Saturday, November 1, 2008


This crumbling building behind me is now all that is left of Summerland.

Completed in 1971, and sprawling over three and a half acres, she was hailed as the first ever holiday resort of her kind, with a golf course, indoor solarium, heated pool, bars, restaurants, several dance floors and many more facilities, she was quite a flagship in her time. As one of the UK's largest attractions, (yes we are part of the UK, just not a part of Great Britain) in her hey day, thousands of visitors poured through her doors, and even more thousands of pounds swelled into our island's economy. But with the affordability of air travel and with package tours abounding, our thriving tourist industry later found itself on the wane. A rapid decline of visitors to our shores soon ensued, and latterly Summerland was forced to close for the largest part of the year. In 2005, by then little more than an ugly concrete eyesore, she finally closed forever.
Perched as she was, jutting high up overlooking Douglas beach, I became well used to walking under her steely glare.

Not that my radar ever felt easy. There is a chill about her I found hard to shake.

Stripped of all her former glory, the demolition that began in 2006 will eventually lay her to a final rest, though it has not been without problems. Despite many feeling it is not before time, dismantling her has brought back many ghosts, some metaphorical, others possiblly metaphysical, who knows? Contractors have walked out on site, rumours and lore abound, and reports of sightings are common place.

Here is a shot of her in finer days taken by a railway enthusiast in 1973. He was more interested in capturing a record of the oldest electric car in the world, built in 1893 (which incidentally still operates)but that was before he like everyone else there, had any idea of the devastating events shortly to unfold.

Less than a few weeks later, at 7.30pm on the evening of August 2nd 1973, Summerland, with all 3,000 customers and over 200 staff trapped inside, erupted into a giant flaming torch. Fifty-one hapless souls died on that tragic night, and countless more lives were left forever scarred. It took more than half an hour for the fire services to be called, and even then, it was from the unlikely source of a Captain of a ship 3km out at sea. He alerted the HM Coastguard saying, "It looks like the whole of the Isle of Man is on fire.."

The culprits of the blaze were later traced back to being two young boys. Over on a holiday with their families from Liverpool they had (accidentally, as it is claimed) set fire to a small kiosk on the roof, adjacent to the golf course. This tilted over to lay against the perspex covering of the main building, a highly flammable material which was further aided by the concrete flues which served to act as a chimney into the interior. Most of the fire doors were locked, the victims that night had little chance of escape.

This is a newspaper account of the actual event. I apologise for the poor quality, you will need to zoom in, in order to read it.

The chilling part for me is Summerland not only reopened, it retained it's name and went on about it's business without hardly a backwards glance. When I first arrived with my family we visited several times there without so much as a clue as to it's dark history.

I often wonder how the bereaved relatives managed to cope with that?

Oh sure, there was the inevitable government enquiry and building safety regulations were enforced in hope of avoiding any repeat disasters. I believe there is still an annual memorial service held.


I doubt many mourn the demise of Summerland.


Maddy said...

How extraordinary.
Best wishes

Marty said...

An absolutely fascinating post! Thank you for this amazing bit of history.

Casdok said...

A very dark history. And a well written tribute.

Anonymous said...

Professor Shrinky,
You're sounding like a Historian. Thanks for the history lesson. What a magnificent place to play and tragic... No wonder there are ghosts. (shiver)

imbeingheldhostage said...

Wow. terrific post. I can't believe they went on business as usual. And the families of those boys, I feel terrible for what they must have gone through.
On this latest holiday of ours, I was sitting crammed inside buildings bulging with all of the other half-term holidaying fools and I started wondering how we would all exit if there were a fire. It didn't look good. I'll stick to seaside activities I think.

Mushy said...

What horrible event...I wonder if the boys suffer any for it today?

Good story.

leslie said...

What a horrendous event - I'm wondering how those two young boys coped growing up knowing they'd been responsible for all those deaths. Well, not completely if what I understand is that there were some building violations or lapses in safety. But as you say, not many will miss Summerland anymore.


Very sad story.So much waste, of all kinds,with the people, of course being the worst.
Your post however created an interest in me to Google your world,,,and I found it fascinating,,thanks!

SJ said...

Interesting and tragic story and well written. That newspaper story I glanced through and the words that got my attention were "in peacetime" just makes me wonder how this kind of tragedy is a common occurence in war.

The Future Was Yesterday said...

The horizons that are "you" are boundless!!

Here in the U.S., we frequently suffer similar tragedies in night clubs improperly maintained. In nearly every instance, life is lost, and great suffering results, all of it needlessly.

One of my readers has asked a Question I will respectfully deflect to your superior knowledge.

Helena said...

Ahh that's sad.
It's like the entertainment complex at SHeerness. There was a fair, indoor and out. Bumpercars, a ghost train, even a big(gish) wheel. Now it is all gone and they have a big TEsco instead!

Kit Courteney said...

I'd never heard of this, but how fascinating AND horrific at the same time.

Coincidentally, I live just a few miles from Rayleigh in Essex mentioned in the newspaper article.

A very interesting post, madam!

Shrinky said...

Hi Maddy, lovely to see you again!

Hello marty, I'm glad you found it interesting, this place has always held a gruesome fascination for me.

Thank you casdock, yeah, sad ins't it?

Hey Chewy, I have my own theory about ghosts, thanks for reminding me, it would be fun to throw it out and hear others views!

imbeingheldhostage, yeah, researching this it did occur to me there must be many survivors from that tragic night still living here, it has crossed my mind to find out more, like the fate of those two kids for example.. hmmn (brain ticking over).

mushy, a childish prank at the time with such horrific consequences? I feel every bit as sorry for them, they are also victims in their own right, I have no doubt.

Yes leslie, at least a little good came of it, the government at the time were building a hundred new comissioners houses. They tore them down and rebuilt from scatch again, this time without the original timber frames they had planned.

Wilsonart, you brought a huge grin to my face to learn you dipped in to find out a little about this place - not indigionus to this isle, I vowed when we moved here never to take this place for granted. I feel I really have come home now I'm here.

sj, consider yourself hugged, you've put me in mind of another post to write - in wartime, this island was used as an internment camp to house "aliens" from the UK. After the war, many chose to settle here, including hubby's German great uncle!

Dan, sadly it seems we never really learn from our past mistakes, huh? Hey! You crease me sometimes, loved the recent research you did on saggy balls (I won't say I told you so!) Grin.

Yeah helena, there has been a huge debate raging for years as to what should replace Summerland. An entertainment complex was favoured, but without the government being prepared to step up and help fund one, it seems to have fallen by the wayside. It'll probably be turned over to an office complex or a hotel in the end. Such a waste, there is little enough for our young folks to do over here.

Aw cheers kit (smiling) - hey, my hubby is an Essex boy - Chelmsford!

Rachelle said...

Cool beans! But then I am a horror aficionado, so by extension- weird!

Of course, it may have to do with the fact that I would take a vacation anywhere right now, as long as it's not here!!! HA!

You have a lot of haunted history on your island, I remember looong ago you promised to regale us with a personal ghostly encounter, remember, hmmmm??

Scott from Oregon said...

I'm with Rachelle, Cool beans!

Hilary said...

I can remember a similar event some decades ago in a small town north of Montreal. It was New Year's Eve and families were celebrating in a community center. The hall was still decorated from Christmas and garland arched over each window. A couple of kids set off for some mischief and lit one of the garlands thinking it would catch fire and burn itself out in a moment. It didn't burn out. It ignited all of the other decorations and the place was engulfed in seconds. I don't remember how many deaths but I believe it was over 100. I can't imagine how those kids feel having to carry that with them through their lives.

CrazyCath said...

Wow, I had no idea. About Summerland or the disaster. I read every word of the newspaper report.


jay said...

As soon as I opened your post, I recognised the building as the one at the end of the seafront, down where the horse trams start. I had no idea that it had been the scene of such a horrible tragedy! No wonder you're not sorry to see it demolished.

My husband - an Essex man - knew a Mrs Mould. I wonder if it was the same family?

katie jane said...

Hi Shrinky, I've found you via other posts: Chewy and Babs and thought I'd drop in.

What a story! How utterly awful. There was a Suppr Club here in Cincinnati called the "Beverly Hills Supper Club" that burned in May of 1977. 165 people died that night, mostly due to panic and stampeding for the one exit door. The supper club burned to the ground and was never rebuilt. We are reminded of it by the media each year on the anniversary date.

david mcmahon said...

Welcome back, Shrinky

This post just proves your power and versatility as a writer.

Not that I needed to be reminded of that......

RiverPoet said...

Wow, that is an amazing report on a very tragic incident. The newspaper article doesn't say whether the boys who started the fire died, too. I would imagine they did, but I was left wondering.

I imagine there will be sighs of relief and possibly cheering when the old place is razed.

Peace - D

Sandi McBride said...

I am so surprised that I've never heard of this before...thanks for the history lesson and this tribute to those who shouldn't have had this horror occur...and thanks for the look at Douglas Beach...(wonderful name, that).

pat houseworth said...

As yes, the story of a short and bittersweet life put to Pen by Mrs Shrinky....well done again Lass.

*Goddess* said...

How cold is it there now? You're bundled up pretty good, gurl:) We had those two days of snow, but now it's in the 60's...I love it!

Shrinky said...

Er, rachelle, thought I had?? No? Oh crap.. now I'll need to troll all through my old blog to check - mutter, mutter..

hiya scott, yup you said it, you are definitely weird (wink).

hilary, oh my goodness, how horrible. Hardly bears thinking about, does it?

Hi there cath, no, I had never heard of this either up until we moved here, tho' hubby claims to remember it from the news of the day (I was too young, teehee!).

Hello jay, ah you know this place then? Big smile. Oh! My hubby is an Essex boy (Chelmsford). He denies knowing Mrs. Mould..

Katie Jane, so nice to see you in here! Oh my word, that really is a tragedy of horrific proportions, isn't it? I have to confess I am never a hundred per cent comfortable in indoor crowded buildings - I tend to gravitate towards the nearest exit..

Cheers david, I've been back for a few weeks as it happens (wink).

Doris, the boys survived, they were later questioned by the police, though I have no idea what happened to them, poor kids.

Hi sandi, aww, glad you enjoyed the peek into my world.. I may post some more about the island, it's got a lot of interesting bits and pieces to it. Smile.

Pat (laughing) thought I ought to come back into my comfort zone again..

goddess, first - hand over those shoes, gimmegimmenow!!!!!!! Yeah, we had snow the day before that pic was taken last week, but on Sunday I did a photo shoot of the girls out in the glen with them wearing shorts and t-shirts, it's mad!

soubriquet said...

I remember it. I remember the news reports, and my horror at the idea of being trapped under a blazing, hot-dripping plastic sky.
I remember a nightmare where I was trapped in there.
Summerland was so proud of its sky roof, in a time when building was less regulated, and architects were the great adventurers.
I wonder how the tragedy impacted those who built it, those who failed to imagine the worst.
As for the boys, they had broken into a fibreglass kosk, to smoke, and they deliberately set light to it. they were prosecuted for that.
However you look at it, all those deaths stem from that activity. Burning polyester resin from fibreglass is fiercely hot, and emits dense and toxic black smoke.
I recall the appeals for blood donors to treat the burn victims..

Shrinky said...

OMG Soubriquet, you really do? Thanks on filling me in on the fate of the boys, I don't suppose you recall what befell them afterwards do you?

Great to have you stop by, I look forward to reading more from you.

soubriquet said...

I must point out, I wasn't there. I remember the news bulletins, and the film from offshore of the roiling black smoke and the flames.
And I remember it being in the news, about the burn victims, the coffins being loaded on ferries.
At the time, most of the blame was put on the roof, and its large squares of clear plastics, they weren't perspex, something else.. But afterward, the enquiry, I think, said that the roof fire occurred well after the interior was set ablaze. Nevertheless, paranoia stalked britain, and shopping centre roofs , covered ways were ripped off, regardless of whether there was any real likelihood of fire. Oroglass? just a mo whilst I google this term that popped up from the depths of the unreliable brain... AMAZING! well done, brain. The bronze plastic roof panels were of a type or brand called Oroglass. I think that was the end of Oroglass as a brand name.
Just a few fire sprinklers high up in the building would have made all the difference.

Shrinky said...

Oh my, somehow that just compounds the whole tragedy, doesn't it? Thanks soubriquet, and yes, I rather doubt the manufacturers went from strength to strenth on the heels of this.

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