Paisley's Black Hogmanay

ROBERT Pope was aged seven when he and his pals met on Paisley's Maxwell Street and, after collecting money at the local shop from exchanging jelly-bean jars given to him by his mother, walked to the nearby Glen Cinema to watch the Hogmanay matinee screening of The Dude Desperado.

The boys paid the penny at the cinema's front kiosk to sit in the lower section - the balcony cost tuppence - and Robert counted eight seats for himself and his seven pals and made his way along the row to near the centre, as his friends filed in behind. Robert's next memory would be of a tap on his shoulder, and of him turning round to hear a fireman ask him "What are you doing still here, son?"

Robert was among 900 children who had packed into the Glen cinema that day in 1929, a fateful day in Scottish history when 70 of those children would not make it out alive. As they fought to leave the theatre through exit doors that would not open, the children became victims of a massive crush after fire broke out in the cinema's rewinding room.

Pope, now 83, is fortunate to have survived. He says his friends "never talked about" what happened that day. Now, he gives a vivid description of what happened that day and how it affected the Renfrewshire community of Paisley in which he grew up and where he lives today.

"I never knew the time, we had no watches - this was 1929. So we never knew what time the picture came on, but when it did a big roar always went up.

"Then the screen went blank, and in those days the screen often went blank. But I just sat in my seat, as if hypnotised. I never saw my friends leave. Never saw the others leave. What brought me back was the tap on my shoulder. A fireman. He said: 'There'll be no more pictures for you son, you hurry home to your ma.'

"I ran home to see my mother coming out of the house, on her way to the cinema. She had been told of the disaster and that I was not with my friends when they came out. She was upset.

"I lost a friend. As the years went by you never really wanted to bring it up."

Many of the children who died in a stampede for the exits when smoke billowed from a reel of film in the rewinding at Paisley High Street's Glen Cinema did so needlessly - as the projectionist had put out the fire.

As the staff attended to the small fire, the children mostly crammed into the lower section of the auditorium were left largely unattended - one of the many ironies surrounding the disaster in which many of the townsfolk lost not just one child, but two or three.

The McEnhills, of Wallace Street, lost three children - Edward, James and Margaret. The Kilkies, from the same street, lost two of their own.

Panicked by the smoke, many of the children aged between 18 months and 12 years, had rushed to emergency exits that, because of poor design, were unable to open.

Many of the exit doors were not marked as such, or marked unclearly, the investigation report pointed out.

The fitting of one the swing doors, to swing inwards instead of out, was termed "extraordinarily foolish", though this didn't stop another exit door being "torn from its hinges" by the children.

The staff's actions in leaving the children to attend to the fire "contributed directly to the magnitude of the disaster", the report continued. However, the cinema’s manager, George Dorward, was found not guilty of causing the children's deaths.

Author William Cross has written extensively on Scottish disasters, and his book A Handful of Dust, carries a chapter on the Glen Cinema tragedy.

He says: "There was panic in the cinema. The kids were crushed. Many of them survived when their friends did not. Many of the survivors today prefer to remain anonymous. I wrote the book as there was no record, apart from in local newspapers at the time, of the children who died. Many are buried in Hawkhead cemetery.

"You also have to remember that lots of people saved lives that day by reacting quickly. Ambulancemen, policemen, firemen, members of the public, passers-by. Even local two footballers, Allan Gebbie and James McMillan, helped save lives. Safety regulations were reviewed and tightened after the disaster, but as is usual it was too late."

Cross points out that it is not the only disaster Paisley has experienced, highlighting the Nitshill Pit explosion of 1851 in which 60 were killed, and the Canal Boat disaster of 1810, which claimed 85 lives.

Pope lives with his wife Grace just around the corner from the site of the old cinema. He attended the 75th anniversary commemorations of the disaster in Paisley last year, where children carrying lanterns marched alongside 13 fellow survivors.

"Somebody up there is looking out for me," he says. "The first thing I was told in school was that we all have a guardian angel. I believe I was saved by my guardian angel."

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