HC Deb 12 February 1864 vol 173 cc534-6

rose to call attention to the insufficiency of means of egress from Theatres in case of fire or sudden alarm. Theatres were not the only public buildings in which greater precautions were required against the dangers to which the public were exposed from the difficulty of escape in case of fire; but Churches were under the control of the churchwardens, and other public buildings in the metropolis were subject to the licence of the magistrates. He, therefore, confined his question to theatres. Those structures had been placed under the authority of the Lord Chamberlain, by the 6 & 7 Vict. c. 68. Under the terms of the Act, the power of the Lord Chamberlain seemed to be hardly sufficient to provide for the public safety. One need not be an architect or surveyor to see the dangerous condition of some of the London theatres with regard to egress. All were not equally bad, but in several—though it would not be fair to mention them by name—there was no chance whatever for the great bulk of the audience if the "interior suddenly caught fire, or if there was an alarm of fire. It was said that there were other doors than those by which the public ordinarily entered. But the public did not know where these doors were, and would rush to that by which they had been admitted; and then what chance would 400 persons have of escaping through a door which would only admit one at a time? It was easy to say that the public themselves created the danger by their want of presence of mind and by panic. These were plausible common-places, but they were not arguments which would stand. Once at least in every generation here a theatre was destroyed by fire. Last winter at Rome he saw one burned down in an incredibly short period of time, but fortunately, as at Covent Garden, the theatre was empty. He did not wish to say a word against the rights, privileges, and emoluments of actors. They were some of the most excellent citizens we possessed; and the wretched old prejudices—the offspring of envy and ignorance—which once existed against them had long since disappeared. He believed that if they searched the records of the Courts of Justice for the last 100 years, the name of an actor would not be found. He was not aware of any other profession of which that could be said. These matters had always been considered by Governments: Napoleon had signed the regulations of the Grand Opera at Paris amid the flames of Moscow; and the Moniteur of January 22, 1792, contained a theatrical notice, although it omitted as unimportant the fact that the King of Prance was beheaded the day before. It was estimated that as many as 1,500,000 persons now visited the London theatres in the course of the year, and the safety of their lives was surely well worth consideration by that House. He would, therefore, ask the Home Secretary, Whether he regarded the present state of the metropolitan theatres as satisfactory; whether he regarded the present state of the law affecting them as satisfactory; and whether he proposed any alteration in the law?


said, that the Question of the hon. Gentleman, as it stood upon the Paper, was "Whether the Lord Chamberlain would grant licences to theatres in which no adequate provision was made for escape in case of fire?" Now it was most desirable that improved means of egress in case of fire or alarm of fire should be provided in public buildings of every kind, including churches. Theatres were of course, more exposed to risk of fire than churches were; and the Act to which the hon. Baronet had refer- red gave the Lord Chamberlain power to withhold the licence of any theatre in which he did not think the precautions taken for the safety of the public were sufficient. In 1853 the Lord Chamberlain required that every manager should furnish a certificate from an architect as to the safety of the structure and the means of egress. Two years afterwards that was not thought enough, and the Lord Chamberlain, before the annual renewal of the licence, required that an inspection of the whole building by one of his own officers accompanied by an architect or surveyor should take place, and that they should furnish a written report upon various matters connected with the theatre, and especially as to the means of egress, and the precautions taken against fire. Communications were made to the managers in every case in which the Lord Chamberlain inferred from the report thus supplied to him that sufficient precautions were not taken; and the effect of these communications and of the regulations enforced was, that a great improvement had taken place, and the safety of the public was much better provided for than it had been. At that moment, he believed, the means of egress from theatres were much more complete than those in any other public buildings to which people resorted in large numbers, and one important point was that the doors all opened outwards, or were swing doors, which would open either way. The Lord Chamberlain stated that a difficulty had arisen owing to the very narrow frontage possessed by many of the old theatres, which prevented adequate openings on each side which would facilitate the object desired. With regard to new theatres, however, a plan was now always submitted to and approved by him before he would grant a licence, and one of the chief requisites laid down in such cases was the provision of adequate means of egress. The Lord Chamberlain had also discontinued the granting of occasional licences for the performance of stage plays in buildings which, not having the regular stage appliances, exposed an audience to greater risk than the regular theatres. The House might rest assured that the attention of the Lord Chamberlain would continue to be directed to this important subject, and he hoped that ultimately there would be little cause of complaint respecting it.

Subject dropped.

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