The visit of travelling entertainers to any Victorian town always caused a ripple of excitement and it was no different when in June 1883 the Fay’s arrived in Sunderland. They were there to put on a show of puppetry, ventriloquism, and conjuring tricks for the local children. They were experienced entertainers and popular even if their shows in the past had brought complaints that the abundance of smoke they used in their illusions had caused children to be sick.
The show was to be held at the recently built Victoria Hall intended to be a centre of local activity its capacity of 2,500 was in fact far too large for the kind of events held there such as political rallies, religious gatherings, and Temperance Society Meetings as such it was rarely full and the proprietors were not used to dealing with large numbers; but with posters plastered throughout the city and tickets distributed to local schools within days 1,200 bookings had already been taken and it is estimated as many as 2,000 children attended the show on 16 June, 1883.
On the evening of the show the hall was packed with excited and expectant children mostly aged between 7 and 11 years unsupervised with few, parents present and younger children being taken care of by their older siblings.
The show had been going well with the children joining in with audible gasps of astonishment and collective sing-a-longs and the excitement intensified as the show neared its end when an announcement was made that as the children left their tickets would be checked and if they had the right number they would receive a gift. Mr Fay then thanked them for attending, asked them to come again, and began to distribute sweets from the stage.
The many children in the gallery believing they would miss out rushed for the stairs and crammed into the narrow hallway that led to the door which opened inwards onto the stairwell and had been locked slightly ajar to permit only one person to pass through at a time so tickets could be checked.
Those children who reached the door could not get through quick enough and as more and more joined the surge those at the front were pushed up tight against it. The screams of the children being crushed were at first mistaken for shrieks of excitement but as the reality of the tragedy that was emerging became clear some men desperately tried to push open the door but the weight of the crush was too great.
One of those the caretaker Frederick Graham unable to pull the children off one another or away from the door left the scene to intercept other children before they could join the surge leading them to an alternative exit where more than 600 were able to leave safely.
But by now the scene on the stairwell was one of horror as children who had stumbled were now trampled upon by those following behind and their pleas and cries for help were unbearable to hear but there was nothing anyone could do.
By the time help arrived and the door was removed from its hinges it was too late, and of the more than 600 children found jammed into the short narrow hallway 183 (114 boys and 69 girls) aged between 3 and 14 were found trampled, suffocated, or crushed to death and it was reported that at the door itself the bodies lay twenty deep.
The dead children were taken to the main hall of the theatre where they were lined up in neat rows as distraught relatives rushed to it from all around to begin an identification process that was so painful many parents recognising a scarf or a piece of clothing could not bear to look upon a deceased child they thought might be their own. A reporter who was present later described one incident:
"A man who was with his wife anxiously scanned the rows of dead children his face blanched but displaying little other emotion. He pointed to a little figure, that's one, he said. A few yards further and he pointed again, that's another. Then as he came to the last child in the row his composure broke and he burst into tears - Oh my God, all my family has gone."
A Relief Fund was established which raised more than £5,000 to pay for the many funerals that took place over the following weeks as the city of Sunderland was plunged into deep mourning with Queen Victoria personally donating £50. She also sent a letter of condolence to the families in which she quoted from the Bible (Luke 18:16):
“Suffer little children to come unto me, and forbid them not; such is the Kingdom of God.”
Many of the parents had the letter read out at their child’s funeral.
The Court of Inquiry following the tragedy, despite the great public outrage, did not hold anyone to blame for the tragedy but it did recommend that all public venues be fitted with outward opening emergency exits that must remain unlocked whilst the venue was in use. This resulted in the invention of the push bar operated door.
The Victoria Hall Tragedy was just one of many that blighted Victorian Britain such as the sinking of the Princess Alice, the collapse of the Tay Bridge, and the Oaks Colliery Disaster but the death of so many children made it particularly traumatic and it remains the worst of its kind in British history.
A memorial to its victims now stands in Sunderland’s Mowbray Park.