HC Deb 09 May 1883 vol 279 cc331-43

Order for Second Beading read.


said, in moving the second reading of this Bill, he would remind the House that a year ago he proposed a Motion on the subject of the dangers run by the public in London places of amusement, owing to the absence of any efficient system for the safety of theatrical audiences. In introducing that Motion, he produced a vast number of details which were probably in the mind of hon. Members, so that on this occasion he need only refer to them generally. He then showed, without contradiction, the great evils of the conflicting jurisdictions, and the great dangers, from the utter want of system, for the safety of the public that must necessarily exist when left to no less than six different authorities, with different views and guided by different motives. He showed how in London alone these different authorities—namely, the Crown, the Lord Chamberlain, the Metropolitan Board of Works, and the magistrates of London, Middlesex, and Surrey, with the occasional interference of the Secretary of State for the Home Department—held sway over 472 places of amusement, accommodating about 300,000 people, and with powers so ill-defined, and so little known and understood, even by themselves, that they constantly were overriding each other, and could be pitted successfully against one another by anyone whose interest made it worth his while to do so so. He showed how this matter was a very large one to Her Majesty's subjects, concerning nearly 1,500,000 of people weekly in London alone, many of whom were utterly ignorant of the risks they ran. He also showed how in most of the London theatres good fortune rather than caution had prevented the occurrence of calamities as disastrous as that of the Ring Theatre, at Vienna, or the Opera House, at Nice. The average life of a theatre was only 23 years, which of itself showed the absolute necessity for the adoption of measures to safeguard the lives of the 3,000,000 people who on an average weekly used such places of amusement in London. The only way to provide actual safety was by having a proper regard to exits. These should be large enough to enable the audience to escape easily, each part of the house being served by a separate staircase, so that no two streams of people could meet and cause a block; that all doors should open outwards; while every door should be used nightly in order to inspire confidence in case of accident. After a great accident, theatrical managers took certain precautions, but they were soon given up, as they were found trouble- some or inconvenient. He found that since the discussion on his Motion, very little had been done in the way of improving the arrangements for safety at theatres, and that those who complimented him when he brought forward his Motion were the first to oppose him when he embodied it in a Bill. The Home Secretary opposed the Bill, because he considered his Office had sufficient work to do already, and because, however much the public differed from him, he believed the Board of Works had sufficient power already. To show the way in which the Metropolitan Board dealt with the theatres, he might say that they had compelled a certain number of alterations at Drury Lane Theatre, which, though perhaps not absolutely safe, was one of the safest theatres, while they had let alone structures which were notoriously dangerous. The Metropolitan Board opposed the Bill, because they said it was an insult to them. His business was not to pay compliments to the Board of Works, but to try to protect the public, the safety of the people being of more importance than the susceptibility of the Board. Since he brought forward his Motion a year ago, no less than 28 theatres had been destroyed by fire, and amongst them the Alhambra, in Leicester Square. What was known with regard to that fire? He had taken great interest in that accident, and he had ascertained that the state of things existing at the Alhambra before the fire was most dangerous. Large quantities of old stage properties were stowed under the first circle seats; there were openings between the boards of the floor, and the fire in all probability arose from a match dropped by one of the audience into the place beneath them. If so, the fire had smouldered for some time before bursting into flame; but 10 minutes after it did so the whole theatre was in a blaze, and if it had been full at the time there must have been a tremendous loss of life. A timbered screen, covered with only one inch of plaster, had been erected 12 months previously by order of the Lord Chamberlain, to separate the stage from the auditorium, and this erection had been discussed by the Metropolitan Board of Works; but they had not power to prevent its erection. The whole back approaches to the stage were through and under old timbered houses separate from the theatre only by wood. One of those places were used as a common lodging-house, and the day after the fire the police had to remove 300 persons from the place. If the theatres were as defective as he believed them to be, many of them were little better than death traps. Now, if these things were not known to the Metropolitan Board, what was the use of their inspection; and, if they did know, what was the use of their power if they did not exercise it? If that state of things existed in one theatre, and was only found out after a fire, how did the House know that the same was not the case in many other theatres? He was afraid the Metropolitan Board knew that the danger existed, and were afraid to grapple with it, preferring that the public should run the risk. His Bill was an attempt to bring the regulation of the whole of the theatres and music halls, under a central authority, in the same way as mines and factories. There was another very strong point, and that was with regard to smoking. It was patent to all theatre goers that this practice had risen to a very alarming extent within the last few years. This was a subject that ought to be dealt with, and could only be dealt with, by a proper central authority. It was an absurd anomaly that on Ash Wednesday the theatres on one side of the Thames should be closed, and those on the other side open, and that fact alone showed the necessity of having one licensing authority. He might mention that the Middlesex magistrates had passed an unanimious resolution in favour of this Bill; and to show it was not crude, unconsidered legislation was shown by the fact that it virtually carried out what was recommended by a Select Committee of that House which sat in 1866. And he hoped that the House would permit it to go to a second reading. He was quite willing to do anything in Committee in the way of amending it that would really promote the objects he had in view.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Bill be now read a second time."—(Mr. Dixon-Hartland.)


, in rising to move that the Bill be read a second time that day six months, said, he thought that a more crude or more unworkable Bill had never been brought before the House of Commons, He thought this a curiously inconvenient time to bring forward the Bill, when they were expecting the establishment of a great Municipality for the whole of London; and, moreover, he thought the House would be very reluctant, by passing this measure, to take away from that Municipality of the future one of the duties which most properly belonged to it. To say nothing of the fact that its drafting was careless and inaccurate, it would not establish one central authority, but would allow both the Home Secretary and the Metropolitan Board to issue regulations, while the power of the Lord Chamberlain would remain untouched. Instead, therefore, of having the one grand central authority which it was the hon. Gentleman's wish to create, they would have throe authorities whose action would clash in all directions. Serious charges had been made against the Metropolitan Board; but he wholly denied that they had neglected their duty. They carefully considered the reports of their Surveyor, and of Captain Shaw, and whenever the proprietors of theatres refused to make the alterations required by the Board, the question was referred to arbitrators, who had, as a matter of fact, in each case enforced the majority of the recommendations of the Board. Both at; Co vent Garden Theatre and at the Royalty everything had been done that the Board had required. Nearly 180 music-halls had been inspected, and in them various improvements were being carried out. A serious indictment had been brought forward against the Metropolitan Board about the Alhambra Theatre. That theatre, however, had been thoroughly inspected before the fire, and the recommendations made by the Board were under the consideration of the Company, and in a short time the theatre would have been closed for the alterations had not the fire unfortunately broken out. The Board took the theatres in turn, and endeavoured to act in such a way that a number of people should not be suddenly deprived of their bread. The hon. Member had stated that 28 theatres had been burnt during the last year. Only one, however, had been burnt in London, and that, he contended, showed the great vigilance of the Board of Works. As a rule, he found the managers of theatres were quite willing to carry out all the improvements that were recommended by the Metropolitan Board of Works, and, therefore, he hoped the House would reject a Bill that was both unworkable and unnecessary.

Amendment proposed, to leave out the word "now," and at the end of the Question to add the words "upon this day six months."—(Sir James M'Garel-Hogg.)

Question proposed, "That the word 'now' stand part of the Question."


said, he thought the best thing the House could do was to follow the hon. Member for Truro into the Lobby and vote for his Amendment against the second reading. So far as he could see, the Bill conferred a sort of jurisdiction over theatres, partly upon the Lord Chamberlain, partly upon the Metropolitan Board of Works, and partly upon the Home Secretary. But where there was divided responsibility they all knew what the result would be. It meant that nobody was responsible. They all knew the condition of theatres before 1878. They were undoubtedly in an exceedingly dangerous condition; but since the Metropolitan Board of Works had had powers he could assure hon. Gentlemen that if they supposed the proprietors of theatres were under the impression that the Metropolitan Board of Works had done nothing they were mistaken. In their opinion the Metropolitan Board of Works had done a great deal too much. They received reports from Captain Shaw; they had an Inspector to visit the theatres; they had got some theatres rebuilt, and others so altered as practically to be equal to rebuilding. There was, in his opinion, great exaggeration as to the danger of fires in theatres. When a theatre was burnt down in any part of the world there was at once a panic, and whatever the authorities might have done to avert danger, they were always blamed for not doing more. The danger did not arise from the fire, but from the panic; and the great object aimed at ought to be to have a large number of exits. Last year an Act was passed enabling the Metropolitan Board to require that the means of exit from theatres should be kept open. He would suggest to the Metropolitan Board of Works that every theatre should be required to be provided, not only with separate means of exit, but also with separate means of entrance.


said, that the new theatres had separate exits.


suggested that the hon. Baronet should look into the old theatres to see if it was not possible to make separate exits in them. Each crowd from the different parts of the theatre, instead of joining together on the way out, should have its own means of exit, and the way out should be the way by which it had entered. The Metropolitan Board of Works had made great progress since 1878, and he believed they had thoroughly and efficiently done their duty. It would, therefore, be a mistake to pass this Bill, and transfer the authority of the Board to the Lord Chamberlain and the Home Secretary pending the London Government Bill. He should vote that the Bill be read that day six months.


thought the speech of the hon. Member for Northampton (Mr. Labouchere) had proved the necessity for this Bill. His one argument, in fact, was that the Bill was unworkable; but the only error he could point out was a clerical error in putting "67" for "47" in Clause 1. The hon. Baronet's only objection was that there would be a conflict of three authorities—the Metropolitan Board of Works, the Lord Chamberlain, and the Home Secretary; but there was no real foundation for that objection. The question was whether the Metropolitan Board of Works had done their duty. That was answered by the simple fact that matters were just as they were three years ago. ["No!"] Not a single direction, by means of a finger or an arrow, was to be found in any theatre indicating the means of exit. With regard to the case of the Alhambra, mentioned by the hon. Member for Evesham (Mr. Dixon Hartland), had the fire at that house occurred a few hours earlier, some hundreds of lives would probably have been sacrificed. There was little prospect now of the London Government Bill being passed in this or in another Session, and he thought it too bad that the public should still be subject to the risk of fire in theatres when a Bill of four clauses would prevent it. He considered that the ipse dixit of the Home Secretary, that certain things must be done, was far preferable to the present red-tape system of the Metropolitan Board of Works. No reliance was to be placed on arbitration, which might go on till Doomsday. While the so-called arrangements were being made by the Board of Works some frightful catastrophe might take place. It was said that the Government intended to introduce a measure on the subject; but they had heard of a good many intentions of the Government which had not been fulfilled. As he desired to see the matter placed in the hands of a firm Home Secretary, who would give an immediate order that exits be provided, he should support the second reading of the Bill.


thought the present state of things most unsatisfactory. He would ask the hon. Baronet one question—whether it was the custom in theatres, when the ordinary seats were full, to place chairs in the gangways?


said, that was entirely contrary to the regulations of the Lord Chamberlain.


Then those regulations were not attended to. Was any punishment inflicted on the managers of the theatres in which there was a breach of those regulations? Nothing of the kind was attempted. If this blocking-up of the gangways were allowed to continue, there could be little doubt that some terrible catastrophe I would some day happen. What would the President of the Board of Trade say to the owner of an emigrant ship who, when he had let all the existing berths, proceeded to let the lifeboats? Yet these gangways were to a theatre what lifeboats were to a ship. He hoped to see the whole matter placed in the hands of the Home Secretary.


said, he should support the Bill, feeling that nothing could possibly be worse than the present arrangements in theatres. The hon. Member who brought it forward called attention to the state in which the Alhambra Theatre was immediately before the fire took place, and they had also had a statement from the Chairman of the Board of Works on the subject. He admitted that time was required to prepare plans for alterations in the Metropolitan theatres, but it would have taken little time to go over the theatres and music-halls generally. The first theatre to have been visited was surely the Alhambra, which throughout was in a most dangerous condition; but, although the Board of Works obtained powers in 1874, it was four years before they made any representations to the authorities of that theatre, although they had previously dealt with Drury Lane Theatre, which was in a far different position, and in a much safer condition, inasmuch as it possessed fireproof walls and facilities for quickly getting the people out. The Metropolitan Board of Works issued eight orders to the proprietors of Drury Lane Theatre as to alterations to be carried out; but it was shown that several of these alterations were quite unnecessary, and that a fire-proof wall would have to be taken down to carry them out. The matter was submitted to arbitration, the orders of the Metropolitan Board were set aside by the arbitrator, the authorities of the theatre made their objections good, and yet were made liable for the cost. Nothing could be worse or more unjust than such a course.


said, that it was part of the argument of the promoters of the Bill that the safety of the public was not sufficiently insured in the hands of the Metropolitan Board. In his opinion, during the last few years the Metropolitan Board had been doing its work extremely well. Out of a total number of 40 old theatres in London they had inspected more than half, and had carried out alterations in more than one-third; they had caused three theatres to be entirely rebuilt; one theatre had been closed by the action of the Board, and another by the action of the Company to whom it belonged because it could not fulfil the requirements necessary for the safety of the public. In the case of old theatres the Board had only power to direct such things to be done as could be effected at a reasonable cost. In the case of new theatres the Board now insisted that there should be exits on each different floor, and that there should be, as far as possible, separate entrances. He allowed that Drury Lane was the safest of the London theatres; but it should be remembered that that theatre had the greatest cubic capacity of all. The Bill proposed to place the jurisdiction in this matter entirely in the hands of the Home Secretary, without appeal. How would managers of theatres like this? It would confer a power exceeding that of the Star Chamber. The Metropolitan Board had to regard in this matter not only the safety of the audiences, but of all persons connected with the theatres, and that was one of the reasons why such stringent rules were brought forward in the Act of 1878. This Bill seemed to leave everything in a loose, haphazard state within the jurisdiction of the Home Secretary, and he should certainly oppose it.


said, he was surprised at the idea of doing its duty possessed by the Metropolitan Board of Works. In four years it had examined half the theatres, and then congratulated itself on doing its duty. But it was notorious that a great many things were done in theatres dangerous to public safety, such as filling gangways with chairs, without interference from the Metropolitan Board, or the managers being censured or proceeded against in any way. It was only by constant remonstrances in and out of the House that the Board had at last been induced to take some action. This Bill was an attempt to secure the safety of life by putting the power of interference somewhere, and he did not think it could be in better hands than those of the Home Secretary. He had no wish to see such another fire as that at the Alhambra while the House waited for the introduction of the Government Bill. The majority of the theatres were so full of defects that a remedy was urgently and immediately demanded. His experience of them was that the special exits to be used in case of fire were, as a rule, carefully blocked up with rubbish, or even so contrived as to converge in one narrow passage. That was the kind of precaution adopted by the proprietors of theatres at the instance of the Metropolitan Board. The Board certainly had interfered with some of the theatres; but they had shown their wisdom by interfering with the best built and safest houses in London. He should much prefer the simpler jurisdiction of the Home Office; but in the present state of Government Business everything was put off to a more convenient season.


said, he was disposed to vote for the second reading of the Bill, not because he joined in the censure of the Board of Works, but because it raised the question of the anomalous and arbitrary powers exercised by the Lord Chamberlain.


said, he should vote for the Bill if he thought it would insure the safety of the public in the enjoyment of their pastimes; but it seemed to him that to avail themselves of the facilities already provided it would be necessary to have a staff of drilled men to keep the audience in order. As far as he understood it, all the practical good the Bill would do would be to transfer to the Home Secretary the powers now possessed by the Metropolitan Board. That would not touch the real evil at all. The theatres were dangerous, not because they were under the jurisdiction of this or that authority, but because most of them were situated in crowded neighbourhoods, had not sufficient facilities of exit, and no open spaces round them. Besides, as long as crowds were liable to panic, perfect safety could not be secured. The mere transfer of authority would be useless; and he greatly doubted whether the Home Office, already overworked, or any other Department, would be more careful than the Metropolitan Board.


pronounced the Bill one of the most singular and despotic measures ever introduced into the House of Commons, as its main clause would give the Home Secretary authority over every place of amusement in the Three Kingdoms. The hon. and learned Member for Bridport (Mr. Warton) had praised his right hon. Friend's administration of the Home Office; but he feared that if the Bill were carried the country would probably lose the services of his right hon. Friend. His right hon. Friend would certainly decline to be responsible for the administration of the provisions of the Bill; and he (Sir Charles W. Dilke) could hardly think that any responsible politician would undertake the duties thrown by it upon the Home Office. The principle of the Bill was no less objectionable than its practical results, for it would place in the hands of a Central Department powers that might more properly be exercised by a local authority. If the local authority had not the confidence of the public it might be changed; if its powers were not sufficient they might be increased; but reactionary legislation such as the present Bill involved should not be encouraged merely to meet a temporary inconvenience. It would certainly be reactionary legislation to place matters concerning the control of even Metropolitan places of amusement under a Government Department. The best people to control these places were the local authorities. If they had not the confidence of the people they might be changed; but let them not throw these powers over to a great Department of the State. He thought he was interpreting the hon. Member's desire if he took upon himself to limit the Bill to theatres and music-halls only. He had spoken of the wide scope of the Bill; but he gathered, both from the statement of the hon. Member for Evesham and from the whole discussion, that it was intended to apply to the Metropolitan theatres alone. If the Bill were limited as he suggested somewhat of what he had said fell to the ground; and they would have to discuss a new Bill. In London the existing powers were much stronger than many Members had assumed they were. On the 3rd of April, 1882, the Home Secretary said that the 11th section of the Act of 1878 armed the Metropolitan Board with adequate powers to insist on the application of such measures of precaution and safety as might be necessary. The Board were acting upon that opinion, and, as he believed, with great success. As to the inspection of theatres by the Board, it must be remembered that 41 theatres had been inspected and reported upon by Captain Shaw, than whom no one had had more experience in dealing with fires. The hon. Member (Mr. Dixon-Hartland) asked where were his reports. It was not desirable to create a panic by publishing the reports; but they were shown to the managers. It was by no means promised that they should not be published, if it were necessary; but for the present they were held in terrorem over the heads of the managers who did not make the necessary improvements. If there should be unwillingness to do this the reports could be made public; but there would be hardship in publishing at once reports that might cause a falling off in the attendance at places of public entertainment, because a calamity had happened in another country. On receipt of the reports the Metropolitan Board of Works set to work, and they had been working steadily ever since. They had prevented danger in the new theatres that had been erected; and with regard to existing theatres they had done as much as could fairly be expected. They had taken the worst cases first and had dealt with them effectively. The proprietors of Covent Garden Theatre had spent £4,500 in carrying out to the full the requirements of the Board. The hon. Baronet the Member for West Essex (Sir Henry Selwin-Ibbetson), as representing the late Government, had taken the same view of this question as the present Home Secretary as to the undesirability, from the public point of view, of transferring these extraordinary powers to the Home Office.


, in reply, said, at all events it was the discussion j of the subject that had prompted the Metropolitan Board of Works to action. He was quite willing that the Bill should apply only to London, and to theatres and music-halls. It aimed only at securing the public safety, and did not encroach at all on the province of the Lord Chamberlain. He believed there I were reasons why local authorities could not act so independently as the Home Office. As to the Reports of Captain Shaw, if the Metropolitan Board of Works had done their duty, there could be no objection to producing them, for they would show the great amount of good done by the Board; but if danger still existed it was only right that the public should know. If the Bill were read a second time, he should be quite willing to assent to modifications in Committee.

Question put.

The House divided;—Ayes 22; Noes 141: Majority 119.—(Div. List, No. 88.)

Words added.

Main Question, as amended, put, and agreed to.

Second Reading put off for six months.