Denmark Place fire

Coordinates: 51°30′55″N 0°07′46″W / 51.51528°N 0.12944°W / 51.51528; -0.12944

The Denmark Place fire occurred on 16 August 1980 at 18 Denmark Place in Central London.[1][2] The fire, caused by arson, killed 37 people[1][2][3][4] of eight nationalities,[4] most of whom were Spanish or Latin American,[3] who were patrons of two unlicensed bars in the building.[1][2] At the time, The Sunday Times suggested that it could be "the worst mass murder in British history".[1]

Denmark Place fire
Location18 Denmark Place, Central London, UK
Date16 August 1980
Attack type
Arson, mass murder
PerpetratorJohn Thompson
MotiveArgument with bartender


There were two unlicensed bars on the top two floors of 18 Denmark Place: The Spanish Rooms, a late night bar frequented by locals, including Irish and Jamaican immigrants; and Rodo's, also known as El Dandy, a salsa club popular with South American immigrants.[3] Access to both of these bars was obtained by shouting up from the street below in order to obtain a key. The only way into both of these clubs was through a locked front door and up some stairs leading to a landing.

Access to the club on the lower floor was via this landing and access to the club on the upper floor was via a fire escape enclosed with plywood. Both bars, being unlicensed, were obscured from the outside world by boarded up windows and the door on Denmark Street that led to the fire escape was bolted shut. The Metropolitan Police were aware of the clubs and were planning to shut them both down on Monday 18 August.[5][6] A farewell party was being thrown over the weekend.[citation needed]

The fireEdit

On the night of 16 August 1980, John Thompson, a Scottish-born petty criminal aged 42, entered The Spanish Rooms and drank there. He believed that the barman had overcharged him for the drink. After fighting with the barman he was ejected from the building and the door was locked behind him. Thompson found a 2-gallon container outside the club, hailed a taxi and then travelled to a 24-hour petrol station in Camden where he filled the container with petrol. He then returned to 18 Denmark Place, poured the petrol through the letterbox of the front door and put a lit piece of paper through.[7]

Fire quickly took hold in the premises owing to the largely timber construction of the building. Both bars were badly damaged. There were estimated to be 150 people within the building at the time. People could not escape easily due to the boarded up windows, the locked fire escape and general lack of fire safety precautions owing to the bars' unlicensed status.[8]

The fire burned quickly through the wooden staircase, destroying the main entrance and exit to the bars. Some patrons tried to escape via the back door but found that this was locked. Others smashed windows and jumped out onto the street below. On Denmark Street there was a music shop that backed onto the clubs and some patrons were found here trapped behind the security shutters. One firefighter managed to rescue six people from this area.

When firefighters were called to the fire at around 03:30 they could see smoke seeping from the shuttered windows. When an attempt was made to force the locked front door open they were showered with sparks and embers and were forced to retreat. Once firefighters were able to access the front door it took four minutes to break it down – behind it they found that the staircase was completely on fire.

The speed of the fire was so rapid that many of the bar patrons died where they were sitting or standing.[9] An officer from the London Fire Brigade described the scene:

People seem to have died on the spot without even having time to move an inch. Some were slumped at tables. Seven were at the bar and appear to have fallen as they stood, with drinks still in their hands.

— "London's Disasters: From Boudicca to the Banking Crisis" (2011), John Withington


In May 1981, Thompson was convicted on a specimen charge of murdering one of the victims, Archibald Campbell (aged 63) and sentenced to life imprisonment.[10] He died of lung cancer on 16 August 2008, the 28th anniversary of the fire.[1][2]

There was comparatively little publicity about the fire, and no formal enquiry into it. The families of some of those who died were not aware of the circumstances. In 2022, after redevelopment of the site, a plaque was placed on a wall in memory.[8]

See alsoEdit

  • Blue Bird Café fire, 1972 fire in Montreal started in retaliations by patrons refused entry who then lit petrol in front of main entrance and only exit; also killed 37.
  • Happy Land fire, 1990 fire in New York City at illegally operated nightclub started the same way by aggrieved ejected patron; resulting 87 fatalities is the worst mass murder in city history caused by a single person.
  • Clerkenwell cinema fire, 1994 fire in London at an illegally operated adult cinema, intentionally started by an aggrieved patron.
  • Ghost Ship warehouse fire, 2016 fire at illegally operated nightclub in California that killed 37


  1. ^ a b c d e "Denmark Place arson: Why people are still searching for answers 35 years on from one of the biggest mass murders in our history". The Independent. London. 23 August 2015. Retrieved 23 August 2015.
  2. ^ a b c d Virtue, Rob (17 July 2015). "Denmark Place fire: Blaze was Britain's worst MASS MURDER – so why has it been forgotten?". Daily Express. London. Retrieved 24 August 2015.
  3. ^ a b c Seton, Craig (18 August 1980). "Police appeal for survivors of fire that killed 37 to come forward". The Times. No. 60706. London. p. 1.
  4. ^ a b Chilton 2006, p. 107.
  5. ^ Tendler, Stewart; Witherow, John (19 August 1980). "Police were due to raid burnt out clubs". The Times. No. 60707. London. p. 2.
  6. ^ "London's Forgotten Disasters: The Denmark Street Fire". Londonist. 10 October 2012. Retrieved 22 August 2015.
  7. ^ Withington, John (2011). London's Disasters: From Boudicca to the Banking Crisis. History Press Limited. p. 98. ISBN 9780752476247.
  8. ^ a b "'They belonged somewhere': the forgotten victims of one of London's deadliest fires". the Guardian. 22 November 2022. Retrieved 22 November 2022.
  9. ^ Brown, Mick (27 September 2015). "Denmark Street: the threatened birthplace of the British record industry". The Telegraph. Retrieved 5 June 2017.
  10. ^ "Arsonist is jailed for murder". The Times. No. 60922. London. 8 May 1981. p. 3.
  • Chilton, Ray (2006). Underfire: The Dramatic Life of a London Fireman. Jeremy Mills Publishing. ISBN 978-1-905217-18-2.

External linksEdit