Firefighters retrieve the body of a victim from the Salusbury Road hostel fire

The tragedy of the hidden homeless – living in death-trap hostels in Thatcher’s Britain

In the early hours of 18 March 1980, residents in Kilburn, North London were woken by screams coming from a women’s hostel on Salisbury road. The hostel, run by nuns from Mother Theresa’s missionary congregation, had caught alight. Neighbours rushed to help residents to safety from the three-storey terraced house. Firefighters wearing breathing apparatus rescued three women trapped on the first and extinguished the flames.

Eight bodies were found on the top floor and two more women later died from their injuries. The hostel lacked adequate fire safety measures, including means of escape, fire extinguishers or smoke alarm. While a recent inspection by London Fire Brigade recommended improvements to the means of escape, modifications had not yet been made.

The missionaries had been awarded a license for ten beds the previous year, a local authority investigation found, but firefighters discovered twenty-two beds. That night there had been twenty-one occupants. With growing rates of homelessness across the UK, compounded by the Conservative government’s cuts to public expenditure on housing and social services, pressure was being placed on hostels to provide temporary accommodation to those who most needed it.

These women were part of a growing group of the hidden homeless, marginalised by a government that repeatedly scorned the most vulnerable. Single women faced limited housing options when made homeless, yet there were clear reasons why they might require the state’s assistance, be it illness, disability, unemployment, or to escape domestic abuse.

The Brent Women’s Aid Group wrote to a local newspaper about one of the victims, describing her as a ‘battered woman who had been homeless for nearly three years.’ She and the other victims should have been priority cases for re-housing but had instead been forced either into staying in death-trap hostels or sleeping rough.

Problems were encountered in naming the victims and notifying their next of kin. Many residents only gave their first names to the nuns. Newspapers quoted neighbours who claimed that many were of Irish descent and had alcohol-related and mental health problems.

A resident was later arrested accused of starting the fire due to a grudge against the nuns after she was barred from attending a St Patrick’s Day party. At the trial, her lawyer told the court that the hostel catered for ‘inadequate alcoholics and those who were mentally disturbed’ and considered that ‘any one of these women could have started the fire.’ The defendant was acquitted of charges of murder and manslaughter.

The fire tragically highlighted the need for Government action in what was becoming a crisis in housing. It was the latest in a growing number of fatal hostel fires since the late 1970s which made fire safety a major campaigning point for charities such as the Campaign for the Homeless and the Roofless (CHAR) and Shelter.

The night after the Kilburn fire, seven residents were rescued by firefighters from a Methodist mission hostel in East London. A spokesperson for the Campaign for Single and Homeless People said, ‘It is appalling that there are second-class standards for people regarded as second-class citizens.’

The Conservative government reluctantly agreed to insert a clause into its Housing Bill giving local authorities powers to force large hostel owners to install suitable means of escape. Ironically, the Kilburn hostel was too small to come under the new regulations – the bare minimum that had been asked.

William Whitelaw, the Home Secretary, dismissed any moves to bring hostels in line with the 1971 Fire Precautions Act, which already protected hotels and boarding houses, on the grounds that they ‘do not represent a risk to life serious enough to justify the burden which would be imposed on owners, occupiers and fire authorities.’

In February 1981, the North London coroner returned a verdict of unlawful killing on the fire and called for urgent clarification of the law. The government issued further guidance but declined to amend the law. In fact, the fire occurred at a time when the government was openly questioning the viability of maintaining the 1971 Act, which it saw as imposing too much red tape on businesses.

Facing proposals to scale back national standards of fire cover, the Fire Brigades Union (FBU) was campaigning for an end to cuts and station closures, after a rise in the number of deaths from fire. But, in the absence of a statutory public inquiry, there was little to compel the government to do any more than the bare minimum.

The following December, a large fire in a grossly overcrowded property in Notting Hill, occupied by immigrant casual workers, led to the deaths of eight residents with many more injured. Comprised of 56 bedsits converted from three terraced houses, replete with plasterboard partition walls, the fire revealed that little had been done to improve the standard of fire safety in temporary accommodation. Those in government responsible for the most vulnerable in society had already forgotten the ten victims at Kilburn.

On the 40th anniversary of this preventable tragedy, we can finally name the full list of ten women who died in the fire. We remember them.

  • Eilidh Boadella (18), a volunteer assistant on her first night shift
  • Peggy Jones (35)
  • Ratanbai Patel (38)
  • Kathleen Lorretta McCabe (41)
  • Hilary Turner (44)
  • Nora Quinn (54)
  • Yonna Ayrton (58)
  • Doris M. Bartlett (66)
  • Dorothy Caroline Dobson (66)
  • Sheila Rudden (75)

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