Ronan Point tragedy killed four people and changed how tower blocks were built
PUBLISHED: 07:00 16 May 2018 | UPDATED: 08:34 16 May 2018
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On May 16, 1968, Ivy Hodge was asleep on the 18th floor of Ronan Point, a tower block in Butchers Road, Canning Town.
At 2.30am, she awoke to an intense drilling sound, She wandered to the bathroom, investigating the noise, and went back to bed.
Three hours later, at 5.45am, the 56-year-old got up to make tea. She put the kettle on the hob, turned on the gas, and struck a match.
Eighteen floors below, a night watchman had just left his hut. Suddenly, he saw a puff of smoke, and heard an enormous crash.
“As I was running away, I heard the building coming down with terrific cracks and bangs.”
Edward Latchford was walking along Butchers Road when he heard it. He watched as an entire section of wall fell from the building. All the flats “seemed to crumble to the ground.”
Four people died that morning, and another in hospital two weeks later. What followed was years of community campaigns, changes to building regulations and ultimately, the end of domestic high-rise construction in the UK.
During WW2, more than a quarter of Newham’s homes (at the time, the borough of West Ham), were destroyed. From 1945, the council began building two and three storey homes, but still had thousands left to house. From the late 50s, their policy radically changed.
Towers sprung up which held more than double the number of people per acre. Around 75 per cent were above eight storeys. The highest – at 23 storeys – were taller than anything built before. They were called Large Panel System buildings, part of a Danish system called Larsen Nielsen.
In 1968, there were 22,000 Larsen Nielsen buildings globally. They were built using pre-made components, put together in factories, to minimise on-site construction. They weren’t designed to be higher than six storeys.
Ronan Point was the second of nine such blocks in the borough. For West Ham’s residents, who’d been used to terraced pre-war housing, they were seen as luxurious.
A gas leak from Ivy’s faulty cooker connection triggered the explosion. Because of the building’s design, when the explosion hit her kitchen and living room walls, it triggered a chain reaction, and every flat above and below began to crumble.
Tenants on the south-east side of the building awoke to find half their homes missing, including Brenda Maughan, on the 13th floor. She was on the living room sofa when the walls around her collapsed. She stood on a narrow ledge, clinging onto the door frame, as she watched her flat fall away. She suffered a dislocated shoulder, broken tibia and three broken teeth, but was the only person known to escape from the south-east living rooms.
Miraculously, Ivy also survived. Others weren’t so lucky.
The first body was found just after 6.30am. It was 32-year-old Thomas Murrel. Him and his wife, Pauline, lived in flat 110. Her body was discovered soon after.
Thomas McCluskey and Edith Bridgstock lived in flat 85. Their bodies were crushed under the rubble.
Ann Carter, from the fifth floor, was injured in the explosion. The 80-year-old died in Poplar hospital two weeks later.
The response was swift. Hallesville Primary School was designated as a rescue centre within minutes of the explosion, and housewives from Butchers Road brought sugar, tea, coffee and cigarettes for the homeless. The council arranged for Canning Town public hall to become emergency accommodation, but nobody took up the offer – they were all cared for by friends, relatives, or strangers.
The subsequent public inquiry found no one to blame for the disaster. Rather, the building’s collapse was a result of its design.
And while the building conformed to existing codes of practise, no codes existed specifically for Large Panel System buildings.
At the enquiry’s opening, West Ham South’s MP, Elwyn Jones said: “The nature of the accident caused concern extending far beyond the confines of Newham. For by now, millions of families live in tall blocks of flats in this country and abroad. The eyes of the world will be on this inquiry.”
The inquiry decided that Ronan Point should be strengthened, but it wasn’t torn down. It wasn’t until years of campaigns, and private investigations from curious architects, that building standards woke up to the dangers of Large Panel System buildings.