident himself, through some carelessness in handling the inflammable materials in which he was working' and that the arsonist angle had been developed for publicity purposes (see: 'The story of Louis XVII of France' by Elizabeth Edson Gibson Evans, 1893).