HC Deb 17 April 1882 vol 268 cc788-801

, in rising to move— That in view of the great danger to the Theatre-going public from the insufficiency of powers under existing Acts relating to Theatres, and the laxity with which such powers, conferred by various Acts of Parliament, have been exercised, and that any day, unless some steps are taken to insure proper exits and necessary appliances against fire, a calamity may happen which may cause as terrific a loss of life as that which lately occurred at the Ring Theatre at Vienna, a Select Committee be appointed to investigate the state of the exits and what appliances exist for the prevention or extinction of fires in Theatres and Music Halls, and to report the result of their investigations and recommendations thereon, said, that the frightful calamity which occurred at Vienna, by which 700 lives were sacrificed, succeeding the catastrophe at Nice, where 300 lives were lost, naturally led him to consider whether the theatres of England were liable to these calamities from fire. In looking into the subject he found, so far as London alone was concerned, that there were 472 places of amusement. The great difficulty in dealing with the subject consisted in the conflicting jurisdictions in which they were placed. They had first the Crown, under which there were two Patent theatres, holding about 8,000 persons; secondly, they had the Lord Chamberlain, who had under him 45 theatres, holding 80,000 persons; thirdly, they had the Divisional Magistrates, with 10 theatres, holding 31,800; fourthly, the Middlesex Magistrates, with 347 music halls, holding 136,700; fifthly, they had the Surrey Magistrates, with 61 music halls, holding 32,800 persons; sixthly, they had the City of London Magistrates, with two music halls, holding 1,400 persons; and, lastly, they had five unlicensed places of amusement, holding about 5,000—making 472 places of amusement, holding about 300,000 persons. They had no less than six different jurisdictions, and, to make the confusion even worse confounded, there was the authority of the Metropolitan Board of Works overriding some of these authorities, and another authority—that of the Home Secretary—was also brought in. He thought it was perfectly scandalous that the law should be in such a state that even the authorities themselves probably did not know their own powers, and that one authority could be pitted against another, and all put at defiance by anybody whose interest it was to do so. As he said, 300,000 people could be accommodated in these places of amusement, and probably on Saturday and Monday nights this number was nearly reached. The subject was one, therefore, which concerned a large class of Her Majesty's subjects. To bring the matter practically before the House, he might say that it concerned 1,500,000 of the people of London alone each week. He thought it was shameful that people should be allowed to go to our theatres, not only unprotected, but without the slightest knowledge of the risks which they ran. He had asked the Home Secretary, in view of the great danger to which the public were exposed, owing to the inadequacy of protection against fires in theatres and music halls, whether he would introduce a Bill dealing with the matter? The Home Secretary had replied that special legislation had taken place in 1878, and that the Board of Works had power to deal with the old and new theatres. He (Mr. Dixon-Hartland) had been astonished at the answer; because, if he had read the Act of 1878 aright, the powers of the Metropolitan Board of Works were insufficient to deal with the old theatres. He had then, again, turned to the Act, and had found that the only part of it which dealt with the old theatres was in Section 11. There it said that where a theatre was so defective in its construction as to be dangerous to the public, the Board might order the defeets to be remedied, provided it could be done at a moderate expense. Therefore, the greater the risk the greater the difficulty of providing against it, for where the risk was great the structure must be very defective, and the cost of improving it consequently large; and the Board only had power to interfere when the expense incurred would be moderate. It seemed to him that this principle set the interests of the owners and managers above the safety of the public; and this at a time when the occupation was most lucrative—when new theatres were being opened every day, and when the public were paying a larger sum for admission to them than had ever been known before. The prices of admission to the stalls had been raised from 5s. to 10s. 6d. To be sure he (Mr. Dixon-Hartland) had made no mistake, he had next questioned the Chairman of the Metropolitan Board of Works as to his powers, and the answer of the hon. Gentleman, however much he might decline to admit it, satisfied every reasonable person that his Board could be put at defiance, and structural defects could only be required to be remedied if they could be done at a moderate expense. On receiving that admission, which, in his (Mr. Dixon-Hartland's) opinion, was an admission that the Board had no powers, he had, on January 16, again questioned the Home Secretary on the subject, and from the answer given he had been satisfied that the Home Secretary was not satisfied with the powers which he possessed. The right hon. Gentleman admitted that neither he nor any other authority had power to close any theatre, however dangerous to the public. He only hoped that the right hon. and learned Gentleman would not have the misfortune to be in a London theatre if it should happen to catch fire, else he was afraid that he should never have the honour of receiving an answer from him on the question he was then referring to, or upon any other question. The Board of Works was a body which had shown a great public spirit, and had done a great deal of work of great public merit. But it was also a body very jealous of its authority and whenever it had any power to take steps it took them. Therefore, he (Mr. Dixon-Hartland) wished to know why they had not taken action upon the provisions of the Act of 1878 if they had not been perfectly aware that the powers it had conferred upon them were valueless? Since they had received the Home Secretary's letter last Christmas, they had, however, made the rapid and astounding progress of appointing two Deputy Inspectors at a salary of three guineas per week each, and of also, on the 13th January, instructing their Fire Brigade Committee to make a Report on Drury Lane, Covent Garden, the Gaiety, the Vaudeville, the Strand, the Lyceum, and the Opera Comique. No Report, however, was ordered on a well-known underground theatre—on a theatre which could only be approached, so far as the public were concerned, through a private house—and on another theatre built entirely of wood, and which were, no doubt, three of the most dangerous structures in the Metropolis. The order to Report upon the theatres had been given on January 13; but on the 20th March—two months afterwards—the Chairman of the Metropolitan Board of Works had been obliged to confess that he had not received the Report. That Report had only been received by the Home Secretary two or three days before the House rose for the Easter Recess; and the Under Secretary for Foreign Affairs, in the absence of the Home Secretary, had said that it was of such a serious character that he must decline to give its contents before the Home Secretary had had an opportunity of consulting the Lord Chamberlain upon the subject. Having brought the subject before the House and the country, he had considered that it was his duty to become practically and personally acquainted with the state of the theatres in London; and had, therefore, by the kind exertions of a gentleman well known in matters relating to the extinction of fires in London (Captain Shaw), who had formulated the best rules he had seen for the extinction of fires in theatres, been enabled to visit a great number of theatres and music halls. He regretted that the Chairman of the Metropolitan Board of Works had not been with him on the occasion of his inspection, because it would have been probable that that hon. Gentleman would have altered the opinion that he appeared to possess, that the theatres were not unsafe, and would have found that many of our theatres, in cases of fire, would be perfect death-traps. From what he had seen, he had been surprised that accidents had not more frequently occurred, partly from the faults of construction, partly from the materials used, and partly from the necessity of shifting large scenes as dry as tinder in the midst of flaring gaslights. To those dangers should be added the utter carelessness caused by the familiarity with danger, which had been well brought before the public by Madame Marie Roze-Mapleson, in a letter to The Times, in which she had said that many artists went behind the scenes nightly at the risk of their lives. In one theatre that he had inspected he had found a workman reading a newspaper by a flaming gaslight close by the scenes that he was waiting to move. When spoken to upon the subject, the man had merely said that he could not read with a shade on the light, and had taken it off. The fireman of the theatre even had not seemed to think that there was anything unusual in the practice. As it was impossible to do away with carelessness, it was also impossible to do away with accidents, as was proved by the fact that between 1861 and 1877, 187 theatres had been destroyed by fire, the number so destroyed being 13 annually—the average life of a theatre being under 23 years. Even in that day's paper there were reports of the destruction by fire of two theatres. The subject divided itself into two parts. One was the safety of the public, and the other was the safety of the house. The safety of the house could be guarded by properly-qualified firemen, from any well-known brigade, always at their posts, and by the employment of hose and hydrants attached to the main service. The proper order and the proper inspection of the apparatus might be left very much to the owners of the house. The safety of the public was a very different matter indeed, and depended, in his opinion, greatly upon their means of getting away, and not upon appliances which, as a rule, were never in working order when wanted. To secure the safety of the public there should be proper exits, every door should be unlocked continuously during the performance, and every door should open outwards. Every part of the house should, in his opinion, have a separate staircase, and no two parts of the house should be served by the same stairs so as to cause a block. The exits ought to be opened and used every night, so as to habituate the public to them; and the result would be that the public, knowing that they could leave the building with perfect ease in a certain number of minutes, would cease to be liable to those panics, which were the cause of greater danger in theatres than fire itself. Proper authorities should be appointed to see that the necessary exits were made, and theatres which did not possess them should be closed, as in Rome, St. Petersburg, Paris, Vienna, Marseilles, and other cities. All Inspectors appointed should have some knowledge of their work, and should see that the exits and fire appliances were in proper order, continuously reporting direct to the Home Secretary. He was told that he was raising needless alarm in bringing this subject before the House; but when it was known that two of the largest London theatres had been burnt three times, and one four times, he did not believe that the public would think that was the case, or that they would be satisfied unless some legislation took place which would practically make them safe. At present nobody was responsible if a calamity occurred. Though he did not wish to make the Chairman of the Board of Works or the Home Secretary criminally responsible, as the Viennese were trying to make their authorities, still, after the question had been brought before them in a practical way, he thought they would incur a very large amount of moral responsibility if no notice was taken of the question by them. Hon. Members on the Opposition side of the House had been taunted that they gave up too much of their time to the consideration of foreign affairs, and that they did not bring forward any question of benefit to the people. He had now brought forward a question which was of very great importance to large classes of Her Majesty's subjects, and which had no political aspect whatever; and he called on Members on both sides of the House to support him in saying that some legislation should take place before we were some morning horror-stricken at the loss of life caused by a fire in a theatre. The hon. Gentleman concluded by moving the Resolution of which he had given Notice.


seconded the Resolution.

Amendment proposed, To leave out from the word "That" to the end of the Question, in order to add the words "in view of the great danger to the Theatre-going public from the insufficiency of powers under existing Acts relating to Theatres, and the laxity with which such powers, conferred by various Acts of Parliament, have been exercised, and that any day, unless some steps are taken to insure proper exits and necessary appliances against fire, a calamity may happen which may cause as terrific a loss of life as that which lately occurred at the Ring Theatre at Vienna, a Select Committee be appointed to investigate the state of the exits, and what appliances exist for the prevention or extinction of fires in Theatres and Music Halls, and to report the result of their investigations and recommendations thereon,"—(Mr. Dixon-Hartland,) —instead thereof.

Question proposed, "That the words proposed to be left out stand part of the Question."


said, he entirely recognized the importance of the subject which the hon. Member had brought under the attention of the House, and thought that the hon. Member had performed a very useful task in devoting consideration to this matter. He was very sorry that his hon. Friend the Chairman of the Metropolitan Board of Works was absent—he was sure from a want of knowledge that this subject was going to be brought on to-night. But, of course, the hon. Member knew very well that the persons primarily responsible in this matter were the Metropolitan Board of Works. He (Sir William Harcourt) had stated more than once in the House that the powers given by the Act of 1878, if they were used, were sufficient—and until the contrary was proved, he should continue to be of that opinion—to enable the Metropolitan Board of Works to insist on such security as they deemed to be necessary; and he had stated it more than once in that House that it was useless, therefore, to pass another Act when an Act already existed which, if properly worked, would be perfectly efficient. What was wanted was not a new Act, but the efficient working of the one at present existing. The 11th section of that Act provided— That, when any theatre or other place of public resort was so defective in its structure that special danger might result to the public, in every such case the Metropolitan Board of Works, with the consent of the Lord Chamberlain and of the Secretary of State, if such structural defects could be remedied with moderate expenditure, might require the owner of such places to make such alterations as might be necessary to remedy such defects within a reasonable time.


With "moderate" expenditure?


Well, he thought that every expenditure would be regarded as moderate which was found to be necessary to make a theatre safe; and, therefore, what the Metropolitan Board of Works had to do, when they received reports with reference to the defects of a theatre, was to call upon the owner of such theatre to make such structural alterations in the edifice as were deemed essential to the security of the public from fire. If the reasonableness of those demands were disputed, the question then went to arbitration. He had written to the Metropolitan Board of Works that, having received a Report with reference to the theatres, it was their duty to make such requisitions upon the owners of the edifices to make such alterations as, upon the advice of Captain Shaw, the Head of the Fire Brigade, they considered necessary; and if the owners demurred, then let them go to arbitration. The arbitrator was to be appointed by the First Commissioner of Works. The arbitrator would decide whether the demand was reasonable or not, and if reasonable the owners would be bound to make the required alterations under a penalty much greater than any under the Act, because he would be bound by the operation of public opinion, which would prevent anybody going into his theatre unless he complied with the conditions of the arbitrator. But what he maintained was, that the existing machinery was perfectly effective if it were only properly put in force. It was not his business either to condemn or defend the Metropolitan Board of Works. As soon as this subject was brought to his attention by the calamity at Vienna, he wrote to the Metropolitan Board of Works, and called their attention to the subject. He did more; he saw Captain Shaw upon it. Captain Shaw said—"Call for a Report from me, and you will see what I think about it." He accordingly called for a Report, and insisted that there should be a Report upon every theatre in London, in order that he might see it and that the Metropolitan Board of Works and the lessees of the theatres should see it. Reports had been made with regard to 18 theatres, and inspections were now in progress with regard to the rest, preparatory to being reported upon. He had written to the Metropolitan Board of Works to say that the Reports should be communicated to the lessees and the Lord Chamberlain, and that the Board might take it for granted that the consent of the Lord Chamberlain and himself would be given to any alterations which, under the advice of Captain Shaw, were deemed to be necessary for the public safety. Therefore, he said that this matter was in course of being dealt with as quickly and as efficiently as possible, because the hon. Member opposite knew there was no man fitter on this subject than Captain Shaw. Whether the Metropolitan Board of Works had been remiss or not was not for him to say; but, at all events, it was not negligent now. It had been called upon publicly to put these Reports in the hands of the owners of theatres, and he advised the House to leave the responsibility in their hands. What would happen if the Motion were agreed to? They would have to wait for some new Act, and the matter would be taken out of the hands of those who were now dealing with it. He did not think that would be for the public advantage. He thought that now the matter was being pressed in the manner he had mentioned by the Metropolitan Board of Works, now that the Reports had been made, now that they had been communicated to the lessees of theatres, and that they knew the Reports would have to be acted upon, we had got as good a security for the safety of theatres as we were likely to obtain. He hoped the hon. Member would be satisfied with this explanation, and would not press his Amendment.


said, he was inclined to agree with the right hon. and learned Gentleman the Secretary of State for the Home Department when he recommended that the responsibility ought, if possible, to be left entirely with the Metropolitan Board of Works to carry out the recent Acts, especially as their attention had been called so urgently and distinctly to the powers which they possessed under the Act for the protection of the public; but he must also, at the same time, confess that he thought he should like to see a little pressure put upon them to do their duty with regard to the matter, as to which they knew there was a good deal of public anxiety. In the Act of Parliament to which reference had been made there were so many things referred to, besides that of the construction of public buildings in the Metropolis, that the Metropolitan Board must have been hindered in dealing with that question. He supposed they might separate the responsibility, to a certain extent, between the Metropolitan Board and the Licensing Authority, because there was no doubt that if the Lord Chamberlain refused to grant his licence where there were defective safeguards for the public, that would be the most efficient way of putting pressure on the proprietors of theatres. Thus, whilst the Metropolitan Board were taking their time for the inspection, and in getting the required alterations executed, if the opinion of the Lord Chamberlain or the Home Secretary was that the public were in danger in any particular theatre, then they could bring the authority they possessed into force, whereby the protection to the public would be more effective than by the dilatory action of the Metropolitan Board. He could not but think that the Board had been dilatory in the matter; and now that prominent attention had been called to the subject, additional responsibility would rest upon them. He doubted very much whether the Board had ever considered that the recent Act had vested them with great and novel powers until the Reports referred to by the Secretary of State for the Home Department had been sent to them. There were certain points which struck the Committee which sat on the question, with regard to existing theatres and the changes required in them. One was that there should be more numerous exits. Although it was shown that many theatres possessed sufficient exits to be easily emptied in two or three minutes, yet it was also shown conclusively that the public were absolutely ignorant of them with the exception of the door by which they entered. When the inspection by the Lord Chamberlain was made, which was always made with notice, every entrance was in proper order; but on other occasions bars and other obstructions were placed against them, which prevented their being used on an emergency. That was one of the reasons why there should be a more constant inspection of theatres, without any notice being given, so that the public might be sure that every precaution for their safety was being taken. He quite agreed with the remark of his hon. Friend (Mr. Dixon-Hartland), that it was important that the public should be made aware that the exits provided were sufficient, and were kept in such a condition as to be available on a moment's notice; and not, as was usually the case, fastened up or used for some other purpose more convenient to the lessee. The existing means of exit should be generally used, instead of, as at present, the public being driven to one or two of the main exits, the other exits being kept only for occasions of danger. The result of that practice was that the public were not accustomed to the various exits, and when danger occurred and panic arose, and when the audience had less coolness and were less capable of thinking of what ought to be done, they naturally all rushed to the main exit, which consequently became blocked. Those were the main points to which the attention of the Metropolitan Board should be directed, with the view of their exercising properly their duties as regarded them. He trusted that while the discussion might go far to rouse managers to a due sense of their duties to the public, his right hon. and learned Friend would not be satisfied with throwing the responsibility on the Metropolitan Board, but that he would continue to urge on them the necessity of using the powers they possessed, and establishing a proper system of inspection, on which the public could rely with certainty. The safety of the public required that no time should be lost in ascertaining what the dangers really were, and putting into force the powers that already existed under the Act, and which had hitherto been so much neglected.


said, that, in his opinion, the House was under an obligation to the hon. Gentleman the Member for Evesham (Mr. Dixon-Hartland) for bringing the subject so pointedly before its attention. But he (Mr. Cowen) thought the hon. Gentleman had confined himself too much to theatres. It was, no doubt, important; and, whether a Committee was appointed or not, the expressions of opinion that had been elicited from the right hon. and learned Gentleman the Secretary of State for the Home Department could not but have a favourable effect upon the owners and lessees of Metropolitan theatres. He (Mr. Cowen) wished, how- ever, to say that there were other places of public resort the means for entrance to and exit from which were just as deficient and as dangerous as in theatres. The construction of some of their public halls was as faulty as the construction of the theatres; and even their churches and chapels were not free from difficulties and dangers. Doubtless, the accident at Vienna was a serious one; but, if he recollected right, that which occurred in the church at Santiago was as disastrous, and even more painful, and was entirely due to deficient exit accommodation. He had had unpleasant experience himself as to the difficulties of getting into a public hall, as at the last Election he got an uncomfortable squeeze in crushing into a crowded meeting. He would urge, therefore, that, as regarded remedies, attention should not be given to one description of public buildings alone. After the accident at Vienna, the Provincial authorities in the North of England had instituted inquiries as to the condition of the theatres within their jurisdiction, and he believed that generally the reports had not been unfavourable. The provision for letting an audience out of a theatre was usually sufficient. In some places it was excessive—more than was required. The chief danger arose from panic. If the people would simply leave the theatres quietly, there was scarcely any place that would not allow them to get out easily. It was panic that caused the loss of life. The way people acted in a panic was most extraordinary. He remembered Mr. Boucicault, who had probably had as much experience in theatrical management as any man living, say that when he built a theatre in New York he made unusual provisions for the audience leaving along both sides of the building. He had big folding doors placed, and on them painted in conspicuous letters the announcement that if the audience simply pressed these doors they would open, and egress would thus be obtained without difficulty. Notwithstanding the existence of these doors and the announcement, on the very first occasion of a panic the people did not avail themselves of that provision, but crushed out at the ordinary doors, causing some considerable injury and some loss of life. It was not sufficient, therefore, to provide means of exit. These should be regularly used, and the people should become accustomed to their use. People in a panic were always selfish, and it was all but impossible to provide for the unreasonable exhibition of that feeling. All they could do was to make the best provision possible, and trust to the good sense of the public.


said, he agreed with the reasons given by the right hon. and learned Gentleman the Secretary of State for the Home Department against the appointment of a Committee, because the question was urgent, and the only effect of the appointment of the Committee would be to postpone the matter for a year. Long before the Vienna catastrophe there was a disastrous fire in a theatre at Nice, and it was astonishing to him that the Metropolitan Board of Works let such a question as the one under notice slide, as it had done, until the Vienna accident occurred, when they found that four years ago an Act was passed which conferred on them ample powers if they would only put them into force. The Report of Captain Shaw, which had been referred to, mentioned particularly eight theatres. The right hon. and learned Gentleman the Secretary of State for the Home Department was naturally reluctant to lay that Report upon the Table of the House, because he knew that if he did so those eight theatres would be empty in future. He (Mr. Macfarlane) ventured to think that if the public in this City realized the risk they ran when they went out to amuse themselves they would never enter a theatre. To show what little attention was paid to the orders of the Lord Chamberlain, he might refer to the fact that a few years ago it was the custom to fill the various gangways of theatres with chairs for the accommodation of extra people. But he (Mr. Macfarlane) called the attention of the Lord Chamberlain to the dangerous practice, who at once issued an order that it should be discontinued. But what was the effect of the Lord Chamberlain's order? It was simply not obeyed. On going to a theatre within a week after the prohibition was issued, the stalls being full, he (Mr. Macfarlane) was offered a chair in the gangway, and, on his reminding the box keeper that the Lord Chamberlain had forbidden chairs to be placed there, the man simply laughed and did no more. The dangers were due, he contended, to the laxity of the authorities, and, first of all, to the Lord Chamberlain. If the latter were to suspend the licence of a single theatre for the space of six months on account of infraction of his regulations, he believed that all structural dangers and such obstacles as he had mentioned would disappear the next day. The fact was that an idea was prevalent that the sole duty of the Lord Chamberlain was to regulate the length of the skirts of the ladies of the corps de ballet, and that he had nothing whatever to do with looking after the safety of the public. The last Act, which transferred a considerable portion of the authority of the Lord Chamberlain to the Metropolitan Board of Works, was passed in 1878, and yet they were only now discussing the question whether that Act should be put in force. He hoped that steps would be immediately taken to insure the safety of the public in this matter. There was no way of allaying panic except by convincing the public mind that there were efficient means of escape. He thought the assurances of the Secretary of State for the Home Department were sufficient, and hoped the Motion would not be pressed to a division. The Metropolitan Board of Works had sufficient powers in the matter; and it was not creditable to them that they had not put them in force. He admitted it was hard on lessees of theatres, who were not proprietors, to spend a lot of money on structural alterations, and thought in such cases the owner should be made the responsible person.


said, that, after what had fallen from the right hon. and learned Gentleman the Secretary of State for the Home Department, he should ask leave to withdraw his Motion. If no steps, however, were taken in the matter by the Metropolitan Board of Works, he should be obliged to bring it forward again.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.