William Booth Memorial Home Fire

August 13, 1966
Australia's deadliest single building fire

The victims had been living in a cramped Salvos hostel in flimsy corrugated iron and mesh roof cubicles off narrow corridors. It was 1966 and they were destitute.

When a blaze ripped through the five-storey William Booth Memorial Home, many didn't stand a chance. It was Australia's deadliest single building fire .

It began when Vincent Fox, a chemist, returned from the Metropolitan Hotel to his third-floor room - one of 64 poky cubicles crammed in to each floor .

Heaters were banned due to the fire risk but Fox switched his on and may have passed out and knocked it over, setting the room alight.

Hostel staff kicked in his door, creating a backdraft, the fresh oxygen sending flames , deadly gases and smoke across the third and into the fourth floor .

Some died in their sleep, but up to 12 men were found asphyxiated in a shower room after apparently taking a wrong turn heading for the stairs. More than 150 people escaped.

Stunned survivors paced a nearby lane. '' They were like a legion of the lost. They were just shuffling , and monosyllabic, unable to express what had happened to them,'' says Jeff Penberthy, then a reporter for The Sun newspaper.

The ground floor lounge and dining rooms became makeshift morgues. Ten days after the fire , on August 23, 400 strangers wept as the 15 coffins of the unclaimed victims were lined up at the funeral at the Salvos' Bourke Street Temple.

Salvation Army's Major Brendan Nottle says it was '' a horrific moment"in its history. But, for the most part, it has been forgotten by the public.

So the Salvos and Metropolitan Fire Brigade will host a service on August 13 to mark 50 years since the fire at the hostel.

The MFB has paid for a plaque to be affixed to 462 Little Lonsdale Street, where the home once stood. It will be unveiled at 1pm, before the service.

Historian Geoff Plunkett, the commemoration initiator, said the dead men were considered '' nobodies'' . '' Few cared when they were alive, less so when they were dead. This is wrong,'' Mr Plunkett said.

His recent book about the disaster , Let the Bums Burn, names all the dead.

They ranged from Leonard Baguley, boot finisher , 41, to Herbert McNeice, '' harrier then pensioner'' ,

83. Others included a baker, cleaners , gardeners and boilermakers.

Firefighters Trevor Reed, Les Gray and Laurie Lavelle remember the fire was so hot that water they sprayed dripped boiling back down on them. With no breathing gear, they had to smash windows for relief from the toxic air.

Reed removed Mr Fox's charred remains, but said sadder was seeing the 15 coffins and realising '' no one took any interest in them whatsoever , they didn't have any relatives'' .

Jeff Penberthy remembers smoke billowing from the hostel windows, and firefighters giving survivors mouth-to-mouth through handkerchiefs .

He said the city was '' profoundly shocked'' . '' But the sense of loss, I think, lacked some of that personal dimension in that these were, in the main, homeless men.''

Major Nottle, who will lead the 50th anniversary service, said people came to the Salvos for protection and safety, '' and in this case, we weren't able to provide that'' .

The service would be '' an opportunity for reflection around the people whose lives were lost'' .

The service: 2.30pm on August 13 in the Salvos' Bourke Street Temple. Anyone interested in attending email [email protected]

On web, tablet and mobile

Watch the Movietone News report of the fire.

This article is from the June 5, 2016 issue of The Age Digital Edition.
Carolyn Webb

❊ Address & Contact ❊

William Booth Memorial Home Fire⊜ 462 Little Lonsdale Street Melbourne | Map
462 Little Lonsdale StreetMelbourne

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William Booth Memorial Home Fire 

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Carolyn Webb

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