You don’t know about the Denmark Place fire because its 37 victims didn’t count | Simon Usborne

You don’t know about the Denmark Place fire because its 37 victims didn’t count

The deadly central London arson attack took place in 1980. A plaque is now being unveiled – but why did it take so long?

The Denmark Place building after the deadly fire on 16 August 1980.

One of my earliest memories is hearing about the fire that killed 31 people at King’s Cross underground station in 1987. It rightly triggered a public inquiry, safety improvements, memorial services – and the installation of plaques in the station and a nearby church. Diana, Princess of Wales visited the scene.

Seven years before that, a fire killed 37 people inside two nightclubs in central London – and everyone forgot about it.

After some initial news coverage, the fire on Denmark Place, on the edge of Soho, triggered very little else. No inquiry, no services, no mention in parliament, no visiting dignitaries and – until Thursday 24 November 2022 – no memorial plaque.

I first learned about the fire years ago in an obscure book about London disasters. It presented the basic facts: about 150 people filled two unlicensed nightclubs in a building with no emergency exits. After clashing with a barman, a Scottish small-time crook called John Thompson took revenge by pouring petrol through the letterbox and throwing in a match.

The new plaque, which is due to be unveiled as part of a £1bn entertainment venue that has just opened on the site of the fire, will honour the victims, who came from eight countries. Why has it taken 42 years for anyone to remember them?

Struck by the dearth of information about the fire, or any awareness of it among Londoners who were alive at the time, I first wrote about it in 2015. The redevelopment of the area had begun. I found a list of the victims. I spoke to some of their relatives and friends. And I got hold of sickening fire brigade photos.

The newspaper archives shed most light on the apparent amnesia. The fire, which happened in the early hours of a Saturday, was a big story in the papers in the days that followed.

Firemen at Denmark Place, an alley on the edge of Soho.

There was a tone to some of the coverage. Many newspapers spoke of “seedy clubs”. The Daily Mail said that such venues appealed “not just to minority groups and tired prostitutes, but all kinds of folk intent on slumming”. In its report of Thompson’s murder conviction and life sentence the following year (he died in prison in 2008), the paper said that he had “felt at ease among the pimps, lesbian prostitutes, screeching homosexual queens, hash dealers and drooping addicts” of Denmark Place.

Prejudice has always been an unwelcome presence in what we now call the “night-time economy”. Before governments and mayoralties lined up to champion the social and economic benefits of later opening hours and improved infrastructure, late-night venues were easy to dismiss – along with the people in them – as somehow seedy and disreputable.

The clubs on Denmark Place should never have been allowed to operate without even basic fire safety measures. Yet in the now entirely gentrified St Giles, where the fire happened (and where Hogarth depicted Gin Lane), such places were not uncommon. They attracted a cross-section of mainly working-class Londoners who were not ready to go home after last orders, including people seeking a sense of community and a refuge from adversity.

I believe a temptation to blame the victims, and dismiss them, even hours after their awful deaths, as “folk intent on slumming” contributed to the amnesia. These were not commuters travelling home after a hard day’s work, as in the case of the King’s Cross fire. They were people of the night.

Many of the families of victims I’ve made contact with over the years tell me that the judgment and shame that was immediately associated with the fire shaped the grieving process. Their loss felt complicated, as well as searingly painful. In many cases, families themselves had tried to forget. One family told me the mother of a young woman who had died in the fire went on to “drink herself to death”.

Today, all the relatives I’m in touch with welcome the addition to Denmark Place of the first physical memorial to victims of one of the worst fires in London’s recent past. A couple of dozen family members are due to attend a small ceremony where the plaque will be unveiled.

Janette Reid, who is 62 and lost her 27-year-old brother Alex Reid in the fire, has always made a point of walking down Denmark Place during visits to London from her home in Glasgow. “Now there’s something to remind everyone else that that’s where these people perished,” she told me. “At least something is better than an absolute nothing.”

  • Simon Usborne is a freelance feature writer and reporter based in London

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