When a fire swept through Colney Hatch Lunatic Asylum on 27 January 1903, 52 women lost their lives. This article is endorsed by our technical managers.

23 January 2023 by Kirsty Lavell, Marketing Manager

On 27 January 1903, 52 people, all female, lost their lives when a fire swept through the Colney Hatch Lunatic Asylum. Colney Hatch Asylum in New Southgate, operated by the London County Council, was an institution housing over 3,000 of the "pauper insane". 

In 1896, a temporary building of wood and corrugated iron was erected to house 320 chronic and infirm female patients in five dormitories, this had been identified as at significant fire risk by authorities — 320 of the inmates were housed in these temporary timber wings, and the complex was famous for its long corridors. (It would take a visitor more than two hours to walk the wards)

In 1903, the inevitable happened. One of the timber wards caught fire and aided by strong winds, the conflagration spread. The asylum's fire-fighting ability was limited, and the local fire authorities had to dam a stream to raise sufficient water for dousing.

press report from the Boston Evening Transcript paints a very grim picture of the ensuing tragedy.

In the early 20th Century, psychiatric patients were held in very low regard. The same press cutting offers several insights into the views of the time. Beneath the headline "50 Lunatics Perish" runs the subheading "Many Escaped and Are Now at Large", as though these unfortunate women were dangerous criminals. It's also noted that the fire occurred in the Jewish Wing — this may have been partly for practical reasons, such as shared dietary needs, but the temptation might be to suspect a prejudice. 

After the fire, the Colney Hatch Asylum was renamed Friern Hospital, and remained a centre for psychiatric care until its closure in 1993. The main buildings are now luxury apartments, called Princess Park Manor. The developer's web site does not mention the tragic fire.

Compared to when the Colney Hatch fire occurred, fire safety is much more of a priority today. Modern building regulations would not allow such long corridors without adequate means of escape and additional fire protection measures such as automatic closing doors to sub-divide the corridors. A facility like Colney Hatch Asylum built to today’s standards would likely adopt a phased evacuation strategy whereby on discovery of a fire, by manual or automatic means, patients would be moved away from the area into at least an adjacent fire compartment or even outside. Adequate compartmentation of the building is therefore crucial for this strategy to work effectively.

Fire safety doesn’t just halt once the building is built. Business owners and workplaces need to ensure that a suitable and sufficient fire risk assessment is undertaken and reviewed regularly to prevent the potential for a fire to start and to identify the people at risk.

The FIA recommends that fire risk assessments are always carried out by a competent, third-party certified organisation. Such organisations can be found on the FIA website.