The wartime child victims of the Garrick Theatre Disaster
This week marked 100 years since the Garrick Theatre Disaster. Never heard of it? This was little known story, overshadowed by the horrors of the First World War, is about the death of young children in a provincial theatre.
On 7 April 1916, the people of Hereford put on a play to raise money for the troops. In those early spring days, some children, were dressed up for a ‘Winter Wonderland’ presentation, their cotton wool costumes marking them out as Inuit and snow maidens. Hereford hadn’t adopted regulation prohibiting cotton wool costumes on health and safety grounds.
As they left the stage, one girl’s costume caught alight. The reason couldn’t be established at the subsequent inquest, although it was said that it may have been the result of a smoker’s discarded match. The flames spread rapidly. Six of the girls died at the scene. Two more died days later in hospital.
- Peggy Baird, aged 5
- Connie Bragg, aged 5
- Winifred Mailes, aged 6
- Violet Minnie Corey, aged 7
- Linda Alice Illman, aged 8
- Phyllis Eugenie White, aged 10
- Cissie Beavan, aged 12
- Nellie Rutherford, aged 13
This terrible night shook the local community. The sum of £500 was raised for a memorial cot and plaque at Herefordshire General Hospital.
For the families who suffered this traumatic loss, there were almost certainly other bereavements with adult men fighting in that awful war.
A century on, this tragedy has receded into obscurity. Herefordshire General Hospital, which was to mark the memory of the event, has long been demolished, as has the Garrick Theatre itself. The anniversary has passed unreported in the national media.
But locally, some families still remember the impact on earlier generations. I know about the effects of such an experience too, given how my twin Jenny died.
As for basic safety, the lessons are sadly still relevant. Regulations on the flammability of children’s fancy dress costumes are still being reworked following an accident involving UK television personality Claudia Winkleman’s daughter 18 months ago. More on clothing, fire and safety regulations in a future blog.