"Heroes with grimy faces" - Sir Winston Churchill

"Heroes with grimy faces" - Sir Winston Churchill

July 30, 2015

OAKWOOD HOSPITAL - 1957


Three members of the Kent Fire Brigade died in the aftermath of a fire at a psychiatric hospital in November 1957.

From Kent History Forum


The fire which broke out at Oakwood Mental Hospital on 29th November 1957 will never be forgotten by the Brigade as amongst the six killed at the scene were three Brigade personnel. An emergency call was made by the night Nursing Superintendent immediately he discovered the fire whilst making his rounds.

The call was received at Maidstone Fire Station at 06.40 hours and were on the scene within four minutes. On arrival the Brigade found hospital staff fighting the fire with a jet, direct from a hydrant. Faced with a developing fire situation at first floor level adjacent to the wards containing 350 mentally ill patients, the officer-in-charge of the two appliances and Turntable Ladder despatched in the initial response got to work after "making pumps 6" at 06.48.

Having started in the tailor's shop on the first floor, the fire raged out of control through the workshop wing, the printer's shop, the library, a staff rest room, the TV room and upwards into the roof. The fire was brought under control by six jets and the "Stop" message was sent at 07.30.

Adjacent to the section of the building where the fire had occurred was a brick built ventilation tower 115 ft in height.

Whilst the cleaning up operations were in progress and half the personnel were enjoying a well earned cup of tea, at 10.01 without any warning, the tower collapsed completely falling on the workshop block and causing the destruction of the building around it. Buried beneath the tons of masonry were several members of the Brigade and also some Oakwood staff including the hospitals Chief fireman. Others were trapped on all levels of the building from the basement to the first floor, some being in considerable danger.

The rescue operations commenced without delay and were organised by Brigade Control with firemen and hospital staff and a request was made for the  attendance of Civil Defence Rescue Parties who responded within a very short time from six towns and who were very quickly at work.

Working in extremely dangerous conditions, under large quantities of bricks and rubble and soaking wet, fire weakened timbers, the rescuers struggled through the remains of the workshops wing to rescue those who had been injured.

Recovered form the wreckage were the three bodies of the firemen who had been killed. Retained Station Officer SE Pearce who had been digging through the rubble searching for casualties found a partially buried body. After further frantic digging through the debris he discovered to his distress that he had uncovered the body of his own brother, ADO Leslie Pearce. He collapsed from shock and was taken to hospital by ambulance. Search and Rescue operations continued until the last body, that of a civilian, had been recovered at 14.30 hours on Sunday 1st December 1957.

The firemen killed were: 

ADO LA Pearce - C Division, Retained Fireman AE Farrow - Loose Fire Station and Retained Fireman JA Hawkes -Loose Fire Station.

The firemen injured were:

ADO HR Evans-Brigade Headquarters, Retained Station Officer SE Pearce Maidstone Fire Station -Retained Fireman DS Latham - Loose Fire Station, Retained Fireman GR Burden -Loose Fire Station, Retained Fireman NF Austin - West Malling Fire Station, Retained Fireman C Wallis - Maidstone Fire Station.

Before the funeral service for the three Kent Firemen on December 5th, large crowds gathered in Maidstone to pay their last respects. The procession was led by Senior Officers and over a hundred firemen from all four Divisions of the County and the funeral service attended by nearly 800 people,  was conducted by Canon FLM Bennett at All Saints Church, Maidstone.

A Tribunal appointed by the South East Metropolitan Regional Hospital Board held a public enquiry into the disaster on the 30th/31st January 1958, finding that a clothes iron, which had been left on overnight in the tailor's shop, had been the cause of the fire. 

Source: Fifty Vigilant Years and CFO's Annual Report 1957/58