Victoria Hall Disaster

Victoria Hall Disaster

To begin with, the Victoria Hall Disaster is a terribly tragedy in which 183 children lost their lives. The Victoria Hall stampede of 1883 is still the worst of its kind ever to have happened in Britain. Of course, news of the disaster spread far and wide. In fact, it sent shock waves throughout the British Empire. Therefore, let’s look back at this sad event with a tear in our eyes and a lump in our throats.

Victoria Hall Disaster - Victorian Grandeur - opposite Mowbray Park, Sunderland

View of Victoria Hall from Mowbray Park

The Victoria Hall was indeed a very large concert hall on Toward Road, Sunderland, England. It also stood opposite Mowbray Park in the town centre. At the time, Sunderland was a grand Victorian town and so had buildings to match. It was the Backhouse family that provided the funds for the Victoria Hall which opened in 1872. Indeed, the building was large enough to hold any public meetings and various types of entertainment. In fact, it could hold over 3000 people.

The build up to the Victoria Hall Disaster was innocent enough and the disaster would have been difficult to predict. As a matter of fact, children in the area were receptive and looking forward to new events at the hall. Therefore, in the Summer of 1883, when a new show came to town, the kids were just as enthusiastic. However, the show featuring The Fays, resulted in calamity.

The Entertainers

In this case, The Fays were entertainers from Tynemouth Aquarium. Alexander Fay was a travelling magician and ventriloquist but his shows involved many other features.

They also toured the schools of Sunderland and were looking for an audience for their forthcoming show.

Victoria Hall Disaster Sunderland - The Fays Advert or Poster
Moreover, Mr Fay promised that every child would have a chance of receiving a present after the event. Indeed, he billed the show as ‘The Greatest Treat For Children Ever Given’.

The entrance fee for the show would be 1d (half a new penny) so this ensured a big crowd. Of course, the price meant that many children could escape their often boring lives for a few exciting hours. When the day finally arrived, two thousand excited children trooped into the Victoria Hall. Then, the show began and Mr Fay’s magic had the boys and girls screaming with delight.

Mr Fay’s commanding voice reached across the stage. Wide-eyed and expectant, also cheering and hissing at the right times, the children quickly settled into the show. Although one of Mr Fay’s turns involved vast quantities of smoke which caused several children to vomit. However, he quickly won them back and the children were in their glory again. Then, the final act saw Mr Fay ‘hatching’ pigeons and allowing them to fly around the hall.

The Tragedy Unfolds

Obviously, the show had to come to an end and at 5.10pm the performers finished their act. However, as far as most of the children were concerned, the best was yet to come. Of course, this was the handing out of presents which the organisers promised. Indeed, presents were a rare treat to most of the children that were there. So the children, excited and already hyped up, were jostling for the best position. At this point, nobody knew that the Victoria Hall Disaster could possibly happen.

Victoria Hall Disaster - Interior of Building
The Victoria Hall had three tiers with a stairway connecting them all.

The stalls seated around 1,000 people while the gallery had seating for up to 1,100.

However, on this particular afternoon, the upper circle was occupied by just one woman and her child. But, the lower floors were full to bursting with excited children wondering what present they would receive.

This Way For The Presents

Mr Fay, being a man of his word, then started to scatter small treats into the audience. Of course, along with his helpers, they could only reach a small section of the crowd. As a result, each throw resulted in a scrimmage as children scampered for the next treat. However, the children in the gallery looked on in horror, as no treats were coming their way. This was because, the action was all downstairs. Then all of a sudden, the children heard the words they had been waiting for, “this way for presents”.

Of course, children nearest the upstairs exits who heard the summons, quickly slipped out without any problem. Obviously, hundreds of other frenzied kids began to follow the leaders down the flights of stairs. Indeed, they were desperate not to miss out on the promised freebies. However, the start of the Victoria Hall Disaster was beginning to unfold.

Locked Doors?

At this point, nobody knows if the doors to the main body of the hall were locked. Of course, it may well be that the doors were slightly open only allowing one child through at a time. Whatever the problem was, a backlog soon began causing problems.

The first people on the scene believe that three children tried to pass through the doorway together. These children became wedged in the entrance. A flood of children then fell head over heels, one on top of the other. Screams and shrieks echoed down the staircases but still the children continued to descend. Of course, those at the bottom could not possibly escape the pressure and their tiny lungs could not draw in air. Yet, the children at the top kept coming, obviously they did not know what was happening below.
Victoria Hall Disaster - staircase calamity

Screaming Children

Mr Graham, the manager stated “When I approached the lower door I heard some fearful screams. There were also groans and noises of struggling. I rushed to the door and attempted to open it, and found I could not do so”.  He continues to explain how the bolt was in the socket about two feet from the door frame. Indeed, he explains that the doorway was full up nearly as high as his head with bodies of children.

The manager rushed his way upstairs to another route and came down stairways crammed with children. He says, “When we reached the forth step from the bottom we found the children packed in a mass. From that place, also all over the whole of the landing below, there seemed to be hundreds of them”.

The manager continues, “At first, I did not think that any were dead. But when we tried to release them, I discovered my mistake”. He tried at first to take out children from the thickest of the mass. But this was impossible as the children so tightly wedged in. He could scarcely move them without risk of further injury to their poor limbs. So then he began by picking out those little ones from the top who groaned. In other words, he concentrated on those that were moving or showed other signs of life.

Victoria Hall Disaster - parents identifying their children

Police Assistance

Two gentlemen, one named Raine, quickly came to Mr Graham’s assistance. Soon after, they began to hand the injured children through the window to a police constable. Likewise, the constable promptly took them to the porch of the building and placed them in the open air. They worked very hard, but the children were lying wedged together eight deep. It was very difficult to recover many of the lifeless children.

Contradictory Statements

There were some rather confusing and contradictory statements from the survivors of the Victoria Hall Disaster. For example, Thomas Wilson aged 12, who was at the back of the main hall gave a statement. In this case, he says that a man on stage told those downstairs that presents were available in the gallery. Then, at the door, a man was standing giving away presents. But when the man saw a boy with five or six presents he said “this will never do”. So he bolted the door to try and control the flow of children. He then threw some presents towards the street and told the children to leave via the Toward Road door.

Obviously, Thomas managed made his way home safely after getting a round whistle as a gift. However, those upstairs were not so lucky. In fact, many were barely recognisable while they lay in rows awaiting identification.

Mr Simpson’s Statement

Another statement was from Mr Simpson who wrote to the local newspaper about his son’s experiences. He says his eldest boy was also in the doomed gallery. However, before the close of the performance he thought he would leave. He had an idea that there would be a crush on the way out. So, a few minuets before the finish of the show, he decided to go down the stairs and leave.

Mr Simpson continues to explain that when his son came to the fatal door he found it shut and bolted. He tried to remove the bolt, but he could not. Then before he knew it, down came the human mass on the top of him. Mr Simpson also thought that it was a miracle how his son survived that day. It seems that someone managed to carry him out into the hall. Then by kind aid and medical skill, he come through it all.

Obviously, if the door had been open, he would have gone straight out. With this in mind, it seems the door was not open and the bolt was in place. He also claims there wasn’t a soul around and no personnel who could manage the doors should the need arise.

Sidney Duncan’s Statement

Obviously, the tragedy had such a traumatizing effect on it’s survivors. Ten years later, Sidney Duncan, aged ten at the time of the incident, could recall the events. He did so as if they had happened the previous day. In fact, he explains that within half a minute he fell and almost became buried in the struggling, dying mass. Furthermore, he says he could only hear the cries from those in the crush at the back of the pack. “In front comparative silence reigned but the writhing of the expiring little ones were fearful to behold. I witnessed all, and lay unable to even aid myself”. He also claims that five minutes elapsed before assistance arrived.

From the contradictory statements it seems that we have an idea what happened. In the rush for presents both from the gallery and the main hall, a member of staff must have bolted the door. Obviously, the intention was to keep the two sections of children separate. Of course, this action was to cost the people of Sunderland dearly. The identity of the person responsible for bolting the door remains a mystery. As a result, there was no convictions.

Other Survivors

George Howitt, aged 9, was also in the gallery. He left through a door which was open some eighteen inches. He watched as a man gave presents away and then noticed that the door was only a little bit open. George had been sitting on a form with Frank and Emily Morris. But, Emily did not survive. Frank fainted but later regained consciousness.

Another survivor, eleven year old Inez Coe, escaped death indirectly because of her disability. Of course, Inez went down the stairs early to avoid the crush. However, a man at the bottom of the stairs said that she could not leave. She had to wait until the others from upstairs had come down.

Once the stampede started, Inez snuggled into the corner and used her crutch as a crash barrier. She then saw a boy fall down and others trip over him. So she squeezed into the corner as bodies piled up around her. Then, after what seemed like a long time as she lay there, she saw a man reaching down who was trying to pull out the dead bodies that surrounded her. Screaming out “take me before the dead one’s, I’m alive”, he managed to pull Inez to safety. On reaching the outside she fainted but woke with the help of a bucket of cold water.

Dead And Injured

All in all, 183 children (114 boys and 69 girls) died in the Victoria Hall Disaster. In essence, this was the result of crushing or the trampling that occurred. Furthermore, around 100 children suffered seriously injuries. Most of the victims were between the ages of seven and ten, but two were just three years old. The mangled bodies, many barley recognisable, were laying down in rows for identification. Sadly, more than one family lost all of their children.

In due time, a man and his wife anxiously scanned the rows of the dead. The man’s face blanched, and without showing any further signs of emotion pointed to a little figure, “that’s one”, he said. A few yards later he pointed again and said, “that’s another”. Then as he came to the last child in the row, he lost composure. He burst into loud sobs “My God! All my family, gone”.

Queen Victoria

In view of the seriousness of this sad event, Queen Victoria wrote to the clergymen of the town. By the same token, the clergymen relayed her message of condolence at the subsequent funerals and services throughout the town.

Of course, Queen Victoria’s message included words from the bible. In brief, she quotes, ‘Suffer little children to come unto me, for of such is the Kingdom of God’.

Victoria Hall Disaster - Queen quotes from the bible
Victoria Hall Disaster - original without canopy
The disaster obviously pulled at the heart of the country, and a nationwide collection raised £5000.

Most of this was to pay for the funerals of the children of course. However, the remainder was to help pay for a for a memorial to the dead children. Thus, the Victoria Hall Disaster Memorial came about.

Victoria Hall Memorial

The memorial still stands close to and opposite the disaster site in Mowbray Park. Indeed, the memorial underwent a refurbishment in 2002 including a cleaning up of the memorial. It now has a protective canopy where before it was just open to the elements. However, the memorial has been in various position around the city, including Bishopwearmouth Cemetery (image above).
Victoria Hall Disaster Sunderland - memorial - old site in background

Victoria Hall Disaster – Inscription On The Memorial

Victoria Hall Disaster Memorial Inscription

Safety Legislation Begins

After the initial mourning period, the mood of the nation changed to one of anger. Indeed, their outrage and the resulting inquiry led to new safety legislation. From then on, public entertainment venues must incoprorate a minimum number of outward opening emergency exits. This indeed led to the invention of ‘push bar’ emergency doors. This law still remains in full force to this day. Without doubt, The Victoria Hall Disaster was the worst of its kind in Britain. Because of this, new safety legislation ensures that this type of calamity should never happen again.

Final Victoria Hall Disaster

During the Second World War, a German bombing raid destroyed the Victoria Hall. This was in the early hours on the 16th April, 1941. Until then, the building was still in use – almost 60 years after the Victoria Hall Disaster occurred.
Victoria Hall Disaster Sunderland - bombed in the war - destroyed


List of the Victoria Hall Disaster victims.

Scottish poet, William McGonagall’s poem.

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2 Responses to Victoria Hall Disaster

  1. Michael West says:

    My grandmother missed this grave disaster by not being able to attend that day. Good gawd, I cannot imagine the pain of the parents of these poor children.

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  2. Roger Hume says:

    My great, great aunt Dorothy Buglass, aged 3, died in this disaster. She would have been there with her older siblings. I can’t imagine how this trauma scarred them or their parents for the rest of their lives.

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