New-fangled cinematography was still a great novelty in 1908, so the youngsters who trooped towards Barnsley Public Hall one Saturday afternoon that January were in a state of high excitement. The boys and girls who hurried along the town’s Eldon Street were looking forward to a cinematographic display and children’s variety show mounted by the World’s Animated Picture Company that would cost them a then-not-inconsiderable penny apiece. But despite the price there were plenty of takers.
As the hall started to fill, a voice was heard to shout ‘Fire’. This may have been as a result of a genuine belief that there was a fire in the building – though in fact there wasn’t – but a more likely explanation is that it was some over-excited individual’s misplaced idea of a joke. Whatever the reason for this alarming cry, the immediate consequences proved to be tragic.
A disorderly stampede ensued, as panic-stricken children sought to escape from the imagined threat. Most of the assembling audience managed to reach the open air with no more harm done than assorted minor cuts and bruises. But that would not be the case for some of those already upstairs, and youngsters who were still trying to ascend the narrow staircase leading to the gallery.
Wrongly assuming they were in mortal danger, children from the gallery rushed downstairs and thereby actually put themselves in harm’s way. They met those coming up who had no idea that anything was wrong and tumbled over them – a head-on collision that created a fatal crush in the confined space. When the panic subsided and order was restored, rescuers were horrified to discover that 16 children aged between four and nine had died from asphyxia, after the weight of pressing bodies compressed their lungs.
When: January 11 1908
Where: Barnsley, South Yorkshire, UK
Death toll: 16 (all children)
You should know: The Barnsley Public Hall is now the town’s Civic Hall. A commemorative plaque listing the names and ages of victims was recently unveiled by the mayor following a major refurbishment, serving as a reminder of how deeply a tragedy that has never been forgotten affected the people of Barnsley.