After the Opera House suffered a fire in 1789, “Italian operas were for one season given at the Little Haymarket Theatre,” also known as Haymarket Theatre or the Little Theatre. The season of reconstruction occurred during the winter of 1794, a time when George III commanded the theatre present three musical performances — “My Grandmother,” “The Prize,” and “No Song, No Supper.” As requested, the performance was scheduled for the evening of 3 February 1794. The King, Queen Charlotte, and six princesses were slated to attend. In expectation of their royal presence, an unusually large crowd appeared.
A huge multitude milled outside the theatre’s door as they awaited entrance into the theatre. They were excited to see the royal family and to enjoy the evening’s entertainment, never suspecting the horror that was to come. Many theatres at the time had the pit lying lower than the threshold of the door, and it required people to unexpectedly step down, which is where the trampling catastrophe and loss of life occurred.
“On opening the doors the torrent broke in with impetuosity.” A man lost his footing and was thrown to the ground. One report of the incident stated:
“The people who were the unfortunate sufferers, either not knowing any thing of the steps, or being hurried on by the pressure of the crowd behind, fell down [too]; while those who followed immediately [afterward] … by the same irresistible impulse, hurried over them.”
Amidst the confusion and commotion, screams and shouting could be heard by the “dying and the maimed … while those who were literally trampling [or suffocating] their fellow-creatures to death, had it not in their power to avoid the mischief they were doing.” The result was seven lifeless bodies were carried by door-keepers and theater attendants to the druggist’s shop next door, several other people were taken to nearby shops, and others to St. Martin’s bonehouse. Medical aid was also immediately sought for the injured, and, one man, a Mr. Brandram, of Tooley Street was saved by doctors.
The accident did not stop the scheduled performance. The theatre was “crowded with the beau monde, and the pieces went off with great laughter and applause.” It was only later, after the royals returned to their palace, that the King learned of the “deplorable accident.” As a consequence, no state visits by royalty to the Haymarket occurred for about ten years.
Among those fatally trampled were three of Mr. Brandram’s relatives — a sister-in-law, niece, and nephew. Also injured were a married couple by the name of Willis, a Mrs. Edgar and her son, and four unnamed men and four unnamed women. In total fifteen people were dead and some twenty people permanent mangled.
An investigation was conducted after the accident. Evidence showed that upwards of sixty people had been admitted into the pit before any accident occurred.
“The dreadful cry of ‘Murder!’ and the overbearing numbers crowding into the pit door, induced the attendants, in order to abate the pressure, to cry out, ‘There is no room; the pit is full.’ This checked the admissions.”
However, continued pressing by the crowd, along with no way to loosen the bar and relieve the crush of people, caused one of the theater goers to fall, and it was “from this the fatal consequence” the accident had its origins and people died.
- Ainsworth, William Harrison, Ainsworth’s Magazine, Volume 4, 1843
- All the Year Round, Volume 23-24, 1880
- Friday’s Post, in Hereford Journal, 12 February 1794
- The Annual Register, 1806
- “Wednesday and Thursday’s Posts,” in Reading Mercury, 10 February 1794