’Twas in the year of 1887, which many people will long remember,
The burning of the Theatre at Exeter on the 5th of September,
Alas! that ever-to-be-remembered and unlucky night,
When one hundred and fifty lost their lives, a most agonising sight.
The play on this night was called “Romany Rye,”
And at act four, scene third, Fire! Fire! was the cry;
And all in a moment flames were seen issuing from the stage,
Then the women screamed frantically, like wild beasts in a cage.
Then a panic ensued, and each one felt dismayed,
And from the burning building a rush was made;
And soon the theatre was filled with a blinding smoke,
So that the people their way out had to grope.
The shrieks of those trying to escape were fearful to hear,
Especially the cries of those who had lost their friends most dear;
Oh, the scene was most painful in the London Inn Square,
To see them wringing their hands and tearing their hair!
And as the flames spread, great havoc they did make,
And the poor souls fought heroically in trying to make their escape;
Oh, it was horrible to see men and women trying to reach the door!
But in many cases death claimed the victory, and their struggles were o’er.
Alas! ’twas pitiful the shrieks of the audience to hear,
Especially as the flames to them drew near;
Because on every face were depicted despair and woe,
And many of them jumped from the windows into the street below.
The crushed and charred bodies were carried into London Hotel yard,
And to alleviate their sufferings the doctors tried hard;
But, alas! their attendance on many was thrown away,
But those that survived were conveyed to Exeter Hospital without delay.
And all those that had their wounds dressed proceeded home,
Accompanied by their friends, and making a loud moan;
While the faces and necks of others were sickening to behold,
Enough to chill one’s blood, and make the heart turn cold.
Alas! words fail to describe the desolation,
And in many homes it will cause great lamentation;
Because human remains are beyond all identification,
Which will cause the relatives of the sufferers to be in great tribulation.
Oh, Heaven! it must have been an awful sight,
To see the poor souls struggling hard with all their might,
Fighting hard their lives to save,
While many in the smoke and burning flame did madly rave!
It was the most sickening sight that ever anybody saw,
Human remains, beyond recognition, covered with a heap of straw;
And here and there a body might be seen, and a maimed hand,
Oh, such a sight, that the most hard-hearted person could hardly withstand!
The number of people in the theatre was between seven and eight thousand,
But alas! one hundred and fifty by the fire have been found dead;
And the most lives were lost on the stairs leading from the gallery,
And these were roasted to death, which was sickening to see.
The funerals were conducted at the expense of the local authority,
And two hours and more elapsed at the mournful ceremony;
And at one grave there were two thousand people, a very great crowd,
And most of the men were bareheaded ad weeping aloud.
Alas! many poor children have been bereft of their fathers and mothers,
Who will be sorely missed by little sisters and brothers;
But, alas! unto them they can ne’er return again,
Therefore the poor little innocents must weep for them in vain.
I hope all kind Christian souls will help the friends of the dead,
Especially those that have lost the winners of their bread;
And if they do, God surely will them bless,
Because pure Christianity is to help the widows and orphans in distress.
I am very glad to see Henry Irving has sent a hundred pounds,
And I hope his brother actors will subscribe their mite all round;
And if they do it will add honour to their name,
Because whatever is given towards a good cause they will it regain.
Burning of a Theatre at Exeter
Great Loss of Life
A terrible catastrophe, a correspondent telegraphed from Exeter late last night, has just happened at Exeter. The new theatre opened but last autumn caught fire during a performance of the Romany Rye. The pit and gallery were crowded. The fire, which broke out on the stage, spread with such rapidity that there was an immediate panic, and the exits became blocked. After a dreadful struggle the pit doors were cleared and the people got out from this part of the house, suffering, however, from severe injuries. There was but one gallery exit, and this was blocked so completely that to a great number of people escape was made impossible. By great efforts, some got clear, but the flames soon had such a firm hold of this part of the house that a great loss of life became inevitable. At 11 o’clock, by the aid of the fire-escape, over 60 dead bodies had been removed through a window on a level with the gallery, and scores of people were taken to the hospital suffering from burns. The loss of life it is feared may not be far short of 100 souls.
Exeter New Theatre was destroyed by fire last night. At a quarter past 10, during the performance of the drama Romany Rye, fire was discovered in the flies. The curtain was at once dropped and the play ceased. The flames spread with great rapidity, and in less than half an hour the whole building was ablaze, the flames rushing forth from every window and illuminating the district for a great distance. Fortuanately, the spectators in the lower part of the house were got out in comparative safety, but unfortunately the occupants of the gallery, uhich is situate at the back of the second circle, could not escape before the fire had reached that part of the building, there being only one exit. The consequence was that the loss of life was apalling. Up to half-past 11 60 bodies had been taken out of the building, and 20 injured persons conveyed to the hospital. Two of the latter expired shortly after their admission. The fire was still burning at an ear1y hour this morning.
The Times, 6th September 1887
About eight hundred people crowded into Exeter’s new Theatre Royal for an evening’s entertainment. They were there to watch a performance of Wilson Barnett’s melodramatic play The Romany Rye, a torrid tale set amongst the Gypsies (not to be confused with George Borrow’s novel of the same name). They would get a lot more drama than they bargained for, in an event whose repercussions are still felt today.
All went uneventfully until the end of the fourth act. At the end of the “Gypsy kidnapping scene” an act drop – a canvas curtain with a scene painted on it – fell onto the stage, narrowly missing one of the actors. The pit orchestra made to cover the mishap with some music and the audience tittered at the unexpected gaffe. However, their amusement quickly turned to horror as its cause became apparent: the curtain billowed out and smoke issued into the auditorium. The stage was already ablaze, and within minutes the fire spread to the rest of the theatre.
Those watching from the stalls were able to escape to the street without much difficulty, but for those upstairs in the gallery the situation was more critical. There was only one exit for them to use, and that was partially blocked by a ticket office. Panic-stricken members of the audience found their way onto the roof and onto balconies, where they faced the unenviable choice between the flames and jumping to the cobbled street below.
One survivor left the following account of the night’s events:
I got to the Theatre at about 10.15, and went to the pit stalls just as the 4th Act was being concluded. I had not been seated, at the outside, more than five minutes when suddenly the act-drop was lowered in front of one of the actors who was playing the part of Scragger, and just in the midst of one of his sentences. The audience, thinking it was one of the mistakes incidental to a first night’s representation, began to laugh, but suddenly the act drop bellied out over the footlights, and being lifted by the draught from the stage immediately disclosed the awful fact that the stage was on fire. Instantly the audience rose to their feet. Several people in the stalls called to the people to keep their seats, and, as far as I could see, all the occupants of the stalls left in a perfectly cool manner, without panic. I succeeded without the slightest difficulty in gaining the street, but as I passed through the lobby all the Theatre seemed in a blaze. The balcony over the door was crowded with people, who were being urged by the bystanders to keep quiet until they were rescued. What happened afterwards is, of course, generally known, but from the time I got into the Theatre until I found myself outside could not have been more than from ten to twelve minutes. As far as I could judge, there was no panic whatever among the audience in the stalls, although so close to the burning stage; if there had been, the long passage from the stalls, with its stairs at intervals, would have added many more to the list of victims.
The final death toll amounted to 188 men, women and children, which remains to this day the record number of deaths in a single building in the UK. An inquiry into the fire was headed by Captain Eyre Shaw (left), the head of London’s Fire Brigade and a leading expert on fire safety. Perhaps curiously, it concluded that the deaths were entirely accidental and no blame should be attached to the theatre’s management or architect. Nonetheless, architect Charles Phipps’ reputation as one of the century’s leading designers of theatres was inevitably somewhat dented.
Theatre fires were not uncommon. electric lighting was in its infancy, and stages were commonly lit by naked gas jets. Indeed, Exeter’s previous theatre had burnt down just two years earlier, but thankfully without loss of human life. The scale of the Exeter fire, together with a few others at home and abroad, inspired the government to introduce tighter safety regulations for theatres. Precautions included the introduction of fire-resistant safety curtains, which seal off the auditorium from the stage, giving time for the theatre to be evacuated should a fire break out.
A letter of condolence was sent by Queen Victoria, and a public subscription raised the sum of £20,763 for the relief of victims’ families.