The Victorian Hall Stampede of 1883

Of all the human stampedes in recorded history, the Victorian Hall stampede is probably the most heartbreaking. Why? Because every fatality involved the compressive asphyxiation of children ages 3-14.

On June 16, 1883, a “matinee variety show” came to a large concert hall in Sunderland, England. The performance was exclusively geared towards the youth.

Due to capacity issues, only a limited number of adults/parents were permitted inside the venue. Roughly 2,000 kids were in attendance, half of them situated in the upper balcony. At the conclusion of the event, prizes (toys) were to be awarded. As the show ended, it was announced that everyone would receive a prize as they exited the venue. However, someone on stage allegedly began tossing toys into the lower crowd. The thousand children in the balcony, sensing there might not be enough to go around, grew anxious and scrambled towards the staircase in a desperate attempt to reach the lower level.

However, on that fateful day, someone made an atrocious decision to BOLT the lower door, leaving only a small passage of about 20 inches. This was purposely done with the intention of carefully regulating the flow of children. Lamentably, at some point, a child got stuck and the rest is history. Unable to see what was happening, the children at the top of the steps continued to surge forward. The momentum from the crush was unstoppable.

By the time it was over, 183 children had suffocated to death. 114 boys and 69 girls lost their lives.

Like I always say, in the aftermath of an extreme tragedy (particularly one that was easily preventable)… people will cry, then they will pray, and then finally, they will address and fix the underlying variable(s) which played a significant role in the disaster. Horrific tragedies are often followed by innovation and invention, an obvious attempt to prevent future catastrophes. It’s why cities build dams after severe flooding. The same logic applies to tree thinning and clearcutting in anticipation of wildfires. DUI awareness campaigns help discourage drunk driving. Not to mention restrictions on AR-15 assault weapons in the wake of mass shootings. On second thought, let’s not get carried away. We’re not quite there… yet. But when it’s all said and done, the goal is to improve public safety in the realm of protocol and standards.

A few years after the Victoria Hall stampede, an inventor named Robert Briggs received a patent for his invention — the “panic bar.” And a new industry standard emerged.

The United States has its own version known as a “crash bar.”

This 100+ year old concept has stood the test of time. It exists to this very day with regard to arenas, convention centers, theaters, and so on.

Through the randomness of the internet, I became familiar with a writer named William McGonagall. He authored what might possibly be the worst poem ever written in the history of mankind.

The Sunderland Calamity… by William McGonagall.

‘Twas in the town of Sunderland, and in the year of 1883,

That about 200 children were launch’d into eternity

While witnessing an entertainment in Victoria Hall,

While they, poor little innocents, to God for help did call.

The entertainment consisted of conjuring, and the ghost illusion play,

Also talking waxworks, and living marionettes, and given by Mr. Fay;

And on this occasion, presents were to be given away,

But in their anxiety of getting presents they wouldn’t brook delay,

And that is the reason why so many lives have been taken away;

But I hope their precious souls are in heaven to-day.

As soon as the children began to suspect

That they would lose their presents by neglect,

They rush’d from the gallery, and ran down the stairs pell-mell,

And trampled one another to death, according as they fell.

As soon as the catastrophe became known throughout the boro’

The people’s hearts were brim-full of sorrow,

And parents rush’d to the Hall terror-stricken and wild,

And each one was anxious to find their own child.

Oh! it must have been a most horrible sight

To see the dear little children struggling with all their might

To get out at the door at the foot of the stair,

While one brave little boy did repeat the Lord’s Prayer.

The innocent children were buried seven or eight layers deep,

The sight was heart-rending and enough to make one weep;

It was a most affecting spectacle and frightful to behold

The corpse of a little boy not above four years old,

Who had on a top-coat much too big for him,

And his little innocent face was white and grim,

And appearing to be simply in a calm sleep-

The sight was enough to make one’s flesh to creep.

The scene in the Hall was heart-sickening to behold,

And enough to make one’s blood run cold.

To see the children’s faces, blackened, that were trampled to death,

And their parents lamenting o’er them with bated breath.

Oh! it was most lamentable for to hear

The cries of the mothers for their children dear;

And many mothers swooned in grief away

At the sight of their dead children in grim array.

There was a parent took home a boy by mistake,

And after arriving there his heart was like to break

When it was found to be the body of a neighbour’s child;

The parent stood aghast and was like to go wild.

A man and his wife rush’d madly in the Hall,

And loudly in grief on their children they did call,

And the man searched for his children among the dead

Seemingly without the least fear or dread.

And with his finger pointing he cried. “That’s one! two!

Oh! heaven above, what shall I do;”

And still he kept walking on and murmuring very low.

Until he came to the last child in the row;

Then he cried, “Good God! all my family gone

And now I am left to mourn alone;”

And staggering back he cried, “Give me water, give me water!”

While his heart was like to break and his teeth seem’d to chatter.

Oh, heaven! it must have been most pitiful to see

Fathers with their dead children upon their knee

While the blood ran copiously from their mouths and ears

And their parents shedding o’er them hot burning tears.

I hope the Lord will comfort their parents by night and by day,

For He gives us life and He takes it away,

Therefore I hope their parents will put their trust in Him,

Because to weep for the dead it is a sin.

Her Majesty’s grief for the bereaved parents has been profound,

And I’m glad to see that she has sent them £50;

And I hope from all parts of the world will flow relief

To aid and comfort the bereaved parents in their grief.

I’m not sure what’s worse, the inconsistent rhyme scheme or the disjointed meter. Maybe it’s the simple notion that someone would write a poem so twisted and objectionable.

Then it dawned on me. I wrote a similar poem. Except mine dealt with the prospect of multiple, simultaneous human stampedes. And for what it’s worth, I wrote a limerick and a haiku as well. Keep in mind, this material was written 5 years ago, prognosticating a future, asymmetric cyber-Armageddon.

So what’s this all about? What’s the lone, single variable I’m referring to that could foment and propel mass chaos? Well, it’s the one that’s literally staring everyone in the face. Yep, those pesky little cell phones. Now am I suggesting that we ban all cell phones from stadiums, ballparks, arenas, etc.? Of course not. But hey, the least you could do… the absolute bare minimum amount of generic public safety information our government and/or private industry could explicitly divulge… is that legitimate venue evacuation orders would NEVER be delivered via your personal cell phone or mobile device. Seriously, is that asking too much?

Unfortunately, it is. Of course it’s asking too much.

It all makes me wonder if mankind is significantly wiser than they were in the late 1800’s. Perhaps. Perhaps not.