Gothenburg honours nightclub fire victims

A memorial to the victims of the 1998 Gothenburg nightclub fire, which claimed 63 lives, will be unveiled on Wednesday night on the tenth anniversary of the blaze.

Gothenburg honours nightclub fire victims

A torchlight procession is planned to march from central Gothenburg’s Gustaf Adolf’s square at 7:00pm and continue up to Backaplan near where the tragedy took place, and where the permanent memorial will stand.

The memorial, designed by artist Claes Hake, will be unveiled by young people from an association created for relatives of the fire victims, Brandoffrens anhöriga (BOA).

Scheduled speakers include former justice minister Thomas Bodström and representatives from BOA.

The fire broke out late in the evening of October 29th, 1998 in a warehouse near Backaplan in the Hisingen district of Gothenburg. The building belonged to a Macedonian immigrant organization.

The organizers of the evening’s club had told the site’s tenants that they were planning on having a “birthday party” for fewer than 50 people.

In reality, however, party planners had plastered surrounding neighbourhoods with poster and flyers advertising the event and had even sold tickets in advance.

On the night of the party, nearly 400 guests, predominantly teenagers with immigrant backgrounds, had arrived to dance and mingle in a room on the building’s fourth floor which was meant to hold no more than 150 people.

Shortly before midnight, smoke began pouring into the room from the emergency stairwell behind the stage where a DJ was performing.

Panic erupted shortly thereafter as hundreds of young people scrambled to make their way out of the only available exit, a single door just 90 centimetres wide.

All told, seven different fire stations were called in to battle the blaze which claimed the lives of 63 young people between the ages of 12 and 25. An additional 213 people were injured, 50 of whom sustained serious and life altering injuries.

As the fire took place at a time of heightened ethnic tensions in the city and claimed victims of a predominantly immigrant background, rumours swirled in the weeks following the blaze that it was a deliberate racially-motivated attack.

Posters appeared around Gothenburg proclaiming, “60 young immigrants have died, now 60 Swedes will die”.

Police and fire investigators eventually determined that the blaze was intentionally set by four young immigrants from Iran who were upset at having been denied entry to the event.

As an act of revenge, they set a small fire in the building’s fire escape.

The flames quickly spread when they reached a pile of chairs which had been placed in the stairwell to allow for enough room on the dance floor.

The four were convicted of arson in 2000. Three received prison sentences ranging from seven to eight years, while the fourth was sentenced to three years in a juvenile detention centre.

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Why is Gothenburg known as Sweden’s ‘Little London’?

With ties to Britain dating back more than 200 years, the city of Gothenburg has long been known as Sweden’s Little London.

Why is Gothenburg known as Sweden’s 'Little London'?

Grey skies, rainy days, a wide-mouthed river, and a love for English pubs. At first glance, it’s no wonder that Gothenburg has long held the nickname of Sweden’s own “Little London”, or Lilla London

But what are the origins of this British title?

“The nickname ‘Little London’ was first used in a newspaper in 1766,” explains Håkan Strömberg, educational officer at the Museum of Gothenburg.

“The Brits were the largest immigration group during the 1700s and early 1800s, mainly because Sweden was a country close by, it was economically underdeveloped compared to England and Scotland and had a lot of raw materials. To put it simply, could make some money here.”

The city’s reputation as a British enclave dates back to the 1700s when trade brought many foreign influences to the Västra Götaland region.

As merchants and shipbuilders like Charles Chapman, David Carnegie, and James Dickson moved to the area, local residents began to notice a growing list of similarities between the Swedish port city and the British capital.

Indeed, even one of Sweden’s most renowned scientists, Carl Von Linné, is said to have commented on the similarities between the two cities when he visited Gothenburg in the 1700s.

 “Being a group of upper-class immigrants, the British merchants made sure they had access to all the good things from their home country. But the feeling of Gothenburg as a Little London was most likely something the Swedish citizens had, rather than the Brits,” adds Strömberg. 

The historical roots that connect the UK and Gothenburg are still evident today, with many spots in the city still alluding to British names, like Chalmers University – founded by the son of a wealthy Scottish industrialist, or Chapmans Torgnamed after a family of sailors and shipbuilders once well-established in the area. 

Catriona Chaplin, a British expat turned Gothenburger, only began to see the similarities and know of the nickname after relocating to the region for work. Growing up in Leicestershire, central England, she’d never heard of London’s Swedish sibling city.

“We came to Gothenburg 17 years ago. We’d never heard about [the nickname] until we moved here, but there is a bar on Avenyn called Lilla London, so that’s when we started to know about it,” she says.

Today, as the membership secretary of the British Club of Gothenburg, she brings a taste of the British Isles to life in Gothenburg.

The Club, which organises social events like concerts, quiz nights, and theatre performances, has a membership base of nearly 200 families. And although less than 0.5 percent of Gothenburg’s population today was born in the UK, the club welcomes members from a range of nationalities.

In fact, the only membership requirement is having some kind of interest in the UK, be it from a cultural standpoint, a past tourist experience, or a love of the language. 

“People come to the British Club just to socialise in their native language. It’s also about the culture, like the banter, the jokes and playing on words,” she says. 

Although the city’s British roots run deep, questions remain about modern-day Gothenburg’s status as “Little London”.

To some, the west-coast maritime hub’s industrial legacy, strong working-class culture, and amiable nature are reminiscent of a different English city. “They ought to call it ‘Little Liverpool’!” says Chaplin, with a smile. 

Lasting Landmarks

Evidence of Gothenburg’s British connections can be found in many of its landmarks, shops, and of course, pubs. Some of the historical hotspots still apparent today include:

Haga – The British ‘hood 

The area of Haga, just outside the old city, was once considered a slum, but changed character thanks to British philanthropist Robert Dickson (1782-1858), who built public baths, a library, and other landmarks with the typical red bricks found in Britain at the time.

St Andrew’s Church 

A key part of the British community is the Anglican church of Saint Andrew’s, also in Haga. Dedicated to the patron saint of Scotland, it was built and to date funded by ‘The British Factory’, a British society founded in the 1700s to help expats in Gothenburg that remains active even today.

The Victorian gothic style of the church is in line with the architectural trend in Britain at the time. 

John Scott – a legend among Gothenburgers

One of Gothenburg’s most well-loved establishments is John Scott’s, a local pub chain named after Pastor John Henry Scott, an Englishman and prominent landowner in 18th century Gothenburg. 

The “English quarter”

The square of buildings delineated by Teatergatan, Storgatan, Kungsportsavenyn and Vasagatan was once known as the city’s English Quarter. The buildings in this neighbourhood are influenced by British design, and the original landowners were in fact English pastor John Henry Scott and his wife, Jacobina.

By Alexander Maxia, Lisa Ostrowski and Sanna Sailer