The Collapse of the Brunswick Theatre - February 28, 1828 - An Engineer's Aspect


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Wednesday, May 12, 2010

The Collapse of the Brunswick Theatre - February 28, 1828

The story of the tragic collapse of the Brunswick theatre could never be told as well by me as it was by Charles Dickens in, All the Year Round. A Weekly Journal, Volume XX.

Therefore, this blog entry may be lengthy, but it is well written and well worth reading:

"The Story of our Lives from Year to Year."--Shakespeare

-Charles Dickens

"On the morning of the 25th of February, 1828, there was a great hammering and sawing at the New Brunswick Theatre, Wellclosesquare, Whitechapel, as the house was to be opened that evening. The theatre had been run up in seven months by Mr. Stedman Whitwell, C.E., and it had a ponderous iron roof and a facade, the design of which had been borrowed from that of San Carlos, at Naples. It stood on the site of the old Royalty Theatre, opened in 1787, under the management of John Palmer. Lee, Lewis, Bates, Holland, and Mrs. Gibbs were then of the company; and that fine singer, Braham, made his first appearance on its stage, in the character of Cupid. It was originally intended for the performance of legitimate five-act pieces, and had opened with As You Like It; but, the patentees of the other theatres memorialising the Lord Chamberlain, the new theatre was tyrannically restricted to pantomimes and burlettas. The original theatre had been burnt down in 1826.

From the first opening of the Brunswick Theatre, a vague sense of danger had filled the minds of every one connected with it, except the proprietors: who were too eager for profits to listen to anything that might cause delay. A Mr. Pulsford, employed to survey and measure the work of the smiths, carpenters, and bricklayers, had repeatedly, even from the beginning of January, warned Mr. Maurice, one of the most active of the proprietors, of the insecurity of the roof, and of the danger of suspending heavy weights from the iron ties or chord bars. He had told Mr. Maurice (a bustling self-sufficient man, by trade a printer, in Fenchurch-street, who had from the beginning run counter to the wishes of the architect) that there was danger, and that it would be well to consult some scientific and practical men. He proposed Mr. Bramah, a civil engineer of Pimlico, and Mr. Moorman, and eminent smith in Old-street. Mr. Maurice declined, and one day came to the theatre and read to some of the workmen a letter from the contractors of the roof, dated Bristol, which said that the roof would bear any dead weight, if it was perfectly steady.

Mr. Shaw, the carpenter who built the stage, had felt an insurmountable alarm, which various small circumstances had tended to heighten. There were forty or fifty men hammering, sawing, planing, and gluing, in the carpenters' shop which was attached to the new roof. On (Monday) the opening night, a small but ominous accident also occurred, which struck terror into the minds of two or three intelligent overlookers.

The crowding of above one hundred persons in the O. P. flies which were hung by iron crooks to a plank that lay edgeways on the ties of the roof, suddenly made them sink about two inches. The plank had fallen flat, the hook had slipped, the rod had fallen with all its weight on the wing groove, and prevented the scenes from working. The actors were already putting on the last touch of paint, the orchestra had begun, the audience were subsiding into their places. Mr. Whitwell, alarmed, called Shaw, the carpenter, and questioned him. Shaw said that he thought some gasfitter, in putting up his tubes for lighting the wings, had let his plank fall on the grooves.

The curtain must rise soon, so Mr. Whitwell, the rather incompetent architect, said, in a flurry:

"Come up the fly, and I'll go up with you."

They went up, but found no plank. Mr. Whitwell then said to his reluctant and hurried companion:

"Now, Shaw, whip over; get upon the groove and see what is the matter."

Shaw did so, and, after peering about a few minutes, cried out:

"Eh! Gad! there is one of the iron straps of the roof dropped on the groove. But I'll soon adjust that, with the pole from the carpenter's shop."

Whitwell said: "But, Shaw, the curtain is going up in a few minutes, and you are wanted below."

Shaw then came down, and gave orders to a man named David Wales to fix the tackle and free the scene, and they then lashed the tackle together to prevent its slipping.

In the mezzonine gallery Mr. Whitwell met his old opponent, Mr. Maurice, told him of the accident and the means used to remedy it, and advised him to have it looked to the first thing in the morning. In the mean time, a spectator of trained powers of observation and great experience had also augured mischief, and given a warning.

Mr. Clarkson Stanfield, the eminent scene-painter of Drury Lane, and afterwards a great marine painter, had been introduced by Mr. Carruthers, one of the proprietors, to the architect, with a request that he (Mr. Stansfield) would show him the internal arrangements of Drury Lane, where the carpenters' shops and flies were affixed to the roof, but were also supported by strong underlying beams running from the posts of the proscenium to the back walls. Mr. Stanfield's quick eye saw the lower fly give way. He spoke to Shaw, and asked if it could not be propped up? Shaw said every plank had been taken away. Mr. Stanfield then said to Mr. Whitwell, who was at the back of the stage: "Does not this alarm you?"

The architect replied (and this seemed his great self-deception all through):

"I have nothing to do with that part of the business."

Mr. Stanfield replied, in his sailor-like way, "Oh! The deuce you haven't!"

On the Tuesday, so far from being lessened, the weight attached to the roof was recklessly increased. About a ton weight more of benches, &c., was carried up from the theatre to the carpenters' shop, by tackle fixed to the roof. There were then eight men in the painters' and forty men in the carpenters' shop. On this as on a previous occasion, Mr. Whitwell flew into a violent passion about the danger of the pendent and vibrating weight. He told Mr. Carruthers that he had first observed the strain on the roof on the 15th of February, while inspecting the ventilating apparatus.

Mr. Carruthers or Mr. Maurice answered angrily:

"We know what we are about, Mr. Whitwell. We don't proceed without advice. We have written to Bristol, and have got permission to hang as much weight to the roof as we like, provided it be a steady weight."

When Mr. Whitwell left, Mr. Carruthers scolded Shaw, and asked him if he (Mr. Carruthers) was his master, or Mr. Whitwell? He (Mr. Carruthers) was as good an architect, on his own behalf, he said, as Mr. Whitwell was, and he could manage the men, and he was as good a carpenter as Shaw himself.

Shaw then told Mr. Pulsford, who was also alarmed, that the timbers were not yet strutted, and said that, when they were, the carpenters' floor would not vibrate. Mr. Whitwell had previously agreed with Pulsford about the danger of overweighting the roof, but had said it was a matter over which he had no control.

On this same Tuesday, the P. S., or prompt fly, also settled about half an inch. On the Wednesday, Shaw, the clerk of the works, told Mr. Carruthers that two uprights must be fixed at the end of each fly, as the flies were too heavy for the roof. Shaw then ordered two men, named Mills and Davidson, to go to Jones's timber-yard and cut two uprights, seven inches square and twenty-two feet long. They were also to cut holes in the floors, to discover at what point the uprights could be best fixed.

On this same Wednesday morning, Mr. Carruthers (a haberdasher in Gracechurch-street) had been told for the first time that the flies had sunk. A man named Blamire told him secretly (West being jealous of the proprietor's interference with the architect, his employer) that the roof had warped. He then told Shaw to get supporters for the flies. Shaw replied, there was no danger, but it should be done. At about a quarter past five, Carruthers, dining at Maurice's, felt uneasy about the roof, and, when the cloth was drawn, slipped out to the theatre. To his surprise, all was dim and silent, and the porter told him that Shaw had knocked off the men and gone to Vauxhall. He wanted the porter to find out the carpenters, and bring them at once to put up the supports; but the porter said it was impossible then to find them out and collect them. Mr. Carruthers returned home uneasy. One the Thursday morning he went down again and expostulated with Shaw, who said it was usual to knock off early on the Wednesdays and Fridays in Lent; and that there was no danger, or his wife would not be at that very moment up-stairs, stitching canvas. The supports were then preparing.

On the Thursday morning a rehearsal had been called, of Guy Mannering. Mr. Mannering, the Dominie, Meg Merrilies, the terrible Dirk--were all on the stage or at the wings. The stage-manager was reviewing and scolding his troops; the gentlemen in the orchestra were bending over their music, or extracting extraordinary experimental notes from their instruments. All was cheerful bustle, hope, and excitement. There were about twenty-four persons on the stage or behind the scenes. Mr. Fearon, the conductor, was in the orchestra, arranging and giving out the music; and immediately before the orchestra, in the first row of the pit, sat his two sisters, as spectators.

There were two stage boxes close to the proscenium, fitted up for the proprietors. Of these, Mr. Maurice was to have one, and Mr. Carruthers the other.

Mr. P. Farren, the stage-manager, was sitting on the front of Mr. Maurice's box, and Mr. Maurice was standing close before him. Mr. Maurice had just put a farce, called The Poachers, into the stage-manager's hand, saying: "I should be glad if this could be done on Monday, it is a piece likely to do us a deal of good."

While they were still talking (it was then about twenty-five minutes to twelve o'clock), a strange noise was heard above, like a slight crash of timber. It sounded like a beam which some carpenters had let drop, and, as builders' workmen were still in the theatre, no one paid any attention to it. Another similar sound came, and was also disregarded. The third seemed to shake the chandelier, and was accompanied by a discordant rumbling noise that lasted several seconds. The next moment Mr. Farren, looking up to see where the noise came from, saw the chandelier in the act of falling. Obeying the momentary instinct, he threw himself under shelter, and clung to a pillar of the proscenium. Mr. Maurice rushed to the centre of the stage. The roof came down; an avalanche of iron instantly tore walls and gallery down with it, and swept before it scenes, stage, orchestra, boxes, and actors. It was a tornado of girders, bricks, and timbers. A cloud of dust hid the scene of death for a moment. When the perception returned, Mr. Farren found that the pillar opposite to that part of the box to which he clung alone remained: the rest was a mountain of confused ruin. On a sudden he saw something move in the rubbish near him, and Miss Yates, a girl of about twelve years of age, daughter of Mrs. Vaughan, the leader of "the tragic business," made her way towards him, her head streaming with blood. She cried: "Oh, Mr. Farren, save me!" Farren dragged the poor girl over the box, though by no means certain of his own safety, and urged her to thank the Almighty for their preservation. They remained in that place blocked up for nearly half an hour. After this awful interval of continued fear, he saw three or four of the carpenters, their faces bloody, wading and clambering among the ruins to gain the street; for the front wall had fallen, and there was a passage left, though a dangerous one. Farren called to them, rejoicing that others also had escaped, congratulated them, and inquired if the danger had quite passed, and if his present retreat was safe. They answered, he was tolerably safe; but another wall might soon fall, and if the beam which had defended him then gave way, he must be instantly killed. He then felt he had no time to lose. He broke quickly out of his extraordinary prison, struggled with difficulty through the ruins with the little girl (whom, we believe, he eventually married), and escaped without injury. Once, to his horror, on the looking down, he found he had set his foot on the face of a dead man, a Mr. Gilbert, a fellow-actor, whom he recognised.

Mr. Maurice had almost escaped, when he was killed in the street, close to his own house. He had darted to the extreme line of the falling fragments, when a torrent of bricks struck him obliquely on the head, beat him to the pavement and buried him, all but one foot, which Mr. Campbell, one of the performers, recognised. His body was instantly dug out. It was lying with the head towards the theatre, and was on its stomach. The watch in the pocket was still going. The corpse was first identified by the handkerchief in the coat. While the crowd was gathering, Mr. Maurice's wife came crying, "Where is he? Take me to him. Let me see his dead body!" But some friends, passing by in a coach, prevailed upon her to leave the spot.

The escapes were all remarkable, and varied in their character. Mr. Goldsmith, one of the company, was speaking to Mr. Wyman, another actor, at the time, when by an indescribable presentiment he removed to the right-hand stage-box, exactly opposite where Mr. Farren was sitting. At that instant the lustre trembled, and the crash followed. His first feeling was to rush into the street, but nevertheless he stood paralysed till the ruins fell. He then leaped into the stage-box, where a large beam, forced down by the weight of the galleries, formed a defence against death. He saw the roof sink, with dreadful noise and confusion, and bury his friends. While struggling through the ruins, he shouted for help, and two sailors rushed in and assisted him to escape. Outside the ruin he met Mr. P. Farren, Miss Yates, and Mr. Wyman. Mr. Farren cried out to him:

"Good God, Goldsmith! have you escaped? We are the only persons who are left to tell the story. Let us fall on our knees and thank God for his protection."

Another escape was scarcely less miraculous. Shaw and his wife were employed in the counting-house, forty feet above the stage, and in an instant found themselves below the stage, with a large plank lying across their bodies. Releasing himself and wife from this plank, the man carried his wife up a staircase still standing, and having gained a window, lowered her into the street by means of a rope, and then followed. They were both much bruised, and were at once carried to the London Hospital.

Mr. Carruthers at the time of the accident was sitting on a chair on the O. P. side of the stage. His legs were crushed by the ruins, but he was extracted in about an hour and a half, with the loss of his shoes, stockings, and small-clothes. One of the actors, hearing the walls crack, and seeing the chandelier loosen and drop, by an instinctive effort reached the door, and rushed into the street about a second before the roof fell in. A moment afterwards he heard the shrieks and groans of the wounded and dying. He was too terrified to give the alarm when he fled, and was so panic stricken that he ran onward without thinking of what he was about, till he reached Covent Garden Theatre, where he had a relative performing. He remained there for a short time in a state of great agitation, then returned to the dismal scene.

Mr. Dillon, an actor, threw himself out of a window at the first alarm, and as he alighted was all but overwhelmed by the falling rubbish. He called loudly for assistance, but the persons near were afraid to venture, till one or two of the more daring ran in and rescued him. Lynch, the pantaloon, seeing the wall crumbling under the roof, and the latter sinking fast; took a flying leap through a window into an adjoining yard; and fell upon his legs and escaped. Joseph Roberts, a smith, was at the time, with a man named Purdy, fixing a hand-rail to a geometric staircase leading to the dress boxes. They heard a noise, when Mr. Purdy caught him by the hand, and said, "Come, Joe, it's all over." They ran to the door, but could not open it: but Roberts forced it with a chisel. When they reached the street, the two men were separated by the falling of the portico, which killed Mr. Purdy and buried Roberts. When the latter was dragged out, his shoes and stockings had to be left behind. Another man, named George Hoare, observed the wall giving on the Tuesday, and thought the house would fall. Just before the accident he saw the wall "go out" about a foot. As he was preparing to collect his tools, he was carried away to the bottom of the house, and remembered nothing more until he awoke in the London Hospital.

The indirect escapes were numerous. Mrs. Vaughan, the mother of the little girl whom Mr. Farren rescued, had been sent for by the manager, but did not attend, as she had been at all the previous rehearsals. Mr. Campbell, one of the actors, had been to the rehearsal, when he remembered Mr. Maurice had asked him to deliver a note in the neighbourhood. He had not got ten yards from the door before a terrible crash made him look round, and he saw the beautiful building he had just quitted, a shapeless heap of ruins. Mr. Finley, the scene-painter, who was in his room over the stage, fell with tremendous violence; but in his descent he stuck in the balustrade of a staircase that led from the stage to his room, and was miraculously saved. Mr. Saker, a low comedian, his wife and child, were half an hour late at rehearsal, and were within a few hundred yards of the theatre when it fell. Mr. Adcock, the prompter, had just arrived at the end of Grace's-alley, in Wells-street, directly opposite the theatre, when he saw the immense building sink under the heavy roof. He ran back up the passage, but was for some time speechless.

The front wall fell on the house of Mr. Blatz, a baker, in Wells-street. Mr. Blatz heard the crash of the roof, and had time to escape before the wall fell and partly destroyed his shop.

The dead were dreadfully mutilated. Mr. Evans, the editor of the Bristol Mercury and Observer, a friend of Mr. Maurice, and who was conversing with him a few minutes before the accident, was struck by a ponderous beam on the forehead. His body was for some time taken for that of Evans, one of the doorkeepers. Leader, a carpenter, was struck by a beam from the circular boxes as he was in the act of escaping from the workshop, and was found dead, jammed against the staircase, a hammer still clenched in his right hand.

Mary Anne Fearon, a little girl, one of the leaders of the ballet, who was on the Thursday night to have performed in the Fatal Prophecy, was dreadfully crushed, and her head almost severed in two. Penfold, the doorkeeper (a superannuated clerk in the London Docks), made a desperate attempt to escape. His body was found on the steps with the head towards the street, and the legs upwards.

The wall that fell in Wells-street destroyed two houses opposite: a public-house and a baker's: and it also crushed a passing dray and two horses from Elliot's brewery. A gentleman passing, had a mass of ruins fall on one of his legs; but, by a tremendous muscular effort, drew out his foot and left his boot behind. A poor old-clothesman, named Levi, from Petticoat-lane, was reading a play-bill on an opposite wall, and was crushed by the falling ruins. His friends could only identify his body by the Table of Laws (a sort of Jewish talisman) which was found attached to his breast next his skin. The unhappy wife of this poor man became insane from grief.

In all, thirteen persons perished by this accident, and about twenty more were hurt and wounded. The street rumour at first was that one hundred performers had perished, besides one hundred spectators in the pit. Had the house fallen on the opening night, some three thousand persons must have been slain.

Soon after this terrible affair happened, a party of labourers were sent by Mr. Hardwick, the architect, then constructing the St. Catherine Docks, and he himself superintended their zealous labours. They gradually cleared away the immense mountain of bricks and broken timber, beneath which the sufferers' cries could still be heard at intervals. Towards night the men became so exhausted that they had to discontinue their search, in spite of the tears and entreaties of persons in the crowd whose relations were still missing.

At last a brave sailor, thinking he heard some one moaning in a specially dangerous part, procured a torch, forced an opening, and let himself down into the chasm. There was a deep and solemn silence enforced during his chivalrous search; but he found nothing. On Friday, more bodies were dug out; on Saturday the digging was relinquished: Mr. Hardwick himself having searched the vaults beneath the orchestra, pit, and stage. The ruin was singular in appearance. The boards of the stage, pit, and stage-boxes, were cracked into pieces, and formed a sort of rude arch. The iron roof lay like a network over the centre of the mass, and had entangled itself with the timber. It was especially noticed by the crowd that the walls were tall and slight, and that the mortar, not yet dry, had scarcely left a mark upon the bricks. The place was visited on Friday by vast crowds, including the Duke of Argyle and many persons of distinction, on whom the pick-pockets made great havoc. One Jew-boy was heard to boast the he had made forty handkerchiefs that day.

On the Thursday week after the calamity, a public meeting was held in the London Tavern, the Lord Mayor in the chair, to set on foot a subscription for the sufferers. Alderman Birch, the celebrated pastry-cook, Sir G. Smart, Mr. Charles Kemble, Mr. Elliston, and Mr. Fawcett were present. The Duchess of St. Albans (always generous to the members of her old profession) subscribed one hundred pounds and the Duke fifty. The secretary's statement showed what terrible suffering the accident had caused to many clever industrious, and struggling families. Miss Freeman, a dancer, and one of the sufferers, had been sent on the stage by her parents, who were servants, and who had pinched themselves to provide her outfit. Her landlady, who was going to bury her at her own expense, was a poor shipwright's wife, with four small children. The wounded persons also suffered terrible loss. Nodder, the box-keeper, had lost one hundred and forty pounds from the previous theatre being burnt, and had paid Mr. Maurice one hundred pounds for his situation in the Brunswick Theatre. Mr. Harris, the stage-door keeper, who had his leg broken, had a daughter hurt. This girl had been a music-mistress, and had supported her father, and had got him his situation. Mr. Maurice had held two-thirds of the property of the theatre, and his family was totally wrecked by the loss. About seven hundred and fifty pounds were subscribed in the room.

The day after the accident, a meeting of the performers at the Brunswick was held at the Black Horse, in Wells-street, to ascertain who was missing. The muster-roll was read, and there was a terrible silence when the names were called.

The inquest on the bodies was held at the Court-house, in Wellclose-square, before Mr. Maurice Thomas, the coroner.

The evidence all went to prove the strange infatuation with which the proprietors, blindly eager for reimbursement, had hurried forward to their ruin. The clerk of the works, the surveyor, the architect, all knew that the roof was settling down. The property-man was so sure of it, that he had determined to quit the theatre. A gentleman who came to the play on the Tuesday, and found that the box-doors would not shut, suspected danger, and left the theatre. Another person, on seeing the front wall bulge on the Tuesday, would not enter, but returned home. Only on the Monday, the principal carpenter of Drury Lane Theatre had pronounced that the walls were not strong enough, or the cement dry enough, to support an iron roof weighing, with its adjuncts, sixty tons.

The inquest continued till the first week in April. The evidence of all the witnesses was characterised by recriminations, pitiful evasions, and some falsehood. The architect was anxious to show that he had warned the proprietors; the surviving proprietor was desirous to prove that he had never been properly warned; the builders tried to convince the jury that they had built the place firmly and well. The contradictions were sometimes palpable, as when Mr. Whitwell declared he had never been warned of the danger, whereas he himself actually gave in evidence that he had been up in the flies on the Monday night to examine the cause of their sinking. Mr. Carruthers, too, was so nervously anxious about the flies that he had ordered them to be propped, and yet had had no surveyor to advise him as to the safety of the roof.

The eventual verdict was "Accidental death by the fall of the roof of the Brunswick Theatre, which was occasioned in consequence of hanging heavy weights thereto; and the jury are of opinion that the proprietors are highly reprehensible in allowing such weight to be so attached. And we fine, in each of the two cases, a deodand of forty shillings."

A scientific writer of the day, reviewing the causes of this accident, says it was a very hazardous experiment to construct walls eighty-eight feet high, and one hundred and seventeen feet in length, unsupported by transverse ties, and only two and a half bricks in thickness.

During the building of these walls, their vibration, and that of the scaffolding, had been so great, that tie beams had to be thrown across the building from wall to wall to keep them steady. These ties, when the roof was laid on, were sawn away, leaving a clear parallelogram one hundred and seventeen feet by sixty-two feet. It must be remembered, too, in extenuation of the architect's remissness, that iron roofs were little used in 1828. Mr. Carruthers had never seen one at all till Mr. Whitwell had taken him down to the Deptford Gasworks and showed him one, and there told him that if the building were ever burnt down, the roof would be worth two-thirds of its original price. Some years before an iron roof a Messrs. Maudsley's, in the Westminster-road, had broken down the building, and this should have been a warning well known to Mr. Whitwell as an architect.

This terrible accident occupied the public mind so entirely, that for some time it effaced even the controversy as to the justice or injustice of the then recent battle of Navarino. The survivors published pamphlets, and a poem was written on the subject. Learned editors also discovered a passage in Tacitus which described a similar accident at an amphitheatre at Fidena, and in which fifty thousant persons were either killed or mamed."

--All the Year Round. A Weekly Journal, Volume XX. From June 13 to November 28, 1868. Including No. 477 to No. 501, Conducted by Charles Dickens, with which is incorporated household words. Pages 133-137. Published at No. 26, Wellington Street; and by Messrs. Chapman and Hall, 193, Piccadilly, London, 1868.

Images from The East London Theatre Archive.