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You are in: Isle of Man > History > Where the sun always shines

People in solarium

The solarium at Summerland

Where the sun always shines

The Summerland building in Douglas was the first of its kind in the world. The state-of-the-art facilities put the Isle of Man on the map as one of the most important tourist destinations in the British Isles. But the dream was short lived.

Two years after its completion in 1971 the high tech promenade venue was the scene of devastation after a fire ripped through the building killing 50 people.

A man and woman in a bar

Enjoying a pool-side drink

The 3.5 acre Summerland resort, claiming to be the biggest and most innovative indoor entertainment centre in the world, was hailed by the British Tourist Authority as “An outstanding tourist enterprise”.

It was the brain child of Douglas architect, Mr James Phillips Lomas who had been commissioned by Douglas Corporation to design a building which would attract visitors to the Isle of Man whatever the weather.

His solution was to design an artificial centre of sunshine and it had to be spectacular enough to compete with the growing threat of cheap foreign holidays.

Performers on stage

Dancing the night away at Summerland

Inside the centre he included plans for an indoor heated swimming pool, saunas, Turkish baths, an artificial sunshine zone, a children’s theatre, an underground disco, cascading waterfalls, restaurants and bars all with live entertainment throughout the day.

Lomas wanted to create the illusion of being outside and to this end he planned to cover exposed cliff faces with tropical plants while allowing wild birds to live and fly throughout the building.

Two people sitting by a waterfall

Enjoying the outdoor life...inside

The latter idea was eventually scrapped when it was discovered some of the birds were poisoning themselves by eating the plastic foliage.

The plans took years to finalise.  The first drawings materialised in 1965 but hundreds were drafted out before building work actually started.

Douglas Corporation, aided by grants from the Isle of Man Government, spent £1.5 million on the building and more cash was provided by The International Trust House Forte group who had taken Summerland LTD on as a subsidiary.

Three women in a sauna

Sweating it out on holiday

In “The Summerland Story” written by Robert Kelly he promotes the centre as “a holiday town where it never rains, the wind never blows and the temperature never gets chilly.  Outside it’s raining yet here you are relaxed in your shirt sleeves, gently perspiring in a tropical 80 degrees.”

Much thought was given to bringing a sunshine-feel to the building.  The transparent roof was composed of 6 ft acrylic bronze-tinted sheets so that the natural light filtering through would appear like golden rays.

There were 7 floors in total and the building had a capacity for 5 thousand people.

People in a solarium

The Summerland solarium

For just over two years the centre attracted visitors from all over the world.   While children were entertained in the theatre, parents could relax upstairs. 

Summerland was fulfilling its promise of taking Manx tourism into the future. On the evening of Thursday 2nd August 1973 an estimated 3,000 people were enjoying themselves at the resort.

Meanwhile a group of three school boys on holiday from Liverpool was hanging around at the back of the building next to a section of a dismantled fibre-glass kiosk.

A swimming pool full of people

Swimming at Summerland

The rest is of course history.  The Summerland fire, according to the independent report into the blaze, “will remain a permanent scar in the minds of Manxmen.”

A report commissioned by the Lieutenant Governor in 1973 stated that the blaze was the worst peacetime fire disaster in the British Isles since 1929.

last updated: 04/04/2008 at 15:38
created: 03/04/2008

Have Your Say

What are your memories of Summerland?

The BBC reserves the right to edit comments submitted.

David Buttery
I was 16 at the time of the fire, like many teeagers in Douglas we spent most of our evenings and many a wet day at Summerland.We could occasionally get served in the bars and if not we roller skated on the big rink downstairs.The night of the fire we had left Summerland to go to the stock cars at Onchan stadium, we got as far as the Catholic church in Oncan park when we saw a thin column of black smoke and people began to gather at the cliff top overlooking the site.We ran across the golf course watching the smoke grow, by the time we reached the cliff, half of the seaward wall of Summerland was blazing with a thick sheet of jet black smoke rising hundreds of feet.From our viewpoint we watched the fire spread over the huge oroglas canopy and saw thousands of people pouring out of the doors.When the events of 9/11 were shown on tv it reminded me of Douglas prom that night, teeming with shocked people and emergency vehicles flying up and down.We ended up in the Granada hotel trying to phone our parents to tell them we were ok but the phones were busy.The next morning the whole town stank of burnt plastic and vans instead of ambulannces ferried the dead to a makeshift mortuary.I didn't loose anyone and I dont have nightmares, but it was a dark part of my childhood and a memory that is still often in my thoughts

John McGimpsey
I was 15,and in the fire, but I escaped by jumping around the bannisters which were jammed with people too frightened to move on the stairs which were on the same side as the balcony with the crazy golf where the fire was started.. It was my last night on the IOM with my BB Company from N Ireland. A girl I met that night but got separated from in the panic died. Her Name was Julie Panter, and her friend Dawn Ellingham wrote to me to tell me this. Julie was 14, and identified by her jewellery. I will never forget her and that night that I nearly died.Sincerely John McGimpsey, Newtownards N Ireland.

keith jamieson
I was 7 and on holiday with family,that inluded aunts,uncles and cousins.A lot of us had been holdaying in Douglas that week and we spent a lot of time in Summerland.It was a great place to spend the day.It had all the ammenities ,everything you wanted was there,a funfare ,indoor heated swimming pool,indoor amusement arcade.It had bars,a disco's everything.On the night of the fire, we just finished our evening meal in our hotel and we began walking up Douglas promenade ,going towards Summerland,when we noticed smoke billowing up from behind the building,the next instant the entire building was engulfed in flames.I remember seeing people pouring out of the building,some were on fire,it was horrific.We were standing some distance away and I could not take my eyes off it.The explosions from the burning building boomed across Douglas bay.I had never seen so many injured people before and it is something that I wll never forget.The following morning we all cut our holiday short and returned home,as the ferry was leaving Douglas we all stood on the boat deck ,staring at the burnt out shell of Summerland.Have never been back to IOM since that terrible fire.

Catherine Woodhouse
I was 9 and on holiday with my Mum, brother and Uncle Peter (Mum's brother), the aim of the holiday being to give Mum a break after my Dad had died following a long illness. We were in Summerland on the night of the fire, as we had been most evenings. My Mum persuaded me not to stay any longer in the childrens' play area in the basement, so we returned to the gallery area overlooking the stage/dancefloor to join my brother and uncle. When we noticed the black smoke to one end of the building - and the crowds looking in that direction - we started to move towards the exit. (The comedian/presenter on stage made a remark about there being "a chip pan on fire"). My Mum and I started to go towards a spiral staircase which led towards the main entrance but my uncle steered us further along the gallery to where there were fire exits leading to the swimming pool area. (Good move as it happens - I understood later that about 12 people were found dead at the bottom of that staircase, which I seem to recall did not have proper handrails round it, being largely decorative.) The fire exits - clear glass ones, all in a row - were locked which I guessed afterwards was to prevent people paying for access to one area and then going to the other as well. My Uncle and several other "big chaps" hurled themselves against the fire doors to break them down. On the third attempt, my uncle's door came open and several others followed. We got out past the swimming pool - as a lady carrying some keys ran towards the doors to unlock them. I remember seeing below us musicians from the group who had been on stage swimming across the learner pool, one of them with his guitar. I think they must have broken through a back wall or something to get there. We crossed onto the promenade via a walkway which crossed the road, I think. Firemen were already on the scene and ran past us with hoses. I remember hearing a woman shouting "My God, my children are in there", which I still find a bone-chilling thought. It wasn't until we were on the promenade at a safe distance that I looked back to see the building completely engulfed in flames. My uncle saw someone he knew from our home town (Widnes) whose hotel was closer than ours, and he was able to phone family at home to say we were OK just as the story was coming on the news.We were all OK, apart from my uncle's cracked ribs from charging at the fire door, but the horror of the evening is still with me such that even lighting a candle is something I struggle to do and I always check out fire exits when I'm somewhere new.

Sharon Bridson
I was 12 that year. We were there the night before the fire, we just thatought the "moving staircase" by the front door was the best thing ever. Everthing about that place was magical, everyone had a smile on their face & the atmosphere was exciting. I remember the main floor in front of the stage with all the deck chairs & the straw umbrellas, the music, the talent shows. Behind the stage was the huge rock face. We went back when they rebuilt it but it didn't have the same atmosphere & at first people almost seemed to be looking over their shoulders as if they were waiting for something to happen, it was strange. Bit by bit over the years things would start to disappear, until by the end there was only "Manxland" left, my son really enjoyed palying there with all his cousins & it was a great place for Mums to meet on a Saturday & have a coffee while the kids played, we did that for a lot of years. Now it's completely gone & it is a shame but they will hopefully put something back there for the manx & visitors to enjoy & make their amemories last a lifetime too.

Siobhan McHale
We had a family holiday on the IoM when I was 6. We spent alot of time in Summerland it was a great venue for all the family. I do recall entering a talent competition and singing 'I'm a little teapot'. On the night of the fire my Mum and Dad were taking me to see the Black & White minstrels, my much older brother and sister didn't want to go and went on the prom. I decided to throw a wobbly and asked for a toy as I didn't want to go to the show - overtired! We went to the shops on the prom and I still have Minnie the clockwork mouse to this day. We never knew if she saved our lives. We saw the fire take hold and like many others my parents were shocked and crying at the horror of the tragic loss of life. They went to give bloood and looked for my brother and sister on the way. We found them distraught watching the flames as they thought we were in the building. Such a happy reunion but such a terribly sad sad time.

Stuart
I was 9 at the time of the Summerland fire and on holiday with my Mum and Dad staying at the Granada Hotel as we always did then. We stayed for a week and on all of the 4 nights preceding the evening of the disaster I had been to the complex for a swim and play around with new-found friends. On the night of the fire I had decided, for some unknown reason, to spend some time on the “ASTROGLIDE” (who remembers that ?) slide somewhere near where the Hilton Hotel is now I think. My parents had gone for a drink and I was looking after myself on my own in the safety that was 1973 in the fantastic Isle of Man. Following many goes on the slide (the attendant was very friendly and let me have many free rides!) I stood on the prom looking over at the Summerland complex contemplating whether to give it a go or not. Just then I distinctly remember seeing a small flicker of light at the base of the building on the West side thinking it was someone with a torch or something, as it was getting dusky. Seconds later the light grew to a flame a few feet high, then within no time at all there were large flames extending the whole height of the side of the building – I was frozen in shock watching what was kicking off. After another few minutes the flames had spread over the top of the building and were beginning to engulf the whole place, it was horrible to see. I remember seeing balls of fire dropping from the top of the structure – this was the so-called inflammable “Oraglass” (?) panels dropping in flames onto the ground and I guess, people below. The worst thing was I could hear screams even from that distance, this has haunted me to this day. This, coupled with the constant sirens of emergency vehicles, is what made this the worst night of my life. After a couple of hours frozen to the spot I remember seeing my Mum running towards me and picking me up, crying and hugging me as if she hadn’t seen me in years or something. My parents had been to the site of the fire thinking I was in there as I had been all week. When they couldn’t locate me they began their search for me on the prom. I wondered why she was fussing me so much and so upset, after all, I was fine. Now I have my own kids of my age at the time of the disaster, I know why.

celia
I was on holiday at the IOM with a group of girl friends the week of the Summerland fire. We were first alerted to it by the noise from the fire engines.Looking out the window of the boarding house we saw the flames. At first we thought it was only a small fire but we soon became aware that it was a lot more serious. A couple of the girls had been at the afternoon disco but were on their way back to the digs when the fire must have taken hold. Most of week had been spent at the evening disco and I still have photos and the weekly ticket from our good times there. I'll never forget the tragedy and the emptiness we felt after that horrific day. Everywhere we went afterwards there was requests for blood donors it was so sad, and I think we were all glad to get home.

sammy hamilton
I worked in Summerland a week before it burnt down. I finished work on the 1st of August after working in the bar because Ihad run out of money. It was a lovely place but it's so sad the way it all ended.

carol burns
I survived that terrible disaster. I was 17 and with my boyfriend at the time. We went to a show to see the Black and White Minstrels, that's when I smelt smoke. My legs went like jelly and the next thing I knew, flames shot up the sides of the windows. The panic started and we all headed for the fire exit down the steps, only to find the doors were locked. This was on the 2nd floor. When we finally reached the bottom the firemen were there to guide us out and just as we got outside, the whole place was engulfed by fire. I was told that the drummer from the show we had been watching did not make it. I still remember the screams and panic, they haunt me to this day. It had been a last minute holiday booking and to this day I will not go on a last miniute booking holiday. It took me a long time to go on holiday again. I still remember those who died and those who lost loved ones.

dotty kidd
I was 17 and was working there at the time of the fire, it was total panic, the fire spread so fast and no body could get out due to the doors being locked, I managed to get my friend away safely but with all the panic going on around I ended up in a daze, I dont know how I got out but remember someone pulling me, I got out befor the first explosion went off. I lost a couple of pals in the fire.

jimmy kitchin onchan
on the night of the summerland fire,my wife and mother and father inlaw (in there late seventies) plus myself with a wife who was expecting a child,were due to have a drink in the top bar as a fairwell to there holls before returning to liverpool next day, due to a strange event my wife hair rollers broke down so delaying by half an hour our departure.we stoped at the laxey filling station only to be told the complex was on fire!! on arrival above somerland we couldnt beleve the whole building was an infurno (just where we would have been had we not been delayed)we left the site not beleving such a tragity could be hapening to those poor people,and by the grace of god spared us.with the passing of time and no disrespect to those who loved ones perished or were injured i beleve that summerland was a fabulous venue of the time and should be under another name be reserected for the people of the island and visitors alike,the past is the past and nothing can remain a stain of the building/archetects or goverment who built it in good faith and by unforcene events that happend.the island needs a new complex to invest in tourisem and for the island people to enjoy in these hard days ahead bring life back to the island as it was before the doom and gloom merchants moved in.being a stopover from the late 60s and with three children who were born here i personaly would like to see an indoor complex such as summerland revived

William Leeds
I remember going there as a 6 year old. The pool was salt water and it made my eyes sting. I had a great time. We came back to the island the year after the fire and we stayed in Oncan. I remember walking past Summerland and seeing a rocking horse from a ride stood on its own. I was too young to realise what had happened but it makes me feel cold now. I had the best holidays ever as a kid in IOM , it is a magical place.

tracy
I am a surviver of this tragedy.I still have nightmares. I was 5 at the time. My dad raised the alarm after I smelt smoke coming from a slot machine. I will never forget the screams and people climbing over each other to get out.

Andy, Liverpool
As kids we used to holiday in the Isle of Man either at port St Mary or Peel. The year before the fire we were taken to Summerland to watch a syncronised swimming display. I've just seen that picture of the pool with the rows of spectator seats and it brought it all back to me.I remember the next year when the fire happened because we were packing for our holiday to Anglesea when the news broke. Also had a vague recollection that the lads who were smoking near a kiosk which led to the fire, came from Liverpool.

Noel Skillicorn, Liverpool
Summerland for me, like many others who grew up on the Island was one of the main places that you could find entertainment of all forms from Rollerskating through to catching a afternoon film in the cinema. I've not lived on the Island for 10 years, but I have the memories of the great times I had & will never forget Summerland, even know my time spent there was in the 90's, quite a long time following the 1973 Disaster.

belinda
I went to the Isle of Man after the fire and never heard of the fire until recently. But I was young and my family did not let me know about it. But I have fond memories of summerland and I to did win the talent competion in summerland. We would spend alot of time up there because of the pool and because they could keep and eye on us and have a drink at the same time

Stewart
I dont remember the initial Summerlands complex, but I was in Summerlands in the mid 80's; after it was rebuilt and reopened in 1978; I was therer on annual camp with the scouts, that was the year I joined the scouts and that was the reason i joined, the trip to the Isle of Man.What a great time I had there using the swimming pool. The water in the pool was lovely and hot and we used to go out and stand in a cold shower and the cold foot bath then dive into the pool to get that even warmer feeling. Jumping and diving from the boards was also fun with us all playing dead mans fall from the different boards, but I never did manage to dive or even jump from the top board. A recent trip to Isle of Man brought back many happy memories but I was sad to see that not only had Summerlands closed but the building was completly gone.Some people said I was daft as there was no pool on the prominade but my memories of that place will never disappear.

Jacqui
I remember winning a talent contest at Summerland when I was 6 years old.We went to the IOM every year for our summer holidays. from when I was an infant until I was a teenager.Also my dad and his friend used to have such fun jumping on the beaded filled cushions in the solarium...I also remember being at home in Liverpool watching the blaze on TV and crying becuase I would never be able to go there again. Brings back great memories of times spent on the island.

Ricky Rooney, Douglas
For me, Summerland was the hub of all my childhood memories, I would be there at least 4 times a week. My dad played a lot of squash so I was always there watching him, well trying.. it took me years to be tall enough to see over from the spectators gallery properly.Every weekend it would either be rollerskating, swimming or the play area in the day and at night we would come back for the cabaret and more time in the play area.Through the week I would be in Summerland for 5-a-side football and swimming lessons with my school.For years I knew nothing about the fire but was told by my parents at a sensible age, from this moment on I wanted to know what the place looked like as their description made it sound out of this world... and it was!I have spent many an hour researching everything Summerland.I have to admit I did feel very sad when I saw this place coming down.A newer more aesthetically pleasing version needs to be built, we need a more resourceful entertainment complex on the Island, everthing under one roof.. like Summerland!

janice gale from dreghorn scotland
I was 13 when summerland went on fire i still remember that night clearly my mum and i had told my dad that we were going to summerland while he went to the villa marine to watch wrestling but just before the bus stopped we changed our mind and went to white city we had just got into white city when we were told summerland was on fire we had to walk all the way round onchan to get back to the prom its a scene you will never forget seeing people jumping into the sea to get away from the flames even when we came home on the boat your were reminded again as we had to wait until all the coffins were taken of first as a mark of respect

Nicole Smith
The queue to get into the swimming pool with my Mum, Dad & brother and of course the smell. Looking at the picture of the pool makes me sad!! What a great place. The island is in desperate need of some alternative.

mike howarth
I was at summerland in august 1973,and went to the groovey disco underneath,but it seemed a bit lacking in atmosphere compared to the clubs in Manchester.I was also in Douglas when Summerland set on fire and joined the long queue of people donating blood for the victims

Johnny, Laxey
Summerland was such a great place to hang out and I would guess that most of the Isle of Man population that was around at the time of the fire is still in shock. I was one of the worst things that has ever happened on our small Island and none of us will ever forget the event. It does not take away from the fact that it was for a few years, a great place to be. To experience Summerland at that time was special and afterall, what has the Government ever done since to improve our quality of life here in the IOM. NOTHING!

Liz
Although I remember when the fire happened (as a relative was working there that evening and thankfully survived), my happy memories are also quite vivid as I used to go there many times, especially during school holidays. It was so colourful and had such a happy and relaxed atmosphere. There was a lot of excited anticipation before it opened. I remember the music and noise of people just enjoying themselves. You were certainly spoilt for choice - you could go swimming in 2 lovely new pools, rollerskate or play a multitude of sports in the massive sports hall, moonwalk in a big white type of enclosed bouncy castle (which like everything in there had a distinctive new smell). There was a charming wooden see saw, slide and roundabout. There were cafes and bars to relax in when you needed a drink. In the summer everyone enjoyed the talent competitions which were great fun. The decor made it look like a tropical fairyland in places with the waterfall which looked like it was tumbling into the building from where the cliff-face was at the rear of the building. I was so sad when the tragedy happened and still feel sad when I drive past the now empty site. I would like to see an ice-skating rink there (which the Island needs). I think it would be appropriate and (hopefully) not too disrespectful to the people who passed away there. I feel there should always be something incorporated into whatever is built or put on the site to commemmorate the people who died. A lot of people on the Island will never forget what happened on 2nd August 1973.

Flora Mcintyre
i remembr 1968-69 , I worked at White City on the Isle of Man , they were the eight best years of my life. I made lots of friends both from the island and liverpool. Those were the days. I loved it so much and will always remember it . xx

Jaxutton
OK.What's with the 3 school-boys, what caused the fire?Accident or sabotage was an investigation carried out?Tell us more!

jillian
i loved summerland it was amazing the play area and the skating the swim baths and all shame the way things went

WAYNE FORD
HI, I PLAYED THE SUMMERLAND DISCO WITH MY BAND 'ROCOCO' THE YEAR BEFORE THE FIRE,I'D LIKE TO HEAR FROM ANYONE WHO REMEMBERS 'ROCOCO' I HAVE SOME VERY FOND MEMORIES OF MY TIME THERE, I HAVE VISITED THE ISLAND ONCE SINCE THEN,QUITE BY CHANCE IT WAS THE YEAR BEFORE THE DEMOLITION TOOK PLACE,BUT I SUPPOSE I COULD SAY GOODBYE. I WILL RETURN AS THERE IS A KIND OF MAGIC ATTRACTION ABOUT THE ISLAND,I SHALL ALWAYS REMEMBER 'THE GEM IN THE IRISH SEA' WAYNE FORD

Crazy Carol, Onchan
Moonwalk,rollerskating & swimming, just 3 of the things that kept myself, my brother & cousins entertained for hours. As Bob says the smell of the place too & being in there when it was pouring down outside was amazing to us kids. I used to love walking round the place & everytime it was just as amazing as the first time.Then in my teens & 20's & 30's going to the cave & upstairs for the TT events from TT supporters club meetings,to gigs & tyre balancing. Then with my children to manxland,their first birthday parties, my sisters-in-laws fashion shows & watching cousin's children do ballroom dancing & they're just a handfull of memories!Summerland was a one off & while the Villa Marina is a part of our islands history & heritage, there will never be another place like Summerland - it's in a league of it's own. I've got used to passing the site & it not being there but from the boat, going in either direction it's still not the same. It was a tragedy but the happy memories as a child are still vivid even in my late 40's.My thoughts are with those who lost someone dear xx

Bob Emery
When Summerland opened it was sensational here on the IOM. There were posters everywhere and everyone was talking about it. We hadn't had decent swimming baths for a long time in Douglas and for that reason alone I couldn't wait to get in and have a look. My mum eventually took me and my sisters and I couldn't believe how new and lovely everything was. It was all shining, it even smelt new. We felt at the time that it was the beginning of the good times here on the Isle of Man. It was indeed quite glamorous and I know for a fact my mum and dad spent more than a few romantic evenings there, (We kids got packed off to our grandparents house!) The whole thing ended so tragically but it's important to remember the good times too.

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