Theatre Royal Fire

On the 5th September 1887, on the first night of a romantic comedy called Romany Rye, and with an audience of 800, a naked gas flame ignited some drapes in the fly's. Within moments, panic broke out as the flames spread.

Despite the valiant efforts of the West of England Insurance Co., fire brigade, using the "Little West" fire engine, the flames spread through the building.

Robert Pople, landlord of the New London Inn was quickly on the scene with ladders to rescue the audience. He used the inn to shelter the victims, and the stables to lay out the dead.

There were 186 victims, many from the upper gallery who could not escape because of poorly designed exits - many victims were suffocated in the crush. Most were buried in a mass grave in Higher Cemetery and a memorial cross carved by Harry Hems placed over the spot.

The theatre was on fire very quickly. The death toll was said to be around 150, mainly from the upper gallery from where there was only one exit, with a ticket office blocking the route halfway down. It was a dreadful night, despite the many desperately heroic acts of bravery.

The Theatre Royal of Exeter had opened less that a year before the disaster. It was designed by one of the most respected theatre architect of the time, Charles John Phipps

The theatre was destroyed, but since that date, stringent safety regulations have been in force in British theatres.

Despite the fact that this Theatre Royal was built to replace the first Theatre Royal in Exeter which had been destroyed by fire in 1885, this new Theatre Royal was itself destroyed by fire just a year after its opening on the 5th of September 1887. The destruction of this Theatre has become notorious in theatrical history as it was the site of the largest loss of life in a Theatre's destruction. Some 186 people died in the fire, and such was the severity of the fire that only 68 bodies were ever recovered. The destruction of the Theatre Royal, Exeter was however instrumental in the introduction of new safety precautions being introduced into future public buildings.