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. (Update: since we wrote this story, information has been added to the Wikipedia entry.)
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 off Denmark Place, a side street, 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.