Remembering the Victoria Hall Disaster: A Sunderland Tragedy

At the end of the 19th century, a tragedy occurred within the town of Sunderland which was amongst one of the worst ever seen in Britain, one with lasting significance. On the 16th June, families received devastating news that their children had perished in what would become known as the “Victoria Hall disaster”- a stampede and crush which claimed the lives of over 183 children.

What was Victoria Hall? And where was it?

Sunderland’s Victoria Hall was a masterful structure. An impressive gothic building standing on the periphery of the town’s Mowbray Park, it towered above the rest of the area. As a concert hall, it hosted shows and events. On 16th June 1883, a children’s variety show was being held at the venue being hosted by “The Fays”, a travelling entertainment act from Tynemouth. Mr and Mrs Fay promised that every child who saw the show would receive a present, an incredible thing to receive for children at the time who were largely impoverished.

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How did the tragedy of the Victoria Hall disaster happen?

The show went on without any hitches till the end. Then at the epilogue, prizes were being thrown into the audience on the ground floor. Over 1000 children were sitting up in the galleries and they didn’t want to miss out, the distribution saw them pile downstairs. During this time, backdoors were designed to open inwards. The management of the hall had bolted the door shut leaving a small hole for one child at a time to pass through, this was to check they had the correct tickets.

However in the stampede downstairs, one of the children got jammed in the door leading to a catastrophic pile up behind, unaware of the situation they continued to surge forwards quickly creating a crush which led many of them to suffocate. Caretaker, Frederick Graham tried to free some of the children but was unsuccessful so he lead over 600 children out of another exit. Once adults learnt what had happened, they tried to clear the staircase by pulling the children through the small gap.

The outcome produced the loss of 183 children aged 3-14. 114 boys and 69 girls, with the cause of death was asphyxia. This saw some families lose all of their children. One survivor, William Codling recalled the events in 1894.

“Then the pressure above began to lessen, a report spread that the toys were being distributed in the gallery and those behind having made a feeble rush upwards, back we tottered across that path of death. At the first landing we were met by some men and taken out of doors into the open air, where was assembled a crowd of frightened people drawn together by wild rumours. Soon men began to come down the steps bearing in their arms lifeless burdens, and from the crowd came a wail of grief, while some of them ran off to tell the terrible news which unnerved the whole town, and which in a few hours sent a thrill of horror through the whole of Britain. I had not thought the affair was serious and now I looked on spellbound as body after body was brought out and laid in a row upon the pavement. One woman, I remember, came out carrying a child which she had gone in to seek while behind her came a sympathetic man bearing another. The woman came down the steps with agonised face and disheveled hair and shouted fiercely to the crowd “Get back! Get back! and let them have air.” “Ah! my good woman,” said the man who bore her other burden, while tears rolled down his cheeks, “Ah! they will never need air more.””

News of the tragedy spread across the country in local newspapers, a fundraiser went out which saw £6000 pounds (roughly £700,000 in today’s money) raised for the families of the victims. The Victoria Hall Disaster Memorial was later constructed in Bishopwearmouth cemetery, before being restored and moved to Mowbray Park. The legal consequences of the event were significant and lasting, a law was passed in parliament mandating all entertainment venues to have sufficient exits, as well as mandating all emergency exists to open outwardly to avoid crush and stampede scenarios. However, nobody was prosecuted for the disaster and the person responsible for bolting the door was never identified.

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Victoria Hall itself however did not stand the test of time. The building was bombed in 1941 by the Germans and completely destroyed beyond all repair. Its remains were demolished, but nevertheless the legacy of what happened there lives on in Sunderland’s memory and never may it be forgotten.