Sunderland falls silent to remember 183 children killed at Victoria Hall disaster

Annual Victoria Hall Memorial service.
 Mayor Doris MacKnight, Reverend Ian Davies and consort Keith MacKnight
Annual Victoria Hall Memorial service. Mayor Doris MacKnight, Reverend Ian Davies and consort Keith MacKnight
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One hundred and 83 children crushed to death in a tragedy which scarred Sunderland were honoured today in a moving ceremony.

Local schoolchildren and dignitaries were among those who gathered at the Victoria Hall memorial in Mowbray Park to mark the day, on June 16 1883, when a generation of children lost their lives in a stampede for free toys at the old theatre venue in Toward Road.

Annual Victoria Hall Memorial service.
Mayor Doris MacKnight, Reverend Ian Davies and consort Keith MacKnight

Annual Victoria Hall Memorial service. Mayor Doris MacKnight, Reverend Ian Davies and consort Keith MacKnight

What happened on that tragic day, in which some families lost two or more children, changed building regulations and prompted the passing of legislation to provide doors which opened outwards at all places of public entertainment.

Scores gathered at the annual memorial, organised by Sunderland Old Township Heritage Society (SOTHS), which was attended by pupils from Grangetown Primary School and Hudson Road Primary School.

Pauline Hilton, treasurer with the society, said this year’s service had extra resonance in light of this week’s tragedy in Grenfell Tower in which an as yet unconfirmed number of people perished in a blaze.

“This service has always been about 21st century children remembering those killed in a nineteenth century tragedy,” explained Pauline. “That tragedy led to lives being saved due to changes in building regulations and this week we had the awful incident in Grenfell Tower which may also lead to that.”

Annual Victoria Hall Memorial service.
Grange Town Primary children with Mayor Doris MacKnight, Reverend Ian Davies and consort Keith MacKnight

Annual Victoria Hall Memorial service. Grange Town Primary children with Mayor Doris MacKnight, Reverend Ian Davies and consort Keith MacKnight

Reverend Ian Davies, the vicar at Whitburn Parish Church, who lives in Hendon, conducted a service at the foot of the memorial and prayers were said, along with a minute’s silence, for the victims of both tragedies.

As well as a specially-written song, performed by Donnison School Community Singers, the service featured candle holders from a glass installation which will be in place at Sunderland Minster for the next ten days.

Artist Lyn Killeen worked with local groups and schoolchildren, in conjunction with Living History North East, as part of the Silent Voices project to individually decorate 183 holders and inscribe them with the names of each of the children that died at Victoria Hall.

Pauline said: “Each year the service grows and grows and this year was a real community-wide effort.”

Annual Victoria Hall Memorial service.
Mayor Doris MacKnight

Annual Victoria Hall Memorial service. Mayor Doris MacKnight

The service was set up seven years ago by SOTHS member Raymond Davison who felt that one of the city’s greatest tragedies should be remembered.

He said: “People are still so moved by what happened that day all these years later and it’s only right that the victims be remembered. It’s amazing to see all these people come along, including the mayor, to honour them.”

Annual Victoria Hall Memorial service.
grange Town Primary school pupil

Annual Victoria Hall Memorial service. grange Town Primary school pupil

The candle holders bearing the names of the dead

The candle holders bearing the names of the dead

The Victoria Hall Memorial in Mowbray Park

The Victoria Hall Memorial in Mowbray Park

The old Victoria Hall which was destroyed in WWII

The old Victoria Hall which was destroyed in WWII

Annual Victoria Hall Memorial service.

Annual Victoria Hall Memorial service.

Annual Victoria Hall Memorial service.

Annual Victoria Hall Memorial service.