HC Deb 21 May 1875 vol 224 cc742-5

, in rising to call attention to the inadequate provision for the safety of the public in case of fire in the London Theatres, said, that in 1866 it was calculated that there were 60,000 persons in the London theatres every evening, and 200,000 persons in other places of amusement; and those numbers must now have greatly increased. All the evidence on this subject showed that the means of exit in case of panic or fire were insufficient. A Select Committee, known as "Mr. Ayrton's Committee," sat in 1866, but it took evidence principally in regard to the question whether the licensing power of the Lord Chamberlain or that of the Middlesex magistrates should be united under one person or not. Into that question, which still remained unsettled, he did not intend to enter. At present the theatres were licensed by the Lord Chamberlain, who had a small staff under his direction, while the places of amusement were licensed by the Middlesex magistrates in Quarter Sessions. With regard to the risk of fire, many theatres had been burnt down, and it was said that there was a regular rotation in the order of their burning; unfortunately science had not advanced so far as to show on what particular evening a theatre would be burnt. Still, persons experienced in fire insurance would point out the probabilities of particular theatres being burnt at a certain time. It appeared that shortly before Covent Garden Theatre was last burnt down, a wish was expressed to increase the insurance. The agent, however, declined, observing—" Very shortly your turn will come; and then down you will go." From the evidence of Mr. Donne, given before Mr. Ayrton's Committee, it seemed that the rules of the Lord Chamberlain's office as to exits and entrances were strict, and that the Lord Chamberlain had the power of taking precautions that the places of exit were wide enough to secure the safety of the audience in case of fire. It was doubtful, however, whether the staff at the Lord Chamberlain's disposal was sufficient; and whether the circumstances under which those powers were exercised were calculated to secure the safety of the public in case either of fire or panic. He wished also to ask a question relating to the employment and payment of the police in the theatres and other places of amusement in the metropolis. From a Return issued that day he learned that the lessees of theatres had paid the police £1,571 5s.1d; and the question arose whether they were there in the interest of the public or in that of the managers, with the latter of whom they must necessarily be on friendly terms. If the police were placed there for the protection of the public, he thought the responsibility in case of fire or panic ought to rest upon them. No one wished to interfere with the emoluments of actors, a harmless, unobtrusive, and hard-working race, but the interests of the public should be considered; and he thought that, considering the enormous profits now accruing to theatrical proprietors, the present was an opportune time for bringing the subject forward.


said, no one could find fault with the hon. and gallant Member for bringing forward that subject, which was one of great public interest and importance. He wished he could state positively that there was no danger of fire in any of our theatres, but that it would be difficult to do, because many of these theatres had been built a long time ago, and could not have the benefit of all the most improved modern arrangements. At the same time, he was bound to say great care was taken by the authority in whose hands all power in this respect was vested, and that was, not the Secretary of State, but the Lord Chamberlain. That functionary informed him that theatres were the only buildings that were liable to supervision in that respect; and there were no doubt other places where people congregated in which they were exposed to greater danger than they were in theatres. The Lord Chamberlain said of theatres— They are regularly inspected by the Lord Chamberlain's officers, with a competent architect, who report that there is not now a theatre in London which could not be cleared in a very few minutes; that there are none in which there are not separate and distinct exits from boxes, pit, and gallery; that, with very few exceptions, there are double means of exit from each of these separate portions of the house, so that if one were blocked the other could be used in case of danger; that the doors are all made to open outwards, to swing both ways, or to fasten back; and that the greatest precautions are taken to prevent fire, and to extinguish it at once if it arises, by water supply, hose, &c. If any theatres were to be rebuilt, it would be wise to borrow one improvement from abroad, and that would be to make any passage in which two passages were united as wide, or nearly as wide, as the two separate passages together, for a block was generally due to the meeting of streams of persons in one corridor. In any future re-constructions he hoped this point would be attended to by architects. He was sorry the Chairman of the Metropolitan Board was not present to speak for the Metropolitan Fire Brigade, but he had spoken to the hon. and gallant Member, who would be glad to learn on the part of the Board if anything more could be done to promote the safety of the public. "With regard to the question relating to the employment and payment of police in theatres and other places of amusement in the metropolis, they were in most cases specially employed at the request of the lessees, who paid for their services. Those services were these—The police regulated the admission of the public and the preservation of order during the performance, and they assisted the manager or his servants in ejecting any riotous or disorderly person. The police did not interfere with, nor were they in any way responsible for the arrangements made for the prevention of fire. When necessary, the police on ordinary duty regulated the carriage traffic at all theatres. He held in his hand a copy of the General Police Orders on the subject of theatres. He was not aware that any complaints had been made of the way in which the police had performed their duty at the theatres; but if any such complaints were made he would see that they were properly attended to. He believed that, so far, the police had performed their duty effectually without causing unnecessary inconvenience or annoyance. If there was any theatre to which special attention should be directed, or of which complaint could be made, he would do his best to see that attention was paid to any representations that reached him.