The Glen Cinema Disaster – Scotland’s forgotten tragedy
By Andy Twaddle, Director and Nadine Lee, Researcher
It was the afternoon of Hogmanay 1929. Seven-year old Robert Pope and his friends headed for Paisley’s Glen Cinema. It was a regular treat which Robert funded himself by selling empty jelly jars. That winters day they were looking forward to the latest instalment of their favourite Western.
It’s thought that between seven hundred and 1,000 children packed into the auditorium, no-one knows the exact number. Robert and seven of his friends settled along a single row of seats.
As the film reached a crescendo, the film operator spotted a reel of nitrocellulose film which had begun to smoulder. He tried to smother the highly flammable film but the container sprang open, and smoke billowed into the packed auditorium.
When somebody shouted ‘fire!’, panic set in, and the terrified crowd of children rushed for the exits. Most of the children inside stampeded towards the escape door which led to Dyers Wynd.
Tragically the doors were locked, and only opened inward. There was no fire, but the panic that arose in confusion took the lives of seventy one children that day.
“You’ll no get any more pictures the day. You get home to your mother, and be quick about it.”On the scene fireman
As for Robert, he described being taken over by a ‘guardian angel’ which told him to stay quietly seated while terror engulfed the cinema around him. He doesn’t know how long he was seated for, but remembers being woken by the words of a fireman who tapped him on the shoulder.
Robert ran all the way home to his home on Maxwell Street, just in time to meet his mother who had just heard the news about the cinema. She was putting on her coat while rushing out the door as Robert reached the top of the stairs to their top floor tenement. He describes his mother hugging him like she would never let him go again. This wasn’t to be the case for Willie Spiers, one of Robert’s friends who had sat beside him on the row of seats that day. Willie tragically died later in hospital from injuries sustained in the panic.
Just a few days later, on the fourth of January 1930, a steady procession of small white coffins marked Paisley’s day of mourning. A truly harrowing new year that made headlines across the world. Subsequent legislation would make cinemas safer for children and adults, including the amendment of the Cinematograph Act of 1909 which ensured that cinemas would have more exits, and that escape doors were to be fitted with push bars that opened outwards.
Today Paisley still remembers the children of the Glen Cinema. Every Hogmanay Robert and the last remaining survivors attend a simple ceremony at the town’s cenotaph, directly across the road from the building that took so many innocent young lives.