Theatre fires were a big problem in the 1800s. Some fires happened after hours when theatres were closed, but fires also occurred when people were in the building, on stage, or seated in the auditorium. Fires with people present were the most worrisome as lives were endangered and people were often injured or killed.
Among some of the most prominent theatre fires in the 1800s were seven that occurred in Europe. Below are the statistics on each of these fires, including where, when, and how the fire started, as well as how many people were killed or injured and the contributing factors that resulted in the injuries or deaths.
Leham Theatre and Circus at St. Petersburg, Russia – 14 February 1836
This theatre was located in an open square and was a temporary wooden structure. The fire occurred during the afternoon performance at 4pm when the theatre was packed with an unknown number of people in the audience. The fire started with a stage lamp that was hung too high and ignited the roof. But the real problem developed when people began to panic. The panic-stricken people soon crowded and obstructed the exits making it practically impossible for anyone to get out of the building. In the end, it was claimed that between 600 to 800 people died.
Grand Ducal Theatre, at Carlsruhe, Baden, Germany – 28 February 1847
This theatre was located in an open square and had a wooden interior. Its main entrance was bricked up, and to exit the theatre, people were forced to use one of four exits, which would allow patrons to exit the building within six minutes. At the time, there were about 2,000 people in the audience. Before the performance began, a stage hand was lighting gas lights in the Grand-Ducal box, and apparently because he was careless, the draperies ignited. Unfortunately, three of the four exits were barricaded and locked and only one exit was open. The corridors were also dark because all the lamps had been extinguished. Thus, occupants of the parquet and the balconies escaped by breaking the locked exit doors, but gallery spectators were not so fortunate as they could not escape fast enough and some were overcome by smoke. Estimates related to loss of life was 63 persons dead and 200 injured.
Teatro degli Aquidotti, Leghorn, Italy – 7 June 1857
This fire occurred about 8pm when about 3,000 people were seated in the audience. During the performance, fireworks were set off on stage, and one of the fireworks, a rocket, ignited the scenery. Although there were few details about the fire and exactly what caused the deaths, it was reported that from 43 to 100 people were killed and 134 to 200 were injured.
Theatre of Municipal, at Nice, France – 23 March 1881
It is unclear how many people were in the audience at 8:30pm immediately preceding the performance. However, as the audience sat waiting, stage hands were lighting the border-lights, and as they were doing so, an explosion of gas occurred and ignited the scenery. Estimates are from 150 to 200 people were killed and that most of the people who died were sitting in the upper gallery. Later investigations of the incident noted that the chief defects and reasons for the deaths included no fireproof curtain and no oil-lamps in the corridors or exits, which made it difficult for people to see because it was dark. In addition, the auxiliary exit door from the gallery to the safety stairs could not be located in the darkness, and the lower part of the gallery stairs was also steep and winding, making it difficult for people to maneuver in the area. Exit doors also added to the confusion as they were obstructed by panicked people who jammed them.
Ring Theatre, in Vienna, Austria – 8 December 1881
This fire occurred about 6:45pm just before the performance began. At the time there were about 1,800 people in the audience. As the usual electric flashlight apparatus was out of order, the border-lights were being lit by means of an alcohol torch and the alcohol torch ignited a hanging border. Approximately 450 people were killed, with the majority of them being those who were seated in the upper gallery. Contributing to their deaths was the bursting open of a large door at the rear of stage that let in a blast of air, thereby driving the flames and blanketing the auditorium with suffocating smoke. At the time, the iron fireproof curtain could only be lowered from the rigging loft and so it could not be lowered at the time of the fire. Special exit doors were also locked and the key to unlock them was rusty and did not work. Moreover, there were insufficient exits, and the few that were available quickly became choked with people trying to escape.
Opera Comique Theatre, in Paris, France – 25 May 1887
Although this theatre was not fire-resistant, it was free-standing on three sides and had good construction. About 9pm there was an audience of about 1,600 people. A fire erupted when gas-lights ignited the scenery. Somewhere between 70 to 100 people were killed and most the dead were either seated in the upper gallery or were stage people. Part of the reason for the deaths was related to exits. The stage people’s exits consisted of a narrow wooden bridge over the upper part of the stage, which made it difficult for them to escape. In addition, the iron curtain was not lowered, fire-hydrants were not used, and corridors and exits were dark.
Theatre Royal, in Exeter, England – 5 September 1887
This fire occurred during an evening performance. It is unknown how many people were in the audience when the scenery caught fire because of the gas-lights. However, estimates of the dead ranged from 166 to 200, with most of the dead having been found in the upper gallery. The theatre also had several problems including bad construction. There was also only one exit in the upper gallery and it was obstructed. Other contributing factors included no fire curtains, insufficient fire aids on stage to put out the fire, and an overload of scenery on stage.
In summing up the cause of theatre fires, it was noted over and over that patrons, stage people, and actors and actresses were all affected. Lighting was also a frequent cause of fires, and one of the biggest causes of deaths and injuries in relation to theatre fires was blocked or obstructed exits. One Victorian book that looked closely at theatre fires and provided information on why they occurred, hoped that something would be done.
“It is a grave reproach to our age to have to acknowledge … that the lives of many hundreds, in some cases several thousands of persons, may be at any moment placed in the utmost jeopardy … If this sort of danger were necessary, that is to say, if it were inseparable from the attendance at a theatre, people would still go … for amusement; but they would do so with their eyes open, and would be prepared to take the consequences, balancing the pleasure against the risk. … It may be difficult to remove the dangers altogether in the strictest sense of the words, making every portion of the inside of a theatre heat-proof, uninflammable, and incombustible; but … it is to be hoped, however, that the casualties … may be considered of sufficient importance to attract the attention of authorities who are intrusted with the duty of looking after the safety of life in theatres, if any such authorities exist.”
- Gerhard, William Paul, Theatre Fires and Panic, Volume 1, 1896
- Shaw, Eyre Massey, Fires in Theatres, 1876
- The Improvement Era, Volume 7, 1904