In A Nutshell
The advent of the push-bar emergency exit came after a tragedy of massive proportions in 1883. Some 2,000 children crowded into England’s Victoria Hall to watch a group of traveling entertainers, and when they started to give away free toys, 183 children were crushed and killed in the ensuing stampede. Afterward, building codes were changed to include outward-opening exits and doors with push bars.
The Whole Bushel
Every year around Christmastime we hear stories of families whose holidays are marred with shopping-related tragedies. The Victoria Hall Disaster of 1883 wasn’t even around Christmas, it was on June 16—but it was still the promise of free toys for the kids that had an incredibly devastating outcome.
That day, about 2,000 children were crammed into the hall to see The Fays, a group of traveling entertainers. Each child had a ticket, and an announcement was made that there were a certain number of prizes that were going to be given to the lucky kids who were holding tickets with certain numbers. While that all seems well and good, there was next to no actual organization and no adults making sure there was no pushing and crowding. It quickly turned into a free-for-all when the group of entertainers started handing out the toys.
There were about 900 children on the ground floor of the theater, and another 1,100 up in the gallery. When the kids on the ground level started getting their toys, there was a mad rush down the stairs by the other 1,100 kids, mostly between the ages of 7 and 11. There was a single door at the bottom of a narrow stairwell, and while it was theoretically supposed to allow for an orderly, single-file line, that didn’t happen.
More and more children pushed forward, and those that made it first were pushed over and crushed by the crowd behind them. By the time the adults realized what was happening and could get to the tidal wave of children, all they could do was wait on the other side of the gap and pull kids through. It took half an hour to get everyone through, and by that time, 183 children were dead.
There were several families who lost all of their children in the accident, and one class lost all 30 of its students. The shock damaged those that survived, too. Hours after the accident, one young girl was found wandering the streets of London, carrying the body of her little sister. The cause of death in most cases was asphyxiation.
The show they had been attending had been advertised as “the greatest treat for children ever given.”
The tragedy rocked the country. A collection was taken up, and the money was raised to pay for the funerals of all the children. There was a sizable donation from Queen Victoria that was accompanied by condolences. Businesses closed during the funerals, which were conducted over a period of four days.
The money that was left from the fund was used to purchase a statue (pictured above), depicting a mourning mother carrying her dead child. The hall itself stood for several more decades but was eventually destroyed during World War II.
There was, however, a lasting legacy that the deaths of the children left behind, and it’s one that’s saved countless lives in the decades since. After the tragedy came the invention of emergency exits with easy-open push bars, and building requirements that included doors that open outward.