London’s Forgotten Disasters: The Denmark Street Fire

Denmark Street, via Google Street View.

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.

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Article by Matt Brown | 4,741 Articles | View Profile | Twitter

  • http://twitter.com/sparklenight Jamie (sparklenight)

    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.

    • Jim o’connell

      I was in the club that night , usually I would stay until the small hours but this night I left early! all my friends thought I had perished!

      • Hooligan

        Very lucky. I went there a couple of times. But in those days we thought it nothing to go these illegal places which were obviously fire risks. Soho was full of them.

        • paddy

          i’ll never forget the friends I lost in it I was there the night before R.I.P.for then all that died in the spainish rooms as I know it

          • Matt Rendell

            Paddy, I wrote abut the Denmark Place clubs and fire in the book mentioned above. Would I be able to interview you? I’ve opened an email account at arsonbookcontacts@gmail.com

          • GHPB

            Half of Denmark Place has been pulled down now. Do you know if the remaining buildings were the site of that club?

          • HoosierSands

            Yes, the building involved is still there.

          • jay jones

            hi paddy i think i know u from back in the 70.s 80.sr u that woman that use to do the club door on wind mail street .i was with a scottish girl. vicky.i don.t know if she was there on the night of the fire. and i of the 37 who died or wether she was i of the survivors. be grateful of any info been searching death records no luck so far

          • paddy

            hi jay id like to talk to you in private have you got an email address.

      • Matt Rendell

        Jim, I wrote abut the Denmark Place clubs and fire in the book mentioned above. Would I be able to interview you? I’ve opened an email account at arsonbookcontacts@gmail.com

      • jayjones

        hi this may sound strange. i have live with not knowing if my partner at the time was one of the 37 who died or one of the survivors. i am searching to find out. she was a scottish girl could u give me any information.she called her self vicky but that wash.t her real name maria dick was her name she was an Epileptic. i need to be able to lay it to rest .may be u spoke to her.if u was a regular u could have knew be grateful for any info thanks jay

      • Nicola Reid

        Did you know my dad alex Reid,he died there that night

  • Nicola Reid

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

    • paddy

      hi Nicola I knew your dad we went to the same clubs I spoke to him on the evening before he was a lovely guy R.I.P Alex ….

      • Nicola Reid

        Omg!!! You don’t know how amazing it is to hear this!!!! I would love to hear more,and I think it’s a great idea to do some thing in memory for my dad and the others that lost their lives!!! It’s as if theyv been forgotten??? I don’t even know their names,please keep in touch :)xx

        • MattFromLondonist

          I’m so pleased that this article is bringing people together. If we can be of any help — for example with any campaign to get a much-dererved memorial plaque — just drop us a line at hello@londonist.com

          • Nicola Reid

            I’ve just been in touch with my dads sister,my aunt janette,we are really excited about this!!! Thanks….this means the world to us!!! Can’t wait to meet up with other families and get to know their story,this has been too long!!!

          • Nicola Reid

            Hello matt,can’t thank you enough for bringing up the idea of a memory plaque. Would be nice to visit 15 denmark place and see the names of our lost ones

          • paddy

            this is my email Nicola queensappho@hotmail.co.uk email me and ill give you my no , I cant belive im talking to alex daughter mindblowing xx

          • paddy

            thank you Matt xx

        • paddy

          hi Nicola glad to hear from you I’d be pleased to tell you what I know do you live in London? I’m in south london I looked on your dad and others who died as mates there but for the grace of god go I keep in touch paddy xx

    • GHPB

      I was 5 too when I lost my dad in this fire, his name was Peter Dolan (Chuck). I have often wondered how many people have been affected by this over the years, how many family members for each one of the people killed.

      Good Luck Guys.

  • 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