Fire: Seacliff Mental Hospital
When: 9 December, 1942
Where: Seacliff, near Dunedin
In 1884 the Seacliff Lunatic Asylum was opened at
Seacliff, 28 kilometres up the coast from Dunedin.
It provided housing for 500 patients and 50 staff,
and at the time was the largest public building in
At about 9.45 pm on 8 December, 1942, fire broke out
in Ward 5. This ward was a two-storeyed wooden building
which had been added on to the original stone building
when the hospital was expanded at the end of the nineteenth
In Ward 5 were 39 women mental patients, all locked
into either single rooms or the 20-bed dormitory.
Most windows were locked, and could only be opened
by a key from inside.
It was during the Second World War, and there was
a shortage of nursing staff. There was no nurse on
duty in the ward at night, although checks were made
by staff from other wards every hour.
The fire was first noticed by a male attendant who
raised the alarm and ran to bring the fire hoses and
reels from the small hospital fire station to a fire
hydrant near Ward 5.
He was able to save one patient by pulling off the
grating over her window and dragging her out. Another
patient was rescued from the first floor. Both survivors
were in rooms which did not have locked shutters on
The hospital's fire fighters tried to put out the
fire, but it was too fierce, and within an hour only
ashes remained of Ward 5. However they were able to
stop the flames from spreading to other wooden buildings.
37 of the 39 patients in Ward 5 died in the fire.
How many died: 37
Other events and outcomes:
A commission of inquiry found that the wooden building
of Ward 5 was dangerous, and once the fire had started,
it spread through the building very quickly.
There were no automatic fire alarms in Ward 5, unlike
other newer parts of the hospital. Any alarm in the
building had to be raised by unlocking a cabinet and
pushing a button to start the firm alarm.
The commission of inquiry criticised the design of
the building and the way in which the windows were
shuttered and locked from the inside at night. It
recommended the installation of sprinkler systems
in all psychiatric institutions.
The commission also felt that there was not enough
staff on duty to supervise the patients at night.
The hospital fire brigade were praised for their action
on the night, which prevented the loss of other lives.
The cause of the fire was not discovered.
A new mental hospital was opened at nearby Cherry
Farm in 1954.
The Seacliff Mental Hospital fire was the worst in
New Zealand until Ballantyne's fire, five years later.