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10 October 2012 | By: M@

London's Forgotten Disasters: The Denmark Street Fire

London's Forgotten Disasters: The Denmark Street Fire


On the evening of 16 August 1980, a fire ripped through two nightclubs on Denmark Street. 37 people were killed. This was London's worst fire since the Second World War, more deadly even than the famous King's Cross fire seven years later. Although the conflagration took place just yards from Centre Point on one of London's most famous streets, and within the lifetime of many readers, we suspect that few will know about it. Wikipedia makes no mention. Nor does the London Encyclopedia.

Denmark Street, also known as Tin Pan Alley, is famed for its musical connections. Hendrix, the Rolling Stones, the Sex Pistols and many others lived or recorded tracks down this short street. To this day, it's lined with guitar shops, small venues and other musical distractions.

Back in the early '80s, the street had a reputation for unlicensed nightclubs and illegal gambling dens. Two in particular — Rodo's and El Hueco — were popular with immigrant workers from South America, attracted to one of London's first salsa spots. Both clubs were illegal and were scheduled for closure by authorities just two days later.

150 people were packed into the three-storey building that night. One of their number was thrown out for fighting; the front door was locked behind him. Disgruntled, he returned with a can of petrol, poured it through the letterbox and started a fire. With dozens of people locked inside, in what were essentially wooden buildings, and with no proper fire escape, tragedy was inevitable.

John Withington, in his excellent book London's Disasters, describes the horrific scenes that awaited Soho's fire brigade:

"One fire officer said 'People seem to have died on the spot without even having time to move an inch.' Some were slumped at tables. Seven were at the bar and appear to have fallen as they stood, with drinks still in their hands."

The desperation of those trapped inside is shocking, and you may want to skip the next quote.

"Some people had ripped shutters from the windows and broken the glass with their bare hands, then jumped to the ground with their clothes on fire, smashing bones. Survivors spoke of the screaming, the skin peeling off faces, of trying to get out by the back door but finding it locked."

The blaze claimed 37 lives. It was the most fatal peacetime fire in central London since Medieval days. Yet, as we saw with the Colney Hatch fire, the victims, illegal immigrants for the most part, were from an under-appreciated sector of society. Many of the survivors, including the injured, walked away from the scene, not wanting to attract the attention of the authorities. The tragedy was soon forgotten by most people. As far as we know, it is not commemorated by any memorial.

We should finish by acknowledging that the horrific events of that night are, of course, not forgotten by the survivors and the relatives of those who perished. And, doubtless, a fair few readers will remember the news reports of the time. But we suspect that this appalling event will be utterly unknown to most Londoners. It certainly has far less resonance than the King's Cross Tube fire which, although devastating in its own right, killed fewer people. For this reason, we don't feel uncomfortable including such a recent tragedy in our series on “forgotten” disasters. It deserves to be more widely known.

See also:

M@

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Jenny Elizabeth Wren

You know Wikipedia can be edited by anyone, right?

HoosierSands

The fire was actually on Denmark Place, the little alley just north of the buildings on Denmark Street. The fire brigade apparently had some difficulty getting their vehicles in (if they ever did) because of the narrow access. This crime was a dreadful incident and merits some form of commemoration.

Just to clarify the perpetrator, John Thompson, sentenced to life for this, wasn't South American or an illegal immigrant by the way.

Hooligan

Just caught up with this thread. There is quite a detailed report on this in a book called "Salsa For People Who Probably Shouldn't" by Matt Rendell. Mainstream Publishing 2011.

Nicola Reid

My dad was one of the men killed in this fire,his name was alexander smith reid,I was 5 :(

MichelleC

HI everyone, I know this is a long shot, but I am trying to find out about someone who died in the fire. His name was Badereddin El Bulati, he was a Libyan national, working in London - if anyone remembers him could you let me know, his son only recently found out how his father died and he is desperate to find out more information. Many thanks. ps does anyone know which police station investigated the fire - was it Soho, Met?

Angela Smith Reid

Hi there my name is Angela Smith Reid my dad Alexander Smith Reid died in that fire my mum was 4mths pregnant with me at the time so i never got to meet my dad my two older sisters remember him my big brother was a yr old 3days after my dad died so he didn't remember him either, if anyone knew my dad it would be nice to hear what he was like.. Sadly my big brother passed away on the same month my dad died he would of been 23 2wks after died (they are together now) so august isn't a good month for us.. I would like to thank the people who are trying to get a memorial plaque put up on Denmark Place for all of our loved & lost one's, thank you so much for taking the time to try & make this happen.. I have been looking for information about what happened that night for yrs & I've never found a thing about it, if it wasn't for the tiny bit about it in the paper when it happened i would of been questioning whether it was true or not because there was nothing about it, which is terrible!!!! So again thankyou so much for xx

dawn

My father died in this fire, I would really like to find more information on this, can anyone point me in the right direction please?

Suki

I'm trying to find the daughter and son(Bernice and Barnaby) of Christine who also died in this fire, I was told after their mothers death they were moved to Australia? I would love to hear from them, we were very close growing up together (Wandsworth road) we were devastated when they moved away. Christine was my mothers best friend and my mother would had been with her that night but she couldn't get a babysitter. (Thanks god) RIP to those that lost their lives and my condolences to those who've lost a friend/family member x

Mel

By Gods grace I was not in the Spanish rooms that night - I used to go in there when I couldn't get home until the morning - it was cheaper than getting a cab. I was in Amsterdam when the fire happened. This is the first time I have found anything concrete about victims etc as all that was on the internet was a posting from the London Fire Journal. I think I met Alex - was he Scottish - also Scottish Mary who may have been Maria - she had short blonde hair and was always with a younger companion also with short blonde hair. The Spanish Rooms was full of characters who tended to live on the edge. I remember one lady of the night - a black woman who always wore an Afro wig - I believe she died but I don't remember her name - she was only in her twenties and she was a warm and wonderful person - I've always felt so sad about this fire - its as if the people never existed in the first place. What happened to Victor?

Simon Usborne

Hello anyone reading this. And apologies for bombarding people in this comments thread with messages. I am a writer at The Independent and am researching this fire, being similarly surprised by how it seems to have been forgotten, and have found it difficult to find survivors and families of victims. If any of you want to contact me, please don't hesitate. s.usborne@independent.co.uk is probably the best way to start. Kind regards,
Simon