Please note, this article contains details which some readers may find upsetting.
40 years ago this August, an act of mass murder was committed in central London: the Denmark Place fire.
Little known about today, this horrific incident occurred in the shadow of the Centre Point Tower, on a short, narrow street called Denmark Place.
Denmark Place has now all but vanished, having been demolished to make way for London’s ever-growing tide of redevelopment.
It ran parallel to Denmark Street; a far more famous thoroughfare, long celebrated for its links with the music industry- hence its nickname: ’Tin Pan Alley’.
The Soho of 40 years ago
Denmark Place was located on the eastern fringes of Soho which was a very different place back in the early 1980s, notorious for its blue cinemas, adult shops and overall seediness.
Crooked gambling parlours and illegal drinking dens flourished within this environment and by 1980 it was estimated that there were around 40 such unlicensed premises operating within the area.
The Spanish Rooms
18 Denmark Place- which was a yellow stuccoed Victorian building- was home to two such places; a pair of cramped, illicit bars named El Hueco (‘The Hole’) and Rodo’s. Collectively, they were known as The Spanish Rooms although some regulars also referred to them as El Dandy’s.
The Spanish Rooms were especially popular with London’s Colombian community; not only as a place to eat and drink but also as a base for seeking job and accommodation opportunities.
Because so many Colombians themselves worked unsociable hours in London’s bars and restaurants, the Spanish Rooms were known for staying open until 8am, so as to give late night workers enough time to unwind following the end of their shift.
The only way to gain access to these speakeasies was to ring a bell: if recognised, a key would be thrown down and, once in, the patron was expected to lock the door behind them.
The Metropolitan Police were aware of the Spanish Rooms, having already raided a club on the same premises in 1978.
By the summer of 1980 the building was back on their radar and it was the Met’s intention to have both clubs shut down on Monday 18th August.
48 hours before this action could be put in motion however, a dreadful twist of fate would intervene.
Saturday 16th August 1980: 3am
Friday the 15th August 1980 was a fine, clear day.
The Winner Takes it All by ABBA was number one in the music charts, David Bowie’s Ashes to Ashes wasn’t far behind and Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back was playing at the Odeon, Leicester Square
As the warm summer evening set in, Londoners geared up for the weekend and by the early hours of Saturday 16th August, both El Hueco and Rodo’s were packed with at least 100 people. A number of these revellers were attending a farewell party for a friend who was shortly due to return to Colombia.
Amongst the crowd was a 42 year old small time crook named John Thompson.
Originally from Scotland, Thompson lived in Elvin House on Hackney’s Morning Lane and was known around London by two nicknames; ‘Punch’ and ‘The Gypsy’.
That night, Thompson was drunk, bad tempered and on drugs.
After instigating a row in which he accused barman, Jose Franco of overcharging he was promptly kicked out. Once outside and with his ego bruised, Thompson continued to hurl abuse before slinking off.
A short distance from the club, he happened to stumble upon an empty two gallon jerry can which had been dumped on the street.
Seeing this, a savage plan for revenge crossed Thompson’s mind.
He grabbed the can and got a minicab to take him to an all-night petrol station in Camden where he filled the plastic container with fuel.
He then asked to be taken back to Denmark Place.
When later providing a statement about this journey, cab driver, Raji Dawar recalled that Thompson drunkenly “hooked his thumb in the direction of the Spanish Club…and muttered that he was going to fix them.”
It was now some time after 3am and both of the clubs were heaving.
As the people partied on the floors above, Thompson quietly poured the petrol through the Spanish Rooms’ letter box. He then lit a bunch of paper and stuffed it through.
Minutes later, the building was engulfed in what would become London’s deadliest inferno since the Blitz.
Horror on Denmark Place
Due to their illegal nature, the Spanish Rooms were a death trap.
The lone staircase which stood directly opposite the door was wooden and rickety and the walls were lined with polystyrene tiling, thus enabling the fire to rapidly take hold.
Up above, the windows were blocked with metal grilles and wooden shutters, whilst an emergency exit leading to nearby Denmark Street was firmly bolted shut.
To make matters even worse, the ground floor beneath the two clubs was used for storing hotdog carts, all of which contained Calor gas bottles.
One survivor, Luis Jaramillo Silva, then aged 26, described the moment the blaze broke out:
“There was an explosion and the lights started shaking. A lot of people were shouting: ‘It’s a bomb, it’s a bomb’…I ran to the door but flames were coming in. People started smashing windows with their elbows. They were trapped inside because the flames were on the stairs. They started climbing through the windows and jumping out.”
This was how Luis himself survived; he managed to leap from a third storey window.
Another person who bore witness to the Denmark Place Fire was Angela Mulhern. She was just 21 at the time and had been out celebrating a birthday with her friend Carol who sadly didn’t survive:
“Everybody was just sitting there together, then there was a bang. Glass and bits of the wall were falling and sticking in peoples hair. Some people were dead. There was lots of smoke. Somebody got me out. I don’t know how.”
28 year old Eduard Trujilo also described a loud bang accompanied by the strong smell of petrol; “There was very, very black smoke, and then molten plastic dripped from the ceiling.”
German student, Andreas Baumann, aged 20, compared the bang to the sound of “a plane going through the sound barrier. “My friend and I were standing near the door on the second floor” he continued. “Suddenly there was smoke coming up the stairs and panic broke out. The lights went out and then flames came up the stairs.”
Some on the lower floor didn’t even have a chance to contemplate escape. So quick was the fire to take hold that a number of victims perished where they sat, slumped over the tables with glasses in hand, their contents vaporised.
Battling the Denmark Place fire
The alarm was raised by Ibraham Pancar after a young woman, clearly in a state of shock, dashed into the Kentucky Fried Chicken shop he managed on nearby Charing Cross Road.
As Ibraham dialled 999 his assistant manger, Alp Iskender, ran across to the club and attempted to break down the door; “I must have kicked that door 50 times” he later said, “but I just could not get it open. Flames were coming right out of the windows and I could hear these terrible screams. I tried but that door wouldn’t budge.”
A short distance away, at Soho Fire station on Shaftesbury Avenue, Green Watch were on duty.
At 3.33am the station’s alarm rang and the men leapt to action. There was however some confusion at first as the address was mistakingly given as ‘Denmark Court’; a non-existent location on Soho’s patch.
As Station Officer, Turk Manning radioed the Wembley control room to check, a member of the public ran into the station to report the blaze and confirmed it was on nearby Denmark Place.
Once at Denmark Place, Green Watch were confronted with a dire situation.
Like Alp Iskender, they found the door almost impenetrable, for it was double thick and steel lined. It took many precious moments to smash through this lethal barrier as sparks and flaming debris rained down.
As the crew fought to gain entry, the screams of those trapped above continued, along with the sound of more windows being broken. Those able to clambered out and plummeted to the pavement below.
Alp aided one such man who was covered in blood. This survivor told him that many people inside the club had been “paralysed” by a sudden surge of smoke, and that even though some of these victims were conscious and screaming, they were trapped in their seats.
Some were more fortunate in that they managed to scramble out close to a neighbouring building which was clad in scaffolding. Others found a way out by breaking down a door which led into a music shop located on neighbouring Denmark Street.
However, as the shop was closed for the night, its exit was barred.
As the flames licked behind them, those trapped in this area attempted to batter their way out using guitars as axes. Fortunately they were soon discovered by firefighters who broke in and used the shop as a secondary route for tackling the inferno.
The firefighters from Soho station were soon joined by colleagues from Paddington. A total of six fire engines attended- although they were unable to drive directly into Denmark Place as it was narrow and blocked with bollards. It took the crews several fraught hours to finally extinguish the flames.
In all, 37 people died that night.
The 37 victims of the Denmark Place fire came from a wide array of backgrounds, including Colombian, West Indian, Spanish, Libyan and Irish.
The youngest to die, Diana Coward from Greenwich was just 18. A pregnant woman also lost her life.
Unsurprisingly, many survivors suffered awful burns; the worst cases were treated at Mount Vernon Hospital in Northwood which has long specialised in such injuries. Other victims were taken to the now demolished Middlesex Hospital. Of the dead, many were so badly charred it was impossible to distinguish their gender.
With such a high death count, Thompson had been transformed overnight into one of Britain’s worst mass-murderers.
He was not immediately identified however. Police first had to rule out the possibility of a terrorist attack and there were also theories that the fire was related to either a gang turf war, the burgeoning Colombian drug trade or even a dispute mired in South American politics.
At the time of the attack, one of the club’s owners- 36 year old Victor Gonzales- was on holiday in Spain and received police protection until it was ascertained who was responsible.
The clubs’ second owner was Lubin Reyes. He appealed to the Colombian ambassador for help in repatriating those killed from that nation. Sadly this would take a long time; as well as identification being hampered, the corpses were needed for the criminal investigation.
Hunting the culprit
Using eyewitness accounts from a number of people who’d spotted someone on Denmark Place carrying a petrol can, a photofit was created.
The suspect- who was wearing metal rimmed dark glasses (despite it being around 3am)- was described as “between 30 and 40, about 5ft 3in, slim and almost certainly of Spanish or South American extraction. He had a distinct Roman nose and a pointed chin.”
Unfortunately no photograph of John Thompson appears to exist anywhere within the public domain, so it’s impossible to judge how closely this mysterious figure resembles him.
It was also reported that certain members of the criminal underworld were so appalled by the crime, they’d vowed to aid the 35 police officers who’d been assigned to the case in identifying the culprit.
Thompson was eventually singled out and arrested nine days later whilst drinking at club called Babes which stood a mere 200 metres from the building he was accused of torching. On the 28th August he was hauled to Bow Street Magistrates Court under tight security.
Thompson’s trial took place at the Old Bailey in May 1981.
Although he was thought to have the blood of 37 people on his hands, the case was simplified by placing him on a ‘specimen charge’ for just one of the victims: 63 year old Archibald Campbell.
As well as his involvement with the Denmark Place Fire, Thompson was also accused of another arson attack; one which had occurred at Exbury House on Brenthouse Road, Hackney the previous year when, following a dispute, one of his neighbours had petrol poured through their letterbox.
Thompson pleaded not guilty to both charges, saying of the Denmark Place disaster, “to this day, I don’t know how the fire started. I had nothing to do with starting the fire.”
Thompson’s legal team argued the fire was the work of a protection racket who’d engineered the situation to have Thompson take the blame. This was not without reason: two months before the fire, it was said two men had entered the Spanish Rooms demanding money. This led to a fight, after which Victor Gonzales hired a minder for protection.
Also, according to The Sunday Times, informants from London’s criminal underworld had passed police two names; a pair noted as having “a reputation for violent behaviour” who were “said to have threatened to fire-bomb at least six other Soho clubs whose owner refused to pay them protection money.”
Curiously, at least one witness said she’d seen two men fleeing the scene. Another claimed they saw a figure on Denmark Place lugging two petrol cans.
Furthermore, two acquaintances of Gonzales said that shortly before the fire, he told each of them that he’d been warned someone was going to burn his club down.
Gonzales was no stranger to such incidents- he’d lost a similar business in 1972 when his club on St Anne’s Court was destroyed by fire. Fortunately on that occasion there had been no fatalities.
Thompson's version of events
In the dock, John Thompson claimed an earlier confession he’d made in which he’d admitted to starting the fire was made under duress after a police officer threatened him with violence.
“I was under the impression that if I didn’t make the statement I would be kicked to hell” he said. “I didn’t realise the consequences. It was self-preservation.”
He also said that at around the same time he’d been suffering the “horrors” after coming down from a drug binge.
Thompson did however concede that he’d been at the Spanish Rooms and had started an argument with Jose Franco. It transpired that Jose was one of those killed; he’d died whilst helping others to safety.
As for the petrol, Thompson claimed it was intended for his own car and that he’d stashed the container near the club’s entrance whilst he went in search of a car battery to steal for his vehicle.
After hearing news of the Denmark Place fire, he stated he’d considered going to the police to tell them about the fuel can he’d left near the scene, although thought better of it as he was already suspected of the arson attack in Hackney.
Although Thompson was cleared of the Hackney case, the jury didn’t buy the rest of his story.
On the 7th May 1981 he was found guilty of starting the Denmark Place fire and sentenced to life imprisonment.
The Denmark Place fire fades into obscurity
Thompson’s trial received little attention, one of the reasons being that journalists were crammed into the courtroom next door where Peter Sutcliffe- aka the ‘Yorkshire Ripper’- also happened to be on trial.
John Thompson spent the rest of his life in jail.
He died of lung cancer, handcuffed to a hospital bed in 2008. The date he passed away happened to be the 16th August: exactly 28 years to the day that he’d committed his atrocious act of revenge…
Until the Grenfell Tower disaster in 2017 in which 72 people perished, the tragedy at Denmark Place was London’s deadliest fire since WWII.
Sadly, despite being one of the worse cases of mass murder in British history, the events of August 16th 1980 are now largely forgotten and Denmark Place itself has been swept away to make way for the Elizabeth line.
There is no memorial plaque to be found, and it wasn’t until 2015- 35 years after the event- that a full list of the victims’ names was published thanks to an excellent and much needed article in the Independent newspaper.
To honour the memory of those who perished in the Denmark Place fire, I should also like to take the opportunity to list there names here:
Peter Alan Dolan
Mary Luz Londono
Juan Antonio Sagasta-Juldain
Carlos Alberto Soto
Eustace Ralph Taylor-Harding