Thursday, June 9, 2011

June 16, 1883 --- 200 Children Are Dead

A heartbreaking tragedy occurs in Sunderland as a stampede at a Saturday afternoon children's show leaves some 200 youngsters dead. The Spectator calls it "The Massacre of the Innocents."

A traveling magician-ventriloquist named Alexander Fay had gone about the city for days promoting the show to be held at the 3500 seat Victoria. Hall. Balcony tickets at a pence apiece were sold to the poorer children, and investigators later figured there were 1500 in the balcony, which seated a thousand adults. At show's end, Fay began tossing toys and sweets into the crowd, but none reached the balcony. In a frantic scramble to get below, the children came upon a door locked open only wide enough to pass one at a time.

One of the first adults to reach the scene described it as one that "beggars all description. A mass of children, most of whom were dead, were piled one upon another to the height of 7 or 8 feet ... the stench of the atmosphere was something horrible." Troops from a nearby barracks are called to maintain order as distraught parents arrive to look for their offspring. For more than a week, mass funerals are held across the grieving city. Queen Victoria donated fifty pounds to the stricken families. She followed the "painful but very interesting" tragedy closely, requesting and receiving a photograph of the narrow doorway, scene of the crush. For the public, The Illustrated London News published a diagram of the Hall with a mark to indicate the site where the children died.

Fay's assistant, who testified at the inquest, admitted he was almost stampeded, finally hurling his basket to the ground and shouting: "There are no more toys. Go Home!"  The coroner, while critical of the entertainer, placed the greater fault elsewhere: "The managers deserve censure for not having provided sufficient caretakers... to provide order in the hall." The hall management promised that the obstructed doorway would be taken care of "forthwith."

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