Today marks the 50th anniversary of a tragic fire at a Shropshire mental hospital which claimed the lives of 24 female patients.
The fire broke sometime before midnight on an all-female wing of the Shelton Mental Hospital, near Shrewsbury, thought to have been started by a carelessly discarded cigarette in a locked secure ward.
The alarm was raised by a night nurse shortly after midnight, but by then the fire had gained a strong hold, filling two floors of the hospital wing with thick, choking smoke. Fire crews rushed to the scene as hospital staff led patients to safety from other parts of the building thought to be at risk.
At one point there were a dozen fire engines and 70 firefighters tackling the blaze, which was brought under control by about 2am. Tragically, 20 female patients had died inside the buildings, mostly from smoke inhalation, and another four would die later in hospital. Some of the women had died in their sleep but others would have been unable to get out of their beds unaided.
Unlike many mental hospitals which were in building converted from previous uses, Shelton had been purpose built and opened in 1845 as the ‘lunatic asylum’ for the local area. However, parts of the building were more than 120 years old and lacked modern fire control equipment. By 1968 the hospital housed around 800 patients, but most were in buildings unaffected by the fire.
Speaking at the scene, a spokesman for the Shropshire Group Hospital Management Committee praised hospital staff for their calm and orderly evacuation of the buildings, and firefighters for the way they fought the blaze and quickly controlled it. He also denied claims that the hospital was overcrowded and understaffed.
However, an official investigation into the fire found that staffing levels during the night were “on the low side”. There had been two night nurses and an unqualified junior on duty in the wing where the fire started, together responsible for the care and safety of 98 of the hospital’s most severely mentally ill patients.
More significantly, the investigation found no night staff at the hospital had received training in fire evacuation procedures for at least 20 years. A report by Shropshire Fire Service in 1963 – five years before the fire – had stressed the need for all staff to receive appropriate training, but none had been given to the night staff.
The accident investigation also criticised a 10-minute delay between the night nurse first noticing smoke and making the emergency call to the fire brigade. Instead of trying to investigate the cause of the smoke herself, she should have erred on the side of caution and made the call immediately. Her failure to do so had been a factor in so many deaths resulting from smoke inhalation.
Locking mental patients into their ward was common practice at the time and not against regulations, but the guidelines stressed as few patients as possible should be locked up, rather than it being routine for the majority.
The investigation report made a series of recommendations based on ‘lessons learned’ from the tragedy, which led to fire safety procedures being reviewed at hospitals throughout the Midlands and farther afield. However, most patients were still allowed to smoke, which was only banned in hospitals decades later on medical grounds, rather than fire safety.