Today in theatre history–June 16, 1883–is the anniversary of one of the worst disasters in modern theatre. On this day in Sunderland, Great Britain, during the 3pm matinee performance of a family-oriented variety show, a panicked audience comprised mostly of children between the ages of 3 and 14 rushed the doors of the Victoria Hall Theatre after it was announced that patrons with certain ticket numbers would be given toys as they left. Not wanting to miss out on any free prizes, the audience of approximately 1100 began running toward the exits. But in an effort to control ticket collection before the show, the theatre management had the main door to the auditorium bolted partially opened to allow only one person at a time to pass through. To make matters worse, panicked audience members discovered that all the other doors opened inward, rather than out. People became trapped and suffocated against the closed doors while others were pushed through the reduced opening at the main entrance, causing more panic as many realized they were being moved along involuntarily in a mass of bodies, crushing under foot less fortunate patrons who had stumbled. In the end 183 children were killed, resulting in a national outrage and a demand to regulate the design of auditoria.
The result in Great Britain was the required installation of outwardly opening emergency doors with “crash bars” for instantaneous egress. But the adoption of such obvious safety features was not universally implemented at first. It took Chicago’s horrific Iroquois Theatre fire in 1906 and the Italian Hall disaster in Calumet, Michigan, in 1913 before emergency doors became standard in most municipal building codes in the United States, for instance. Perhaps it’s odd, but I must admit that every time I exit through such a door I am reminded of the Victoria Hall disaster.