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Fire at the Royal Devon & Exeter Hospital – 1968

By Peter Hinchliffe

Page added 19th October 2013

Back to historic events in Exeter

Shortly before 7 p.m. on Thursday 22nd February, 1968 the fire alarm at the Royal Devon and Exeter Hospital sounded. The Hospital was a labyrinth of buildings which stood at the bottom of Southernhay, opposite the Southgate Hotel. I had been on duty in Polsloe Road when I saw the flames coming from the Hospital, and drove straight there, arriving at the same time as the first fire engines.

The first fire engines arrived within 3 minutes, they found the main block abutting the street, to be well ablaze, the flames were through the roof of the four storey building, directly above the main entrance and Casualty Department. The Fire Brigade used their turntable ladder and other wheeled ladders that were then carried on fire engines, to tackle the inferno, eventually they were supported by additional crews from Topsham, Exmouth, Sidmouth and Crediton.

The Emergency services were hampered by parked cars outside and opposite the hospital, several of these cars were broken into to effect their removal, and just after this had been achieved, a large section of masonry fell from the roof onto the roadway where some of the cars had been.

The Fire Chief, Mr D G Varnfield, ordered the evacuation of that part of the hospital, and several wards with many patients

Volunteers arrive to help

Many volunteers rushed to the hospital to do what they could to help. First on the scene were members of the Spartan Boxing Club, who had premises just opposite the hospital in Trinity Green, the youngsters were soon put to work carrying equipment out to the car park opposite. A group of Civil Defence Volunteers arrived from a training session at their HQ in Barnfield (now the Barnfield Theatre). Soldiers arrived from Topsham Barracks with lorries. A great many of the public turned up to help,and it was not long before the Salvation Army arrived with a van, and started handing out cups of tea.

Meanwhile Victory ward, which was on ground level, became a sort of “clearing station” where the medical staff could assess the condition of the patient, decide where they could go, and how to get them there. It was soon organized chaos, beds, mattresses on the floor, people every where. A total of 9 wards were evacuated.

Water soon became a problem, the Fire Brigade were pumping thousands of gallons in to quell the fire, it had to run somewhere, and we were all paddling about in it.

Army lorries and Furniture vans were used to transport the patients in their beds, often with equipment still attached, such as “drips” oxygen cylinders and etc. The beds were manhandled into the street from Victory Ward, and loaded on the vehicles, by many willing hands from the local population, who had turned out to help.

Some people were sent to Exminster Hospital. Twent-four patients complete in their beds, with all the ancillary equipment still attached, were moved to Poltimore Hospital (which was then in Poltimore House) in the back of furniture lorries, or other vehicles requisitioned for the journey. Others went to Whipton Isolation Hospital, 4 elderly patients went to Exmouth Hospital, some younger patients from the Children’s ward, went to the Nurses Homes around the city (these were the houses where the nurses and student nurses were accommodated).

All the off duty Nursing staff had been called in by the Matron Miss D M Furse. The telephone system in the hospital failed, that took several days to repair, and must have been a nightmare in the aftermath of the fire (no mobile phones or e-mail then!)

The fire is controlled

The fire was brought under control in about two hours, but the operation to evacuate continued until about 1 a.m.

The fire completely destroyed the hospital kitchens, while the following morning military field kitchens from the Royal Marines and the Army were brought in to serve meals. For several months all food at the R D and E was cooked and delivered from Exminster Hospital

The cause

The following day the enquiry started as to what caused the fire and why it spread so quickly. The Fire Chief reported that it started in the roof above the kitchen, but was unsure why. It spread quickly along the mainly wooden roof and into a wood lined lift shaft, which allowed it to spread both up and down two floors to the basement, helped by tinder dry debris, in the old wood rich building.

Soldiers of the Salerno Training Company, Wessex Brigade were engaged for the next two or three days applying muscle power to help the nursing staff restore a normal service, a major clean up operation if ever there was one. The basement area was found to be 6 inches deep in water, which the Fire Brigade pumped out.

The Casualty Department (now called A & E) went temporarily to the Princess Elizabeth Orthopaedic Hospital in Barrack Road, this was for the more seriously injured, whilst minor injuries were treated at the City Hospital (now RD&E Heavitree).

At the time of the Fire, there were embryonic plans for the new hospital in Barrack Road, the land had already been acquired. The Exeter MP Gwyneth Dunnwoody visited the scene of the fire and made all sorts of promises about speeding up the building of the new hospital, which eventually came about 5 years later.

No one was seriously injured in the fire, but it could have been very different. Three days later, there was a fire at Shelton Hospital, Shrewsbury, which killed 21 patients.

My lasting memory of the fire, was the great eagerness of the public to assist, despite the unpleasant conditions, very cold weather, and wet feet for everyone. A real example of the Great British spirit.

The front of the hospital in Southernhay.The front of the hospital in Southernhay.

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