Deadly fire at Seacliff Mental Hospital

8 December 1942

Aftermath of the Seacliff Mental Hospital fire (NZ Herald/newspix.co.nz)

The fire that swept through a locked ward of the Seacliff Mental Hospital, north of Dunedin, killed 37 female patients.

The huge, isolated hospital, opened in 1884, was built mainly of stone, but Ward 5, which housed ‘difficult’ women patients, was a two-storey wooden addition. This ward was always locked at night, with nearly all windows shuttered and locked. Wartime staffing shortages meant staff only checked the ward once an hour. By the time they noticed the fire it had taken hold; within an hour, the building had been reduced to ashes. Only two of the 39 female patients in Ward 5 escaped the inferno.

A commission of inquiry condemned the practice of leaving patients locked up without adequate supervision, and found that the building was a fire risk. Its ancient alarm system, which had to be unlocked before use, was virtually useless. The inquiry recommended that future institutional buildings be made of fire-resistant materials, with emergency exits, automatic monitored fire alarms and sprinkler systems. It took many years for these measures to be introduced in all institutions.