Oct. 25th, 2009 08:33 am
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I was in the library, browsing the graphic novel section, when I found a copy of Bryan Talbot's Alice in Sunderland. I had some time to kill so I settled myself down in a comfortable chair and began to read.

Within those pages I learned about The Victoria Hall Disaster of 1883.

Victoria Hall was a small theatre in Sunderland (it's gone now - destroyed by German bombs and fire in the middle of the 20th century). Sunderland was an industrial, shipbuilding town then; it's believed to be the point of entry of cholera into Britain, the first outbreak being 1881. A grim place. A grim life for the working class.

In 1883 playbills went up advertising 'The Greatest Treat For Children Ever Given.' There was to be a variety show at the Victoria Theatre, just for children. Seats were only 1d. each, making the show accessible to poorer children who might otherwise never visit the theatre. Mr and Mrs Fay were travelling entertainers putting on a mixture of magic, jokes and songs. Approximately 2,000 children attended, mainly between the ages of 7 and 11. A few younger siblings had been allowed along as well - 2 years old, 3 years old. Imagine how excited they were. Hardly any adults around, a chance to escape mum and dad and teacher, a chance to forget about how cold and hungry they were at home, a chance to just have fun for an afternoon.

At the end of the performance it was announced that PRESENTS would be given out to the audience! The kids were stirred up into a frenzy of excitement. Mr. Fay began distributing gifts to the children in the first few rows. The children up in the gallery realised they had better get downstairs pretty sharpish if they didn't want to miss out.

And that's when things went wrong.

The flight of stairs down from the gallery ended in a door. The door had been opened only just enough for one child at a time to pass through. And it was bolted from the inside. From the children's side. As they rushed down the stairs and pushed their way through the door, some of them became wedged in the tiny gap. The crowd behind them continued to press forward. Children slipped, fell, and were trampled by their friends as the frenzied crowd urged onward. The screams of those being crushed were drowned out by the excited cries of children eager for presents.

There were few adults in the theatre that day. When someone realised there was a commotion, they rushed to the door. The bolt was beyond reach, the door could not be opened. At first those on the scene thought it was merely a case of a few kids being stuck and injuring their limbs in the squeeze. As the first children were pulled to safety, the corpses of suffocated boys and girls were revealed.

The janitor made his way to the gallery and opened another door, herding children away from the crowded stairwell. Approximately 600 children were rescued because of his actions. Another man managed to eventually tear the door from its hinges. Apparently the children were piled up as high as his head beyond it. Anyone who showed signs of life - groaning, crying, moving limbs - were extracted as quickly as possible.

183 children died in the theatre. At least another 100 survived but were badly injured. The dead were laid out before the theatre as word spread and desperate parents came looking for their children. Newspaper reports tell of a man who found the bodies of all three of his children. Another report is of a young girl, mutely carrying her dead little sister home to her mother.

It isn't known who was responsible for bolting the door. As a direct result of the tragedy, UK law was changed so that all public buildings had to have outward-opening emergency exits. The law is still in place today, though that doesn't mean we haven't had similar disasters since. A memorial to the Victoria Hall disaster now stands in Mowbray Park, Sunderland.

I sat in the library with tears streaming down my face. It was one of the saddest things I have ever read.
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