Memorial service honours the 183 children who died in one of Sunderland's greatest tragedies

The 183 children who died in one of Sunderland’s greatest tragedies have been honoured in a memorial service.

Thursday, 17th June 2021, 2:11 pm
The Victoria Hall Memorial service

Due to the pandemic, this year’s Victoria Hall Memorial Service had to be scaled down, but Sunderland Old Township Heritage Society (SOTHS) were still able to hold a small service to mark one of the city's darkest hours.

On June 16, 1883, 183 children were crushed to death at a stampede for toys in a tragic accident which shocked the world and scarred a whole generation of Wearsiders.

The youngsters had been enjoying a children’s entertainment show at Victoria Hall which once stood in Toward Road. At the end of the show, an announcement was made that children with certain numbered tickets would get a prize. Worried about missing out, many of the estimated 1,100 children in the gallery stampeded toward the staircase leading downstairs.

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The Victoria Hall in Toward Road, city centre, remained in place until 1941

At the bottom of the staircase, the door opened inward and had been bolted so as to leave a gap only wide enough for one child to pass at a time. Those at the front became trapped and were crushed to death by the weight of the crowd.

It was a horrific accident which wiped out a generation of children in the then town, with some families losing two or more children. At the time, Queen Victoria sent a message of condolence to the grieving families and contributed to a disaster fund, which was used to help build the memorial in Mowbray Park.

This week, as they do on June 16 each year, members of SOTHS gathered at the memorial, joined by the Mayor of Sunderland, Harry Trueman, to make sure the city never forgets the lives lost.

Pauline Hilton, treasurer with SOTHS, said: “The gathering was important because, after a traumatic year due to the pandemic, we were able to find some normality taking part in this poignant community event, remembering the Victoria Hall the disaster, but also because we could, in some small way, identify with the families who experienced this tragedy through our shared losses.”

A small scale ceremony was held this year. Photo by Michael Lynch.

The Reverend Ian Davies officiated at the service and spoke of the traumatic time the families of 1883 went through and spoke of individual losses at that

time, while tying up with the trauma and loss families are experiencing now with the Covid Pandemic.

Bill Dove provided the floral tribute as always and he laid the flowers in the absence of a class of school children this year. Raymond Davison the founder of the event was there as always, with other members of SOTHS and Councillors representing Hendon and also representatives of other local parties.

The devastating Victoria Hall incident led to safety measures which are still in place today.

The Reverend Ian Davies officiated at the service. Photo by Michael Lynch

Following the tragedy, a Sunderland trainee architect, Robert Alexander Briggs, patented the new push bar release that we see on fire exits now and the accident prompted the passing of legislation to provide doors which opened outwards at all places of public entertainment.

It remains the worst incident of its kind in British history. The Victoria Hall remained in use until 1941 when it was destroyed by a German parachute bomb.

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Photo by Michael Lynch
The Victoria Hall Memorial in Mowbray Park