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The Illustrated Theatre Royal Fire

Also see
List of other theatres
History of the Theatre Royal

Theatre Royal Fire 1887
List of casualties

These illustrations, contemporary to the fire, appeared in the Illustrated London News and the Illustrated Police News. Inspecting them closely indicates that some have been produced from original photographs taken after the tragedy, while many are the product of the illustrators imagination. Illustrations printed from etched blocks first regularly appeared in the Illustrated London News in 1842, but it was not until 1891 that the first half-tone photograph was published in a newspaper. The style was often lurid to sell newspapers and the two sets of illustrations from the 1887 Theatre Royal fire tragedy follow the pattern. The Illustrated London News is the more sober in style, using photographs taken by Mr H T Heath of the High Street as the basis for their pictures. They also sent their artist Mr Melton Prior down to Exeter to produce some illustrations directly, ensuring their accuracy. The Illustrated Police News shows quickly executed, imaginative, melodramatic moments, such as an actress escaping through a window, for which there would have only been eyewitness statements to base the illustration on.


Photograph of the theatre after the fire.An original photograph of the Theatre Royal after the fire, showing the burnt out shell. The shell would be retained for the new, safer Theatre Royal that was built on the same site and opened the next year. It is probable that the crowd were massed in New North Road because the entrance to the stables, where the bodies of the victims were laid out, were opposite this side of the theatre.

The fire-engine used on the day of the tragedy.The original fire-engine that attended the blazing theatre. Belonging to the West of England Fire Insurance Company, it arrived within a few minutes, but was clearly not able to make an impression on the fire. It now belongs to AXA Insurance.


The Illustrated Police News coverage - 10 September 1887

The theatre before the fire.A lively illustration of people arriving at the theatre for the final performance. The whole front page had across the top "The Burning of Exeter Theatre - Shocking Scenes."

Flames engulf the balconyAn imaginative illustration of the fire with the caption "Scene on balcony during the fire." Many in the dress circle escaped to the upper foyer which was linked via a vestibule to what was described as a portico. Ladders were used to get some down from the outside balcony, but some, in their terror jumped into the street and were killed.

The stairs are a deathtrapAccompanied by the lurid caption "The Exeter Theatre Calamity - A death trap the gallery staircase", this illustration is the Victorian equivalent of a News of the World illustration.

An actress escapes the flames.Another Illustrated Police News depiction of a dramatic moment with the caption "An actress dropping from window." Billowing smoke and sparks surround the girl, leaving it to the imagination about where she will end up.

Panic in the auditorium.This illustration is captioned "Fatal fire Exeter theatre burns". It shows members of the audience leaping from the dress circle while the cast leap off the stage pursued by a billowing mass of flame.

A man escapes the fire"Narrow escape of Mr Selby - comedian" shows one of the cast at a door as he escapes. The artist has included a burning cross motif as though he is being protected by his faith.

Relatives and friends indentify the bodies.Compare this illustration with a similar, more sober version in the Illustrated London News below. Captioned "Bodies awaiting identification" it shows a large crowd with distraught individuals identifying bodies. 

The burnt out staircase.A rough and ready illustration of "The staircase after the calamity" shows a still smoking ruin that does not bear much resemblance to the similar version from the Illustrated London News of the pay box below.

The clergyman who upset the relatives.One of the funerals ended with the crowd accusing the minister presiding over the ceremony of drunkenness. The Rev. John Ingle, Rector of St Olaves appeared on the 13 September before Justices at the Castle charged with being drunk in Exeter Cemetery. It was claimed that he appeared to be staggering and mumbling at the head of the funeral party. After three attempts to conduct the ceremony, he is said to have walked unsteadily away, while mourners demand he return and finish the proceedings. Police officers arrived and he was arrested. In the event, the magistrate thought the evidence contradictory and he dismissed the case.

A funeral cortege of the victims.Many turned out for the funerals of the victims and here, the IPN artist has captured the scene and captioned "Funeral of the victims."


The Illustrated London News Coverage - 17 September 1887

The fire at the height of the tragedy.An imaginative illustration of the scene of the fire. However, the accuracy of the drawing suggests it was based on a photograph of the building.

The theatre after the fire.This illustration shows the theatre after the fire with people standing around, wondering 'what next'. It is from a photograph by Mr H T Heath a local photographer from the High Street.

Interior of the theatre after the fire.This finely detailed illustration was also probably based on a photograph from Mr Heath, as the Illustrated London News mentions that at least one interior illustration was based on a photo. It indicates the care that the Illustrated London News took over accuracy.

The burnt out gallery.The wrecked gallery - the looser style, than the preceding illustration, suggests it was drawn by Mr Price after the event.


The dress circle.The remains of the dress circle showing the supporting columns still intact, while two seats can be discerned at the rear. Again, care has been taken to make an accurate record.

The damaged dressing room.The dressing room was beneath the stage - the illustration shows the dark, narrow passage that led to the dressing rooms, and how difficult it would have been to escape when filled with smoke.


The exterior door was still bolted.This exterior door at the bottom of the stairs appears to be still bolted. Many victims died of smoke inhalation, as fumes were carried up the stairs which acted like a flue. Probably drawn at the scene by Mr Price.

The first and second stair cases.Two views of the staircases - many victims were found face down, piled up higher than the handrails on each side, as someone leading, tripped, and those behind pushed down and fell on top.


The paybox - many were trapped here.This pay box caused a blockage as people tried to escape down the stairs. One survivor stated "All the doors were open, but the check-box was left in the doorway at the head of the stairs. I kicked the box aside."

Bodies laid out in the New London Inn stable.A surprisingly graphic illustration of the bodies laid out at the New London Inn. This may be based on a verbal description plus Mr Price the artist visiting the stable. Compare the style with the far more lurid equivalent from the Illustrated Police News above.


A funeral at Higher Cemetery.The Illustrated London News published its graphic account of the fire 12 days after the event. This gave time for this illustration of a funeral at Higher Cemetery to be prepared. It was probably drawn at the event by the paper's artist, judging from the accurate portrayal of the two chapels at the cemetery.

A burnt scrap of play-bill.A burnt scrap of the play bill for acts 2 to 5 of Romany Rye, the play that was showing on the evening of the fire.


Mr Pople helped in the rescue. Robert Pople was the owner of the New London Inn, whose stables were used to lay out the bodies, and which took in many stunned and wounded playgoers. On the first alarm. Mr Pople "brought six or eight ladders, by which fifty or sixty people were rescued; he also gave the services of his entire household to the reception of the dead and living sufferers."

William Hunt was praised by the paper. Seaman William Hunt, right, of HMS Express helped to rescue the living and retrieve the dead - the illustration is based on a photograph by Mr Heath. Driver George Cooper of the Royal Artillery was also praised, while Bombardier Scattergood who was in the audience, saved many around him before he died of his injuries.

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