The worst recorded theatre fire in English history was the terrible congflagration that destroyed the Theatre Royal, Exeter, on the night of Monday 5th September, 1887, with a loss of nearly two hundred lives, and many more injured. It was a terrible calamity, but one which, as subsequent investigation would reveal, could have been easily avoided.
The Theatre Royal, Exeter, stood at the junction of two major thoroughfares, New North Road and Longbrooke Street. These two met at an angle of approximately 45 degrees, with the theatre occupying the space in between with exits letting out onto both. At the time of it's destruction the building was still quite new - having been open for less than a year! It was built at a cost of around £8,500 (including the cost of the land), to replace a building on nearby Bedford Street that had been destroyed by fire in February, 1885. The new theatre, designed by the eminent architect Charles J. Phipps, had a capacity of a little over 1300 - 650 in the pit and stalls, 170 in the dress circle and 500 between the upper circle and gallery. At it's opening on October 13th, 1886, the mayor of Exeter, Mr. R. Daw, had praised it's design, particularly what he considered it's admirable facilities for access and egress. In truth, little had been learned from previous theatre catastrophes, as would be tragically made clear by events soon to unfold.
The disaster occurred during the fourth act of the first performance of the touring production of George R. Sims' popular drama "Romany Rye." Both pit and gallery were about filled whilst all other portions of the house were well occupied so that there were somewhere between 700 and 800 people in the building. Everything went well until about twenty minutes after ten o'clock when one of the scene-shifters, a man named Taylor, who was lowering a gauze curtain, saw that it had caught fire at the side through contact with one of the gas jets illuminating the stage. With great presence of mind, Taylor ran across the gantry, away from the ladder which was his only means of escape, to release the drop-scene, which fell with a heavy crash, temporarily isolating the smoke and flames from the auditorium. The blaze spread rapidly through the new scenery crowded on the back of the stage - one of the surviving stage hands later describing it as being like "an explosion without the noise." The theatre fireman brought a hose into play but his efforts, likewise, were futile and he was soon forced to flee for his life. Taylor's good work was then undone when the stage-door was thrown open and the incoming draught fanned the blaze toward the drop scene which quickly burned through.
In the auditorium, the patrons at first were little concerned at the unexpected fall of the drop-scene, speculating among themselves as to what might be the nature of the first-night problems that had unexpectedly interrupted their entertainment. Within seconds, however, the drop scene billowed forward under a great rush of hot air revealing to those in the pit the nature of the calamity going on behind. Mere moments later, the drop-scene itself burned through and a roiling cloud of smoke and flame spilled under the upper edge of the proscenium opening and out into the auditorium. At the sight of the flames, a mass panic then broke out as everyone inside then made a mad rush for the exits.
The occupants of the stalls and dress circle, the most expensive parts of the house, mostly escaped with little difficulty since these areas afforded the best exits, Consequently, few, if any, fatalities were beleived to have occured amongst those particular groups of the patrons. From the upper circle, a wide stone staircase provided the main route of egress to the street, backed up by additional narrower stairways that led directly outside. Although numerous crush injuries were occasioned in the panic, the great majority of the occupants of this area also made good their escape. Those in the pit were less fortunate - the exits available to them were less generous than in the former areas and in the great panic heavy crushing was experienced with the attendant loss of numerous lives. But it was in the gallery, which afforded only a single narrow exit, that the great bulk of the fatalities occurred.
In the gallery a great mass of bodies quickly jammed the opening of the single doorway whilst the fire, racing upwards, rapidly encroached upon that part of the building. Escape downwards soon became impossible because of a great crush of bodies on the stairs which were already filling with acrid smoke, and people began to escape instead through the windows onto a balcony which ran around the exterior of the building, from where many continued on up to the roof. Many were trapped inside, however, when the flames reached the gallery and the terrible screams of those on the on the outer fringes of the great mass adding to the panic as the flames overwhelmed them.
Outside in the street, news of the fire quickly spread and ladders were brought from a nearby builders yard by means of which several people were rescued from the balcony - a lower balcony at the level of the dress circle being instrumental in this respect as a half-way point. The West of England Insurance Co., fire brigade arrived in about five minutes and an extending wheeled ladder, brought from the nearby Guildhall, arrived a few minutes after. The firemen immediately threw themselves into the difficult task of rescue and some of them risked their lives forcing their way in through the upper windows and pulling out bodies from the confused mass huddled inside - men, women and children, more of them dead than alive.
Soon, despite their comrades below playing water on them from hoses, the firemen were beaten back. A last valiant attempt was made to reach those inside via the wheeled ladder, through the use of which a group of amateur rescuers, including a soldier and a sailor, gained access to the small roof over the gallery entrance and broke in through a small window. Several more people were pulled out and carried to safety, but for most of those still inside it was already too late.
All that then remained was to seek to rescue those trapped on the roof and balconies, but even there the speed with which the fire spread overtook the best efforts of the rescuers and not all could be cleared before the building was totally engulfed in flames. Many, at the last, leaped to their deaths in the street below rather than face an agonising end by fire.
All of the actors and actresses survived, although many of them had to be taken from the windows with the aid of ladders. They lost everything except what they wore at the time.
A number of elements could be seen as contributing to the disaster. The building, whilst in many ways being excellently designed, had a number of major flaws. Firstly, whilst exits from most parts of the house were generous, this did not apply to those from the pit and particularly from the gallery - in the latter case, the provision of only a single door leading to a narrow twisting stairway was courting disaster in the event of any kind of an emergency. Secondly, whilst the shell of the building was constructed from stone and red brick, the interior was extensively lined in flammable timber, providing ready fuel for the fire. But perhaps the biggest design flaw was the omission of an iron curtain which had been stipulated by the licencing authorities but which, at the time of the fire, had not yet been installed. This alone could have averted the disaster, as, when lowered, it would have provided an effective barrier between the stage and the auditorium which would almost certainly have held back the fire long enough for an orderly evacuation to be affected. In the event, the flyman, Taylor, gave his life in a valiant effort to shut off the blaze from the front part of the house, but the only barrier available to him, the drop-scene, provided no obstacle to the flames.
In spite of these inadequacies in the basic design of the building, the death toll might still have been considerably less but for one last cruel twist of fate. The placement of a ticket-box* at the top of the gallery stairway was the final critical factor that turned an already potentially dangerous area into a sure and certain death-trap. In the panic that followed upon the outbreak of the fire it's presence was catastrophic. In the first rush of bodies this box was propelled down the stairs where it lodged at the first turn in the stairway. People following down then stumbled over it so that soon the stairway, which was already filling with smoke, became utterly jammed with a mass of fallen bodies - effectively cutting off the only exit. From that moment on, the fate of most of the gallery occupants was sealed, either jammed and in a passageway filling with smoke, or still trapped in the gallery itself with the blaze rapidly approaching. A very few had the presence of mind to climb over the balustrade at the front of the gallery and drop the short distance into the upper circle below where they found clear exits, but for the majority the natural reaction was to rush to the back, toward the known exits and directly away from the approaching fire. Once the designated exit had been cut off, therefore, the only alternatives for those not already overcome by the crush, smoke or flames were the windows to the balcony which offered no immediate egress to the ground.
(*some modern accounts of the disaster confuse the 'ticket-box' with a ticket booth or office - period accounts, however, make clear it was nothing more than a simple wooden box into which patrons dropped their passes and check-outs).
The fire burned through the night and lit up the whole town. As soon as the flames were extinguished a large force of men entered to begin the onerous task of searching for bodies, whilst outside a large crowd of relatives had gathered, anxious for news of their loved ones who had not returned home the previous evening.
In the pit many crushed bodies were found, some in the death-struggle having had their clothes, and even their iimbs torn from them. In the gallery, the scene was much worse - a heap of human beings were found piled on top of one another at the head of the stairs. Some were crushed beyond all recognition of human shape, all were bruised and smoke-grimed, their clothing in many cases being torn in tatters. Worse was found inside the gallery door. More bodies were heaped there. The extremities of many of these were horribly burnt, whilst others were nothing more than an unrecogniseable charred mass of flesh - in some places the remains being so badly charred an co-mingled that it was impossible to tell even how many human beings they had once represented. Among the more pitiable remains extracted was the body of a man, arms rigid and still encasing the infant he had been trying with his last breath to protect. Examination of the better preserved bodies showed that most had died from aspyxiation, either from the smoke or from the effects of being crushed.
A particular difficulty was in identifying the deceased. Many of the bodies were unrecogniseable. Some were identified from their jewellery, or what remained of their clothing or personal effects, but in many cases identification was utterly impossible - leaving many relatives uncertain of what had happened to their loved ones. Two young gentlemen from Oxford, who were staying at the nearby White Lion hotel, went out on the night of the fire and never returned, leaving their luggage in their rooms. They were identified from their belongings and their families informed they were assumed to have died in the disaster. A Great Western engine driver lost his wife and eldest daughter counted among the missing, leaving him with eleven remaining children, the youngest being an infant of a few months.
A happier story concerned a Police Constable named Ching, who was on duty nearby when the fire broke out. He rushed to the scene and was instrumental in the rescue efforts. Placing a handkercheif over his mouth, he made several forays into the smoke-filled pit, carrying out survivors - the last of which, a badly crushed woman, he was amazed on reaching the clear air outside to recognise as being his own wife! He had not known she planned to visit the theatre that night - her rescue being a fitting reward for his bravery.
An inquiry was launched into the disaster headed by Captain Eyre Shaw, commander in charge of the Metropolitan Fire Brigade. The evidence seemed to point squarely at Phipps, who never-the-less defended himself vigourously, since many elements of the original design were not complied with and considerable changes had seemingly been made to the plans during the course of construction. After hearing the evidence, the jury returned a verdict on the victims of accidental death. Shaw submitted his report to the Government on 29th September, 1887.
On positive outcome from the disaster was that it gave Shaw, already a campaigner for theatre safety after witnessing a number of theatre fires in his Metropolitan area, much ammunition to further his cause. Shaw, and the Exeter fire, were instrumental in forcing through new regulations that, in course of time, would greatly reduce the risk of going to the play.
Below is a report from The Guardian on the events of that fateful night.
Also reproduced below is a poem by William McGonagal (1825-1902), widely regarded as Britain's worst ever poet.