‘Covent Garden was lit up by a lucid light’: an MP’s account of the fire at Her Majesty’s Theatre, 6 December 1867

In the first of our blog series on theatre and Parliament, Dr Martin Spychal, research fellow for our Commons 1832-1868 project, looks at an MP’s first-hand account of the fire that burnt down Her Majesty’s Theatre in December 1867

On Friday 6 December 1867, the Commons adjourned at 7 p.m. The Whig MP for Sutherlandshire, Lord Ronald Gower (1845-1916), took the opportunity to see The Grand Duchess of Gerolstein at the Theatre Royal in Covent Garden, with his nephew, Lord ‘Archie’ Archibald Campbell (1846-1913). Following the operetta they settled down for after-theatre drinks at Gower’s usual Covent Garden haunt, Evans’s Supper Rooms.

At around 11 p.m. word spread that ‘a great fire was burning’ at Her Majesty’s Theatre on Haymarket (or the Italian Opera House as it was also known). Gower and his nephew ‘lost no time’ in darting outside to find that ‘Covent Garden was lit up by a lucid light’. They ran on foot towards Haymarket.

The fire at Her Majesty’s Theatre, Haymarket, ILN, 14 Dec. 1867. Colourised using photomyne.com

As I’ve discussed in previous blogs, Gower’s private diary offers a fascinating insight into parliamentary life at the time of the 1867 Reform Act. It also provides a vivid first-hand account of the fire that destroyed Her Majesty’s Theatre on 6 December 1867. Gower was fascinated with fires, and, for want of a better phrase, was something of a firewatcher. When word spread at his Mayfair club, in the pub, or at a theatre that a fire had commenced, he dropped everything to catch a glimpse.

A week earlier he’d travelled to Camden for the express purpose of seeing a fire at Pickford’s Goods Depot. Three weeks later he travelled across London to spectate at a fire at a sugar warehouse in Whitechapel. For Gower, both fires were easily surpassed by events on 6 December, which he considered: ‘a memorable day in the history of fires for on that evening “Her Majesty” was burnt down with wonderful rapidity’.

Spectators watching the firefighters outside Her Majesty’s Theatre, Illustrated Police News, 14 Dec. 1867. Colourised using photomyne.com

By the time Gower and his nephew had made their way from Covent Garden to Leicester Square on 6 December they discovered the entire area ‘as light as day’ before ‘a huge flame shot up into the sky’. With the streets ‘full of people and carriages hurrying as fast as possible in the direction of the flames’, Gower and his nephew ‘had some difficulty’ in finding their way ‘through the dense crowd all down the Haymarket’. Once there, Gower recorded that ‘the sight was very grand, the whole opera was burning with terrific fury and the crowd and houses were all illuminated by the light’.

Amid the ‘thud thud of the [fire] engines’ they pushed their ‘way to Charles Street where two [fire] escapes had been placed’. As ‘engine after engine galloped up’ Haymarket, Gower ‘looked in vain’ for Eyre Massey Shaw, the Chief Officer of the Metropolitan Fire Brigade and family friend, to get VIP access. Unbeknown to Gower, his older brother, Lord Albert Gower (another avid fire watcher), had already ‘got hold of Shaw’ and was ‘upon the building with him’ as the fire raged.

‘The Fire Fiend’, Eyre Massey Shaw, Punch, 20 August 1887

After being ‘unsuccessful in finding the captain [Shaw]’ they embarked on an ‘ineffectual struggle with the bobbies and guards who lined the whole of the street pushing (us) the crowd off the road back upon the pavement’.  Gower and his brother then moved on to Waterloo Place where he discovered:     

the sight was if possible more magnificent; all over this part the burning sparks were flying in a perfect deluge and the excitement in watching the war between the fire and the fireman upon the burning building was intense; at one time about 11:45 it seemed as if the whole block of buildings looking towards Pall Mall must evidently be destroyed.

Fortunately ‘the efforts of the firemen told’ and ‘gradually the light grew more lurid and volumes of smoke and steam hid any flames that might still be to seen from sight’. ‘Soon after midnight’ Gower recorded, with what appeared a slight tinge of regret: ‘it was over’. While the theatre itself ‘was a mere mass of red hot brick’ he reported that the ‘buildings attached to the Opera House were saved’.

The ‘tottering walls and burnt rafters’ of Her Majesty’s Theatre after the fire, ILN, 14 Dec. 1867

Gower returned to the scene the following morning where ‘an obliging fireman’ finally granted him access to view the ‘tottering walls and burnt rafters’. ‘The whole place’, Gower found ‘was like a huge vapour bath’ and ‘the whole place in part still burning and red hot’.

Next door he discovered the print shop and gallery of Henry Graves in ‘a pitiable sight’. Graves was the leading luxury print dealer of the day. His Pall Mall gallery displayed (and sold) finely detailed reproductions of works by artists such as Turner, Landseer and Constable. Graves’s gallery also held many originals on loan from the artists or in his own private collection, many of which were transported to safety to the nearby United Service Club the previous evening.

On the morning after the fire, Gower observed that ‘the room in which all the [original] paintings were formerly is a mere wreck’. While many of the most valuable originals were saved, including William Frith’s ‘The Railway Station’ and several Gainsboroughs, many originals and ‘thousands of engravings [were] destroyed’. Outside he found staff ‘carting off piles of engravings all apparently more or less injured through an admiring crowd’.

The Railway Station by William Powell Frith was one of the paintings saved from Graves’s Gallery on 6 December 1867, Royal Collection Trust

Later that day Parliament was adjourned till February and Gower returned to the scene of the fire where crowds continued to mass. ‘The walls [of the theatre] had begun to fall’ he wrote, ‘making an entrance into Graves’s a risky job’. Large numbers of police continued to cordon the area into the night of 7 December to prevent the remnants of the theatre falling on the crowds.

Amazingly, no-one died in the fire or in the resulting spectator crush. There had been no performance at the theatre that night, and the five members of staff who had been manning the building escaped via the roof of a nearby restaurant.

300 theatre workers were made redundant as a result of the fire. The sublessee of the theatre was uninsured and stood to lose £12,000 (over £1 million in today’s money) in costumes, instruments, fabric, and manuscripts. The soprano Thérèse Tietjens (1831-1877) reportedly lost jewellery worth upwards of £1,200 (at least £107,000 in today’s money), which she had left in her dressing room.

Her Majesty’s Theatre re-opened in 1874 and was redesigned again in 1897. The Phantom of the Opera has been running there since 1986.

MS


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