The Theatre Royal, Drury Lane Fire of 1908
The present Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, which in 2012 celebrated its bicentenary, was built in 1812 to replace the previous Theatre on the site which had burnt down in 1809, just under 15 years after it was built. The present Theatre had a narrow escape when it too caught fire on the morning of the 25th of March 1908. The stage house and a lot of the backstage areas were gutted by the fire but thankfully the auditorium and front of house were saved from serious damage by the fire services and the iron curtain. The Theatre's stage and backstage were quickly rebuilt after the fire and the Theatre reopened 6 months later on September the 24th 1908 with a production of 'The Marriages of Mayfair.
Right - A Programme for the reopening production of 'The Marriages of Mayfair' at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane in the Autumn of 1908. This was the first production after fire had caused serious damage to the stage and backstage areas of the Theatre in March 1908. Click to see the whole programme and read a short description of the Drama.
The Stage newspaper reported on the fire the day after it occurred and I have transcribed this report below along with a photograph which was produced with the article, but several other photographs of the damage caused by the fire have also come to light recently and I have added these too.
Right - A small version of one of the 1908 fire photographs which can be seen enlarged in the article below. This one is of the Cross Dock behind the stage of the Theatre. Despite the damage it was soon rebuilt and today looks pretty much how it did when first built 200 years ago (See photo left).
Left - The same view of the Cross Dock behind the stage of the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane in 2012 - Photo M.L.
These recently discovered fire photographs were taken just 3 days after the fire, on the 28th of March 1908, and are courtesy Dave Spink and Roger Fox. Dave Spink is an ex G.L.C., man who thoughtfully rescued the photographs from a skip many years ago and has now passed them on to Roger Fox who has sent copies to me for use on the site. The Stage newspaper article of March 26th 1908 follows: -
DRURY LANE FIRE
SERIOUS DAMAGE TO THE STAGE
AUDITORIUM PRACTICALLY UNHURT
Early yesterday (Wednesday) morning Drury Lane Theatre had a narrow escape from a catastrophe as complete as that which destroyed the older house in 1809. For nearly a hundred years the theatre has been free from serious fire. Prior to the 1809 disaster one has to go even farther back than 100 years, to the fire of 1672, when not only the theatre itself, but sixty houses were destroyed. That was the original Drury Lane Theatre, opened in 1663. The theatre was rebuilt by Sir Christopher Wren, and reopened in 1674. The following year the interior was rebuilt by Adams, and in 1794 the building was completely reconstructed on a larger scale, being opened the same year. After the last fire of 1809 Wyatt was entrusted with the work of rebuilding the theatre, which was opened with a prologue by Lord Byron. Prior to the house of 1663, there was the Phoenix, and yet before that the house in Cockpit Alley, off Drury Lane, occupied as far back as 1617 by a theatrical company calling themselves the Queen's Servant. For a theatre with so long a history Drury Lane has been fortunate in its comparative freedom from fire. Its good fortune has followed it now in its substantial escape from the total destruction that, but for the early discovery of the fire, the readiness of the firemen on the premises, the protection of the fire-proof curtain and other devices, and the resources of the Fire Brigade, in all probability awaited it.
Above - A narrow escape - The wonderful 1812 Grand Saloon at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane which survived the fire of 1908 along with the auditorium and the rest of the front of house - Photo M. L. 2011.
As it is, while the auditorium has been little affected, the damage on the stage side of the proscenium by fire and water has been heavy indeed. The stage has been almost entirely wrecked; the roof over the stage is gone; there are large holes in the safety curtain; valuable scenery and properties have been damaged; and dressing-rooms have been somewhat damaged. The flies are destroyed; the grids still stand, but a good deal of scenery has been burnt. Although the stage was severely burned, the structure is still secure. The hydraulic lifts are said not to be injured. The batteries are under water, but it is thought they are not ruined.
Above - The Stage Roof of the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane after the fire of 1908 - Courtesy Dave Spink and Roger Fox. Here you can still see the pulleys and surviving ropes in the now roofless grid of the Theatre.
That the stage roof should have gone is by no means as serious a matter as it might seem. Two principles of modern theatre construction, from the point of view of fire, are the fireproof curtain and the light stage roof. As yesterday the fireproof curtain saved the theatre from complete destruction so the lightness of the roof, which enabled the flames to find easy access to the sky, prevented an inrush of draught and smoke into the auditorium.
Above - The Stage and Fire Curtain of the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane after the fire of 1908 - Courtesy Dave Spink and Roger Fox. The lowering of the Fire Curtain is what saved the rest of the Theatre from being destroyed. The scene is lit by daylight flooding in from the destroyed roof of the Theatre's fly tower.
DISCOVERY OF OUTBREAK
The outbreak was discovered shortly after a quarter to five in the morning. A man going home after his work, as he turned into Wild Street, saw smoke issuing from a building and at first it looked as though the L.C.C. lodging-house was on fire. A little farther along, though, he saw clouds of smoke coming from the top of the theatre over the stage end of the building. Running up Kemble Street, he found more smoke coming from the back of the stage, through the walls, and he gave the alarm to the police.
It is said, however, that two of the four firemen on duty at Drury Lane all night discovered the fire blazing in the flies shortly before this alarm was given from outside.
The fire appears to have originated at the back of the stage, a big place packed with inflammable material. The flames had not made much progress before the theatre fire brigade were at work battling with them, and an urgent call was telephoned from the theatre to the fire brigade headquarters.
Above - The Cross Dock behind the stage of the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane after the fire of 1908 - Courtesy Dave Spink and Roger Fox. Despite the damage it was soon rebuilt and today looks pretty much how it did when first built 200 years ago (See photo below).
Above - The Cross Dock behind the stage of the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane in 2012 - Photo ML
LOWERING THE CURTAIN
The response was immediate, but during the minutes intervening before the arrival of the first fire engines the fire gained ground with terrible rapidity. Tongues of flame swept upwards, converting the interior from the footlights to the Drury Lane end of the imposing structure into a roaring furnace. As quickly as possible the theatre firemen lowered the huge safety curtain, cutting off the proscenium, and confining the fire to the stage portion of the theatre.
CONTENDING WITH THE FLAMES
The alarm spread rapidly into the Strand and amongst the busy quarters about Covent Garden; and there were hurrying figures in all directions towards the theatre. Engine after engine dashed up, until some forty were in position, and more than two hundred men were directing their efforts towards subduing the flames. The assembling of the engines and the glare of the fire in the sky when the flames pierced the roof caused intense excitement. Captain Hamilton, who was quickly on the spot directing operations, was able to concentrate the efforts of his men on the seat of the mischief, and in a very short space of time twenty or so hydrants were throwing streams of water down through the roof and flies. It appeared for a time as if the flames would obtain the mastery, as every now and then huge fragments of burning cloths and borders, some in course of touching-up for the revival of The Sins of Society, fell through into the cellar beneath the stage, sending up huge volumes of flame and sparks. These sailed over the neighbouring housetops, and the frightened inhabitants of Simmonds's tenements, at the back of the theatre in York Street, gathered in anxious groups at the main doors, and viewed the outlook with no little misgiving. There was also much excitement at the Waldorf Hotel, from the back of which a fine view of the theatre could be obtained. The roofs and fire escapes of the hotel were crowded with visitors and servants.
THE FIRE SUBDUED
Engines and escapes continued to rattle up. Captain Hamilton and his
chief officers had the situation well in hand. Captain Hamilton developed
his attack. From every quarter the burning material was deluged with
water, and the fierce light shining upwards from the proscenium gradually
dimmed and died.
Captain Hamilton remained on the scene for some time after the fire, to all appearances, had been got under. This was about 5.30 a.m.
At 6.30 the ruins were still smouldering, and a number of firemen were still at work.
Even though to all appearances the fire was out by ten o'clock, small outbreaks occurred occasionally in the charred beams, and it was nearly eleven before the firemen considered it safe to cease their attack. They were aided in their efforts by the rain, which unceasingly poured down on the unprotected stage.
As has been said, there is a large block of dwellings standing close to the theatre, and constables, when the fire seemed threatening, gained entrance and woke the sleepers by blowing their whistles. Frightened residents streamed out into the street, and many made preparations for the hasty removal of their belongings.
At this time horsed and automobile fire engines and firemen were arriving from all parts of London. One of the long ladders was brought into requisition, and a fireman, armed with a hose, appeared on the parapet which runs round the roof. He stood out sharply silhouetted against the fire. But he had to beat a hasty retreat, for the flames, caught by a gust of wind, spread with startling rapidity. In a few minutes, however, he re-appeared on the roof in a more safe position. About this time a crash occurred, part of the upper structure having collapsed. Firemen scaled the high roof and, dragging long lengths of hose after them, poured great streams of water down through the rent. The immense volume of water proved affective. The smoke became even more dense, and the crash of falling woodwork raised a din that was heard above the roar of the flames. A few minutes later it became possible to approach the fire from all sides, and several lengths of hose were trailed through the stage door. Attracted by the glare of the flames, enormous crowds had by this time assembled in Drury Lane and adjacent streets, and hampered the work of the firemen. But a large force of police were soon on the spot, and the spectators were cleared back.
Right - The Stage Door of the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane in February 2011 - Courtesy Jennie Bisset.
Before six o'clock the first fire-engine had taken its departure, and the Salvage Corps were in possession. The crowd lingered. As the morning traffic set in thousands were attracted to the spot, and the first reports in some of the papers that the theatre had been burnt down brought large numbers specially up to town to gaze upon the supposed ruins. But happily, they found the entire front of the theatre undamaged even by water, and indeed presenting the appearance of having just been closed for the night.
IN THE AUDITORIUM
Above - A sketch of the original auditorium and stage of the Fourth Theatre Royal, Drury Lane as seen from the uppermost box during a performance of 'Little Bo Peep, Little Red Riding Hood, and Hop-O' My Thumb' in 1892. The scene on stage was 'The Grand Hall of a Million Mirrors at the Prince's Palace - From the Graphic, 31st December 1892 - The auditorium survived the 1908 fire but the stage house was completely gutted.
So admirably, and with such regard to the property as a whole, was the work of the firemen done that it was not found necessary to take a single hose through the front of the building; and so the handsome and stately foyer was saved the effects of mud and water.
In front of the fireproof curtain the only appearance of damage is round the proscenium-arch, a portion of which is composed of such light decorative work that it took fire simply through the extraordinary heat. This was quickly extinguished by firemen, who were on the watch on this side of the screen, and as all the seats were carefully covered by heavy waterproof oilcloth, even the water did little or no damage there.
BEHIND THE SCENES
At the back of the stage is the scene dock, where the greater portion of the scenery of The Babes in the Wood and The Sins of Society was stored. Fortunately, most of this scenery was saved, together with the dresses and the contents of the dressing-Roorns. Where the fire raged most, twisted ironwork, charred woodwork, here and there a piece of unrecognisable scenery, together with molten metal and shapeless girders, testify to the fierceness of the outbreak. Fortunately, the main workshop, where the large staff of men which the theatre keeps in almost constant employment are engaged upon their various tasks, was spared the flames.
Above - The Scene Dock and paint frame of the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane after the fire of 1908 - Courtesy Dave Spink and Roger Fox. In this photograph you can see a pulley and a frame full of counterweights which would have been used to pull up cloths for painting. This space is still used as a paint frame today and cloths for many theatre productions are produced here.
DAMAGE AND INSURANCE
The immediate damage must run into many thousands of pounds, and there is also involved the loss of a further considerable sum in connection with the intended new run of The Sins of Society. It will be impossible to present the piece at Drury Lane on April 18, nor is it likely that the play will be seen at another theatre. The piece depends for its spectacular success upon the huge stage.
On inquiring at the offices, we learn that the loss is covered by policies with insurance Companies.
Drury Lane shares were unaffected by the news of the fire yesterday. The company owning the theatre is Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, Limited, and it has a capital of £125,000, of which the whole has been subscribed, and £94,001 paid up. During the past nine years the dividends have been respectively 20, 10, 15 for two years, then 20, 10, nil, 5, and 25 per cent.
Mr. Arthur Collins, the managing director of the theatre company, left London for Nottingham on Tuesday, and Mr. Sidney Smith was at Eastbourne. They got the first news of the disaster by telegraph yesterday morning, and left at once for town. Mr. Smith arrived at the theatre shortly before midday, and Mr. Collins soon after. Mr. Collins, after an inspection, said the theatre would be ready in good time for the autumn drama. Mr. Collins has been managing director of the theatre for ten years this month, just half the period of the lesseeship of his predeeessor, Sir Augustus Harris.
Above - The doors at the back of the stage, stage left, at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane after the fire of 1908 - Courtesy Dave Spink and Roger Fox. The scene is lit by daylight streaming in from the destroyed roof of the fly tower. Although the fly tower was rebuilt after the fire, and is much higher today, these doors are still in the same place today.
THE OFFICIAL REPORT
Captain Hamilton, the Chief Officer of the London Fire Brigade, records the fire in the following terms:
Called at 4.37 a.m., Wednesday, to Catherine Street, Strand, to the property of the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane Company, Ltd; cause of fire unknown; contents insured in Lloyds; building insured in the Sun. Damage, stage and the contents burned out, and the roof destroyed, scene and property stores and workshops damaged by fire, heat, smoke, and water; rest of building, consisting of auditorium, dressing rooms, etc., slightly damaged by smoke and water (adjoining and communicating).
Archive newspaper reports on this page were collated and kindly sent in for inclusion by B.F.
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