London's Forgotten Disasters: The Colney Hatch Fire

By M@ Last edited 69 months ago
London's Forgotten Disasters: The Colney Hatch Fire

Last night, in a room packed with London historians, we asked for a show of hands: how many people had heard of the Colney Hatch Asylum fire? Only one person raised a hand, and he was a member of London Fire Brigade.

On 27 January 1903, 52 people, all female, lost their lives when a fire swept through the Colney Hatch Lunatic Asylum. This high death toll marks the tragedy as the worst peacetime fire in London's history since the medieval period. Yet it's rare to find a Londoner who's heard of it.

Colney Hatch Asylum in New Southgate, operated by the London County Council, was an institution housing over 3,000 of the "pauper insane". The facility had been identified as at significant fire risk by authorities — many of the inmates were housed in temporary timber wings, and the complex was famous for its long corridors.

In 1903, the inevitable happened. One of the timber wards caught fire and, aided by strong winds, the conflagration spread. The asylum's fire-fighting ability was limited, and the local fire authorities had to dam a stream to raise sufficient water for dousing.

A press report from the Boston Evening Transcript paints a very grim picture of the ensuing tragedy:

Some of the lunatics were burned in their beds, and the charred remains of others were found huddled together in corners, while groups of partially consumed bodies on the site of the corridors showed that many persons lost their lives and sacrificed those of others in their frantic efforts to force a passage through the flames to the main building.

In the early 20th Century, psychiatric patients were held in very low regard. The same press cutting offers several insights into the views of the time. Beneath the headline "50 Lunatics Perish" runs the subheading "Many Escaped and Are Now at Large", as though these unfortunate women were dangerous criminals. It's also noted that the fire occurred in the Jewish Wing — this may have been partly for practical reasons, such as shared dietary needs, but the temptation is to suspect a prejudice.

Very little further information can be found online. A Times cutting describes the disaster in less lurid tones, others are gathered here. The Wikipedia page for the institution offers just one sentence.

After the fire, the Colney Hatch Asylum was renamed Friern Hospital, and remained a centre for psychiatric care until closing in 1993. The main buildings are now luxury apartments, called Princess Park Manor. The developer's web site doesn't mention the tragic fire. In fact, the 'History' section makes no mention of the building's former function as an asylum. The Colney Hatch fire is truly one of London's forgotten disasters.

See also: London's worst disasters mapped.

Image by Tyla'75 in the Londonist Flickr pool.

Last Updated 26 September 2012

Mark Walley

I imagine there's a reason the developer's behind the Princess Park Manor don't advertise that your new flat is built on a lunatic asylum that was burnt down almost exactly a hundred years ago, killing fifty-two people with it..

John Withington

You can read the story of the fire in my book - A Disastrous History of Britain P107

Wendy F

There was a fantastic documentary about the development of the building, comparing its transfer from one "closed" community to another. If anyone knows how I could, I'd love to see it again.


I have just bought the book, The Last Asylum, by Barbara Taylor. It looks to be a very interesting one and is centred on the Friern Hospital. I have suffered with Bipolar Disorder for 38 years and I don't know to this day how I am able to be married for 25 of those years and to also have 3 children. My husband is a Godsend.

Pat L

I worked there around 1960 & of course, knew nothing of the fire. Although I think it was officially Friern Barnet Hospital, it was still known as Coney Hatch Mental Asylum. Some of the practices were quite prehistoric even then & I recall reading some of the patients' notes, some women who had been there since WW1 times, incarcerated for stealing a handkerchief in one case. This probably meant poverty & homelessness. I wish I had studied someting of the history back then.

Sylvia Emmy

@mattbrown....I read your several articles on accidents that were forgotten in London....they are very good and it's nice to know your articles are out there to read and to let us know about these stories......thank you from California .......


Used to live near there. Ashley Cole is apparently a current resident!