A ceremony will be held this Sunday to mark the 130th anniversary of a Wearside tragedy. Today we look back at one of the worst stampedes in history.
“Don’t let go of my hand, as someone is standing upon my face,” whispered the six-year-old. Minutes later he was pulled from a heap of bodies – one of 183 youngsters to die in a stampede for toys.
“The variety show at the Victoria Hall on June 16, 1883, was billed as the ‘Greatest Treat for Children Ever Given’,” said Rob Hope, chairman of Sunderland Old Township Heritage Society.
“But it became one of the worst catastrophes involving children the world would ever witness. It is very important we never forget those who perished on that day.”
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.
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.
“Children made up most of the audience, and what excited them most was the pledge that every one of them stood a chance of receiving a handsome present,” said local historian Carol Roberton.
“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. “The heap became higher and higher, until it became a mass of dying children over six feet in height.”
A few lucky youngsters, including Charlie Dixon’s older brother Alfie, were pulled to safety through the gap by the first rescuers on the scene.
Eleven-year-old survivor George Graham, of Hedworth Street – the first boy to run down the stairs before the crush – told the Echo: “When I got to the door, I found it was fast.
“I took my little brother in my arms and went upstairs again as fast as I could. I set my brother on a windowsill and so saved our lives. I stopped there a long time.”
William Codling, another survivor, added: “Suddenly I felt I was treading on someone on the stairs and I cried in horror to those behind ‘Keep back, keep back!’
“It was no use. I passed slowly over and onwards with the mass and before long I passed over others without emotion.”
Survivors, however, were a rarity and the disaster left Sunderland in mourning. Many families lost two or more children, and all 30 from one Sunday School party were killed.
“The battered bodies of the young victims were laid out at the Mowbray Park Hotel, as well as in the park grounds, for identification by anguished parents,” said Carol.
“In one case, a little girl was stopped as she walked along Tatham Street, carrying her dead sister home. A passer-by called for a cab and paid for it.”
No-one was ever blamed for the bolting of the door, despite two inquests being held, although a lack of caretakers to “preserve order” was criticised by officials.
The tragedy did, however, prompt new laws on providing doors which opened outwards at all places of public entertainment – rules that still remain in place today.
“Our society covers old Sunderland, an area where many of the children who died in the disaster lived. All our members believe it is important to keep their memories alive,” said Rob.
l A Commemoration Service for the Victoria Hall disaster will take place at Mowbray Park this Sunday, June 16, at 2pm.
The service has been organised by Sunderland Old Town Heritage Society, and will be conducted by Father Andrew, of St Ignatius Church, Hendon.
An open invitation has been issued to all Wearsiders to attend, and the service will include the laying of a wreath at the disaster memorial in Mowbray Park – close to the old Mowbray Hotel.