A Victorian disaster

About the object

Courtesy of Sunderland Museum and Winter Gardens © Sunderland Museum and Winter Gardens
Courtesy of Sunderland Museum and Winter Gardens © Sunderland Museum and Winter Gardens

​What happened

On 16 June 1883, around 2000 children, aged mostly between seven and eleven, attended a variety show by the traveling entertainers in the Victoria Hall in Sunderland. The Fays had advertised the show around local schools. To promote it, they offered every child the chance to claim a prize with their ticket at the end of the show. The rocking horse was one such prize. It was given to Emily Steel, who was five years old at the time. As a man was handing Emily the horse a boy grabbed it and got the rocker and fore legs.

When the entertainers began distributing the prizes to the children on the ground floor of the hall, the children who had been watching the show in the upstairs gallery were anxious not to miss out and started rushing down the stairs. They were stopped at an inward-opening door bolted a few inches open. The narrow stairwell quickly became blocked and many of those already at the bottom of the stairs were crushed by the weight of those above. Emily was fortunate and escaped unharmed.

News of the disaster quickly spread through the country. Queen Victoria sent a message of condolence to the families and a donation towards funeral costs. A disaster fund was raised which paid for the funerals of all 183 children, during which all businesses in Sunderland remained closed as a mark of respect. A memorial statue was erected in Mowbray Park in 1883. Two inquests were held after the tragedy though no one in particular was held responsible. However, as a result of the disaster, parliament subsequently issued laws that required all places of public entertainment to have a sufficient number of exits, with outward-opening doors.

A space for respectable working-class public entertainment

In the early nineteenth century, Sunderland was made wealthy through the export of coal and was also the nation’s largest shipbuilding town. Its booming economy attracted many working-class families to the town. The Victoria Hall was built In the 1870s, funded by the family of Edward Backhouse, a Quaker Minister and philanthropist with banking connections. The Hall offered an alternative venue to the existing music halls, deemed controversial and immoral by some, to offer respectable public social events such as lectures, religious meetings and music recitals. A co-founder of the Sunderland Echo, Backhouse was committed to charitable and temperance work amongst the poor of Sunderland. The Fays’ variety show was seen as a treat for the local children with many tickets costing as little as a penny each.

Child labour and schooling

Due to opportunities and demands created by the Industrial Revolution, child labour was common in the early 1800s: the physique of a child was considered ideal by many factor employers for working in confined spaces or amongst heavy and dangerous machinery, and children’s wages cost much less than adults. Despite the hazardous conditions, many poor families relied on the income earned by sending their children to work.

The plight of working-class children drew the attention of a number of reformers and philanthropists such as Robert Owen, Richard Oastler and Lord Ashley, Earl of Shaftesbury. Motivated by their sense of Christian and moral duty, these men, some of them industrialists themselves, tried to improve conditions for children (and women) working in mines and factories by campaigning for legislation, setting up charities and donating money to the poor. The Factory Act of 1833 banned employment of children under the age of nine in textile factories and restricted the number of working hours per day to nine for children aged nine to 13; the Factory Act of 1878 banned employment of children under the age of ten. By the 1880s only boys who were over 12 could work in mines.

Reform in the area of schooling also had an impact on child labour. In 1844 the Ragged School Union was established with Shaftesbury as its president to set up schools for those who could not pay the fees for voluntary schools. The Education Acts of 1870 and 1880 established compulsory schooling for children between the ages of five and 10. By 1899, all children were required to attend school until the age of twelve.

More information

The disaster and the hall's earlier and later history - part 1.
Comprehensive information about the disaster with newspaper stories, photos, contemporary drawings and other primary sources.

The disaster and the hall's earlier and later history - part 2.
Second page of above including a full transcript of the inquest.

Brief information about the disaster, produced by Sunderland City Council


Statue restoration
News article about the restoration of the marble statue commemorating the disaster

Eye-witness account of a survivor


Information about child labour in the nineteenth century


Representation of childhood
Article on the representation of childhood in the Victorian period.

The Victorian Age of Reform
Article about some of the individuals and groups who made a difference during the Victorian Age of Reform.

Education reform
Information on education reform in the nineteenth century.

Fact sheet on education from the medieval period to 2011

Next section: A bigger picture

A Victorian disaster