There’s nothing that causes greater grief than the death of a child, which made events at Sunderland’s Victoria Hall on a June afternoon in 1883 truly horrifying. The hall was hosting a children’s variety show put on by Mr. Fay, who billed the performance as ‘The Greatest Treat For Children Ever Given’ and promised that every child would have the chance of receiving a gift after the show.
Two thousand children paid their penny and packed in, half upstairs and half down. They were entranced by the entertainment, not least when the climax just after five o’clock saw Mr. Fay magically producing pigeons that were allowed to fly free. But the best was yet to come. True to his word, Mr. Fay and his assistants started throwing small presents, resulting in a frantic scrum in the stalls.
Those in the gallery watched the excitement below with increasing dismay. Treats should have been distributed upstairs, but this was badly organized and eager youngsters assumed the tempting action was downstairs. There was a stampede for the staircase, but the inward-opening door at the bottom had been bolted in a position that only allowed one child at a time to pass, a fact that would have disastrous consequences.
A crush occurred at the bottom of the staircase. In moments, a tightly packed mass of children eight or ten deep piled up, compressed by the weight of those pressing from above. When order was eventually restored, the scale of the tragedy became apparent. Nearly 200 children between the ages of three and 14 had died from compressive asphyxia, most aged seven to ten. The scenes as frantic parents scanned long rows of small bodies, many mangled, were unbelievably harrowing. Some families lost all their young ones and the whole town went into mourning.
When: June 16 1883
Where: Sunderland, County Durham (now iyne and wear), UK
Death toll: 183 children (114 boys and 69 girls), with around 100 more injured, some seriously.
You should know: Public outrage at the Victoria Hall tragedy led to a new law requiring public venues to be fitted with an adequate number of emergency exits that opened outwards, resulting in the development of the type of push-bar doors that are still in widespread use in Britain today.