On 2 August 1973, a blaze tore through the newly constructed ‘Summerland’ leisure centre on the Isle of Man. Fifty people were killed, with another 80 seriously injured.
Conceived to lure British tourists back to the island in the late-1960s, Summerland’s designers intended for it to “set the architectural world alight”. It certainly did so, creating the deadliest blaze in the British Isles at the time since the Blitz.
This disaster was not a freak accident, but the result of deliberate profit-seeking on the part of the architects, constructors, and operators of the site. Its legacy should have prevented the Grenfell fire 44 years later. But of course under capitalism, profits take priority over people’s lives.
The contract to design a world-class leisure centre was awarded to Manx architect James Lomas, and Leeds-based firm Gillinson Barnett.
The latter, inspired by entries at the 1967 World Fair, decided to incorporate a novel building material, Oroglas – a form of acrylic – to clad the street frontage and roof. Despite the cost of the material, Gillinson Barnett were convinced it was the key to producing their statement piece.
Being a plastic, acrylic has a propensity to burn well. In fact, the manufacturers of Oroglas even recommended that when used extensively, additional fire doors and a sprinkler system be installed. These additional measures meant additional costs, and were ignored by the architects.
Cutting ‘red tape’
How was such a dangerous building even constructed?
Firstly, it was illegal. The extensive use of acrylic would not have been permitted under the building regulations of the time. These stipulated that external walls be non-combustible and fireproof for two hours.
To cut costs further, concrete walls were swapped for a cladding of asbestos coated with bitumen(!); concrete mezzanine floors swapped for timber; a highly flammable internal soundproofing material was selected; and ventilation shafts weren’t fireproofed, which acted as chimneys during the fire. The whole building was a tinderbox.
Gillinson Barnett held tight to their Oroglas and told Lomas “[we] cannot suggest another alternative”. Convincing him that “some relaxation of the bye-laws will be necessary”, they sent him out to do their dirty work.
After assuring the Chief Fire Officer that no part of the acrylic structure was flammable, they were given the go-ahead. This was a lie. The architects altered design documents after they were submitted, so the timber mezzanines were never given oversight, nor were the bitumen-coated asbestos walls.
The source of the fire was incidental. The components of the inferno were laid in advance.
A match or cigarette-end from young boys smoking in a disused kiosk sparked a fire. The kiosk fell against a wall, where it ignited the bitumen and raced upward through the walls.
It took over 20 minutes for the fire service to be notified. At no point were the alarms in the building sounded, despite several ‘break glass’ call points being activated.
Staff weren’t trained with the complex alarm system, so an evacuation of the 3,000 people inside only commenced when general panic ensued, as the fire emerged from the walls.
The Oroglas burned fiercely, dropping burning plastic onto those below. Multiple fire doors were locked, causing a crush at the front entrance.
Despite hearing the harrowing reports from survivors and the cold calculation of the developers, the ensuing public inquiry found that “there are to be no villains”.
The young boys were charged with criminal damage, whilst those responsible for designing the death trap were absolved. All 50 of the deaths were considered ‘misadventures’, insultingly suggesting they had voluntarily put their lives at risk.
Building regulations were changed in the aftermath. But as the Summerland disaster shows, regulations mean nothing for profit-hungry profits.
Such laws failed to prevent the social murder in consequent tragedies like Grenfell. The bosses and their representatives in governments are all too willing to cut through so-called ‘red tape’.
Describing the inquiry, a relative of a Summerland victim said: “The people at the top look after themselves, and the people at the bottom get stuffed”.
This is the brutal logic of this decrepit system. There can be no real justice under capitalism. We must organise to condemn it to the dustbin of history.