The Summerland Story

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20120827

The story of the Isle of Man's innovative leisure complex and the fire that destroyed it.

20120827

Stephen Smith travels to the Isle of Man to find out about the little-discussed entertainment innovation Summerland, the prosperity it brought to the Island for three summers and the terrible fire that destroyed it in 1973, killing 50 people.

Summerland was the brainchild of local architect James Phillips Lomas and hoped to reverse the decline in the Manx tourist trade in the late 1960s. The complex was spread out over seven levels, rising 96 ft above sea level and covering 3.5 acres of the Douglas seafront. The use of futuristic materials, like bronze tinted acrylic Oroglas, to clad the building gave the impression of sunshine indoors all year round - and offered an appealing alternative to the cheap Mediterranean package holidays that were becoming available.

Summerland opened to the public in 1971 and soon became the entertainment hub of the island, for both tourists and locals. It was celebrated from a civic perspective and brought a new lease of life to the tourist trade until it came to an untimely end two years later.

On 2nd August 1973, a fire was started just outside the building and quickly spread. Within minutes the building was engulfed in flames and all floors above the entrance level were destroyed. There were an estimated 3000 people inside Summerland that night - of which 50 lost their lives.

A 49 day public hearing on the island found that there were "No villains" in the disaster and as such no-one was held to account.

Forty years since the peak of its prosperity, Stephen Smith finds out what the building meant to the island, how the events of that tragic night unfolded and why such an important event is rarely spoken about.

Produced by Jenny Clarke

A Bite Yer Legs production for BBC Radio 4.