THE VICTORIA HALL DISASTER OF 1883

How could those angels possibly know  

As they lay in their beds,

What would befall their hopes and dreams

And all that lay ahead?

 

The morning of Saturday, sixteenth of June,

Eighteen eighty three,

Dawned bright and warm

Upon this prosperous Town beside the sea.

 

Father’s arose with gratitude

On the week’s last working day.

Mothers tended domestic chores;

Copper pots boiling away.

 

Their children across the Borough

Had spent a restless night.

Unable to sleep in anticipation

Of this day’s delights.

 

‘The Greatest Treat For Children Ever Given’

Would take place at Victoria Hall’;

The famous ‘Fays of Tynemouth Aquarium’

Their duties there to perform.

 

Ventriloquism, Puppetry and Ghost Illusions;

All miracles to behold!

One penny per child for quick distribution.

Two thousand tickets sold.

 

But more than the plethora of riches on stage,

More certain to give each child a lift,

Was the promise all attending ‘will stand the chance

Of receiving a handsome gift!’

 

With seats priced threepence for adults and nurses,

Few parents could afford to go;

Entrusting their youngest to the care of their eldest

Well, how were they to know?

 

Where Toward Road meets Laura Street,

Overlooking Mowbray Park,

Stood the gothic-styled Victoria Hall,

A presence imposing and stark.

 

The pavement outside was abuzz with excitement,

All arrived for the three o’clock start.

Brothers and Sisters, hand-in-hand, altogether

Two thousand young Sunderland hearts.

 

They paid their one pennies and ran to the stalls,

But the rapidly diminishing rows

Meant the only place left was up in the Gallery,

So up to ‘the Gods’ they did go.

 

Unable to sit down they smiled to each other,

The excitement now too much to bear;

Waving to school friends and some of their neighbours,

It seemed all the Town’s kids must be there.

 

Then the lights dimmed and the music began,

So they cheered and clapped hands for their part,

And when Mr Fay did his conjuring tricks

They drew gasps of oohs and aahs.

 

To witness pure pleasure on cherubim faces

May not warm the coldest of men,

But even stone hearts with no care for these places

Could surely not, be but moved by the end.

 

For as the show reached its successful climax

With ‘Magic Feats Extraordinaire!’,

The children were already becoming mindful

Of the main reason why they were there.

 

They all stood a chance of a handsome new present

That guaranteed unreserved joy,

But even the youngest of them knew just what ‘chance’ meant,

They’d have to move fast for their toy.

 

Then just as the spectacle drew to a close,

The company onstage for applause,

Mr Fay started handing out packages at random

To several kids packed in the stalls.

 

It was all too much for those up in Gallery,

Who stood looking with faces aghast,

A thousand young souls with hopes fast receding

Then ran for the exit en masse.

 

The quickest of whom, without younger siblings,

Now scrambled and raced to the stairs.

A cacophony of squeals followed closely behind them,

Just two more flights down they’d be there.

 

Picturing models of horses in gallop,

Or books of adventures and wars,

Those in the lead soon arrived at ground level

And couldn’t believe what they saw.

 

Doors fastened inwards with bolts to the floor

With no more than an eighteen inch gap,

Just enough room for one child at a time.

Or the cause of a deadly morass?

 

Before the first child could pass through the gap

Ten more had arrived at his back,

Then a hundred more filling the space right behind them,

Wave upon wave of attack.

 

As young bodies flagged from the weight of the crowd

There were cries of ‘Keep back! Someone’s down!

But hundreds more unawares just kept on coming,

Though lack of space now, slowed them down.

 

Now so compressed, they moved shoulder to shoulder,

Unable to raise their young arms,

A strange deathly march moving slowly together,

To waiting, unmerciful harm.

 

Bewildered they tried to turn round and head back,

For they knew now that something was wrong.

The prayers and groans from the souls down below them

A most unfortunate, piteous throng.

 

The horror of war is inhuman enough

A blight upon our fellow man,

But the sight of our own babes in such great distress

Is more than a human can stand.

 

For when pressure below finally started to lessen

As doors from upstairs where released,

Men hardened by service who’d rushed to assistance

Beheld, then broke down in their grief.

 

Soon the front of the building was amass with spectators

Drawn together by rumours they’d heard.

They saw mothers carrying dead children with agonised faces,

This truly was hell here on earth.

 

Small body after small body laid out on the pavement,

Shouts of ‘Get back!’ and ‘Let them have air!’,

While a man stood with tears streaming down his face said,

‘They have no more use for breath there.’

 

Cries of anguish from mothers and fathers,

Expressions all stricken with woe,

‘Where’s oor Nellie?’, ‘She’s with Alice and Arthur,

I’ve just laid them down in a row.’

 

Then shock and grave silence befell the Town’s people.

The rumours now reaching the port,

One sailor said, ‘If there’s one killed there’s fifty.’

His calculation was shockingly short

 

One hundred and eighty three souls that day perished,

Aged just three to fourteen years old.

A tragedy more than one Town e’er should witness,

Perhaps more than one’s faith can withhold.

 

Did He abandon poor Sunderland that day,

With all of His wonders foretold?

For He’d barely given, then taken away

These poor pure, angelic souls.

 

But who are we to speculate so freely,

On matters relating to faith?

All we can do is just keep moving forward,

Accepting our fate with good grace.

 

Reminding ourselves that it wasn’t for nothing

That these children died on this day,

For a law soon passed ensured doors now open outwards,

Though it still seems a high price to pay.

 

Not just for those families who lost their young children,

But the whole of Sunderland Town,

Who continue to suffer across generations,

‘The day that oor babies fell down.’

 

We gather each year on that fateful date,

At the memorial in Mowbray Park,

Sharing afresh the grief of the Mother

Who holds her dead child in her arms.

 

For our once stricken Town is now a proud City,

We know they survive in our name.

This tragedy just brings us closer together

No Sunderland life is in vain.

 

Mark McGann

(C) Drama Direct Ltd 2013

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