Theatre safety, particularly in regard to the dangers of fire, became a major issue in the late 19th century as a result of a rash of theatre fires around the globe resulting in horrendous loss of life (see Fire and the Theatre). Many of the theatre buildings erected prior to around 1880 had been built with little regard to the safety of the patrons who would be packed inside during a performance. In the cramped confines of London especially, where new theatres were often crammed in between existing buildings, the provision of safe exits was often woefully inadequate. Building regulations for public safety existed, but they were left to the local authorities and as a result were often confused, inconsistent and poorly enforced. It was only in the latter part of the nineteenth century that real, effective controls began to be put into place.
The first National Building Regulations in Great Britain were not introduced until as recently as the year 1966. Until then, building regulations had been enshrined in a series of bye-laws and regulations drawn up and enforced by the local councils, mostly under the provisions of the various Public Health Acts. The disadvantage of this system, which held sway for so many years, was that with so many local authorities acting independently, building regulations, and the extent to which they were enforced, soon became confusing and grew increasingly out of step between the different regions.
The Public Health Act of 1875 attempted to introduce some consistency by requiring urban authorities to make bye-laws with regard to, among other things, the structure of buildings with regard to stability and prevention of fires. Even then however, the precise nature of those bye-laws was left in the hands of those authorities - although the Local Government Board shortly thereafter issued the first 'model' bye-laws for new streets and buildings these were non-compulsory and large cities generally adapted these standards to suit there own particular ideas on Health & Safety leaving a great deal of variation.
Building Regulations in London
In London the first attempts at building control date back to the aftermath of the Great Fire of London in 1666, when the conflagration had spread rapidly between the densely packed, tinderbox houses. Consequently, the London Building Act, passed the following year, sought to acheive some resistance in the spread of fire to prevent any recurrence of the disaster. Masonry construction was required for new buildings and in accordance with plans laid down by Sir Christopher Wren, the streets were set out to allow greater space between buildings. This made London the first area in Great Britain to be subject to any kind of formal building control as the remainder of the country remained unregulated.
Even in London, however, few controls were actually enforced until the London Building Act of 1844 created The Metropolitan Buildings Office to regulate the construction and use of buildings in the Metropolitan Area. Powers of enforcement under the Act were then vested in the Lord Mayor and Aldermen of the City of London and the Justices of the Peace for the counties of Middlesex, Surrey and Kent, the City and Liberty of Westminster and the Liberty of Her Majesty's Tower of London. These august authorities each divided their areas into districts, and appointed district surveyors to superintend the Act. The surveyors were in turn empowered to enforce general building regulations over any premises, new or existing, within their district as regards to improving the design and construction of those premises in regard to matters of public health and safety. With few written and published regulations to refer to, much was left to the discretion of these officers.
In 1855, the Metropolis Management Act transferred the powers and responisibilites of the the Office to the Metropolitan Board of Works. This in turn, having gained some notoriety over allegations of corruption was Wound up in 1889 and replaced by the London County Council.
To a National Position
A new Public Health Act in 1936 attempted to apply more uniformity to the national situation but still left a wide variation of requirements from one Council to another. National uniformity only became possible after the passing of the Public Health Act in 1961, which radically altered the laws relating to building control by transferring the power to makes such laws from local authorities to central goverment - although the local authorities remained responsible for their enforcement as well as the right to approve or deny new buildings. The first National regulations, created under the auspices of this act, then came into force on 1st February 1966. Since then, the formulation of laws with regard to public safety in building construction has remained the perview of central government, and the regulations have become not only much clearer but considerably more stringent as a result.
Reproduced below is a period treatise, written by an architect, dealing with safety in theatre construction, particularly in regard to the proper planning of safe exits.
The Art of the Victorian Stage - Notes and Recollections
By Alfred Darbyshire, F.S.A., F.R.I.B.A.,
Sherratt and Hughes, London 1907.
CHAPTER IX - THEATRE BUILDING.
Although I have hitherto treated of the art displayed on the Victorian Stage, it seems desirable that a word should be said on the buildings in which the drama has been displayed in this country.
It is a proof of the growth of the modern love of dramatic representation that theatres have increased in number and variety, especially during the latter half of the Victorian era. In the building and decoration of these homes of the drama the wishes and desires of the proprietors were alone consulted, but in many cases the comfort and convenience of the audience have been amply provided for. From an architectural point of view, some of the facades of recent theatres are good and well designed, and the internal decoration in some cases is of a high order of merit.
There is one feature in connection with the planning of the modern theatre which has been forced upon our attention by disaster and the loss of human life. I allude to the means of escape in case of fire panic. Whilst a good sight of the stage, good acoustic properties and a well complete appointed stage are essentials to theatre building, the prevention of fire and the ready means of exit are vital points for consideration in the planning of a theatre.
This matter of a safe theatre in case of fire has caused me serious and anxious thought, and in my professional work in the planning and erection of theatres, I have laid down certain conditions, the realisation of which I will always insist upon. I have considered it desirable to place these conditions on record, and by the kindness of the British Fire Prevention Committee I am enabled to quote my paper on "Theatre Exits," written after the planning of the "Safety Theatre," which was suggested and thought out by my friend, Sir Henry Irving.
In the year 1869 my attention was drawn to theatre architecture. I was consulted by the proprietors of the Prince's Theatre, in the city of Manchester, with a view to various alterations and improvements in the little house, which afterwards became famous for the production of the Shakspearean drama. It was during the progress of this work that I became conscious of the shortcomings of English theatre planning in the matter of safety to the public in case of panic. Like many other theatres, the Manchester Prince's was built in between other properties, with the only means of exit on the street facade for the public; the stage and its adjuncts being approached from a back street. Without forming, at the time I am speaking of, any definite ideas as to what should be done to avoid these unsatisfactory conditions, I was nevertheless convinced, that in the event of fire panic, the consequences would be fatal and disastrous.
Theatre architecture, however, still continued on these unsatisfactory lines, and it was not until the year 1887, when the awful disaster occurred at the Exeter Theatre, that the public mind became thoroughly aroused to the inadequacy of English theatre planning and construction. It was after this tragedy at Exeter, that our greatest actor-manager, Sir Henry Irving, consulted me on the possibility of designing a theatre which should possess all the elements of safety to the frequenters of the play-house.
During my frequent work in connection with theatre architecture, I had gradually formulated plans of reform; I was therefore prepared to enter heartily into the solution of the problem which Sir Henry Irving submitted for my serious consideration. I will explain the conclusions arrived at after careful thought and much discussion, and allude to the practical working out of those conclusions in theatres actually erected on the lines of the scheme which we jointly formulated.
At this point, I may say that I believe the time has arrived when theatre planning must be subjected to municipal or State control, and I cannot understand how any argument can be advanced against such a proposition. It is my firm conviction that every detail of arrangement and construction should be distinctly fixed, and that it should be impossible for any theatre to be erected unless in strict conformity with rules and regulations of some recognised authority for the safety of theatrical or other audiences using public buildings.
The time has arrived for a complete revolution in theatre planning, and that adequate provision in the way of exit must be insisted upon in all buildings where the public are to be gathered in any numbers. We must get rid of prejudice in favour of the old system; and as Hamlet says, "reform it altogether."
It is not my purpose in this paper to consider fire-proof construction or fire extinction. These matters are of secondary importance when the safety of a public audience has to be secured. What is the meaning of the word safety as applied to an audience, or to a mass of people in a public building? There can only be one opinion on this point. It means the provision of instant and direct escape from a building when attacked by fire; in other words, clear and adequate planning. Mr. Sachs, in his excellent paper on the dreadful Paris Charity Bazaar fire, has used these words: "Personally, I hold that for a theatre or music hall, clear planning is of greater importance to the audience than clever forms of construction or the employment of materials having considerable power of fire resistance." These words embody a great truth, and they represent exactly the method and practice I have endeavoured to maintain since the disaster at Exeter in 1887.
The provision of instant and direct escape, or in other words clear planning, is the subject on which I propose to offer a few remarks in this paper. The whole question of safe theatre planning may be described in one sentence, namely, ample and direct means of exit. After this condition has been realised, fire-proof construction and fire extinction appliances may be considered. In other words, after the destruction of human life has been reduced to a minimum or rendered impossible, the destruction of property may receive that consideration calculated to reduce monetary loss.
It will be at once admitted, that in order to secure complete and perfect exit from a theatre, the building must stand on an isolated site; in other words, that it must be surrounded either by open spaces, streets or roads. I shall be told that this is (especially in the metropolis) a condition impossible of realisation. My reply to such an allegation is, that possible or impossible of realisation, I should so order legislation, that no theatre of the future should be allowed to be erected unless this initial condition of isolation be carried out in some form. At this point it is interesting to record the fact, that this vital condition has become law with the Corporation of the City of Manchester, and that no new theatre in the future will be permitted without this principle of isolation, to give it a raison detre.
I need hardly point out, that a theatre situated on an isolated site affords the architect every opportunity of securing ample and direct exit. Assuming that it is impossible to find or secure in our large English cities such fine open sites such as we see in many continental capitals, and, moreover, if such sites could be found, that the cost involved would be so immense that no theatre could be realised and maintained unless by municipal or State aid, let us consider what compromise may be arrived at by which isolation of our theatres may be secured.
If fine open sites cannot be found, or are impossible to the builder of a theatre in an English city, it is clear that they must in some manner be created or made. It is not necessary for the purpose of secure and certain exit that a building should be architecturally beautiful or imposing on all its facades (as is often the case abroad) but what I maintain is, that it should have roadways or streets of some description on all sides.
These will probably exist at the front and back, but they must be made to exist at the sides. Now how is this to be done? Either by securing land enough or reducing the area of the building. It is only necessary that these roadways or streets should be wide enough to allow persons, escaping from the theatre, access to the main thoroughfares. This expedient of creating streets was resorted to in the case of the Palace Theatre of Varieties, erected within the last few years in Manchester. On three sides of the site streets existed, and by decreasing the width of the building a narrow street or roadway was created, and by which safe planning and direct exit were achieved. I introduce this recent instance because it illustrates the point I wish to maintain, namely, that it is possible to secure the great principle of isolation, and consequently, direct exit on all sides of the building.
Having secured an isolated site for a theatre, I will point out what I consider essential in the proper planning of entrances and exits. The primary condition is, that every part of the house (including the orchestra) shall have at least one entrance and one exit; this will be equivalent to two exits to each part in case of panic.
As a matter of course, those persons behind the curtain must have equal provision for escape, but it will suffice to deal with the auditorium, or that portion occupied by hundreds, sometimes by thousands, of human beings.
Secondly, where it is necessary for those exits to be provided with steps or staircases they must be constructed with straight steps throughout; and if more than one flight is required they must be built into a centre stone wall. There must on no account be any winding or circular steps, and the maximum rise must be six inches.
Furthermore, there must not be any obstruction or pay boxes on these stairs and exits; the whole must be absolutely clear, and the only openings therein must be the one at the street, and the other at the top leading into the auditorium. Both doors in these openings must swing outwards and be provided with exit locks, which act instantly by pressure, and which are now brought to a high state of mechanical excellence.
Another condition to be insisted upon with regard to exits is, that they must be on opposite sides of the auditorium, and towards the front of the building. When a fire breaks out in a theatre it is on the stage. Self-preservation is the first law of nature. Therefore, panic-stricken persons fly from the scene of danger and not towards it. The minimum width of auditorium staircases and exits must be fixed at five feet, with a wall handrail on each side. If staircases are six feet wide or more, they must be divided by a centre handrail. If the staircase is a single flight, there must be no landing of any description; these level or broken spaces in a straight staircase are a source of danger to a panic-stricken audience. In these days of advanced fireproof construction, it is not necessary for me to say that all exit staircases should be built of stone or concrete. I maintain, however, that material is of no consequence as regards the safety of an escaping audience. If they are planned and arranged in the manner I have pointed out, an audience would be free of the building long before any fire could reach the means of escape.
Although the object of this paper is to treat only with safe planning and sure escape from a burning theatre, I may be allowed to record that contingencies have arisen which have prevented an audience, or portion of an audience, from reaching the means of exit. It may be a matter of surprise to many persons to learn that the loss of life in a fire panic in a theatre or buildings used for public audiences is not owing to fire (I do not include such flimsy and quick-burning buildings as the one used for the Paris Charity Bazaar) or to actual contact with flame, but to asphyxiation or suffocation by inhaling the poisonous gases given off during conflagration. At Exeter, the poor creatures sitting in the gallery never left their seats, for when the cloud of poison burst from the stage it instantly ascended, enveloped them, and left them sitting as at the play, but so many rows of ghastly corpses, instead of the merry human beings who had shortly before entered that theatre full of health and life.
This awful episode at Exeter has taught us two lessons; the first is that no seat should be placed higher than the proscenium opening. It is clear that to realise this condition, a third tier is quite impossible, and in fact should never be allowed in modern theatre planning.
In order to place the second or top tier as near the street level as possible, the pit must be sunk below the level of the surrounding streets. This arrangement has been carried out in the New Exeter Theatre, and in the great Theatre of Varieties and the Comedy Theatre in Manchester. In these theatres, the dress circle is level, or nearly level, with the streets, and the highest point at which any portion of the audience is placed is twentythree feet from the street. It may appear, on first consideration of this arrangement; that to sink so large a portion of the audience is open to objection; but experience has proved that rather than objectionable it is advantageous. The descent to the pit is achieved by inclines and steps, and an audience accepts the arrangement without demur. Moreover, in case of a stampede from panic, the chances of disaster to life are less to an ascending audience than to a descending one. I do not advocate the sinking of a whole theatre below the street level, as I believe is the case at one London theatre, because the asphyxiating fumes can only find a way out by the staircases, which would act as draft tunnels, and the ascending audiences would run the risk of suffocation during their efforts to escape to the street levels.
The second lesson we learn from the Exeter disaster is, that means should be provided for the instant isolation of the stage from the auditorium. This can now be done with ease and certainty. We have now fireproof curtains which can be dropped and which seal up the proscenium opening in something like ten seconds. It may here be remarked that no opening except the proscenium one should be allowed in the wall which divides the stage from the auditorium; the means of communication between these two parts of the building must be external, and the same arrangement applies to the orchestra. The proscenium opening being closed in and the fire confined to the stage, with the open louvred funnel in the centre of the roof acting as a draft shaft, it is not necessary to tell anyone acquainted with the action of fire what the result would be. In the first place the audience is safe from suffocation, and secondly the fire on the stage will soon be under control, and great loss of property will in consequence be avoided.
As this paper is devoted to a consideration of the theatre exits, I must not lengthen it by reference to other matters of interest to the architect of buildings devoted to the uses of the theatre. I must, however, point out to theatre managers that it is absolutely essential that all gangways, passages, or corridors communicating with or leading to exits should be kept open and free of extra chairs, or furniture objects, in the way of those who, panic-stricken, fly to the doors at the top of the exit staircases or passages. In any legislation connected with the building and maintenance of public buildings, neglect of this matter should be made a criminal offence.
In conclusion, I venture to think that if the safe planning I have advocated be insisted upon by properly constituted authority, the disasters of the past would be avoided, and rendered impossible in the future.
I append to this some notes written by Mr. Edwin O. Sachs, Chairman of the Executive of the British Fire Prevention Committee, and author of a treatise entitled "The Housing of the Drama" and "Modern Opera Houses and Theatres."
The great theatre fires of 1881 and 1887 turned the thoughts of architects and public officials to a serious consideration of fire and panic prevention in theatres; but Sir Henry Irving was the only English manager who gave emphatic expression to his thoughts on the subject by a set of plans prepared in consultation with his architect, Mr. Alfred Darbyshire, of Manchester. The plans were published in the columns of the Daily Telegraph in October, 1887, accompanied by interesting notes.
The problem for solution in Sir Henry Irving's scheme involved the working out of certain absolute conditions, which may be thus briefly enumerated:
The initial condition is that the theatres of the future must stand completely isolated from other property, and if suitable sites cannot be obtained, then it is hoped that the controlling authorities will forbid their erection. It will easily be seen that this condition of isolation will enable an audience to escape from all sides of the auditorium.
The second condition of importance is that the stage shall be instantly isolated from the auditorium by the closing of the proscenium opening. All fires originate on the stage, therefore the asphyxiating fumes must be confined to the place of their origin.
The third condition is that the highest point accessible by an audience shall be as near to the streets as possible, and no seat shall be higher than the proscenium opening; this is a necessary condition in case the means of stage isolation should fail.
The fourth condition is that every part of the house should be provided with two exits, communicating separately and direct with the streets, and having no openings in them except at the top and bottom.
The fifth condition is that the stage must have a fire-proof roof, provided with a large smoke shaft filled with glazed louvres. In case of fire (the proscenium opening being closed) both flame and smoke will at once make for the shaft. The firemen may then enter the stage and extinguish the fire.
The sixth condition is an important one. Every space upon which the human foot is planted in the auditorium and escape staircases should be absolutely fire resisting.
The foregoing conditions apply also to those portions of the theatre devoted to the artistes and those employed behind the curtain. These conditions will constitute a safe theatre, and are realised in the plans of Sir Henry Irving's scheme*.
*This "Safety" plan was adopted by Mr. Derbyshire at the New Exeter Theatre Royal, and the Palace Theatre of Varieties, Manchester.