When going to the music hall was murder

A series of now largely forgotten tragedies in music halls across Britain in the 19th century, which claimed the lives of hundreds of people who died from fire or crushing, inspired Bridget Walsh’s latest Variety Palace Mystery.Here the author explains more​

During the first lockdown in 2020, like many people I was desperately looking for something to distract me from doomscrolling and compulsively watching the news.

Being somewhat of a nerd, I bought a lot of books and dived headfirst into research for my second novel, which eventually became The Innocents.

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I’ve long had a fascination with all things Victorian, particularly the more unexpected interests and obsessions that dominated the 19th century. Many people’s view of the Victorians centres on prudery and covered piano legs and stiff upper lips, but the reality was very different. The latter decades of the 19th century, in particular, were times of great social upheaval and attendant anxiety – much like we’re living through at the moment.

Author Bridget WalshAuthor Bridget Walsh
Author Bridget Walsh

My original plan was to write a novel involving a safety coffin, an ingenious device designed to address the widespread Victorian fear of being buried alive. The coffins had a rope inside them which, when pulled, would ring a bell above ground and, presumably, the unfortunate individual would be rescued. I was trying to construct a novel around this device (not recommended as a plotting technique, by the way) when, reading a history of The Illustrated Police News by Linda Stratmann, I came across the Victoria Hall Disaster.

On 16 June 1883, at the Victoria Hall in Sunderland, a children’s matinee performance was coming to a close. Toys and prizes were thrown into the audience, but were only reaching the children in the stalls. Those in the upper galleries saw they were missing out and they rushed downstairs. Their way was blocked by a bolted door, leaving a gap of just 22 inches to squeeze through.

Barely enough space for one child, never mind hundreds, and nobody realised in time exactly what was happening. The rush of children from the galleries resulted in the death by suffocation of 183 children. The caretaker at the hall, Frederick Graham, managed to save some 600 children by diverting them to another exit. In the subsequent inquest, no one individual or group was deemed guilty or charged with any crime. The only good thing that came out of it was the introduction of national safety legislation for entertainment venues.

The Victoria Hall disaster was by no means a one-off and Scotland seems to have suffered a disproportionate number of similar events. On 19 February 1849, at the Theatre Royal in Dunlop Street, Glasgow, 65 people died trying to escape from a fire. The fire itself was extinguished very quickly, but the rush to escape led to a crush of bodies at the exit. In 1865, 20 people died at the Springthorpe Music Hall in Dundee when the crowd surged forward to gain entry to the venue. After the deaths in Dundee, no review of safety at public gatherings was carried out and an examination by the Procurator Fiscal apportioned no blame on any individual.

In 1884, again in Glasgow at the Star Theatre, 14 people died after a false cry of ‘fire’ led to a stampede to escape the building. Outside of Scotland, in 1878 a similar incident at the Colosseum Theatre in Liverpool led to the deaths of 37 people. Nine years later, a fire broke out at the Theatre Royal in Exeter and 186 people died.

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One of the things that facilitated tragedies like that of the Victoria Hall and other venues is the sheer numbers of people who attended theatres and music halls in the 19th century. For a long time there were no limits on how many people could be admitted, so a venue ostensibly for an audience of 400 might well pack in as many as 2000 people on a busy night. And if someone shouted ‘fire’, or if performers started hurling toys into the audience, there were no procedures in place to manage the crowds. Going to the music hall for the evening was a potentially fatal activity.

But it was also hugely popular – and with good reason. Music halls and most theatres were relatively affordable and fairly democratic in the make-up of their audiences. It wouldn’t be uncommon to see families with small children, elderly couples, labourers, servants and artisans from the immediate area, all cheek by jowl with wealthy men undertaking a bit of ‘Whitechapel tourism’. All human life was there and it seemed to me the perfect setting for a series of detective novels. There was also a subversive element to music halls and theatres, with plays and other entertainments sometimes thinly disguised attacks on the ruling classes – and who doesn’t love a hint of sedition woven into their evening’s entertainment?

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When I set out to write the Variety Palace Mysteries, I felt I had the perfect setting and I knew I wanted a working-class woman at the heart of it, but a woman whose class and gender don’t limit her. A tricky thing to pull off, given the first novel, The Tumbling Girl is set in 1876 when women in general did not enjoy much agency. By placing my heroine, Minnie Ward, in a music hall I was able to give her financial independence and create a world where she feels empowered.

Although many people still viewed actresses as little more than prostitutes – largely because they ‘displayed’ themselves on stage, sometimes scantily clad by Victorian standards – it was still an area of life where a working-class woman could enjoy success on her own terms, without the need to marry. More than just affording Minnie her independence, the Variety Palace is a world where ‘difference’ is more openly accepted than in wider Victorian society. Places of the arts and entertainment have always embraced the alternative, the ‘other’, and the Victorian music hall was no different.

Back in those days of 2020 when I first heard of the Victoria Hall disaster, I started asking around, and almost no-one had heard of the tragedy. Only people who lived in or close to Sunderland, or who had a knowledge of theatre history, were aware of what happened. I wondered how such terrible events could have been all but forgotten. It got me thinking about what it would have been like to survive such an incident. Particularly when no-one was made to pay for their part in it all and how that might make you feel if you were one of those who survived, but were left traumatised by the event.

I abandoned my thoughts about safety coffins and the groundwork for The Innocents was laid, where a series of apparently unconnected murders all lead back to one terrible day. I’ve taken a bit of poetic license, changing the date and the location, but the details of the tragedy remain largely the same. A fictionalised Frederick Graham features in The Innocents, a man whose heroic acts on that day may now have a greater chance of being remembered.

The Innocents by Bridget Walsh is published by Gallic Books, price £12.99.