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Thursday, 7 July 2011

“Suffer Little Children to Come Unto Me, for of Such is the Kingdom of God” The Victoria Hall Disaster of 1883

The Victorian era was beset by many tragedies of both large and small scale, of both everyday and extraordinary tragic occurrences. The poverty suffered by much of the population, along with the living conditions that went hand in hand is an example of large scale, and yet everyday, commonplace Victorian tragedy. Extraordinary occurrences such as the Whitechapel murders of 1888, the Tay Bridge Disaster, and the Princess Alice Disaster inevitably soaked up more headlines than the ongoing misfortune of a large percent of the population.

Tragedy involving children is always particularly heartbreaking. I have already blogged about the terrible murders committed by Amelia Dyer, the baby farmer who killed at least seven innocent infants. The verb ‘Murder’ can often take the impact away from any historical killing, I think. Whether murder is something that we have seen too many times on television, in films, plays, books and magazine’s, I do not know, but reading about historical tragedies where no murder is involved always carries a heavier tone, I find.

The aforementioned murders of ‘Jack the Ripper’ are a good example of this; despite these crimes being a horrible tragedy, they never appear to be thought of as such, and seem to have become almost pantomime-fare, with the murders themselves almost a side-story against trying to prove or guess the identity of the villain.
(As a remedy to this, I recommend the excellent novel ‘Whitechapel’ by Ian Porter, which is a fact-based novel concentrating on the real lives of the people living in Whitechapel during the time of the murders. An excellent read. Find it on Amazon, here)

But, of course, this post is nothing to do with Jack the Ripper, but rather, the tragic death of 183 children in the Victoria Hall disaster of 1883.

Victoria Hall was built in 1872 in Sunderland as a venue for all sorts of public meetings and entertainment shows. The hall was a very large venue, with seating on the ground floor, a dress circle on the first floor, and above these, a gallery.

Victoria Hall
On Saturday 16th June 1883, an entertainment show was to take place, when traveling entertainers Mr. and Mrs. Fay were due to perform a children’s variety show. The show contained all the usual things that one may expect to see in a children’s show, such as puppetry, ventriloquism and little magic tricks.

Mr. and Mrs. Fay declared that every child who attended the show would have the chance to get a present after the show had finished. The present, Mr. and Mrs. Fay tantalizingly promised, was; 'The Greatest Treat for Children Ever Given'. 
To further ensure that plenty of children would turn up, the entrance fee to the show was a very modest 1d.

On the day of the performance two thousand excited children between the ages of three and fourteen turned up at the hall, entered, took their places and waited for the show to start. Other than one of Mr. Fay’s magic tricks – which involved lots of smoke – making a handful of children vomit, the show was enjoyed by all, and by a little after five in the evening, the show came to an end.

The end was the part of the show that the children had been waiting for, because, as promised, Mr. Fay announced that now was when the presents would be handed out. Mr. and Mrs. Fay began giving out gifts to the children on the ground floor nearest the stage, and in the excitement – or more accurately, the desperation – not to miss out on 'The Greatest Treat for Children Ever Given', 1,100 children who had been watching from the gallery raced toward the staircase, that they may descend as quickly as possible and not miss out on the promised treats.

At the bottom of this staircase there was a very narrow door which opened inwards and had been bolted to allow only one child to pass though at a time (supposedly so that tickets could be checked as the children were arriving) Due to the mass of bodies crowding towards it, the children at the front were unable to step backwards so they could pull the door open and squeeze through the gap. Within seconds, opening the door was an impossibility, due to the pressure coming from the children still rushing down the stairs, unaware that nobody in front of them was moving and crushing the children in front.

With relatively few adults at the event, by the time anyone noticed what was happening and arrived to assist, the prostrate bodies were twenty deep.

Frederick Graham, the caretaker of the hall, ran up another staircase and diverted around 600 children to safety, whilst what few adults were in attendance had resorted to pulling the children one by one through the narrow gap of the door, before one man pulled the door from its hinges, allowing children to pour through.
A survivor of the incident, William Codling Jr., wrote the following account of the crush at the bottom of the staircase, and describes the moment he realized all was not well;

“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.”

As the crush died down and the damage was assessed, it was announced that 183 children between the ages of three and fourteen had been killed, with a hundred more seriously injured, making the incident the worst of its kind in British history.
The bodies of the dead children were laid out in front of the hall so that parents could identify them. One particularly tragic case is that of a man and wife who walked down the rows of the dead together; the man pointed to one little child, identifying it as theirs. A little further down the row he pointed to another, and at the end of the row, another, before breaking down and crying out "My God! All my family, gone!"

Upon learning of the tragedy, Queen Victoria sent messages of condolences to families who had lost children, and the words she had written; “Suffer little children to come unto me, for of such is the Kingdom of God” were read out at many of the funerals. The disaster pulled at the heart of the country, and a nationwide collection gathered £5000 which was used to pay for the funerals of the children, and what was left was added to a fund for a memorial to the dead. The memorial – a statue of a grieving mother holding her dead child – was originally situated in Mowbray Park opposite Victoria Hall, and was later moved to Bishopwearmouth Cemetery, but after a while it became somewhat worse-for-wear and succumbed, eventually, to inevitable vandalism, until in 2002 it underwent a £63,000 restoration and was moved back to Mowbray Park, where it still stands today.

The Memorial
The tragedy raised many health and safety issues, and the outcry in the press over the fact that the children had no means of escape lead to changes in public venue safety features. ‘Emergency Exits’ were introduced, which were to be easy-to-open doors that opened outwards rather than inwards for easy escape.
These steps lead to the invention of the familiar ‘push bar’ emergency door opening handles that can still be seen today. As with so many things that benefit us in modern times, and take care of our everyday health both as individuals and as a society such as the emergency exits mentioned above, or airline security, advanced policing techniques and the like, the shame is that these measures are taken too often as a reaction to tragedy, rather than the prevention of one. To hark back to my earlier point regarding the popularity of the Whitechapel murders, whilst any death is a tragedy, one could argue that the Victoria Hall disaster deserves to be just as well known as the Whitechapel murders, and yet, since it does not lend itself to dramatization, it is not.
Victoria Hall was destroyed by a German bomb in World War 2, but until then, it had continued to be used as a public venue. The person who bolted the door was never identified, and, of course, neither was Jack the Ripper.
In June this year, people of Sunderland held a memorial service in Mowbray Park to mark the 128th anniversary of the tragedy. A full account of this can be read here

One week after the event, on Saturday 23rd June, popular illustrated weekly newspaper The Graphic carried engravings on its front page, depicting the inside of Victoria Hall whilst Mr. Fay was performing, showing the two tiers of children above those on the ground floor, and also showed an engraving of the actual staircase down which the children poured, including the door.
The front page of the paper can be seen below: (Click to enlarge)


  1. Oh dear. I am in tears - I had never heard of this.

    I don't know what to say. What a heartbreaking story. You're right that it deserves to be better-known.

    Glad to know that the memorial was properly restored, at least.

  2. Interesting to read the comment on the article you link to about the memorial service; the point is made there that the memorial is sort of overlooked because of its obscure location, and deserves greater prominence in the town.

  3. Yes, the comment about the memorial being moved to the town centre caught my eye too. My only guess as to why it is not in a location where it will be seen more is perhaps that they preferred to keep it close to the site of the actual accident, which, I confess does make more sense.

    A very sad story and a real tragedy which deserves to be as widely known as that of the Titanic.

    Thanks for commenting, much appreciated.

  4. In the seventies, attending a "Chicago" concert, I experienced a frighteningly similar situation. The seats were not specifically ticketed, so the frenzied fans rushed in helter-skelter to obtain advantageous positions. In the thick of chaos, with sweaty bodies pushing me from all sides, I saw the ugly face of humanity out of control.

  5. That sounds terrifying, and is one of the main reasons I never really attend concerts or festivals, I've had a similar experience in which i was certain I would fall over and be trampled, but luckily I managed to stay upright.

    I can't imagine what it was like for the children in Victoria Hall. hellish, I expect.