Coldharbour hospital, Dorset

The fire, which started at 2.30am, killed 30 patients, mostly by smoke inhalation as they slept. Built during the Second World War as an orthopaedic hospital for injured Navy personnel, Coldharbour came under the NHS after it was founded in 1948. At the time of the tragedy it housed around 350 patients and included large dormitories, partitioned to give more privacy.

The incident sparked a heated debate in Parliament, with local MP Wingfield Digby asking Social Services secretary Keith Joseph:

“Is he satisfied that war-time constructions like this former naval hospital are suitable places for mental patients? Is he sure that the electric wiring of the huts at this hospital has been renewed since the war, and that it was wise to introduce wooden furniture into them?”

Labour MP Edith Summerskill also pointed out that the fire was the latest of “at least four” hospital fires, including Shelton Hospital in 1968, Carlton Hayes Hospital in 1969, Exeter City Hospital in 1970 and Exe Vale Hospital in 1971. Others called for sprinklers to be installed at mental health hospitals.

In his response, Mr Joseph said:

“The government have been sufficiently concerned about the position in hospitals to encourage regional hospital boards to give the question of the improvement of fire precautions very high priority. Spending on those purposes has increased sharply, and the monitoring by my department of the fire drills and other essential procedures has been sharply tightened up.”

He set up an inquiry, which found the fire spread more rapidly because of the materials of the partitions and furnishings in the ward. It also found that hospital night staff were so concerned about fire safety that they had held two meetings before the tragedy.

A phased closure of Coldharbour began in 1978 and the last wards closed in the late 1980s.

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