| The Theatre Royal in Exeter is destroyed by fire.
150 years ago saw one of Britain's worst theatre disasters. Even though the
jury reported a verdict of accidental death, was the architect
On the evening
of the September 5 1887, an audience of more than 800 was present for
the opening night of 'Romany Rye at the Theatre Royal in
Exeter. But during the fourth Act a fire started on stage.
darkness quickly filled the theatre and it developed into one of the worst
fire disasters of 19th century Britain.
Up in the
flys, the area above the stage where sets are rigged and operated, naked
gas jets used to illuminate the stage, set drapes alight.
Theatre Royal opened less than a year before the disastrous fire
The theatre was on fire very quickly. The death toll was said to be around 150, mainly from
the upper gallery from where there was only one exit, with a ticket office
blocking the route halfway down. It was a dreadful night, despite the
many desperately heroic acts of bravery.
Royal of Exeter had opened less that a year before the disaster. It was
designed by one of the most respected theatre architect of the time, Charles
was destroyed, but since that date, stringent safety regulations have
been in force in British theatres.
The Home Office in the introduction
to its "Manual of Safety Requirements in Theatres and Other Places
of Public Entertainment" (1934) explained that its recommendations
were based on experience of disasters at home and abroad. Nine fires were
highlighted including the 1887 fire at the Theatre Royal, Exeter.
Inquiry headed by Captain Eyre Shaw was launched
headed by Captain Eyre Shaw was launched. At the end of the inquiry, the
unusual large jury of 21, returned an unanimous verdict of accidental
death. Captain Shaw handed his report to the House of Parliament on the
29 September 1887.
It is reported
that Charles Phipps statement during the inquiry was vigorous and
bold. He was sarcastic, particularly to those who did not appear
to understand the subject as well as himself. Could he be responsible
for the death of 150 people?
Inquest it emerged that when Charles Phipps designed the theatre he agreed
to comply to the latest safety regulations even though they were not mandatory
at the time.
The evidence was shown to a fire safety expert. Expert opinion says that
looking at the evidence, the design was probably to blame. Charles Phipps,
the architect, deceived his client and there is evidence of considerable
changes in the plans during the theatres construction.
is still recognised as a great architect, a Victorian theatre specialist,
an authority in his field. He was involved in the construction
or alteration of over 20 theatres including the Theatre Royal on Londons
side of this tragedy was that fire regulations became stricter after the
event and safety devices such as the fire curtain were introduced in all