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NEW ZEALAND DISASTERS
SEACLIFF MENTAL HOSPITAL FIRE
TUESDAY 08 DECEMBER 1942

The following article is from the March / April 2004 edition of the NZSG Dunedin Branch newsletter - with thanks to Heather Bray. Also thanks to John Wilson for the names from the inquest.

FIRE DISASTER AT SEACLIFF

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 9.45 pm on Tuesday 8 December, 1942, fire broke out in Ward 5. This ward was a two-storeyed wooden building which had been added onto the original stone building when the hospital was expanded at the end of the nineteenth century. In Ward 5 were 39 women mental patients, all locked into either single rooms or 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.

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. 37 of the 39 patients in Ward 5 died in the fire with the cause of death being given as suffocation. A commission of inquiry found that the wooden building of Ward 5 was dangerous, and once the fire had started, it spread through the building very quickly. There were no automatic fire alarms in Ward 5, unlike 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 and remains a mystery. There were no fireplaces in the ward and no electric radiators and the building was steam-heated. The ward was lit by electricity and there were a kitchen and dining room in the ward but the actual location of the start of the fire could not be found. A new mental hospital was opened at nearby Cherry Farm in 1954.

The Seacliff Mental Hospital fire was the worst in New Zealand's history until Ballantyne's fire in Christchurch, five years later. A tree was planted with a plaque in memory of the 37 woman who died in the blaze.

SURNAME FORENAMES AGE
ALDOUS Freda Agnes 30
ALEXANDER Rita 28
BLACK Christina Florence 29
BLAKELY Marjorie Constance Maud 32
BROWN Helen (Ellen) -
CROSS Agnes Ruth 32
CUMMINGS Frances Marjorie Mrs 44
DONALDSON Marion 57
DOUGLAS Annie 27
FOWLER Violet 44
GIBSON Elizabeth May 48
GORDON Margaret Ellen 70
HARRISON Grace Helena -
LAW Edna Grace 23
LYONS Violet May 49
MANLEY Jane 49
McQUARRIE (McQUARRY) Isabella Elizabeth 27
McSWAN Ivy Ruth 44
MONTGOMERY Edith 31
MOORE Anna Mackinnon 42
MORRIS Sarah Ann 62
O’BRIEN (O’BREIN?) Matilda Ann 41
OSBORNE Fanny Louisa 71
OWENS Alice 30
PARRY Margaret Stewart 51
SINCLAIR Alice Isabella Mary -
STEWART Mary Elizabeth 66
STOTT Mavis May 23
SUTTON Rachael -
TAPP Agnes Sybelle 23
THOMPSON (THOMSON) Margaret Hamilton 30
THORPE Margaret Palmer 62
WARRING Eileen 33
WHITE Emily Catherine 36
WILSON Catherine 46
WILSON Mary Elizabeth 50
WINSLADE Frances Maria 53

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