Hereford & Worcester

World War One: Hereford theatre fire killed eight at fundraiser

Eight victims of a fire at a theatre during World War One
Image caption Six of the children died on the night of the fire and another two died in hospital from their burns

During World War One there were thousands of appeals and fundraising events to support soldiers serving at the front. One such event at a theatre in Hereford ended in "a ghastly tragedy" when eight children died after their cotton wool costumes caught fire. It led to accusations a smoker had caused their deaths.

Like many English cities Hereford has close ties to its local regiment and the soldiers serving in it.

By 1916, the vast army of Kitchener volunteers were in France preparing for the Battle of The Somme, and most families knew someone serving at the front.

The two concerts at the Garrick Theatre in Hereford, in April 1916, were advertised in the Hereford Times as "a grand variety entertainment - for the benefit of the Herefords and Shropshires".

More than 40 children were involved in the amateur show.

'Pretty dance'

But, just as the first performance was coming to an end, fire broke out.

As the paper reported, "in the space of three minutes what had been a highly successful performance was transformed into a ghastly tragedy".

Thirteen children had just left the stage after performing what the reporter described as "an exceedingly pretty dance and snow scene", complete with paper snow.

Their white costumes, which so caught the reporter's eye, were made of highly-flammable cotton wool.

"By some means yet unexplained, the cotton wool garments of one of them had become ignited and in an instant a dozen children were literally in flames," the paper reported.

"The little mites' clothes blazed up in pillars of fire, defying control before they had been terribly burnt.

"Bright happy little youngsters, only a few minutes before in snow white costumes, were now charred and blacked, some beyond recognition."

In the auditorium, "the large audience rose en masse" and there was "an immediate rush for exits with anguished cries", their correspondent reported.

Parents who were backstage, including "Mrs Lilly Roden... in the garb of Britannia", tried to beat out the flames "with the utmost heroism".

Cotton wool ban

A man from the audience jumped the orchestra pit to help and "without fear, fought the flames with his hands", the reporter observed.

Six of the 13 children died that night from their burns - another two later died in hospital.

An inquest was held against the backdrop of rumours in the city the fire had been caused by a smoker.

Faith Mailes, who organised the concert and was mother to one of those who died, had no doubt a smoker was to blame.

She told the inquest jury Ivy Illman, sister of one of the victims, told her "she had seen a man smoking who threw his match down".

"I should like to find the one who dropped the match," Mrs Mailes testified.

Theatre staff and other people backstage strenuously denied this.

Reginald Maddox, theatre manager, told the jury there were notices in the dressing rooms and on stage banning smoking.

Staff working backstage and an agent who was there on the night all denied smoking.

Mr Maddox also told the inquest he had no idea the children would be wearing cotton wool costumes - its use was banned in theatres because of the fire risk.

'Lasting memorial'

Mrs Mailes confirmed she had not told Mr Maddox cotton wool was used, "not thinking it was necessary".

The inquest ruled the deaths of the children were accidental and there was no evidence of what started the fire.

Image caption A memorial plaque at the site of the Garrick Theatre in Hereford

The city came to a halt when the funeral service for five of the victims were held at Hereford Cathedral.

People lined Broad Street ten deep in places as one by one the funeral corteges, each with an escort of soldiers to act as pall bearers, passed.

The letters page of the paper was filled with calls for a lasting memorial to the children who died.

In September, a meeting at the town hall decided to raise "£500 with which to endow a cot in the Children's Ward of Herefordshire General Hospital as a suitable memorial of the sad incident".

The appeal beat its target, raising just over £540 and the cot and a memorial plaque were unveiled at the general hospital in April 1917.

That hospital building and the Garrick are long gone, but the terrible fire that claimed the lives of eight girls is commemorated by a plaque on the wall of the car park that stands where the theatre once did.