The Victoria Hall Disaster
One of the worst disasters in British history occurred on 16th June 1883, when 183 children aged between seven and eleven years old were crushed or suffocated to death in a rush to get prizes at a children’s variety show. The site of this tragedy was Sunderland’s Victoria Hall, a large concert hall on Toward Road facing Mowbray Park.
The Victoria Hall had been erected at a time when large venues like the Crystal Palace and the Albert Hall were popular. It was built with the backing of the Backhouse family as a hall for public meetings and entertainments by the 'Victoria Hall and Temperance Institute Ltd'. Designed by GG Hoskins (1837-1911) of Darlington, it was a large brick building in the Gothic style. The Hall opened in 1872, having cost £10,000 to build.
The Victoria Hall, including the extension of 1903-6
The most publicised event at the Hall came in the summer of 1883 - a visit by the travelling entertainer Alexander Fay, whose tickets had been distributed widely amongst local children and offered the inducement of small presents. About 2,000 excited children attended the show and, of these, 1,100 were in the gallery. Very few adults were present.
The gallery as seen from the stage, illustrated in The Graphic
The show passed without incident, but at the end an announcement was made that children with certain numbered tickets would be presented with a prize upon exit. Entertainers began distributing gifts from the stage to children in the stalls. Worried about missing out, many of the children in the gallery stampeded down the winding staircase. Here they were confronted by a door which had been partly bolted and would only open inwards. The children were soon reduced to a struggling heap as more and more of their fellows joined the sprawling crush.
The Sunderland Weekly Echo and Times of 22nd June described the scene:
Children were tumbled head over heels, one on top of the other. Shrieks and screams vibrated through the staircase. More pressed down from above, inconsiderate of what might happen from this thoughtlessness. Accordingly the children at the bottom of the stairs got packed, as it were, in a well. The heap of writhing and rolling humanity became higher and higher until it rose above the heads of those who were first jammed in the doorway and became a mass of struggling and dying children over six feet in height.
French newspaper coverage of the disaster
When the adults in the auditorium realised what was happening they rushed to the door, but could not open it as the bolt was on the other side. A caretaker, Frederick Graham, ran up another staircase and diverted approximately 600 children to safety. Meanwhile, the other adults had resorted to pulling the children through the narrow gap one by one, before one man pulled the door from its hinges. Alfie Dixon, one of the survivors, stated that the feeling that came over him was like going to sleep. His younger brother Charley said ‘Don't let go of my hand as someone is standing upon my face.’ Alfie was pulled out, but his brother was later found dead. In his 1894 account of the incident, survivor William Codling Jr. described the crush:
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.
The survivors were taken to the Royal Infirmary on Durham Road. The bodies of the dead were laid out in the dress circle and frantic parents were allowed in to identify their children. One father exclaimed ‘That's one . . . That's another . . . My God! All my family gone!’ Some families lost all of their children and an entire Sunday School class of thirty children was annihilated. There were some amazing escapes such as that of Georgina Coe, who escaped because she was disabled and used her crutches to prevent herself being crushed.
Coverage in the Illustrated London News.
Queen Victoria sent a message of condolence to the grieving families and expressed concern about survivors of whom she required that she be kept informed. The Scots poet William McGonagall, notorious for his atrocious doggerel, wrote ‘The Sunderland Calamity’ in response to the disaster:
I hope the Lord will comfort their parents by night and by day,
For He gives us life and He takes it away,
Therefore I hope their parents will put their trust in Him,
Because to weep for the dead it is a sin,
Her Majesty's grief for the bereaved parents has been profound,
And I'm glad to see that she has sent them £50,
And I hope from all parts of the world will flow relief,
To aid and comfort the bereaved parents in their grief.
Donations totalling £5,000 were sent from all over Britain. Much of the money was used to pay for the statue of a grieving mother with a dead child on her lap. Originally this stood in Mowbray Park, but was moved later to Bishopwearmouth Cemetery. In 2002 the marble statue was restored, at a cost of £63,000, and moved back to Mowbray Park with a protective canopy.
No one was prosecuted for the disaster and the person responsible for bolting the door was never identified, but it is likely that an assistant of Fay called Hesseltine had done so, seeking to regulate the flow of children to the stage. The ensuing inquiry recommended that public venues be fitted with a minimum number of outward opening emergency exits. This law still remains in full force to this day.
The Hall itself survived for another 58 years. In 1903 it was bought by the Corporation, which spent £30,000 on modernisation and reopened it in 1906. However, the building glowered over the park as a dark monument of a great Victorian tragedy. The Hall was destroyed by a parachute mine in 1941 and due to its heartbreaking history its loss was not lamented.