Seacliff Mental Hospital 1942


A psychiatric hospital fire in which 37 patients died, when they were trapped in their locked ward.   It was New Zealand’s worst disaster to date.

At around 9.45 pm on 8 December 1942, fire broke out in Ward 5, a wooden two-storeyed residential building.  All the doors and windows of Ward 5 were locked at night.  There were no automatic fire alarms, and no nursing staff in the ward.  The alarm was raised by an attendant, Henderson.   Two patients were rescued from rooms that did not have locked shutters.  The cause of the fire could not be determined.

Fire fighting response

After raising the alarm, Henderson got reel and hoses from the small on-site fire station, and ran them along to a hydrant near Ward 5.  He was joined by Driscoll and other members of the hospital’s industrial brigade.    Even though the water pressure was low, they prevented the fire from spreading to the adjoining wooden Wards.

Legislative changes / lessons learned

The Commission of Inquiry into the Fire at Seacliff Mental Hospital:

  • criticised the design and safety of the building, and the way in which the windows were shuttered and locked from the inside at night
  • praised the efforts of the industrial fire brigade
  • recommended the installation of sprinkler systems in all psychiatric institutions

Selected sources

Members of the NZFS community can borrow these from Library Services.  Members of the public can obtain them via their local library.

McLean, G. (1992).  Seacliff 1942. In New Zealand tragedies : fires and firefighting (pp 79-83).  Wellington: Grantham House.


Commission upon fire at Seacliff, Report of. Appendix to the Journals of the House of Representatives, 1943 Session I, H-07a

Raging Inferno, Evening Post, 10 December 1942 (Papers Past)

Seacliff lunatic asylum – Wikipedia

Today in history – NZ


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