Sunderland remembers loss of 183 young lives in Victoria Hall disaster

Victoria Hall Memorial service in Mowbray Park.
Pupils from Hudson Road Primary School
Victoria Hall Memorial service in Mowbray Park. Pupils from Hudson Road Primary School
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A moving ceremony was held to remember one of the darkest hours in Sunderland’s history.

On June 16, 1883, hundreds of children gathered at the Victoria Hall in Toward Road for a variety show billed as the ‘Greatest Treat for Children Ever Given.’

Victoria Hall Memorial service in Mowbray Park.
Father Andrew of St Ignatius Church and Sunderland mayor Alan Emerson

Victoria Hall Memorial service in Mowbray Park. Father Andrew of St Ignatius Church and Sunderland mayor Alan Emerson

But 183 children would never return home after perishing in a stampede for toys.

It became one of the worst catastrophes in the world involving children, which left Sunderland in mourning and changed laws around exit and fire doors in public buildings.

Today, Father Andrew from St Ignatius Church led the annual service at the Victoria Hall statue in Mowbray Park to remember the victims, which was attended by Mayor of Sunderland, coun Alan Emerson, as well as city dignitaries.

Children from Hudson Road Primary also attended the service, organised by Sunderland Old Township Heritage Society (SOTHS), to honour the dead.

Victoria Hall Memorial service in Mowbray Park.
Pupils from Hudson Road Primary School

Victoria Hall Memorial service in Mowbray Park. Pupils from Hudson Road Primary School

Pauline Hilton, treasurer of SOTHS, said: “The annual service has been held since 2008 to remember this tragedy which scarred Sunderland. So many families were affected by this tragedy. Even Queen Victoria donated £50 to the disaster fund, as she was so moved by it.

“Researching my personal history, I discovered that my uncle had been in the hall at the time but he was one of the lucky ones, he escaped.”

Coun Alan Emerson said: “I knew about the Victoria Hall disaster but reading up on it again really brings home just how awful it was, the sheer terror those children must have felt as they were trampled.

“It’s so important that Sunderland marks this event. It’s a sad occasion, but it’s part of our rich history and heritage.”

Victoria Hall Memorial service in Mowbray Park.

Victoria Hall Memorial service in Mowbray Park.

Subsequent inquests into the tragedy went on to prompt new laws on providing doors which opened outwards at all places of public entertainment – rules that still remain in place today.

The Victoria Hall remained in use until 1941 when it was destroyed by a German parachute bomb.

Bright skies and warm sunshine greeted conjurer Alexander Fay and his “enchantress” sister Annie – known as The Fays of Tynemouth – as they arrived at the Victoria Hall for their performance on June 16, 1883.

Promises of talking waxworks, living marionettes, conjuring and a “Great Ghost Illusion” had sparked a huge demand for seats, with some 2,000 sold for the afternoon show.

Victoria Hall Memorial service in Mowbray Park.
Father Andrew of St Ignatius Church

Victoria Hall Memorial service in Mowbray Park. Father Andrew of St Ignatius Church

Only a few adults had been able to afford tickets for themselves, and so no-one was there to restrain the happy youngsters who raced from the gallery to try and win a new toy.

Tragically, a door at the bottom of the stairs from the gallery had been bolted ajar, leaving just enough space – 22 inches – for one person to squeeze through at a time.

Within seconds, the gap was choked. The once-laughing, once-smiling, youngsters were reduced to a writhing heap of humanity – 183 of whom were destined to die.

“Children tumbled head over heels,” reported the Echo at the time. “The heap became higher and higher, until it became a mass of dying children over six feet in height.”

Victoria Hall, Toward Road

Victoria Hall, Toward Road

A drawing from the time depicting the disaster

A drawing from the time depicting the disaster