Varney the Vampyre recaps, collected for your convenience

In chronological order. You may note that I am inconsistent with the spelling of vampire; I think it’s contagion from the total lack of consistency found everywhere in the text.

VS Presents Varney the Vampyre, or The Feast of Blood (and is not making any of it up)

The Probable Consequence of the Mysterious Apparition’s Appearance: Varney the Vampire

Varney the Vampire Gets Shot Some More (Also There Is Breaking and Entering)

Charles Holland's Sad Feelings, Plus More Gunfire: Varney the Vampire, cont'd

Oh Honey No, You Can't Write Dickens, Plus the Summerhouse of Foreshadowing: Varney the Vampire, cont'd

I Defy You To Your Teeth, Sir: Varney the Vampire (Finally) Heats Up

And Now for Something Completely Different: Varney the Vampire Hijacked by Totally Random Story (Also Wow, Vampires are Gross)

FIGHT ME: Varney the Vampyre and the Dryly Witty Correspondence

"Good God," said Henry, "I did not think of that!" Varney the Vampire and the Truly Dim Supporting Cast

Varney the Vampire Develops the Outline of a Character, Plus Standard Gothic Novel Shit

Blood, the Vampyre's Motto: Varney the Vampire Has Very Little Game

FIGHT ME (AND ME, AND ME, AND ME): Varney the Vampire and the Endless Negotiation of Duels

DOWN WITH THE VAMPYRE: Brave Sir Francis Runs Away

REAL ESTATE DECISIONS OMG, or, Varney the Vampyre Doesn't Do A Whole Lot

"We Have Committed a Great Mistake," or, Varney the Vampyre and the Inept Ambush

"I propose that we procure two scythes," or, Varney the Vampyre Acts More Inexplicably than Usual

I Knew That Guy Was An Asshole: Varney the Vampyre and the Completely Unsurprising Plot Twist

Vampyre or Clock-Weight: It's Difficult to Tell, or Varney the Vampire and the Comic Relief

Sir Francis Varney Gets Shot Yet Again, or How Not to Punctuate Dialogue

Lengthy Conversations in a Dungeon: Varney the Vampyre Uncertain of Own Trope

Excitement, adventure, karmic retribution: Varney the Vampire Finally Has Some Stuff Happen

Unnecessary Digressions, Comic Undertakers, "Down with Bannerworth Hall!": Varney the Vampire features Another Angry Mob

"Down with everything and everybody!", or Conversations with a Hangman: Varney the Vampire Does Backstory

Nefarious Woodworking and Unwelcome Hangmen: Varney the Vampire Gets Interesting Again

Chillingworth Loses Coveted "Only Sane Person" Status, or, Varney the Vampyre steals someone else's plot

What in the Name of All That's Inexplicable: Varney the Vampyre Gets Away Yet Again

To Me 'Tis Full of Horrible Shapes: Someone At So Long Last Calls Varney the Vampyre On His Bullshit

"There are things living in the stream, and I am one of them": Varney the Vampyre Goes Nowhere Fast

"He wants a dollop of blood from somebody": Varney the Vampyre and the Angry Mob, Parkour Edition

"And now I have but to lie down and die": Varney the Vampyre Retcons His Own Goddamn Introduction

Grave-Robbing and Pointless Hungarians: Varney the Vampyre spends this one largely passed out

Art Theft and Ent Henchmen: The Farewell of Varney the Vampyre


Setting the architectural world alight: plastic pleasure-domes and pointed fingers

This was Summerland. Then this was Summerland.

Think of the huge atrium at the Gaylord National. Summerland–located on the Isle of Man–was the precursor of that concept: an enclosed, climate-controlled grand leisure center offering everything from disco to tanning to storytime for the kiddies, with its own waterfall built in, and three vast terraces crowded with bars and restaurants fronting onto a massive open space. On a rainy evening in August of 1973, it went up in flames, burning so fast and hot that the fire ate everything but the steel skeleton of the building, destroying in one and a half hours what had taken years of construction, argument, and negotiation to build. Fifty people died as a result, 48 of them in the fire and the remaining two in hospital afterward.

Dr. Ian Phillips of the University of Birmingham has written what I gather to be the most in-depth comprehensive work about the disaster, its overt and underlying causes, why it garnered far less media attention than the King’s Cross tube station fire in the 1980s which only killed 31 to Summerland’s 50, and the lessons to be learned from the whole miserable debacle. Information from Dr. Phillips’ book is cited in this post with chapter and page number if applicable.

The Isle of Man is shaped roughly like a kipper. It is home to just over eighty thousand people, governed by the oldest parliament in the world, Tynwald; its flag shows a triskelion made of armored legs joined at the thigh. It has its own officially-recognised-as-a-legitimate-autochthonous-regional language, Manx Gaelic, and its indigenous Loaghtan sheep produce a particularly fine and much sought-after meat. And in 1971, it became home to a new concept in leisure: the first modern, completely climate-controlled, indoor holiday sports and entertainment center ever built in Britain.

Summerland in context

Okay, cast your mind’s eye back to the waning days of the 1960s. In Britain. This was before climate change had really started to put the boot in, and holidaymakers going to British beaches could enjoy the prospect of paddling in freezing seawater while horizontal rain attacked the kiddies’ sandcastles. Cheap package holidays to Mediterranean resorts had been getting more and more popular since the 50s, and British seaside resorts didn’t stand up well to comparison. The city of Douglas on the Isle of Man, faced with declining tourist revenue, looked around for some way to win back the hordes of holidaymakers spending their money in Torremolinos or Ibiza. The problem was the climate. How could they compete with actual nice weather?

Well, they could build a giant honking greenhouse. “The design presented,” says a booklet produced by the Island’s Development Company in 1972 (The Summerland Story, 1972, p.25, cited in Phillips ch. 3, page 104), “is based on the idea of creating an environment where the sun always shines – an area in which the weather can be guaranteed and where every activity connected with a seaside holiday can be enjoyed by all ages. The scheme envisages, therefore, the maximum possible area enclosed by a structure designed to admit the maximum sunlight, implemented by artificial means, to create a permanent atmosphere of sub-tropical climate. Within this area it is aimed to produce a sense of being in the open air without the climatic hazards.”

Are you starting to hear the menacing minor-key background music by now?

Proposals for the Summerland complex were thrown around in Tynwald, and at first only the attached Aquadrome swimming-pool complex was really approved of; but eventually it got to the stage where architects became involved.

(Cue Python gumbys bellowing “THE! ARCH-I-TECT SKETCH!”)

James Philipps Lomas, a Douglas architect with two lowercase Ps, won the contract for Summerland because his ideas were “rather more imaginative” than his competitors’ (in the words of Douglas’ Borough Engineer, Byrom, 1971, quoted in Phillips, s2 p58). Here is Lomas and his colleague Mr. Brian Gelling looking at a model of their creation. Notice that the Aquadrome, in the foreground, backs up directly against the cliff on one side. Lomas had never worked on anything outside the Isle of Man, whereas Gelling had been employed at a larger firm with experience designing leisure centers on mainland Britain; this firm, Gillinson, Barnett & Partners, was eventually to be appointed “associate architects” for the Summerland/Aquadrome project and do all the working drawings and all the research into materials needed for the work.

This last is significant. Summerland was to shake up the world of architecture with its unprecedented use of particular materials, the properties of which could have used a little more research.

The Aquadrome featured two heated seawater pools with stadium seating, as well as a host of rather ominous-sounding other attractions including “aerotone, sauna, steam, hot, cold plunge, slipper, Vichy douche,* massage, Russian vapour and Turkish baths” (Phillips, ch. 2, p.81). It opened in 1969 and was run by the Douglas Corporation (separate from Summerland). They had considerable difficulty sticking it to the cliff face that formed its fourth wall, and in fact had to bolt the cliff together to stabilize it, ending up with a messy and unbeautiful surface.

Summerland’s plans had been drawn up in 1965. Construction didn’t begin until 1968, and was disrupted in 1969 and 1970 by disagreements over the internal layout and what the probable tenant would end up doing with the building. An early model of the interior of the structure shows a very different concept than what ended up being constructed. The Douglas Corporation waffled on a tenancy agreement for so long that in order to avoid expensive overruns the contract with the construction company was renegotiated to include just the building shell, rather than the shell and internal structure. The shell was completed in December of 1970, just under the deadline. A new contract would have to be drawn up with the eventual tenant regarding the furnishings and fitting-out of the building. This is also significant, because the separation of internal and external structures involved a lot of wriggling out of having to actually take structural precautions against disaster.

Douglas Corporation finally signed the UK hotel group Trust House Forte (THF) to a 21-year lease in December of 1970, which separated the managements of the Aquadrome and Summerland. Punters would have to pay separate admission fees to the two attractions, and could not walk from one to the other without going outside, contrary to the original Scheme, which seems to me like a really well-aimed shot in the foot. The tenancy agreement did allow for work on the interior design and construction of Summerland to begin, and here is where the ominous strains of the Sinister Background Music really start to be heard. The interior structure of Summerland was entirely done by the associate architects, Gillinson Barnett & Partners, and not by Lomas and Gelling. Lomas’s plans could not have taken into account design decisions made by Gillinson Barnett, and therefore could not have included an appropriate system of staircases and exits in the shell design to match the interior usage of the building.

(After the fire, the investigation into Summerland’s design unearthed this factor, which was used as an excuse by the architects: “The Commission was told that, during the long process of designing Summerland, the details of escape in case of fire could not be considered because the kind of occupancy, usage and activities were not decided, as no tenant had been nominated.” (Summerland Fire Commission report, para 216, pg 21, quoted in Phillips, chapter 2.6, pg. 71.) The Commission probably had to ask itself if the architects were fucking kidding it, however, and concluded that Gillinson Barnett damn well could have made some educated guesses.)


So okay, we have a confused building whose outside has nothing to do with the design of its inside, doesn’t have anything like the right number of exits or escape routes, and incidentally happens to be unrestrainedly, exuberantly, astonishingly fugly. This last is due to the general Brutalist aesthetic of the design itself, but is significantly compounded by the materials Gillinson Barnett decided to make it out of. At the time, polymethylmethacrylate sheeting was considered a highly innovative building material, manufactured and sold by an American company under the trade name of Oroglas, and Mr. Barnett decided that Oroglas was right for Summerland. Apparently he decided this pretty early on, and stuck with it, intending to revolutionize the architectural world. No one had ever used Oroglas on such a scale before: they created a whole roof and much of two walls of Summerland out of the stuff. This was not explicitly stated in minutes from the Tynwald discussions during the planning stages of the project: all the references to the construction used the words “glass” or “glass-like material,” implying that the building would be constructed using largely traditional materials. Remember that it wasn’t Lomas who was responsible for choosing materials, but the associate architects, Gillinson Barnett.

“He [Mr Barnett] was clearly committed to it [Oroglas]”, the report states…The architects wanted to create a building that was “unique and compelling” (The Summerland Story, 1972, Page 25). In the same brochure, the claim is made that Summerland would “set the architectural world alight for nothing had ever been designed to include so much of the transparent sheeting”.“ (Phillips, chapter 3, pg 98).

Yes, they did actually say "set alight.” Yes. I know. If I were reading a fictional story I’d roll my damn eyes at how heavy-handed that one is, but it’s true.

What did this marvelous illuminatory material end up looking like in place? It looked like this. “Each panel catches the light to provide an interesting and varying pattern on the façade,” says the brochure. I’ll just leave it at that, shall I?

The people who made Oroglas, Rohm and Haas, thought this was a really shitty idea, and emphasized that “there is no building code in America which would allow it [Oroglas] to be used overall as it was at the Summerland centre. A structure like that would just not have been allowed in America” (Phillips, quoting Rohm and Haas’ spokesman Mr. Svanda from the Manx Star (6-11th August, 1973)). U.S. fire codes require a comprehensive sprinkler system to be installed wherever Oroglas was used on a large scale, even in temporary structures, and while the manufacturer’s UK subsidiaries were well aware of the American codes and regulations, they did not pass them on to the Isle of Man chief fire officer.

It was generally given out that Oroglas was not a danger in cases of fire, because if exposed to excess heat the plastic was supposed to soften and drop out of its frame long before it reached its ignition point. This did not turn out to be what you might call "true.”

Rohm and Haas knew Oroglas was combustible. Phillips refers to an ad hoc experiment conducted in Warwickshire by a council considering the use of the material in a project, in which a sample of Oroglas was set alight with a cigarette lighter and burned like merry hell: “The sample did not have chance to smoulder, as it burst into flames with a ferocity that I had not seen since like all young boys do, [I] set light to a ping-pong ball. It spat and flared, and we got a bit panicked that it would cause problems with the stuffy staff either side of our office.” An internal Rohm and Haas UK memo admitted that Oroglas could burn “in quite a frightening manner”. The letter warned that the material might not even fall free from its frame in the event of a fire the way everybody on the Isle of Man apparently thought it was supposed to. “The ways in which Oroglas may behave if involved in fire are not easy to predict and you should be cautious in discussions on this problem. The method of installation, size of panel and, in some circumstances, even the colour of material can have some effect.” (Phillips, chapter 3, pg 104.) Rohm and Haas admitted after the fire that this information should have been provided to Mr. Pearson, the island’s chief fire officer, but was not.

(Construction workers at the site apparently used scraps of Oroglas as fuel for the fires they built to keep warm.)

After the fire there was much throwing about of brains regarding whose fault it was that Oroglas was used in such amounts without a sprinkler system and whether the use of Oroglas had in fact been the cause of the fifty deaths. As it turned out it wasn’t “Horrorglass” at fault for the disaster after all: if it could be blamed on any particular material, it was something else entirely, an appalling substance called “Color Galbestos.”

Waive this for me

Isle of Man by-law 39 “requires a building’s external walls to be non-combustible and have a fire resistance of two hours.” Both of these requirements were waived during the construction of Summerland, which is precisely why the disaster happened. Use of Oroglas was permitted due to a waiver requested by Lomas and granted on the understanding that, while Oroglas did not have a fire resistance of two hours, in case of fire it would theoretically soften and fall out of its frames, allowing people to escape through the gridwork of the walls. The Borough Engineer who recommended the by-law be waived to allow the use of Oroglas did so believing it to be non-combustible. It’s repeatedly stated that Lomas and the other architects assured the Douglas Corporation of Oroglas’s non-combustibility, and this inaccurate statement of the material’s properties shows up in promotional literature for the building. Post-fire investigations of Lomas and Gillinson Barnett show rather predictable mutual attribution of blame: Mr. Barnett calls Mr. Lomas cavalier in his approach to regulations, and Mr. Lomas claims that Mr. Barnett and his partners should have done their research and he trusted them when they said that Oroglas was totally safe. Either the architects didn’t know they were talking bullshit or they didn’t care. I don’t know which is more disturbing.

The use of Color Galbestos on the building’s east wall was even more of a violation of Law 39, as it is neither non-combustible nor fire resistant. It is rolled steel sheeting coated in bitumen-soaked asbestos felt and plastic resin. It was used in place of concrete or regular steel sheeting because it was cheaper, and permitted due to a truly astounding sequence of failures to communicate. The Borough Engineer suggested Law 39 be waived for it because “he considered it an adequate material in all the circumstances;” the Douglas Corporation meant to ask the Local Government Board for the waiver but never got around to it; the Local Government Board received plans including the use of Color Galbestos without being notified that its use required further Law 39 waivers; the Chief Fire Officer was never consulted about the use of Galbestos because nobody twigged that it was, in fact, lethally inappropriate. Similarly, the decision to use the combustible plastic-coated fiberboard Decalin for the interior wall of the amusement arcade was made off the cuff and never discussed amongst the architects and designers with regards to the fact that it caught fire like anything.


Reaction to Summerland when it finally opened in 1971 was mixed. The building’s promoters, unsurprisingly, thought it was just wonderful: “[Summerland] stands as a pulsating memorial to the foresight of its planners and supporters. It can only confound the critics of the controversial scheme when they see for themselves what has been achieved…The result can only be a source of pride to the whole Island…It will undoubtedly attract the widest publicity – not only because it is unique in the western world, but because it caters so ideally for leisure and relaxation in the unreliable climate of the United Kingdom,” according to a full-page advertisement appearing in the Isle of Man Examiner on 16th July, 1971. Others were not convinced. John Carter, a travel journalist and TV presenter, commented in The Times (19th May, 1973): “The centre’s glossy brochure claims it has ‘Attractions for every taste’, but I must beg to be excused from that generalization. I do not like motorway restaurants, either, but that is another variation on the theme.” (Phillips, chapter 3, pp. 116-118.)

Inside, Summerland offered a wide range of attractions including children’s entertainment and play facilities, cafesrestaurants, and barsamusement arcadesbingoshuffleboard and artificial waterfallsa tanning roomshops, and of course the Solarium–which was used for mass performances.

As you can see, the promotional booklet for Summerland is bright, lurid, somewhat frantic in its assurance that you would have a Nice Time if you came to spend money there. Despite the fact that its logo looks a bit like a gigantic pimple (or possibly the Eye of Sauron) the pictures convey a certain enthusiastic sort of gaiety. To modern eyes, Summerland drips with 1970s kitsch; James Lileks would have gone mad over the Marquee Showbar’s purple and red awnings and plastic chestnut trees, or the bingo arcade’s pink-and-yellow color scheme. It’s the apotheosis of Organized 1970s Fun, and not unlike one specific concept of Hell.

Now imagine all of this on a drizzly August evening in 1973, packed with around two thousand people listening to accordion music, dancing, drinking, roller-skating, tanning, eating, and generally spending money. It’s still light outside as eight o'clock draws near. Outside on the terrace, where the mini-golf course is set up, three boys are hiding in a disassembled kiosk set up against the Galbestos part of the promenade wall, sharing an illicit cigarette. It’s 7:40 PM.

Cue jarring minor chord.

Accounts differ of how the fire actually began–if they had been fucking around with matches, or just failed to crush out the ciggie butt when they were finished, or what–but in fact the kiosk and the rubbish inside of it did catch on fire, and because the kiosk was leaning against the Galbestos wall, the flames were making good contact with the thin metal siding and its combustible bitumen and plastic resin coating.

Here is an extremely grainy picture from the beginning of the whole mess. It’s taken from the west end of the building, looking along the southern sea-front wall. And here is the burnt-out hulk with the point of origin marked clearly.

By itself the kiosk fire would not have caused the disaster had Summerland been constructed of materials adherent to by-law 39. The fact that the fire was located right up against a wall made of Color Galbestos doomed the center and fifty people inside it. People noticed that there was a fire, but it was obviously outside the building. Nobody knew that in fact it had also started a concealed fire inside the wall. Holidaymakers alerted the staff to the fire around 7:55 pm, and staff members joined at least one patron in trying to fight the fire with chemical extinguishers and the building’s fire hoses.

Even the staff thought the external wall was regular steel sheeting and would prevent the fire entering the building. In fact, it was already inside:

“The Color Galbestos used at Summerland consisted of a zinc coated steel core, which was “covered with asbestos felt saturated with bitumen and then faced with a polyester resin coating” (SFC Report, Paragraph 152, Page 53). When the burning kiosk collapsed against Summerland, the Galbestos wall rapidly became red hot and ignited the material’s combustible coating (polyester resin and bitumen) probably after around 80 seconds (Sam Webb, RIBA, Personal Communication, cited in Phillips). Since the core (steel and zinc) of the Color Galbestos has a high thermal conductivity, fumes were soon given off on the inner side of the wall after two-and-a-quarter minutes. “Strong flames” were coming from the Galbestos one minute later.” (Phillips, chapter 6, pp.268-269.)

Here’s another view of the buckled and deformed sheeting afterward. The inner wall, made of a plastic-coated fiberboard called Decalin, was also combustible. When the fire breached the Galbestos wall and entered the void, it ignited the inner side of the Decalin wall and spread across the eastern end of the building between the two walls. “It is estimated that the fire in the void started around 4-6 minutes after the external fire had become established in the remains of the mini-golf course kiosk. This internal fire then gained intensity – but at all times being confined to the void – over the next ten minutes between about 7.45pm and 7.55pm (Time estimate by Professor Rasbash; see SFC Report Paragraph 106, Page 38). It is not known what temperatures were reached in the void, but they may have reached 1000 degrees C close to and after the Decalin wall gave way…” (Phillips, chapter 6, p.273.)

When the fire broke through into the interior of the building, it did so at the ceiling of the amusement arcade (directly beneath the Marquee Showbar level), probably because the only firestopping within the void was located at that level (asbestos sprayed on metal girder). The flames roared across the ceiling of the arcade like a blowlamp, spreading rapidly across flammable furnishings and decorations. By the time the first flames were seen within the building, a considerable portion of the wall had already been burning for some time: with the breach of the inner wall, air rushed in and rapidly fed the fire. From the amusement arcade the fire spread, igniting the Oroglas promenade wall alongside the flying staircase, which caught fire after being exposed to flame for less than two minutes. Burning plastic dribbled to the Solarium below.

Eyewitness accounts agree that the fire spread incredibly rapidly–“as if the place had been doused with petrol,” “like a bomb,” “worse than the Blitz,” “within ten seconds the whole place was on fire,” “like wildfire,” “the building went up like paper and was wrecked in no time at all.” There was no warning, no fire alarm bell was sounded, and no official call was made to evacuate the building other than a terrified compere’s shout over a microphone. People on the Marquee Showbar level and above had few escape routes from the building, all of which rapidly became jammed with struggling people. And the Oroglas–far from softening and dropping harmlessly out of its frames–was burning. Molten blobs of burning plastic rained on the screaming people struggling to get out, spreading fire across the Solarium floor. The gap between the terraces and the Oroglas wall acted as a chimney, sucking fire upward to the roof, which burnt out in perhaps ten minutes after ignition. The plastic panels had no time to soften and drop harmlessly from their frames: the temperature of the hot gases and of the flames themselves brought it up to ignition point in seconds. Recall the ad hoc experiment done in Warwickshire on a sample of Oroglas: once alight, it burned fiercely.

Of the vastly insufficient number of exits from the building, several were locked, including two of the main entrance doors and one fire exit immediately adjacent: some of these could be battered open, as the doors into the Aquadrome were, and some could not. People lost their way in the toxic black smoke and were overcome. Parents relaxing on the upper terraces were separated from their children playing in the lower-level skating rinks and the amusement arcade, some of them permanently. At 8:11 the lights went out as the manager shut off the power in the mistaken belief that it would improve safety by preventing electrical fires: the only light left was that thrown by the fire itself, obscured by billows of smoke. The emergency lighting, designed to come on in the event of a power failure, failed–either because the generators wouldn’t start or because the switch to them was set in the “off” position. A supposedly safe enclosed exit stairway (the northeast service staircase) was not only not designed for use as an emergency exit but was also now pitch black and full of smoke.

The first alarm was called in to the Douglas fire station at 8:01 by a passing taxi driver; the second was from a boat offshore. Only after those did anyone in Summerland call for the fire brigade. No automatic fire alarm had been rung from the burning building whatsoever: this was investigated as having been either due to the setup of the alarm system or to fire destroying alarm wires. Once the fire engines arrived, however, there was little they could do: the fire had taken too great a hold and had too much fuel for them to hope to extinguish it. The main focus was then shifted to trying to prevent the Aquadrome from a similar fate.

By ten past nine–only an hour and a half after it began–the fire was under control, and by eleven the firemen were beginning to bring out the bodies.

The inquiry into the disaster published its report in May of 1974. Prior to the report’s publication, most of the theories about the factors responsible for the deaths focused on the rapid fire spread due to the extensive use of Oroglas, the locked exit doors, and the delayed and disorganized evacuation of the building. In fact the Oroglas theory was still being cited as late as 2006 (Phillips mentions an article in the Isle of Man Examiner in March of 06 containing the line “Summerland was rebuilt without the lethal plastic dome, which had been responsible for so many deaths”). The Summerland Fire Commission report, however, scotches this theory, revealing the catastrophic combination of Galbestos and Decalin that had played a major role in the early development and spread of the fire. The combination of inappropriate material use, open-plan design, insufficient staircases and exits, and delayed evacuation is what really caused the deaths of fifty people in Summerland.

The first three of these causes can be attributed to poor or nonexistent communication and research on the part of the architects and planners; the fourth could not be avoided, as there was no sign of the fire inside the building until twenty minutes after it had begun. People were still paying to enter Summerland for that twenty minutes after the boys’ accidental ignition of the disassembled kiosk on the terrace. Nobody had any idea that the fire had penetrated the Galbestos and was burning fiercely inside the wall; the staff had had no reason to suspect that evacuation was necessary until after it was already far too late to save everyone inside.

Summerland’s fire alarm system had two stages. Public break-glass alarm points around the building would show up on an indicator panel in the “Control Room” when smashed, but would not sound the public alarm. A staff member monitoring the indicator panel would then be responsible for verifying the fire and sounding the alarms if necessary (by either smashing a staff fire alarm glass outside the control room or pushing a “test” button, not the Sound Alarm switch, on the console). The built-in delay was meant to allow for investigation of false alarms, but the fire station should automatically have been alerted when the public trigger was smashed. The fact that it wasn’t indicates that the alarm panel itself had been taken apart and physically modified to extend the built-in delay to the automatic fire brigade alert, which Summerland had had done after prior false alarms without notifying the Chief Fire Officer. Which is a lethal version of “it’s easier to ask forgiveness than permission.”

As if the handy pre-sabotaged alarm system wasn’t bad enough, the power supply to run it wasn’t up to code, it turned out during the investigation. If the mains wiring was destroyed by fire, the backup generators were supposed to be able to provide power to run the alarm, but when these were examined after the fire they appeared to have been inoperable. Furthermore, the operator in the Control Room had had no training on the fire alarm system, did not know how to use the system, and was not aware that running the system was part of her duties.

The Control Room was set on the first terrace level facing the Solarium and the three terraces against the east wall, allowing the operator a continuous view of most of the interior. It was used in actual practice as the sound and light/announcer’s booth for the Solarium, and in fact the operator on duty at the time of the fire reported not to the Fire Officer but to the Entertainments Manager, which gives you an idea of the room’s role in the running of the building. There was in effect no fire and safety oversight from the Control Room, nor had there been under the management in place at the time of the fire. (It is worth pointing out that the first manager to run Summerland did take the Control Room seriously and its operators under his oversight were trained in emergency responses.)

When the fire started, the 19-year-old operator in the control room was not bothered because it appeared to be outside the building and no fire alarm station had buzzed on her panel as having been smashed. Even after the first public alarm glass had been smashed, no indicators were received in the Control Room, suggesting that the alarm system was already dead due to fire in the wall burning through the wiring. The operator could have sounded the actual alarm and sent a signal to the fire station, but did not do so. According to the report, “she felt that it was pointless to make an announcement because the fire was so evident in the building by this stage” (SFC report, paragraph 167, p 58, quoted in Phillips chapter 6 p. 278.)

The locked exit doors turned out, on analysis, not to have been as desperately fatal a factor as might be thought. Most of the deaths occurred on the terraces or the (few) staircases leading down from them to the Solarium floor or directly out of the building. From the third (“Cruise Deck”, the highest point in the building) to the second terrace (Leisure Level) there was only one exit (the flying staircase); on the Leisure Level there was access to the flying staircase as well as the northeast service staircase which descended to the ground level and opened directly to the outside. From the first terrace one had a choice of the service staircase, the flying staircase, or the “rustic walkway” (an afterthought, not in the original plans). People struggling to escape from the terraces joined the throng on the Solarium floor running for the exits if they were lucky: if they weren’t, they were stuck either on the terraces as the fire spread or on the staircases jammed with panicked people screaming in terror. The flying staircase–for many people the only exit of which they were aware–became enveloped in flames, killing at least 13 as they were overcome by fire and fumes or leapt to their deaths in the blaze below.

No villains

The official report’s conclusion that the disaster was an accident attributable to human error and not to any specific “villain” surprised many. Here’s what they said:

“In all the above inadequacies and failings, it seems to the Commission that there were no villains. Within a certain climate of euphoria at the development of this interesting concept, there were many human errors and failures and it was the accumulation of these, too much reliance upon an‘old boy’ network and some very ill-defined and poor communications which led to the disaster. It would be unjust not to acknowledge that not every failure which is obvious now would be obvious before the disaster put structure and people to the test.“

Death by misadventure was the coroner’s verdict–times fifty–and this, too, infuriated those who had lost loved ones in the disaster. If the architects and planners, the companies who sold them the materials, and the management in place at the time of the fire could not be held responsible, who could? God? Bad luck? The "curse” of the Derby Castle site?

There are no answers, but the Corporate Manslaughter Act of 2007–a result of unsuccessful prosecutions in cases of disaster–means that if anything like Summerland ever happens again, it would be possible to find the management of the building liable. As with almost every disaster, Summerland spurred the creation of new and more stringent safety codes and regulations, meant to address the various elements of the situation that had led to the appalling death toll. This comes as cold comfort to the families of the victims.

Summerland was rebuilt in a vastly subdued version after the fire, but struggled to break even: in 2006 it and the Aquadrome, which had survived the fire, were demolished. After forty years the Derby Castle site has rid itself of a lingering scar, and Douglas–and the Isle of Man–can move on.


*“Vichy douche” sounds like a particularly unpleasant type of sleazeball to a 2014 reader.

All images in this post except the color image of the fire, which is on the BBC’s website, are from Dr. Phillips’s book (complete with original caption and citations where possible) and moved to my own hosting for purposes of illustration. No copyright infringement is intended and no money is being made: the research was done by Dr. Phillips, not myself, and this post is intended merely to present in summary the conclusions detailed in his work.