The Exeter Theatre Fire is a fascinating insight into the events that led up to the disaster at the Theatre Royal, Exeter, on the night of September 5th 1887. The book details what went wrong, from blatant mismanagement to chemical naivety of the day – all contributing factors to the catastrophe -– and what lessons were learned from this event. Much of what was discovered and recommended in Captain Shaw’s report of the fire is the basis behind modern fire regulations for places of public entertainment that are still in force today.
No single problem or event caused the disaster but a catalogue of circumstances is detailed throughout the narrative of the book. The reader is taken on a journey through the design and building of the theatre as well as its management strategy. There are details described that the modern-day reader knows are a recipe for disaster, yet turn the page and another horrifying fact is revealed. This is a good historical reference work, but also a thoroughly readable story frightening only in that it was allowed to happen.
Theatre historian David Anderson compiled the work in 1987 whilst working as a technical advisor for TSW’s documentary on the fire but he sadly died before the work was published.
David Wilmore took on the completion of this project as a tribute to Anderson’s endeavours and research into this important part of theatrical history. ETP is pleased to present The Exeter Theatre Fire as the first book in the Historical Series.
The Exeter theatre fire is a well-known catastrophe in British theatre history because the ensuing fire officer’s report by Captain Eyre Shaw of the London Fire Brigade instigated rules, regulations and recommendations for fire prevention measures which were the first of their kind, and many of which are still in force today.
The event has been documented in various formats and in fact David Anderson’s book is the result of research on the subject that went into the making of a TSW documentary in 1987 marking the 100th anniversary of the catastrophe.
The performance of The Romany Rye on September 5th, 1887 appears to have been one of those first-nights-from-hell – full of technical hitches and improvised gap-filling by the actors. All this of course adding to the enjoyment of a Victorian audience relishing in this pantomime of ineptitude. Until that is, the act-drop covering yet another technical hitch: “billowed forward like a sail, revealing to the horrified audience a veritable inferno backstage.” The audience turned and fled.
The following morning the building was completely gutted and the final death count was around 192, although an accurate final figure could never be calculated as many of the bodies trapped on a staircase were so badly disintegrated by the heat that it was impossible to marry-up the various body parts. So how could such a catastrophe have occurred, and how could it have been so sudden and so devastating?
That of course is all discussed in The Exeter Theatre Fire, and is why I found it so fascinating – because although there was only one source of fire, there were multiple contributory factors to the spread of the fire and the efficacy of the escape routes provided for both public and performers.
Who was to blame? This was a major case of corporate negligence – poor design, bad management, cost-cutting during building, over-crowding, etc. But this is historical and the Victorian gentlemen involved in the project did not have the knowledge that we have today. Reading the book a century on from the event, it’s easy to sit back and think how easily this tragedy could have been prevented; yet still the narrative had me gasping things like: “how
could they be so stupid!” As you read the book, you just know that the backstage window repaired with canvas and not glass will create a draft to fan the flames; you know that the accumulation of hot gasses trapped by the poorly-ventilated auditorium ceiling is liable to explode; you know that a wooden staircase will give way from the heat and flames; you know that the combination of cutting an emergency exit from the original design combined with the over-crowding of the cheap-seats (a common Victorian practice) would lead to trapped and trampled bodies… yet still it happened.
So what actually started the fire? Quite simply a piece of scenery in the over-crowded grid brushed against a naked gas flame – the accepted method of stage illumination at the time.
Jackie Staines, Focus