Some people say that the best sound in the world is that of children’s laughter.
By the same token, only the most cold-hearted could ever be unmoved by the sound of children screaming and crying for their lives.
One summer afternoon in 1883, laughter turned to screams in a tragedy that broke hearts across the nation.
The Victoria Hall in Sunderland was a large Gothic brick building, typical of the Victorian era. It was built in 1872, on the corner of Toward Road and Laura Street, and funded by Edward Backhouse, a Quaker minister and prominent local philanthropist. Able to seat around 2,500 people, it was used for everything from public and religious meetings to entertainment.
Inside, the seating was spread across three levels; the ground floor, dress circle and gallery. Two staircases gave access to the upper floors – a main staircase to the east, and one to the west which was referred to as a “relief” staircase and generally not used.
On Saturday, the 16th of June, 1883, the Victoria Hall was offering an afternoon show presented by a pair of entertainers called The Fays. (Note, they were not relations of mine – it seems that Fay was merely a stage name for them.)
Alexander Fay was a magician and ventriloquist, with a repertoire which included tricks called “The Enchanted Cards” and “The Dessicated Pigeons”. He also had a set of “singing and talking automata” – large ventriloquist dolls.
Annie Fay gave what was called “spiritual entertainment” – seances and demonstrations of clairvoyance. Playbills of the time describe her act as, “Strange manifestations! Most bewildering results! Mid-Air Extravaganzas! And startling phenomena!”
There is seemingly some confusion over their relationship to each other; some modern accounts say they were husband and wife, others brother and sister. Alexander stated in evidence that they were siblings, but 1881 census information shows them both at the same address, with Alexander giving his profession as “Ventriloquist (performer)” and Annie giving hers as “Ventriloquist’s Wife”. Dean Arnold, of the Magic Circle, who has researched their history, suggests that this could just be because it was easier and cheaper for them to get lodgings as a couple.
They toured their act around the country, but in 1883 settled at the Tynemouth Aquarium for a fairly long run, beginning around April. They had also around that time started offering special children’s shows in addition to their normal act – and this was what brought them to the Victoria Hall.
The ticket for the Saturday afternoon show promised, “The greatest treat for children ever given”, with “Conjuring, Talking Waxworks, Living Marionettes, The Great Ghost Illusion, &c.”
Better yet, it also promised:
Every Child entering the room will stand a chance of receiving a handsome Present, Books, Toys, &c.”
With standard tickets costing just a penny, there could hardly have been a single child in Sunderland who wasn’t champing at the bit to go. To make sure that their audience knew about it, Alexander Fay and his assistant had gone to schools in the area, distributing handbills and tickets through the teachers.
So, on the day, hundreds and hundreds of excited children filled the hall. Many were unaccompanied; for working class families, entertainments like this were an affordable way of keeping the kids happy for a couple of hours, and most parents saw no need to sit through it themselves.
The audience packed into the stalls and the gallery; the dress circle, in between the two, was not used because it was the proprietor’s policy not to open it for admissions under 6 pence a person. It was estimated that 1,100 children were in the gallery alone.
The last trick of the show was the hat-trick, and the moment the children had been waiting for; the magician produced toys from his hat and threw them out into the audience.
Of course, from the stage, Mr Fay could only throw toys to those in the stalls. He announced that those in the gallery would get their presents as they left. With few, if any, adults around to caution patience, a horde of eager children raced to the staircase.
William Codling Jr. was one of those children; he was six or seven at the time, and wrote his account in 1894, eleven years later.
“The conjurer performed his tricks and at the close of the entertainment stepped to the front of the stage with a basket of toys and began throwing them among the people in the pit. We in the gallery howled with rage. At this the conjurer informed us that a man was already on his way up the stairs with a basket of toys for us. So we obligingly rose en masse and went down the stairs to meet him.
I raced up the gallery as fast as I could, scrambled with the crowd through the doorway and jolted my way down two flights of stairs. Here the crowd was so compressed that there was no more racing but we moved forward together, shoulder to shoulder. Soon we were most uncomfortably packed but still going down.
Suddenly I felt that I was treading upon someone lying on the stairs and I cried in horror to those behind “Keep back, keep back! There’s someone down.” It was no use, I passed slowly over and onwards with the mass and before long I passed over others without emotion.”
Codling had been seated at the very front of the gallery, a fact which may have saved his life; it put him near the back of the crowd going down the stairs. He only realised the gravity of the situation he had been in when he got out.
“I had not thought the affair was serious and now I looked on spellbound as body after body was brought out and laid in a row upon the pavement. One woman, I remember, came out carrying a child which she had gone in to seek while behind her came a sympathetic man bearing another.
The woman came down the steps with agonised face and dishevelled hair and shouted fiercely to the crowd “Get back! Get back! And let them have air.”
“Ah! my good woman,” said the man who bore her other burden, while tears rolled down his cheeks, “Ah! they will never need air more.”
The stairs from the gallery led down to a lobby area at the dress circle level; from there, another flight of stairs led down to the ground floor and the exit. On a landing halfway down that flight of stairs, there was a swing door; according to local architect, Frank Caws, it was hung so that it divided the landing in two.
“It is hinged next the wall furthest from the stairs on pivot hinges, so that it will swing either against the wall on the one side or the wall on the other, describing a full semi-circle. There is a bolt at the bottom of the door and two bolt holes in the floor, so arranged that the door can be opened and fastened back against the outer wall, or can be made to stand ajar, with its front edge inwards… with an aperture of 1 foot 10 inches clear. That is sufficient for one to go through at a time.”
It seems that when the children from the gallery descended en masse, that door was bolted, inwards ajar; they must have crashed against it like a wave.
Fay, on the stage, was utterly unaware of the disaster. He told the inquest later:
“The first mention I had of the accident was Hesseltine. He came to the body of the hall.[Question:]—How did he come ?
He did not rush ; he came slowly, and fell on his back on the stairs. He seemed in a fainting condition… I pulled him, but he did not answer, and I then threw some water in his face. He presently came around, and I asked him what was the matter. He said, “Oh dear, there’s some of them stuck fast, and they are dead.” I asked how many, and he mentioned the word “dozen.”
I left him and rushed to the pit entrance. I then saw two or three men running about, and I noticed two or three little boys lying on their backs at the pit entrance, and a man with another in his arms. I picked them up. I was very much excited, and said to a man, “Are they dead?” He said, ” Yes ; there are a good many more dead. Run for a doctor.”[Question:]—Did you know then what had occurred ?
A Dr Lambert, who lived close to Victoria Hall, was one of the first to respond. He related that he had at first been told that one boy was “in a fit, or dying”.
“ I quickly ascended the steps, and soon came to the body of the child. I found the little fellow was quite dead, and from appearances, such as intense congestion and puffiness of the face, looking purple or blackish, turgid vessels in the neck, bloody froth from the nose, as also bloody discharge from the ears, I came to the conclusion that death had resulted from suffocation. There was no one near the body who could give me any information whatever.
A sudden presentiment that a mortal struggle was going on at a certain situation leading from the gallery, caused me to run up the flight of stairs, at the top of which is a landing. Turning round a corner in the gallery-stairs proper, I beheld the dark, horrible pit of destruction, with three hundred or more children in it ; and, oh ! shocking sight ! a heap, most of whom appeared to be dead, so feeble were the groans and cries (for they could not get breath to cry) of the living. Hence no one could believe that a few yards from the spot actually more than a hundred were already dead. It may be safely asserted that within five minutes of the block taking place at least this number would be dead.
Through the eighteen-inch space that the door was open I could see the hall-keeper making almost superhuman efforts, with others, to release the fatal door, but to no avail.”
Lambert and others worked quickly to relieve the crush, desperately hauling children out who seemed to still be alive.
“Many of the children on the outer edge of the frightful heap could be made out to be past human aid. They had fallen early in the frightful struggle, and those who came after had been precipitated over them in the far side of the heap. In order to get at the latter, hands had to be joined by the rescuers so that one might reach over the nearer bodies and take hold of some little one whose feeble movement gave sign that life was not extinct… What seemed to wring the hearts of the rescuers with the utmost anguish were the cries of those who were able to cry. It was, “Give me a hand !” “And give me a hand !” “Oh ! Do take me out first !” or “Oh ! Where is my mother !””
In total, 183 children were killed in the crush. The oldest was fourteen; the youngest was just three years old.
Word of the disaster quickly spread, with newspaper reports written in the detailed and melodramatic style that was common at the time.
On Monday, June 18th, The Scotsman had extensive coverage, including reports on the scenes immediately following the disaster;
“In the dress circle and the body of the hall the dead were laid out in rows for identification. Swiftly the terrible news spread through the town, and the hall was soon besieged by an excited crowd, amongst whom were some of the parents of children who had gone to the entertainment. Sunderland has never before witnessed so heart-rending a scene as was presented by mothers shrieking and struggling to obtain entrance to the building in order to reclaim their children, living or dead.”
“There was a continuous wailing and sobbing from scores of men and women as they made their way amongst the rows of corpses seeking to identify some missing one, and now and then a louder outburst of grief served to show that the face of a loved one had been recognised… Many women fainted, and all were almost completely overcome with grief… Outside the hall the scene was equally terrible. Men were to be seen in the streets carrying away in their arms the dead bodies of their children, with a white cloth over their faces…”
Journalists in those days did not hold back on their descriptions. The same article detailed the condition of the bodies awaiting identification.
“…looking along the different rows, dreadful evidences of the catastrophe were manifest. The first row comprised only two bodies, both girls, about 8 or 9 years of age. The other children who had been in this row had been identified and removed.
In the second row, the first was a little boy about 6; his face slightly discoloured; next was a boy whose face was black and dreadfully swollen…
Coming to the third row, the first was a little girl about 5, next a boy about 6, with his hands crossed in front, and then was placed a girl of 11 or 12, whose clothes and lower garments had apparently been torn off in the struggle, her remains being covered with a brown apron… then came a little girl in the centre of a group with her face dreadfully discoloured. Her sufferings had evidently been great, and blood had flowed from her left ear.”
This horrific litany continued on and on.
Even at this early stage, journalists had already realised what the key question would be; how, when, and by whom had the door been bolted in that deadly position? Frederick Graham, the hall’s caretaker, gave his account to several newspapers, stating repeatedly that the door had been wide open when he last passed it, and he hadn’t seen it bolted in the ajar position until the tragedy was in full sway.
The Shields News on June 18th carried a statement from one of the young survivors.
“George, aged 9 years, and Robert, aged 7 years, were in the gallery during the performance. George makes the following statement, which with respect to the door is very important:-
I came down from the gallery to see if my sister Nelly was below, but as I could not find her I returned to my brother Robert. We sat in a back seat and the gallery was quite full. I saw one man at the door taking money, and another man came up from the stage to make them keep quiet. These are the only men I saw in the gallery. The last trick I saw Mr Fay do was conjuring with pigeons. He was hatching them at a moment’s notice and letting them fly about the place. We came out before the performance was finished, because we thought there would be a crush. We were nearly the first to get out. When we got down to the door on the stairs it was open about a foot and a half, and only one could pass out at a time. There was no crush then… I tried to push away the door but could not.”
During the inquest, other survivors spoke about the door.
“Allan Parish (10)… was the first boy called… Questioned as to who bolted the door, he said he saw a man with black curly hair rake the muck out of the hole with a bit of stick, and push the bolt down with his hand.
Helena Taylor, 13 years of age… saw the door on the first landing from the street as she came down. It was open a little way, and there was a man giving away prizes. The bolt was in when she came down. She got out by crushing through. There was a slight crush, and the children were trying to remove the bolt.
Robert Mackie, attending the British Boy’s School, aged 11 years, said : I got very nearly down to the bottom when the man pulled the door to, and took his foot and shoved down the bolt. Just as I got to the bottom there was a crush behind. I got my hands round the door, and my sister was at my back. I tried to pull myself through but could not. I stayed there about ten minutes, until a man pulled me out. There was a man giving out prizes, and he put the bolt in after that. I think he put it in with his foot.
Alexander Hayhurst deposed that when he came down he saw a man beside the door with a box of toys. The man was shouting ” those first down will get the best prizes.” The door was about a foot open when I got down. The man put his foot against it. I had no difficulty in getting out of the door.”
During the first inquest, the foreman of the jury is reported to have contested the children’s evidence, saying, “The children have undergone a previous examination, and the jury are of opinion that they have all got off what they want to say. The evidence has been coached.”
However, this was apparently not the opinion of the jury as a whole, as some of them spoke up to disagree.
The children’s evidence was, however, contradictory; some said they saw a fair man at the door, others a dark curly haired man, some saw two men, some said it was bolted in the ajar position before the end of the performance, others that it was pulled to as they came down. However, under the circumstances, this is unsurprising. Eye witness testimony is rarely as accurate as we’d like to believe, even under ideal conditions. Those who reached the door before the crush were likely preoccupied by the thought of those presents, paying the door no attention because it wasn’t important to them; those who were caught in the crush, naturally, would have been preoccupied by their sudden lack of oxygen.
Graham, the caretaker, testified to the inquest, just as he had told the newspapers, that he had seen the swing door fully open, inwards, against the wall, when he last passed it, at about four o’clock. He also stated that the bolt “was rather stiff. It might fall into the socket without being placed, but I have never known it to do so.”
Charles Hesseltine, 22 and a half, was one of Mr Fay’s assistants, and was the man sent to hand out presents to the children in the gallery. At the inquest he stated:
“When Mr Fay came to the box trick I went on to the stage to assist in it, and then Mr Fay said I was to take the prizes and distribute them to children in the gallery.
I took the prizes in a box, and went out of the stage entrance into the street, and went up by the gallery stairs… I met the children coming down, and gave them the prizes. They seemed to pass down alright as I came down with them to the dress circle landing. Then they seemed to stop in front, and I shouted out, ” Pass along there.” Some one said round the corner, ” We can’t.”
I went round the landing where they seemed to be standing, and there I saw the door. It was half-way open. I pushed my way through the children, and I managed to get just into the doorway when there seemed to be an extra rush of children from behind the door, so I said “Stand back,” and I went outside.
There seemed to be a break in the children half-way upstairs, so I said, ” Come from behind this door,” thinking I could get them out that way. I was outside then. I got part of them out by giving them prizes. Then came another rush. I then put my box against the door and gave them what prizes I had, all but two or three small ones, and I said, ” You must all come out.”
I pulled several of them out. Some were on their knees getting under one another’s legs. After I got eight or nine out they seemed to be fast altogether. I could not move them any way. I put my hand round and I got out a little girl. She was the last one I did take out. I shouted for someone to come and see what was amiss at the door. One boy said, ” For God’s sake get me out : I’m fast.”
He was questioned closely:
“When did you bolt that door ? Any amount of witnesses say they saw you ?”
He replied, “I did not bolt it. I put my hand down several times behind it, and I tried to take the children out.”
“Did you not pull the door there where it was standing ?
No, the door was half-closed then. It was very near a foot from being closed. If I had not held it back by the box it would soon have been shut altogether. They were going behind it, and I could not get them away,
—Were you not aware that it was a swing door ?
I did not know at the time. One got under another, and they put their arms through.
—How do you explain these children telling us you were outside the door and that you put the bolt in ?
It is false, sir. I will swear it is false. I admit I was outside the door a long time, and I remember putting my hand down a lot of times to take the children away and pull them through.
—Suppose we take it that you did not put the bolt in, how do you think it got in ?
I have not the least idea. When I came down there would be about 40 children, and the door was loose. It was about half-way open, and I put my box against the door and held it there and said, ” Look quick.” I said, “You must keep from behind there.”
— Did you attempt to get the bolt out ?
I did not know there was a bolt there. At the time when there was not such a rush I could have got it out easily if I had known.
— You say that at the time of the crush you were not aware of the formation of the door,
— Not whether it was a swing door and could be opened on either side ?
I did not know what to make of the thing. I first thought about getting the children out.
— You did not know that it was a swing door from side to side ?
—You took it to be an ordinary door, which closes against the door-post ?
I thought it was because it was just a foot off being shut.”
The architect of the building, George Cordin Hoskins, testified that he had not put a door on that landing when he designed the Victoria Hall.
“If I had been consulted about it I would not have placed it there. Assuming I gave permission to have such a door there, which I would not, I should have had one four feet high. There is not the slightest occasion for such a closely boarded door. It is more like the door of a police cell.”
Further evidence was given to the inquest by Frederick Taylor, the proprietor of the hall, and Stephen Coates and John M’Clelland, clerks for Mr T. L. Howarth, accountant, building society secretary, and agent; bookings for the hall were made at their office. This evidence concerned the booking itself, and who was therefore responsible for the performance.
The first inquest concluded on Wednesday, the 4th of July 1883, with the jury finding:
” That Frederick Mills and others met their death by suffocation on the stairs leading from the gallery in the Victoria Hall on the 16th day of June, 1883, from the partial closing of a door on the landing, fixed in its position by a bolt in the floor, but by whom there is not sufficient evidence to show.
That the manager of the entertainment be censured for not providing sufficient caretakers and assistants to preserve order in the hall on that afternoon, and we believe a partnership existed between Mr Coates and Mr Fay.
That we consider the mode of entrance into, and of exits from the hall are sufficient, except the door at which the fatality occurred, and we would recommend its removal at once.
We attach no blame to the caretaker, but recommend that in future the proprietor of the hall instruct him to show persons who engage the hall all its modes of ingress and egress. “
A second inquest followed, because some of the victims fell under a different jurisdiction; they returned a similar verdict on the 10th of July. In response to a set of specific questions posed by the coroner, they found:
- That Fay and Coates had the “legal duty or responsibility of taking proper precautions for the preservation of the lives of the children whilst within and on leaving the Victoria Hall”;
- That it was a neglect of duty in not providing enough staff to keep order that led to the loss of life; that the staff provided wouldn’t have been sufficient even if the fatal door hadn’t been there;
- That the caretaker had neglected his duty by not informing Fay and his assistants of the door, and by failing to bolt it safely in the outward position when he passed it during the performance;
- That the directors were not justified in erecting the door without instructing the caretaker to point it out to those booking the hall;
- That parents and relatives of the children were not justified in letting their charges go alone, without checking that there were adults to take charge;
- That the various school masters through whom Fay had advertised the tickets were not justified in allowing this without arranging for supervision and control of the children at the performance.
However, again, the jury said that the negligence shown was not of a culpable nature.
“The Coroner then read the following presentments made by the jury :-
” We recommend that school children ought not to be encouraged to attend entertainments, treats, or excursions, except under proper supervision or control.
” We recommend that statutory powers ought to be forthwith applied to proprietors of buildings in which the public assemble, to provide at their own expense, and to the entire satisfaction of the municipal or local authorities, sufficient means of exit, all doors, both internal or external, to open outwards ; proprietors’ servants to be on duty on the premises from the commencement to the close of entertainments, meetings, or religious services, and be responsible for all means of exit being instantly available at any time during the continuance of such entertainments, meetings, or religious services ; municipal or local authorities to have power to compel the attendance of a sufficient number of inspectors who shall be authorised to attend all such entertainments, meetings, and religious services, and ascertain and report whether the foregoing precautions have been taken.”
And that is how the death of 183 children led to the kind of safety regulations that we follow today.
The Fays continued to perform, finishing their run at Tynemouth Aquarium and then touring around the country once more. However, there’s no evidence that they ever offered a children’s show again, and I think it’s unlikely that they would have dared. What became of Annie is unknown, but it’s said that Alexander eventually died in poverty.
The Victoria Hall remained closed for some time after the tragedy. However, in 1906, it was reopened with a new extension – a second, smaller hall, named Alexandra Hall after the new Queen, was built on the north end. While it continued to host a range of events, it was still blighted by the memory of what had happened there; some said it was “shaped like the coffin it once was”, and many would refuse to go there. In April 1941, it was hit by German bombs, and demolished. Modern buildings stand there now.
Across the road from the site of the Victoria Hall is Mowbray Park, and within the park stands a beautiful memorial to the disaster. A sculpture in classical style shows a mother in grief, her dead child on her knee. It was paid for by a public subscription, to which Queen Victoria donated £50 – that would be equivalent to about £6,000 pounds today.
There was one other life affected by the tragedy; Robert Alexander Briggs was fifteen at the time of the Victoria Hall Disaster. Eight years later, the young engineer patented the design for a bolt which would keep the door secure against anyone trying to get in from outside, but ensure that those inside could always get out. In other words, the first version of the crash bar that we see on emergency exits today. Sadly, it would not be adopted quickly enough to prevent the huge loss of life at the Iroquois Theater in Chicago in 1903, or the Collinwood School Fire in Cleveland, 1908. However, since its adoption it has no doubt saved hundreds, if not thousands of lives – and that must surely be the best possible tribute to those lives lost before.
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Sources, References and Further Reading
BBC – A History of the World in 100 Objects – Victoria Hall Disaster Rocking Horse – One of the actual toys given out.
Wikisource – The Sunderland Calamity – William McGonagall. Said to be the worst poet in the history of the English language, McGonagall wrote many poems about contemporary disasters.