50 years on: Deadly Shrewsbury hospital fire which changed thinking forever

Fifty years ago this week Shrewsbury was the scene of one of the worst hospital fires in British history.

Firefighters in one of the smouldering wards.
Firefighters in one of the smouldering wards.

The tragedy at Shelton Hospital led to a national outcry and changes to fire safety in major institutions and improved training for staff.

Choking smoke filled two wards of the women's wing after the fire broke out at the psychiatric hospital on February 26, 1968.

By the end of it all, 24 patients were dead, killed by dense, suffocating smoke in their beds. Most of them were in Beech Ward, the hospital’s only locked ward.

The fire – a discarded cigarette was the suspected cause – led to calls for more modern mental hospitals and questions were asked in the House of Commons.

Survivors are given a cup of tea.

The spotlight on Shelton was intense. A public inquiry into conditions there in 1955 had presented a grim picture. The then Shrewsbury MP, Sir John Holt, said he had had the "shock of his life" when he visited, while Lewis Motley, chairman of the Shrewsbury hospital management committee, said he was horrified by the conditions.

Mr Motley described it as a "snakepit" and wanted the building knocked down.

But in the period before the fire there was a transformation, with a facelift and improved conditions and the number of patients being drastically reduced.

Speaking in the immediate aftermath of the blaze, Mr Motley conceded that the hospital was far nicer than it had been, but said: "It is an institution and it looks it. It is still an ancient monument. Hospitals ought to be taken down when they have served their purpose."

The aftermath of the fire which killed 24 patients

The official report published in December 1968 blamed officials from the Shrewsbury hospital management committee downwards for not giving night nurses training in fire procedure, and said if the alarm had been raised only a few minutes earlier the blaze would have been much less deadly.

It was not Shropshire's only major hospital fire. In January 1948 the Shropshire Orthopaedic Hospital was seriously damaged in a blaze, but all the patients were wheeled to safety by staff and helpers.

And in May 1975, nurses and staff similarly pushed and carried 26 women patients to safety in a fire at Shrewsbury's Copthorne Hospital which caused damage put at £70,000.

Choking smoke filled part of the hospital

Beech Ward at Shelton was to undergo a revamp in the mid-1980s which underlined the changes in thinking more generally about how to look after psychiatric patients.

It had a nine-month refit and reopened as a "bridge" to encourage back into community facilities patients who would previously have become long-term hospital cases.

The new-look ward had its own dining room and kitchen facilities, reading room and TV room and catered for 14 patients in six single rooms and two four-bed dormitories. In 1968 there had been 42 women patients in the ward.

The change in mental health care and conditions since the 1960s had been dramatic and the reduction in numbers on the ward had been matched across the hospital.

Compared to the 800 or so patients at the time of the fire, by the mid-1980s Shelton had around 335 patients - and falling.

The biggest change of all came on September 13, 2012, when the new Redwoods Centre opened nearby to replace Shelton. It took its first patients 10 days later.

As for the historic hospital buildings at Shelton, they have been redeveloped as part of a houses and apartments scheme called Leighton Park.

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