Today marks the 132nd anniversary of a Wearside tragedy which saw 183 children crushed to death in a stampede for free toys during a show at the Victoria Hall.
Much has been written about the disaster – one of the worst stampedes in history – but new light has now been shed on it by a descendant of a key figure.
“As a child I was told about the tragic deaths on June 16, 1883, during a performance by the Fays of Tynemouth,” said Meg Hartford, now of Nottingham.
“But years later, as I researched my Sunderland roots, I discovered that my great-great-uncle Frederick Graham was actually caretaker of the hall at the time.”
Frederick, son of Hallgarth Square Chapel Baptist minister Joseph Graham and his wife Mary Ann, was born in 1839 and worked in his father’s timber yard.
“Joseph helped build Hallgarth Chapel,” said Meg. “I suspect he had little income from his ministry, so he supported his family by teaching and business work.
As children rushed to claim a prize, so pressure from the crowd behind crushed many of them to death.Meg Hartford, great-great-niece.
“He’s listed as a timber merchant in the 1861 census, but his business went bankrupt after supplying a shipbuilder who failed to pay his bills. He died in 1862.”
Frederick was forced to find alternative employment following the bankruptcy and, by 1881, he was caretaker of the Victoria Hall – living on site with his family.
“He was taken on as hall-keeper when it opened in 1872,” said Meg. “This would explain the naming of his son Victor Hall Graham, as he was born there in 1873.”
On the morning of Saturday, June 16, 1883, Frederick met one of the stars, Alexander Fay, to talk about the event beforehand – then went about his business.
More than 2,000 children, most without chaperones, flocked to the festivities. Over 1,000 took their places in the gallery, with the rest in the stall seats.
“The show included talking waxworks, living marionettes and a Great Ghost Illusion. The young audience was apparently quite ‘lively’,” said Meg.
“The final trick involved Mr Fay producing toys from a hat. The gallery children were told they would receive theirs as they left the hall.
“This prompted a rush for the stairs. At the foot of the second flight was a strong swing door, designed to control the flow to the gallery pay gate.
“It was bolted slightly ajar, so one person at a time could enter. As children rushed to claim a prize, so pressure from the crowd behind crushed many of them.”
Frederick was moving youngsters out of the hall’s foyer at about 5pm when he saw one of Mr Fay’s assistants trying to pull crying children from behind the door. After trying, but failing, to remove the bolt, he quickly cut through the dress circle to approach from the other side –helping hundreds of children to escape.
“Several other men went with Frederick and began to carry the dead and injured out. Those who were alive were placed in the open air on the pavements,” said Meg.
Sunderland was left in mourning following the tragedy and, on the days of the funerals, most shipyards, shops and schools closed as mourners lined the streets.
As inquests into the deaths got underway so Alexander Fay, management staff and Frederick were all called to give evidence about what had caused the tragedy.
All denied any wrongdoing, and the bolted door was blamed.
“I thought Frederick was going to be wholly blamed. It seemed he stood alone against the evidence of other people,” said Meg.
“But I was much heartened to find he had actually been honoured at a ceremony held in the Central Coffee Tavern in High Street on May 21, 1884.
“The Mayor made a presentation to him in recognition of his services during the disaster, and spoke about his diligence to duty as well.
“In response to this, Frederick said he was proud to receive such a testimonial, but no man regretted more the circumstances which brought it about.
Frederick continued as caretaker of the hall for several years but, with the tragedy weighing heavily on him, he eventually sought other work.
“When Frederick died in 1910 the Echo carried a special tribute to him, as he had been held in high esteem.” added Meg.
l Meg can be contacted on: firstname.lastname@example.org