At 5. 30 am on the morning of the 27th of January, 1903, a fire broke out in a “temporary” building, that housed 320 chronic and infirm female patients, at Colney Hatch Lunatic Asylum.
The fire resulted in the loss of over fifty lives. It caused numerous injuries and was responsible for the total destruction of several of the asylum’s buildings, whilst others were severely damaged by the conflagration.
THE MAIN BUILDING STILL STANDS
The main building still stands today, albeit, it closed as a lunatic asylum in 1993, and was sold to a property company that converted it into the Princess Park Manor luxury flats.
During its time as a lunatic asylum, however, its gained an association with the Jack the Ripper case in that major suspect Aaron Kosminski (1865 to 1919), was confined here between 1891 and 1894, prior to his transfer to Leavesden Asylum, on the 19th of April 1894.
EUROPE’S LARGEST ASYLUM
At the time of its opening, on the 17th July 1851, the Second Middlesex County Asylum – to give it its official title – was considered the largest and most modern asylum in Europe, could boast the longest corridor in Britain, and, since it had cost more than double its estimate to build, has the dubious distinction of being the most expensive asylum ever built.
Some idea of the magnitude of the place can be gleaned from the fact that it was stated it would take a visitor more than two hours to walk all the wards.
As a description in The Daily News, dated 31st January 1903, put it:-
“…The main building itself is of vast extent, and is surmounted with towers, cupolas and spire. Constructed to receive 2,000 insane patients, the eastern portion is devoted to men, the western to women.”
A TEMPORARY FEMALE WING
Demand had soon outgrown the original resources, and, throughout the second half of the 19th century, the asylum had been expanded on a regular basis.
In 1896, extra blocks, constructed of wood and corrugated iron, had been constructed 40 yards to the west of the main building, and were intended as temporary accommodation for upwards of 300 female patients and the “usual proportion” of attendants.
At the time, the Commissioners in Lunacy had issued warnings that these new “temporary” structures posed a serious fire hazard, but the warnings went unheeded, and the annexes were still housing a large number of chronic and infirm female patients, in five dormitories, at seven o’clock on the night of the 26th of January 1903 which was, according to The Daily News, in an article that described the nightly routine on the wards, the time when:-
“…All were expected to go to bed…and all were seen to be in bed by eight o’clock, when the day nurses were released, having been on duty fourteen hours, with but little intermission…”
The Daily News went on to describe the sleeping arrangements of the patients:-
“In the dormitories where they slept heating apparatus went down the centre, The rows of beds were foot to foot. There were strips of carpet beside each bed. Temperature was kept up to 50 or 60 degrees, as indicated by the thermometer…One night nurse sat at the door of the open dormitory all night, and was visited at intervals by the head attendant, who in turn reported by “ticking clock” every half hour into the night matron’s office, by way of check. As a rule, there was not much disturbance among patients in the night, and it was quite the exception for the watchful nurse to have to call for extra assistance.”
THE FIRE AT COLNEY HATCH
In the early hours of the morning of the 27th of January 1903, gale force winds swept across the area.
The Illustrated London News described what happened next in its edition of the 31st of January 1903:-
“Colney Hatch Asylum, the home of some two thousand five hundred patients, was partially destroyed by fire on the morning of Jan. 27, over fifty of the unfortunate inhabitants of the building known as the Annexe perishing in the flames.
This set of temporary buildings, erected seven or eight years ago, was constructed of Norwegian pitch-pine, and provided accommodation for 300 women patients and for nurses, doctors, and other members of the staff.
Fanned by a high wind, the fire, which apparently originated in the furnace-house at the lower end of the buildings, spread with great rapidity; and, in spite of the efforts of the Asylum, the local, and the Metropolitan Brigades, speedily involved the entire Annexe.
The alarm was sounded almost simultaneously, at half-past five in the morning, by one of the night nurses who was on duty in the southernmost dormitory, and the stoker in the boiler-house.
The house firemen were first on the scene, but neither they nor the members of the regular Brigades, who arrived later, could save the Annexe, though fortunately the main building was preserved by the cutting away of the connecting corridor.
Many gallant attempts were made at rescue, but these were rendered extremely difficult by the mental condition of the panic-stricken patients.
By daylight only the brick foundations and the galvanised roofing were left intact.”
THE ILLUSTRATED POLICE NEWS ACCOUNT
The Illustrated Police News gave a full account of the events that unfolded that morning in its edition of the 7th of February 1903:-
“A few minutes after half pat five in the morning the steam siren at the asylum sounded the fire alarm, and the inhabitants of New Southgate, Barnet and Edmonton, the parishes surrounding the asylum, who swarmed into the streets, saw a startling glare showing from the asylum grounds.
It was evident that a disastrous fire, which had already obtained a strong hold, was in progress.
The asylum house fire brigade at once resolutely attacked the fire, but apparently they were in difficulties owing to the lack of water, and they were also short-handed for a task of such magnitude as that which confronted them, there being less than a dozen asylum staff drilled as firemen residents inside the walls.”
FIRE BRIGADES BEGIN ARRIVING
The sound of the steam whistle alarm was soon responded to by several local fire brigades who came racing to the scene, and they were soon joined by brigades from all across North London, with the result that, according to The Illustrated Police News:-
“An hour after the alarm had been sounded, no fewer than twenty-five steam engines were on the ground, the force of men being close upon 200. Unfortunately, their presence, even that of the earliest arrivals, availed nothing to stem the swift flames.”
THE PLIGHT OF THE PATIENTS
The Illustrated Police News went on to describe the reaction of the patients to the carnage and mayhem that was engulfing their asylum:-
“…The annexe was wholly occupied by women, all of them of a good class, medically speaking. A large proportion were epileptics, and, under the system which prevailed, the less helpless were placed in the lower wards, the more helpless in the rooms nearer the main and more permanent buildings.
Some few became excited and had to be carried out. The difficulty of persuading deranged persons to leave quietly in case of a fire is always great, and in this instance it was increased by the haste with which the work of rescue had to be carried on.
One official declared that the terror of some of the patients was heart-rending, while others seemed utterly unable to appreciate the gravity of their peril.
Many rushed aimlessly to and fro, unconsciously hindering the work of their would-be rescuers; others completely lost what little self control they ordinarily possessed, and fought, he said, like fiends with each other, and some, apparently overcome by abject terror, and yet afraid that the rescuers intended to harm them, ran deliberately away from safety, and crouched beneath their beds, or in other places of imaginary shelter.
“In fact”, said one official, “had every inmate been perfectly sane, escape would have been difficult in some cases, and impossible in others, but being what they were, the marvel is that so many were got out alive.”
Many instances of rescue of patients from the very jaws of death are related. The staff, from the highest to the lowest, acted nobly.”
THE BRAVERY OF NURSE WOOLFORD
At the inquest into the deaths of the patients, it was revealed that the alarm had been raised by nurse Ada Woolford, who, on noticing the flames, had shown immense courage.
The Illustrated Police News reported her testimony:-
“Ada Woolford, a nurse in number 5 dormitory, where there were from sixty to seventy patients, was herself a sufferer from the fire while engaged in the work of rescue, and had both hands swathed in cotton wool.
It was after a visit to the single bedrooms, she said, in company with the head attendant, that she heard a sound as of the cracking of wood, and, looking through the keyhole of the clothes cupboard, saw that the cupboard was on fire.
The cupboard door was locked.
She at once gave the alarm, but so rapidly did the fire blaze up that one of the doors at the end of the corridor was unapproachable, owing to the smoke.
“I got the hose on at once. It was all alight in a minute,” added the witness, “and many of the patients ran out into the corridor. I cannot say how I sustained the burns to my hands, unless it was during the time I was assisting invalids out of the dormitory.”
As fast as she was getting the patients up the corridor they were forcing their way back. She had great trouble getting them away from the fire. They didn’t help her at all.”
THE DEATH TOLL
In its late edition of 27th January 1903, The Gloucester Citizen updated its readers on what was known of the fire and its consequences:-
“The fire has been extinguished, and the main block of buildings, constituting the Asylum itself has, fortunately, been saved… How the fie occurred is not yet known, but the flames, driven by a powerful wind, soon involved the entire length of the building.
The inmates were hurried out as promptly as possible, and everything that the staff could possibly do to ensure their safety was done, but so alarming was the rapidity with which the fire spread that many of the patients were overpowered in the corridors.
At about nine o’clock the whole building was razed to the ground.
What the total loss of life is it is quite possible to say.. one report puts the number of bodies already found at six, but it is suggested that the number may well be as large as twenty or thirty…Telegraphing at 11.30, a correspondent say that the Asylum officials state they fear the death toll will number fifty.”
The newspaper then went on to describe the distressing scenes being witnessed as relatives of the patients began arriving:-
“..Hundreds of persons arrived at New Southgate Railways Station during the morning and made their way to Colney Hatch to enquire after relatives or friends who are inmates of the Asylum., and the authorities have been overwhelmed by telephonic and telegraphic messages.
The ruins are still smouldering, but the majority of the firemen have left.
The remains of fifty-one victims have been recovered up to one o’clock this afternoon, but in many cases, identification is almost impossible.”
GRUESOME AND DISTRESSING FINDS
A Press Association reporter was allowed into the grounds later that day and The Gloucester Citizen reported on the gruesomeness of what he encountered:-
“In going over the ruins, says the correspondent, one constantly came upon the charred remains of victims. Under almost every sheet of corrugated iron there was a small mass, about a foot long, which looked like the roots of an old tree, and the firemen told one, in a hushed whisper, “that” was another body. It seemed impossible to believe that the incinerated masses were actually human remains.
In one corner of the ruins, close to where a door had existed, there was a heap of some eight or ten of these atoms, and it was obvious that these poor creatures rushed to the door and had fallen down and been consumed.”
THE INQUEST VERDICT
The verdict into the deaths of the 51 victims concluded on the 12th of February 1903.
The Manchester Courier reported the jury’s findings in its next day’s edition:-
“They found that the deceased died from the results of the fire or suffocation. There was no evidence to show how the fire originated, but in the opinion of the jury it arose from accidental causes.”
The jury also expressed the opinion that the materials used in the construction of the buildings were totally unsuitable for the purposes, even of a temporary building, and they expressed an opinion that the London County Council, the Lunacy Commissioners and the Home Secretary were greatly to blame for sanctioning plans for the buildings, especially as they could just as easily have been constructed of non-combustible materials.
In closing they “tendered warm commendation of the heroic conduct of the staff, and deep sympathy with the relatives.”