Playbill from the very night of the tragic fire in Exeter's New Theatre Royal............
Exeter has had a poor history of theatre safety, with three theatres destroyed by fire. In 1787, the New Theatre was built to replace by the Exeter Theatre in Waterbeer Street. It was built by Richard Hughes in what was then, the new development of Bedford Circus. It was situated on the site of what was, until recently, the old AA building of Fanum House. This was a great success with productions such as The Merchant of Venice with Edmund Keane in 1811. Then disaster struck - in 1820, the first of what would be three theatre fires in Exeter destroyed the building when a gas-lit chandelier, high in the roof, set fire to the rafters.
A new theatre named The Theatre Royal was built on the old site in West Southernhay in 1821, incorporating the colonnade of the old, New Theatre! This theatre entertained the people of Exeter until 1885 when another fire destroyed this building - this was pre-electricity with oxygen/hydrogen fuelled limelight, making for a very dangerous fire hazard. There were no casualties from the fire apart from a pig that belonged to a clown.
A hurried replacement, also called the Theatre Royal, was built at the top of Longbrook Street. With a capacity for 1,500, the theatre was built with little regard to fire safety - lessons had not been learned. The Exeter Theatre Company moved in during 1886. On the 5th September 1887, on the first night of a romantic comedy called Romany Rye, and with an audience of 800, a naked gas flame ignited some drapes in the fly's. Within moments, panic broke out as the flames spread. Despite the valiant efforts of the West of England Insurance Co., fire brigade, using the "Little West" fire engine, the flames spread through the building.
Robert Pople, landlord of the New London Inn was quickly on the scene with ladders to rescue the audience. He used the inn to shelter the victims, and the stables to lay out the dead.
There were 186 victims, many from the upper gallery who could not escape because of poorly designed exits - many victims were suffocated in the crush. Most were buried in a mass grave in Higher Cemetery and a memorial cross carved by Harry Hems placed over the spot.
This disaster was the worst theatre fire in British history, and soon, Parliament legislated to bring in stringent safety precautions in all British theatres, including the fire proof safety curtain. Exeter also gained its first electricity generating station which supplied the newly installed electric lighting system in the new Theatre Royal
Price £225 €255.47 $300.76