Exeter Theatre Royal Fire
In spite of the previous Exeter Theatre Royal having burned down just two years previously, lessons had not been learned when it came to fire precautions and design for its replacement. Additionally, though the architect Charles Phipps was a specialist in the construction of theatres who had contracted to include the latest safety measures in his plans, he seems to have skimped when it came to the building stage.
The design produced by Phipps was deeply flawed in various ways - a crazy lack of exits; spiral staircases partly blocking corridors; no fire escapes for those on upper floors. For all this the eventual coroner's jury verdict on the disaster was accidental death.
On the night of September 5 1887 the theatre was hosting a performance of Romany Rye, a romantic drama that required many scene changes, thus many curtain backdrops were crowding the flies. To make matters worse, there were backdrops in place ready for the forthcoming panto season. When the gas lighting in the area set one of these backdrops alight a terrible and rapid fire began.
There were between 800 and 900 in the theatre that night. Some 186 people died: many were crushed in the rush to the few exits; some died jumping from high balconies to the streets below; and most horrifically of all those at the rear of the jammed mass fighting to get out of the gallery were burned to death.
The West of England Insurance Company fire engine Little West attended the fire, but water was ineffective against the inferno. A local hero emerged from the tragedy, Robert Pople, who was the landlord of a pub nearby, the New London Inn. Pople brought ladders to the scene and rescued many who were stuck on the roof of a high portico.
Most of the victims were buried in a mass grave at Higher Cemetery in Exeter , but only 68 bodies could be recovered of the 186 known to have perished.
This disaster was one of the events that led to drastic changes in fire regulations and the design of public buildings, and it was also notable for the reaction of the British public, who donated more than £20,000 to support the injured and the families of those who died.
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