In the 19th century the Victoria Hall facing Mowbray Park in Sunderland was a popular venue for public meetings and entertainment. The large hall offered seating on the ground floor, the first floor, the dress circle and the gallery.
On 16 June 1883 at 3p.m. approximately 2000 children between the ages of 4 and 13 years gathered to see a show by travelling entertainers from Tynemouth Aquarium. It had been advertised as the Greatest Treat for Children Ever Given and offered free presents to ticket holders with the winning lottery numbers.
These gifts were being handed out on the ground floor and eager not to miss out a mass of children began to stream down a narrow winding stairway 6 feet wide which descended from the gallery to an exit door that had been wedged open and bolted into the floor to facilitate ticket redemption and restrict passage of children one at a time. However, the surge of children knocked over those in front while the ones behind continued to push forward. The children at the bottom of the stairs were crushed and trampled. Records show a total of 202 children were asphyxiated in the tragedy. A hundred more were injured.
A few of those who were lost included an entire Bible class of 30 children from a local Sunday school, and the Vills family who lost four children. Catherine Richmond, aged 7 years, survived the disaster but died from fright immediately following.
Ann Milner Pringle was 9 years old and her sister Margaret Pringle aged 7 years old.
In affectionate remembrance of Ann Milner Pringle aged 9 years and Margaret Milner Pringle aged 7 years, who lost their lives in the Victoria Hall catastrophe June 16th 1883. Symbolism of the fern on the gravestone represents new life.
William Johnson aged 10 years.
Not my will Lord but thine be done. In remembrance of William, the beloved son of William & Elizabeth Johnson, who met with his death at the Victoria Hall, June 16th 1883, aged 10 years & 9 months. Symbolism of two birds is eternal life, and the lily represents innocence and purity.
Eliza Halliman aged 9 years.
Beloved daughter of John and Mary Ann Halliman who departed this life through the fatal Disaster at the Victoria Hall, June 16th, 1883, aged 9 years. In the midst of life we are in death.
The janitor and several adults made an attempt to rescue the crushed children and redirect others to another exit. The bodies were laid in the ground floor of the hall where doctors tried to resuscitate. The streets filled with families and onlookers. The screams of terrified parents were silenced an hour later when a procession of cabs transported families with their dead children back to their homes.
Those who were lucky to survive include Maggie Gills who clung to a handrail which saved her from certain death. Inez Coe who was handicapped managed to wedge her crutch across the angle of the wall thus preventing her from being crushed. Eleven year old George Graham was the first boy to run down the stairs before the crush. He 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.”
“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.”
National and international newspapers ran the story. Queen Victoria sent a message of condolence sating that ‘her heart bleeds for the sufferings of the many bereaved parents, and she prays God to support them in their terrible distress.’
All homes closed their drapes and local businesses closed as a mark of respect as the children were buried over the following four days. A memorial fund, a donation by Queen Victoria and public donations from all over the country paid for the funerals, and the remaining balance was to be used to purchase a memorial. The dead were buried in Bishopwearmouth Cemetery, Mere Knolls Cemetery, Holy Trinity Churchyard, and Sunderland Cemetery where the graves were dug in three rows the centre of which was reserved for placement of a memorial.
A memorial of a life size white marble statue depicting a grieving mother holding her dead child was erected in Mowbray Park. It was later moved to Bishopwearmouth Cemetery where it gradually fell into disrepair, and was vandalised. In 2002 the marble statue was restored and returned to Mowbray Park with a protective canopy.
Two inquiries were held but no one was held accountable. As a result of the disaster Parliament passed a law that required all entertainment venues to have bar-operated exit doors that open outwards. This law is still in effect today. The hall remained open for decades after but was destroyed by a German bomb in 1941.
The following links give detailed reports of the accident from newspapers in London, England; New York Times, USA; and Lauceston, Tasmania.
London Times newspaper reports of the inquiry results: http://www.searlecanada.org/sunderland/images/londontimes2.jpg
A poem written by William McGonagall:
The Sunderland Calamity
’Twas in the town of Sunderland, and in the year of 1883,
That about 200 children were launch’d into eternity
While witnessing an entertainment in Victoria Hall,
While they, poor little innocents, to God for help did call.
The entertainment consisted of conjuring, and the ghost illusion play,
Also talking waxworks, and living marionettes, and given by Mr. Fay;
And on this occasion, presents were to be given away,
But in their anxiety of getting presents they wouldn’t brook delay,
And that is the reason why so many lives have been taken away;
But I hope their precious souls are in heaven to-day.
As soon as the children began to suspect
That they would lose their presents by neglect,
They rush’d from the gallery, and ran down the stairs pell-mell,
And trampled one another to death, according as they fell.
As soon as the catastrophe became known throughout the boro’
The people’s hearts were brim-full of sorrow,
And parents rush’d to the Hall terror-stricken and wild,
And each one was anxious to find their own child.
Oh! it must have been a most horrible sight
To see the dear little children struggling with all their might
To get out at the door at the foot of the stair,
While one brave little boy did repeat the Lord’s Prayer.
The innocent children were buried seven or eight layers deep,
The sight was heart-rending and enough to make one weep;
It was a most affecting spectacle and frightful to behold
The corpse of a little boy not above four years old,
Who had on a top-coat much too big for him,
And his little innocent face was white and grim,
And appearing to be simply in a calm sleep-
The sight was enough to make one’s flesh to creep.
The scene in the Hall was heart-sickening to behold,
And enough to make one’s blood run cold.
To see the children’s faces, blackened, that were trampled to death,
And their parents lamenting o’er them with bated breath.
Oh! it was most lamentable for to hear
The cries of the mothers for their children dear;
And many mothers swooned in grief away
At the sight of their dead children in grim array.
There was a parent took home a boy by mistake,
And after arriving there his heart was like to break
When it was found to be the body of a neighbour’s child;
The parent stood aghast and was like to go wild.
A man and his wife rush’d madly in the Hall,
And loudly in grief on their children they did call,
And the man searched for his children among the dead
Seemingly without the least fear or dread.
And with his finger pointing he cried. “That’s one! two!
Oh! heaven above, what shall I do;”
And still he kept walking on and murmuring very low.
Until he came to the last child in the row;
Then he cried, “Good God! all my family gone
And now I am left to mourn alone;”
And staggering back he cried, “Give me water, give me water!”
While his heart was like to break and his teeth seem’d to chatter.
Oh, heaven! it must have been most pitiful to see
Fathers with their dead children upon their knee
While the blood ran copiously from their mouths and ears
And their parents shedding o’er them hot burning tears.
I hope the Lord will comfort their parents by night and by day,
For He gives us life and He takes it away,
Therefore I hope their parents will put their trust in Him,
Because to weep for the dead it is a sin.
Her Majesty’s grief for the bereaved parents has been profound,
And I’m glad to see that she has sent them £50;
And I hope from all parts of the world will flow relief
To aid and comfort the bereaved parents in their grief.