The night tragedy struck a theatre and 180 died
These illustrations capture the fear and devastation of a horrific moment in Westcountry history when 180 people died in a major blaze at a grand theatre.
This month marks 126 years since one of the darkest days for the city of Exeter when the raging fire spread through the city's original Theatre Royal – on the junction of New North Road and Longbrook Street.
Built for today's price of a small family saloon from South Korea, the theatre was designed by one J Phipps, who also designed the Savoy Opera House for the famed D'Oyly Carte.
Archive illustrations from newspapers capture the horror as people fled the flames.
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The theatre in Exeter was a masterpiece but sadly it is remembered for all the wrong reasons as a year after it was built, on September 5, 1887, as Mr Gilbert Elliot's company performed Romany Rye – disaster struck.
A scene was being changed, the backcloth billowed out over the front rows of the audience – and fire was seen on the stage.
In seconds there were flames, first flickering then roaring out to reach the audience who were quickly gripped by panic and stampeded in a desperate bid to escape.
Many did not and at least 180 died – that was how many bodies were found but many more are thought to have perished without a trace.
A stark monument, designed by leading Exeter stonemason Harry Hems, stands in Higher Cemetery, Heavitree, in memory of those who perished.
But to dwell on the tragedy is to unjustly overshadow the great part played by the theatre – which was rebuilt and reopened in 1879 with D'Oyle Carte's Yeoman of the Guard.
For three guineas (£3.15), theatre-goers could have a private box and for a couple of pennies they could have one of the best seats in the circle and join the other 900 who regularly packed the theatre.
The theatre was on the national tour route of Britain's best entertainers – Sir Henry Irving, Britain's first theatrical knight, played there, so did Noel Coward who starred in three different plays in the space of a week, Jack Buchanan, Henry Hall, George Formby and Arthur Askey.