Seacliff Hospital fire

Book cover of seacliffFire broke out at Seacliff Mental Hospital on 8 December, 1942. Ward 5, which housed 39 women patients, was quickly reduced to ashes. The fire killed all but 2 of the 39 women and was the worst fire in New Zealand until Ballantyne’s fire, five years later.

What happened?

In 1884 the Seacliff Lunatic Asylum was opened at Seacliff, 28 kilometres up the coast from Dunedin. It provided housing for 500 patients and 50 staff, and at the time was the largest public building in New Zealand.

At about 9:45pm on 8 December, 1942, fire broke out in Ward 5. This ward was a two-storeyed wooden building which had been added on to the original stone building when the hospital was expanded at the end of the nineteenth century.

In Ward 5 were 39 women patients who had mental health problems. They were all locked into either single rooms or in the 20-bed dormitory. Most windows were locked, and could only be opened by a key from inside.

It was during the Second World War, and there was a shortage of nursing staff. There was no nurse on duty in the ward at night, although checks were made by staff from other wards every hour.

The fire was first noticed by a male attendant who raised the alarm and ran to bring the fire hoses and reels from the small hospital fire station to a fire hydrant near Ward 5. He was able to save one patient by pulling off the grating over her window and dragging her out. Another patient was rescued from the first floor. Both survivors were in rooms which did not have locked shutters on the windows. They were the only patients out of the 39 in Ward 5 to survive the fire.

The hospital’s fire fighters tried to put out the fire, but it was too fierce, and within an hour only ashes remained of Ward 5. However they were able to stop the flames from spreading to other wooden buildings.

How many died?

37 people died.

Other events and outcomes

A commission of inquiry found that the wooden building of Ward 5 was dangerous, and that, once the fire had started, it spread through the building very quickly. There were no automatic fire alarms in Ward 5, unlike in other newer parts of the hospital. Any alarm in the building had to be raised by unlocking a cabinet and pushing a button to start the fire alarm.

The commission of inquiry criticised the design of the building and the way in which the windows were shuttered and locked from the inside at night. It recommended the installation of sprinkler systems in all psychiatric institutions.

The commission also felt that there was not enough staff on duty to supervise the patients at night. The hospital fire brigade were praised for their action on the night, which prevented the loss of other lives.

The cause of the fire was not discovered.

A new mental hospital was opened at nearby Cherry Farm in 1954.

The Seacliff Mental Hospital fire was the worst in New Zealand until Ballantyne’s fire, five years later.

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