The Theatre Royal after the fire. 1887.
On the 5th of September 1887, the Theatre Royal in Exeter, England burnt down, killing 186 people.
The Theatre Royal that burnt in 1885
It was not the first time the theatre burnt down. After earlier versions were also destroyed by fire, the most recent disaster had been only two years earlier, in 1885.
The 1887 fire broke out backstage during a performance of Romany Rye, when gas lighting set gauze on fire. Panic and crowded exits meant that audience members were trapped.
Only 68 bodies were recovered.
A burnt scrap of a programme from the performance
A national campaign collected £20,763 for the victims’ families.
Emma Livry shortly before her death
Gas lighting was dangerous backstage in the nineteenth century theatre, and a particular danger for ballet dancers, who wore light, floaty fabrics that were highly flammable. Young French ballerina Emma Livry died a few years earlier after her costume caught on fire while she waited for her entrance.
The memorial to the victims
The new Theatre Royal had only been opened the year before the fire. The final version of the theatre was finally closed in 1962.