The Haymarket Theatre tramplings was a horrendous event that occurred several years after the Opera House suffered a fire in 1789. Because of the fire, Italian operas were presented for a season at the Little Haymarket Theatre, also known as Haymarket Theatre or the Little Theatre. This happened during the winter of 1794, the same year that Eliza de Feuillide’s husband was guillotined in France and the same year when George III commanded that the Haymarket theatre present three musical performances — “My Grandmother,” “The Prize,” and “No Song, No Supper.”
The Haymarket Theatre, which was claimed to have an uninteresting front, was also stated to have the general appearance of “common dwelling houses.” Moreover, it was reported:
“[I]ndeed, the only different observable is a portico, extending across the foot-way to the curb-stone. Under this are the box, pit, and two gallery doors. As the portico is the only shelter afforded to those who assembly for the evening’s amusement, the pavement is generally obstructed for half an hour before the doors are opened every evening; but when a favourite play is announced, the place is very soon crowded, and particularly so when it is known the Royal Family intend to honour the exhibition with their presence.”
The performances were scheduled for the evening of 3 February with the King, Queen Charlotte, and six princesses slated to attend. Unsurprisingly, in expectation of the King and his family’s presence, an unusually large crowd appeared and began milling outside the theatre’s door impatiently awaiting entrance. Patrons were excited to see the Royal Family and to enjoy the evening’s entertainment and at the time no one present suspected the horror that the Haymarket Theatre tramplings would go down in history as a great tragedy.
On this evening the crowd that thronged the street was described as “ungovernable.” That was because those at the back of the crowd began to exert pressure hoping to get nearer to the entrance, even though they still needed to pay their admission. Those nearest the door where therefore being pressed “almost to suffocation” from those behind.
Many theatres at the time had the pit lying lower than the threshold of the door. So, when the doors were opened it was predictable that those closest to the front were driven forward to the “brink of a steep flight of stairs … most stupidly placed.” Unexpectedly people then found they had to step down, which being unaware, caused people to fall. The Hereford Journal noted:
“[O]n opening the doors the torrent broke in with impetuosity. In the crowd a poor woman was thrown down; the people kept pushing forward, and others were thrown down over her, and all were trampled upon by the crowd, who passed over their bodies into the house.”
As the crowd surged, more devastation happened as reported by The Annual Register:
“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 of the Haymarket Theatre tramplings, screams and shouting could be heard. The Hereford Journal reported:
“The scene that ensued may be easier conceived than described; the shouts and screams of the dying and the maimed were truly shocking; while those who were literally trampling their fellow-creatures to death, had it not in their power to avoid the mischief they were doing. One could scarcely have believed that so many could have been killed in so small a space.”
The Reading Mercury also reported:
“The confusion lasted for half an hour, and for all that time no possible aid could be given to the victims.”
When aid could be rendered there were seven lifeless bodies discovered. These 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 one man who initially everyone thought was dead. He was Mr. Brandram, of Tooley Street and fortunately for him he was saved by doctors. However, among those fatally trampled were three of his relatives, his wife, niece, and nephew. Another four men also died — Benjamin Pingo, John Charles Brooke, Mr. Garbut, and Mr. Robinson — and six women — Mrs. Hartley, Mrs. Gwatkin, Mrs. Spencer, Miss Williams, and Miss Charlotte Bushnell, and Mrs. Willis, plus her son. In total fourteen people were dead and some twenty people permanent mangled.
Despite the horrible accident, the scheduled performance was held. Most of the patrons, including the King, were unaware that anything terrible had happened. That was partly because the theatre was “crowded with the beau monde, and the pieces went off with great laughter and applause.” It was only after the Royal Family 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.
An investigation was conducted after the Haymarket Theatre tramplings. Evidence showed that upwards of sixty people had been admitted into the pit before the accident occurred. It was then that trouble began.
“[T]he 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 hoping to gain admittance, along with no way to loosen the bar and relieve the crush of people, caused one of the theater goers to fall. The Reading Mercury gave the particulars stating:
“At this instant, however, a gentleman fell at the bottom of the stairs (Captain Garbutt). Though a very powerful and lusty man, he was unable to recover himself; and from this the fatal consequences are supposed to have their origin. The door-keepers got him into the lobby, but not time enough to save his life, or to prevent … others suffering the same fate by being trampled upon.”
After the accident several newspapers reported on the importance of theatres being “wide and open.” The Kentish Gazette also noted other things that they felt would have saved lives:
“All descents are inconvenient, particularly in the approaches, and ought to be removed at any expence. There is another inconvenience; — The delay of taking money at doors, necessarily adds to the confusion of a crowd; and this again is increased by the skilful efforts of the banditti of pickpockets, which infest all our places of public resort … This in great measure might be prevented by the Managers. No money should be taken at the door, or least not until the first crowd had entered. Let an office be opened for the sale of tickets, to which on their first coming to the house, or at any time in the course of the day, persons might be supplied with tickets, which would prevent all delay … But for this delay, the pit might have been filled in three minutes after the doors were opened … whereas it took half an hour. It is idle to say that this cannot be done; it is the constant practice of Paris, and was particularly so under the old system … To all other places of public entertainment … every kind of accommodation can be purchased – – – – an advantage which at the Theatres is utterly denied.”
-  Malcom, James Peller, Londinium Redivivum Or an Antient History and Modern Description of London, Vol. 2, 1803, p. 470.
-  Ibid.
-  Friday’s Post, in Hereford Journal, 12 February 1794, p. 1.
-  The Annual Register, 1806, p. 5.
-  “Friday’s Post, in Hereford Journal, p. 1.
-  “Wednesday and Thursday’s Posts,” in Reading Mercury, 10 February 1794, p. 1.
-  Ibid.
-  Ibid.
-  Ibid.
-  “London,” in Kentish Gazette, 7 February 1794, p. 3.