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The Summerland Disaster Memorial, Douglas in 2015

I’m off to the Isle of Man soon for the second time. Sadly, my teaching and other work commitments, not to mention the family ones, mean that I won’t be able to go long enough to see anything further of the island’s wonderful landscape and heritage sites beyond the small snapshot I got for the first time last year.

My trip will be taken up with going to the Isle of Man College to do some teaching, have some meetings in my role as the Dept of History and Archaeology at the University of Chester’s link tutor for the BA History & Heritage run through the college. I will also be giving a public talk about my research on early medieval smiths.

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2016 view of the memorial looking south-west

I’m thinking back to my visit of last year when I got to see Maughold’s early medieval stones, Balladoole Viking boat-burial and the Manx Museum.

I also encountered a striking memorial to a unique and harrowing fire that took place on the outskirts of Douglas 40 years ago: the Summerland disaster of 2 August 1973.

The innovative hi-tech leisure centre was opened in 1971. It went up in an ‘inferno’ on the evening of 2 August 1973. The disaster was facilitated by multiple failings, including a failure to evacuate immediately, no call for the fire brigade for 20 minutes and some locked fire doors. The building itself was inherently problematic; employing flammable materials in its design, with numerous open spaces and other architectural dimensions facilitating the rapid spread of the fire. A stampede for the main exits caused many deaths by crushing and trampling. Details of the disaster can be found here, here and here.

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View from the memorial garden with the passing horse-drawn trams and the Irish Sea beyond

50 children, women and men – many holidaymakers – were killed. Recent articles do not list the numbers injured. It has been described as the biggest civilian fire in these islands since the Blitz.

The fire has a prominent place in the island’s history but is regarded as something of a ‘scar’ and a ‘shame’ on the Isle of Man. Fire regulations for buildings were changed but there were no prosecutions for a fire started by teenage smokers in an adjacent kiosk.

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View of the memorial in 2016

The horror of the incident is enough to make anyone want to forget. Collective shame also breeds forgetting. Moreover, the profit motive of tourism breeds a culture of forgetting too surrounding the deaths of tourists. The Summerland fire could be seen in these contexts, and it has been regarded as among the most trivialised disasters in the history of the British Isles.

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View of the site of Summerland today, having been rebuilt it closed and is now a part-ruin propping up the cliff-face
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toys and flowers tied to bollards beside the Manx Electric Railway at the entrance to the former Summerland

The centre itself is now a ‘scar’. The centre was rebuilt in 1978 but it is now an empty space following demolition a decade ago.

It is also not completely gone but instead it is a part ruin: its west wall still in place for fear that its removal would cause the cliff behind it to collapse. Perhaps its redevelopment will facilitate ‘closure’/’forgetting’, but for now, there is at least finally a memorial.

There are toys and flowers along the bollards on the approach to the ruin, between the Manx Electric Railway and the road, although I’m told these relate to a later accidental road death.

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2015 view of the memorial
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Memorial to Sir Hall Caine

40 years after the disaster, a monument has been raised to commemorate the fire. It was unveiled on the evening of Friday 2 August 2013, situated within the existing Kaye Memorial Garden in Douglas, a space opened to commemorate Alderman Kaye in 1955.

It is close to the sea and close to the Summerland site. Notably, the site chosen for this disaster memorial was an existing memorial environment in an angle between the coast road (King Edward Road) and Summer Hill Road.

IMG_20160503_181831The gardens have a biography of memorialisation within them. There is a statue to
the memorial augments a memorial environment and there is a small plaque set up to commemorate the 25th anniversary.

Subsequently, a plaque was placed on a small low stone beside the plantings commemorating the 25th anniversary of the disaster in 1998. The choice of location was therefore building on a clear precedent established in 1998 for commemorating the disaster at this location.


The opening ceremony was attended by families
of the victims (see also this report), the names of victims were read out, and some perceived it as bringing closure in itself.

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View of the memorial gardens from the promenade

The monument is granite and comprised of a trio of stones set within a raised circular walled garden; a garden within the existing memorial garden.

The names of the dead are inscribed on the faces of the flanking stones, the cut surface creating the slanting angle used so often by memorial masons to denote lives cut short. The top of the central stone is also cut at a similar angle. Powerfully, their age of deaths are also recorded next to each name. The main central stone contains the following text:

IN MEMORY OF THE 50 PEOPLE

WHO LOST THEIR LIVES IN

THE SUMMERLAND FIRE DISASTER

ON 2 AUGUST 1973

Erected by Douglas Borough Council

and dedicated on 2 August 2013 on the

40th Anniversary of the Tragedy

We will not forget

Cha jeanmayd jarrood

Beneath the memorial is the town’s crest, and two triskeles (three armoured legged symbols that are the centrepiece of the islands coat of arms) are present too.

There is a sense with such disaster memorials require a discourse of neglect before memories can be rehabilitated and an anniversary ‘closure’ can occur. On this occasion, the discourse seems fully justified. I cannot imagine what 40 years feels like for the families of the victims, other than ‘way too long’. The lack of memorials can breed a shame of their own, growing alongside that of the disaster itself in public consciousness.

Still, at least this memorial, a tiny garden within a garden, provides a permanent memorial to the tragedy. The choice to ‘buffer’ the memorial by locating it within a pre-existing memorial landscape is not a unique strategy for connecting memories of tragedies to previous memorial environments. Churches do this all the time. This might be seen as having a dual role, providing the new memorial with a meaningful context, but also ensuring its memories are ‘managed’. The choice of stark megaliths arranged together, as well as their angle, creates another sense of transtemporality because this form suggests the eternal, links to the island’s prehistory perhaps…

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