Colosseum Music Hall Disaster in Liverpool 1878

Fires were always dangerous events in the 1800s, and there were numerous deadly ones, like in the case of the tragic 1897 Charity Bazaar fire of Paris. However, it was not always the fire that killed people. This was the case on Friday, 11 October 1878, on Paradise-street in Liverpool, England when the Colosseum Music Hall disaster happened.

Exterior of the Music Hall, Public Domain

Exterior of the Colosseum Music Hall. Public domain.

It all began when an evening concert was in progress at the Colosseum Music Hall and someone shrieked, “Fire!” The resulting panic from the word “fire” created an unstoppable stampede and the crush of the crowd resulted in a “heap of corpses” and a death toll of thirty-seven people, with many other people injured.

The Colosseum Music Hall, formerly a Unitarian Chapel, accommodated “about three thousand people, and was crammed by an audience which included many boys and girls [estimated to number near four thousand].”[1] The Illustrated London News noted that the youths in attendance were “of a low class … listening to a vulgar sort of musical performance, while eating and drinking or smoking.”[2] After the star performer, a comedic singer named Fred Coyne, took the stage and was in the middle of his performance, a fight ensued in a corner of the pit under the gallery and amidst this confusion and disturbance, “someone raised the cry of ‘Fire!'”[3]

Principal Entrance Outside the Music Hall on Paradise Street, Public Domain

Principal entrance outside the Music Hall on Paradise Street. Public domain.

As for the crowd, they were packed from floor to ceiling, and once the stampede started the Colosseum Music Hall disaster was inevitable. As the crowd surged forward, they never wavered in their desperate attempts to escape. They “rose en masse” and stampeded in an impetuous rush. As there was no fire and no foundation for the alarm, “Mr. Jacob Goodman, the manager … rushed into the pit and shouted to the audience to remain quiet, but his words had not the least effect on the excited throng.”[4] Although there were six available exits, the majority of the crowd (both on the main floor and in the gallery) rushed headlong down the stairs pell-mell to the exit leading to Paradise Street. Unfortunately, the door, which also functioned as the main entrance, had a barrier, an upright partition, that divided the stream of people entering and which also which interfered with people exiting.” [I]t was at this point that the serious consequences of the false alarm resulted.”[5]

Colosseum Music Hall disaster - Upright Partition and Narrow Well Where the Congestion Occurred, Public Domain

Upright partition and marrow well where the congestion occurred. Public domain.

In the hasty confusion, the barrier converged “into a narrow well, and in this [well] the dead … collected.”[6] The barrier stopped people in their headlong careen, and according to one account the people “were precipitated to the floor, and falling, on each other … [in] a struggling heap [until they formed a ghastly pile six or seven people deep].”[7] However, this did not stop the crowd from pressing forward. Other people in an attempt to escape went out windows, a few exited out other doors, and some of the people in the gallery “slid down the pillars on the heads of those in the pit.”[87] As the push of the crowd was relentless to exit onto Paradise Street, it soon became “speedily evident that many of those who were underneath would have little chance of life.”[9]

Colosseum Music Hall disaster - Window Through Which Several People Escaped, Public Domain

Window through which several people escaped. Public domain.

Fortunately, one of the workers at the Music Hall, realized the upright partition was blocking the way and preventing escape. He took action, “procured an axe, cut it away, and … enabled some of the imprisoned people to escape.”[10] Things would have been worse and “the mortality would in all probability have been greater, but for the prompt arrival and energetic action of the police.”[11] After their arrival they enlisted the firemen who had also arrived, and with the aid of bystanders and the firemen, the police were able to stem the torrent of people and restore order. The injured and dying were then extricated from the heap and carried to the streets, and under the direction of Dr. Henry Worsley of Manchester, (who happened to be there and escaped the Music Hall), the injured and dying were taken to the Royal Infirmary.

After police took possession of the building, an announcement was made that there was no fire. Luckily, that calmed the people, and then “Major [John James] Greig, the head constable, … took occasion to warn … against the folly of raising such panics.”[12] Goodman, the manager, offered a reward of £20 “for the discovery of the miscreant who raised the false alarm,”[13] but Goodman’s offer went unclaimed as the name of the person who cried “Fire!” was never discovered.

Interior of Music Hall, Public Domain

Interior of Music Hall, Public domain.

With things calmed, those people that escaped assembled at the infirmary’s entrance and the The Illustrated London News reported:

“[It was there they watched]” the conveyance of the bodies into the hall … They were received by Dr. Damer Harrison, resident medical officer, Mr. Hodgson, and Mr. Twinem, assistant surgeons. One gentleman was appointed to ascertain whether there was life in the bodies; the others trying to recover those who were pronounced to be still living. But out of thirty-nine persons received only six were living; the others were all dead, and were placed in a small room in a melancholy array.”[14]

Some of the injured and dying from the Colosseum Music Hall disaster were taken to other hospitals, and it was soon determined that in total thirty-seven people were pronounced dead.

“Bodies at the Royal Infirmary were laid out for identification … [and among the dead were] two women…the rest were youths and boys, and so were the dead at the other hospitals.”[15]

When examining the dead, it was noted that “few [people] bore marks of outward injuries, … [it was only] their torn clothing [that] showed how severe had been the struggle.”[16] In fact, it was remarked that the faces of the dead, “were in nearly every instance, calm in appearance; and the verdict of the doctors, from the widely-opened mouths, was that death had resulted from suffocation.”[17] As for those that escaped death, many suffered broken bones or similar to Dr. Worsley were “roughly treated in the frantic crowd, and … bruised all over.”[18]

From a Performance by Fred Coyne, Public Domain

From a Performance by Fred Coyne. Public domain.

The horror of the Colosseum Music Hall disaster vibrated throughout the country with news of the terrible calamity that “was flashed, north, south, east, and west, along the electric wires.”[19] To understand what happened, three theories emerged. The first suggested “the reverberation of the applause [of the crowd] loosened and caused to fall some of the plaster of the roof, [and] … the dust thereby created led to the hasty interference that it was smoke, and that upon this assumption the cry of ‘Fire!’ was raised, timidly, but innocently.”[20] A second theory was that when the fight ensued at the pit, people in the gallery noticed the turmoil and attributed it to an outbreak of fire, and so raised the dreaded alarm. The third theory, which was the most generally accepted theory, was that “some young men in the gallery wantonly and mischievously raised the cry of ‘Fire!’ either as a reckless piece of indiscretion or as an expedient to obtain relief for themselves from the extreme pressure of the crowded house.”[21]

The Music Hall was closed for some time while alterations were made and when it reopened in December of 1879, it opened under the name of the Royal Colosseum Temperance Concert Hall.  However, a week or so after the false alarm, one article summed up the deadly Colosseum Music Hall disaster stating:

“A crowd has a prescriptive right to be stupid … But abject cowardice is still more unpleasant … There can have been neither self-respect nor respect for the opinion of others among persons whose solitary idea at the moment of what they fancied to be supreme danger was their own security … The utter unreasonableness of the panic is acknowledged. All who were present in the building are now aware … they exposed themselves to a very real and terrible danger in the desire to avoid a phantom … There is no proof of any emotion on the part of the throng except a blind craving to disgorge itself by the doors … We hope … this Liverpool disaster will long remain a solitary instance…But, so far as appears, the … calamity … is a melancholy display of popular absence of self-control, only intensified by a passionate and all-absorbing self-interest.”[22]

References:

  • [1] Staffordshire Daily Sentinel, October 14, 1878, p. 2.
  • [2] The Illustrated London News, Vol. 73, 1878, p. 374.
  • [3] Ibid.
  • [4] “Panic in a Music Hall,” in Grey River Argus, December 27, 1878, p. 4.
  • [5] Staffordshire Daily Sentinel, p. 2.
  • [6] The Illustrated London News, p. 374.
  • [7] Staffordshire Daily Sentinel, p. 2.
  • [8] The Illustrated London News, p. 374.
  • [9] Staffordshire Daily Sentinel, p. 2.
  • [10] The Illustrated London News, p. 374.
  • [11] Staffordshire Daily Sentinel, p. 2.
  • [12] Ibid.
  • [13] Broadbent, R.J. Annals of the Liverpool Stage, 1908, p. 260.
  • [14] The Illustrated London News, Vol. 73, 1878, p. 374.
  • [15] Ibid.
  • [16] Ibid.
  • [17] Ibid.
  • [18] “Panic in a Music Hall,” p. 4.
  • [19] The Musical World, Volume 56, 1878, p. 674.
  • [20] “Panic in a Music Hall,” p. 4.
  • [21] Ibid.
  • [22] The Saturday Review of Politics, Literature, Science, Art, and Finance, Vol. 46, 1878, p. 485.

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