The Sunderland Calamity

’Twas in the town of Sunderland, and in the year of 1883,
That about 200 children were launch’d into eternity
While witnessing an entertainment in Victoria Hall,
While they, poor little innocents, to God for help did call.

The entertainment consisted of conjuring, and the ghost illusion play,
Also talking waxworks, and living marionettes, and given by Mr. Fay;
And on this occasion, presents were to be given away,
But in their anxiety of getting presents they wouldn’t brook delay,
And that is the reason why so many lives have been taken away;
But I hope their precious souls are in heaven to-day.

As soon as the children began to suspect
That they would lose their presents by neglect,
They rush’d from the gallery, and ran down the stairs pell-mell,
And trampled one another to death, according as they fell.

As soon as the catastrophe became known throughout the boro’
The people’s hearts were brim-full of sorrow,
And parents rush’d to the Hall terror-stricken and wild,
And each one was anxious to find their own child.

Oh! it must have been a most horrible sight
To see the dear little children struggling with all their might
To get out at the door at the foot of the stair,
While one brave little boy did repeat the Lord’s Prayer.

The innocent children were buried seven or eight layers deep,
The sight was heart-rending and enough to make one weep;
It was a most affecting spectacle and frightful to behold
The corpse of a little boy not above four years old,

Who had on a top-coat much too big for him,
And his little innocent face was white and grim,
And appearing to be simply in a calm sleep-
The sight was enough to make one’s flesh to creep.

The scene in the Hall was heart-sickening to behold,
And enough to make one’s blood run cold.
To see the children’s faces, blackened, that were trampled to death,
And their parents lamenting o’er them with bated breath.

Oh! it was most lamentable for to hear
The cries of the mothers for their children dear;
And many mothers swooned in grief away
At the sight of their dead children in grim array.

There was a parent took home a boy by mistake,
And after arriving there his heart was like to break
When it was found to be the body of a neighbour’s child;
The parent stood aghast and was like to go wild.

A man and his wife rush’d madly in the Hall,
And loudly in grief on their children they did call,
And the man searched for his children among the dead
Seemingly without the least fear or dread.

And with his finger pointing he cried. “That’s one! two!
Oh! heaven above, what shall I do;”
And still he kept walking on and murmuring very low.
Until he came to the last child in the row;

Then he cried, “Good God! all my family gone
And now I am left to mourn alone;”
And staggering back he cried, “Give me water, give me water!”
While his heart was like to break and his teeth seem’d to chatter.

Oh, heaven! it must have been most pitiful to see
Fathers with their dead children upon their knee
While the blood ran copiously from their mouths and ears
And their parents shedding o’er them hot burning tears.

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.

The Sunderland Disaster

The town of Sunderland was the scene last Saturday of a disaster almost without precedent for the age and number of its youthful victims. The Victoria Music Hall, the largest place of amusement in the borough, with accommodation for over 1,600 adults in the area and dress circle, and 1,100 more in the galleries, had been engaged that afternoon for a conjuring entertainment for school children by Mr. and Miss Fay, of the Tynemouth Aquarium. The prices of admission had been reduced to a penny for the gallery, and as a further incentive there was to be a distribution of prizes after the performance. All parts of the house, except the dress-circle, which Mr. Fay was not allowed to use, were in consequence well filled with children of all ages, from four to fourteen, but unfortunately without any one to control their movements. The entertainment had touched its close, and those in the gallery were beginning to descend, quickened by a cry that the prizes were being given away in the pit. Four flights of steps, with a sudden turn about half way, lead downwards to the basement, and at the foot of the third flight is a swinging door with a bolt which fastens in the ground. How this door, which had been open during the performance, was half closed and bolted at the finish, leaving only a space of 18 inches, or just enough for one person to pass, is still a mystery. However this may have happened, the foremost children seem to have fallen at the stair-foot, while those behind, unable to see what had happened by reason of the turn, kept pressing on, until the space behind the door became a wall-like mass of struggling bodies. The cries of the sufferers were unnoticed until The hall-keeper, going to the stair, was horrified to find the passage blocked with dead and dying, and the door itself fixed and immoveable. Making his way to the diess circle, and unlocking another door which opened on the staircase, he contrived to turn aside the still descending stream of children, and with the aid of a few volunteers, to whose numbers several doctors were soon added, proceeded to extricate the unhappy sufferers. The sight, as the bodies were tenderly laid out in rows upon the floor before removal to the hospital, was fairly heartrending. Some, and among them the youngest child of all, a boy not four years of age, appeared as though asleep ; but the swollen blackened faces and the torn clothes of most told tales of a terrible struggle, and rendered more than usually difficult the work of identification which now commenced as the distracted parents began to struggle into the hall. Including two deaths which have since occurred, the total of killed is now ascertained to be 182. The double inquests – for Sunderland is in two coroners’ districts – began on Monday, and have been adjourned till the 2nd of July, when permission will possibly be obtained from the Home Office to hold a single inquiry on the Sunderland side of the water, from which most of the victims come, and when the Coroner will have the help of  “a barrister or other expert” specially sent down by the Home Secretary to act as assessor on the occasion. The burial of the dead began on Tuesday, under a chill and clouded sky, with the interment of over eighty bodies in the three cemeteries belonging to the town, and in nearly all the factories work was suspended for the day. Letters and telegrams expressing sympathy with the parents, mostly members of the poorer classes, have ever since been pouring in, Her Majesty being, as usual, the first to send a message of sincere condolence ; and on Monday evening there was a preliminary meeting in the Sans Street Wesleyan Chapel to Provide assistance for those who needed it, and to commemorate the terrible disaster by the erection of some lasting memorial.

From a statement since made by Mr. C. Hesseltine, the man sent by Mr. Fay to distribute prizes on the stairs, it would seem that the existence of the fatal door was quite unknown to him until there came a block below where he was standing, and he heard voices crying, “We can’t get out.” The door, when he first saw it, was still moving, and with great exertions he contrived to reach it, and, with the aid of a workman, to pass several children through the opening. No fatality, he thinks, would have occurred, if he had known how the bolt was fastened, or if the door leading to the dress-circle had been left unlocked.

The Graphic, 23rd June 1883


Some 1500 children were packed into Sunderland’s Victoria Hall on June 16th 1883 to see what was promised to be “the greatest treat for children ever given”. They weren’t disappointed. Mr Fay delighted them with his conjuring tricks, talking puppets, and trained pigeons. If a cloud of smoke generated during one of the tricks caused some children to throw up, that was all part of the fun – the best was still to come: presents!

Advertisements for the event had promised “Every child entering the room will stand a chance of receiving a handsome present”. Mr Fay was as good as his word, and at the end of the performance he began to toss small gifts out into the excited audience. But there was a problem – all the presents were going into the stalls, the children sitting upstairs in the circle weren’t getting any. Anxious not to miss out, they bolted for the door and stampeded down the stairs…

Exactly what happened next is unclear. It appears that the doors at the foot of the stairs were at least partly bolted shut. Children at the front of the crowd fell over each other, and were crushed by the pressure of the eager horde behind. The whole landing was soon filled with a horrific mass of groaning, dying children.

The eventual death toll was 183: 114 boys and 69 girls, while a further hundred were injured. Some families lost all their children in the disaster. News of the gruesome event sent shock waves across Victorian Britain – the Queen sent a special message of condolence and a large fund was raised, part of which funded a monument that still stands to this day. Victoria Hall was destroyed by bombing in 1941, an unlamented reminder of that tragic July day.

Further Reading

Wikipedia Article

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Comments (8) »

  1. Tom McCaffrey
    In the year 2013, on the 6th day of August at 11:07 pm

    A shocking tragedy, which is probably still in the memories of many Sunderland families.

  2. Will
    In the year 2014, on the 13th day of January at 3:36 am

    “That about 200 children were launch’d into eternity”

    Surely the best-worst poetic metaphor in the history of the English language?

  3. Chris Hunt
    In the year 2014, on the 13th day of January at 8:33 am

    Read on, Will. There’s plenty more where that came from!

  4. Anthony Appleyard
    In the year 2015, on the 1st day of June at 5:55 am

    Remove the 2 advertisement links (for freezers and for showers). They are not fitting in a death memorial for so many this sad.

  5. Chris Hunt
    In the year 2015, on the 1st day of June at 2:43 pm

    The small amount of (I hope) unobtrusive advertising on each page helps to meet the costs of hosting of this website. Given the nature of McGonagall’s oeuvre, picking out the pages which describe tragedies and removing the ads from them would affect a large slice of the site and its funding!

  6. Oh dear
    In the year 2016, on the 20th day of April at 6:05 pm

    In my personal opinion, this one exceeds even “The Tay Bridge Disaster” as the most “gemological” of McGonagall’s works. “While the blood ran copiously from their mouths and ears” and the high-handed casualness of “I’m glad” and the abbreviated “50 pound,” the latter’s sting enhanced by making it have to be parsed and re-read aloud for the sake of the rhyme, make those two lines my favorite from the work…

  7. In the year 2016, on the 25th day of December at 7:30 pm

    […] The Sunderland Calamity […]

  8. In the year 2020, on the 13th day of January at 4:56 pm

    […] Once was to go for lunch with a friend. Afterwards we went for a walk around Mowbray Park and came across the statue erected to commemorate the Victoria Hall disaster. It’s a tragic tale but all it reminds me of is the poem William McGonagall wrote about the catastrophe. […]

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