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 very popular even if their shows in the past had brought complaints that the abundance of smoke they used in their illusions had caused many children to be sick.
Tickets were distributed to local schools and sales were good and by the night of the show on 16 June more than 1,200 had been sold and the hall was packed with excited and expectant children but the show was largely unsupervised with many parents not attending instead allowing their younger children to be taken to the event 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.
Children who had stumbled were now trampled upon by those following behind and the cries and pleas of the children 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 Relief Fund was established to pay for the many funerals that took place over the following weeks as the city of Sunderland was plunged into deep mourning.
Queen Victoria personally donated £50 to the fund and 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 have been responsible but 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 remains the worst of its kind in British history and a memorial to its victims now stands in Sunderland’s Mowbray Park.