On 16th June 1883 the Victoria Hall tragedy claimed the lives of 183 Sunderland schoolchildren, who had attended a Saturday morning children’s variety show. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Victoria_Hall_stampede.
This is a fictional tale of two children who attended the show.
THE ROCK-POOL REFLECTIONS
I remember going down to the rock pools with our Billy. We would look for crabs and them tiny little fish that we couldn’t catch – I’m not sure what they are called. We’d be just down from the cat and dog steps, it was best when the tide was out. I used to like seeing Billy’s reflection moving in the little pools.
The sunny days with Daddy and our Billy were always fun. After Mum got poorly and then left us Daddy said he’d make sure we were the best loved kids in Sunderland, and then he would hug me like a big bear. I liked that.
Aye, it was a funny time, not laughing funny, but strange. Me and Dad would take Baby down the beach after school just to get us out the house. She liked when I’d take her to look for stuff on the rocks. ‘Come on Billy,’ she’d yell.’ ‘Let’s go catch some fishes.’
Mam was bad in bed for ages and as time went on Dad had to get Aunty Mary to come round and make the dinner for when we came in from school and Dad was at work.
Dr. Lambert came round late one night and I heard him talking and saying stuff to Dad, me and Baby crept halfway down the stairs to listen. I had to shush her. It wasn’t nice to hear Dad crying, it started Baby off sobbing as well. After me Mam died, Dad went really funny, not laughing funny, but, well, you know. Baby was down in the dumps, she was for weeks.
She’s a bit soft like that.
When Billy showed us the tickets he brought home from school that day it was nice to see Dad happy for a change. Aunty Mary helped get me ready for when we went to the town. She brushed my hair one-hundred times – we counted. She then tied it with a beautiful blue ribbon.
Later, when we were walking up to the big Victoria Hall place and all the other children were going in too, I started to feel really funny. I got a bit of a bad belly. Billy said it was just cos I was excited.
He says stuff like that all the time.
That was the third time I’d been to Victoria Hall – it was massive. The first time there was some people doing balancing acts and some juggling. I was with mam that day when we were on school holiday, but Baby wasn’t big enough to go. This was her first time at a big show. She was a bit scared of being there with all the other kids though. She’s a right softy.
I was excited when Billy told me we were going to get prizes. I remember reaching my hand up for Daddy to wrap around two of his fingers. As I looked up the sun hurt my eyes as it came from behind his head. He was saying things but I didn’t really understand. Beside him Billy was laughing at what Daddy was saying. Billy is so much bigger than me.
Baby was so slow, trying to keep up as Dad dragged us along John Street. We don’t go into town much but this was special. He tells me it should be fantastic – says he’s over the moon we’re gonna have some fun watching the show. I’m not so sure. I’ve not got long left at school and shows like this are for bairns. I always seem to be looking after Baby too, today will be the same while he’s in the pub. Anyway, the ticket says they’ll give prizes to the children. That’s the only reason I came, I’m gonna get one. I’m gonna get the best.
When we got there Daddy said that he had to meet someone to sort out some business and Billy would look after me at the show. We climbed up lots and lots of steps to get to our seats, it was beautiful inside. There was loads of kids there, some of them I recognised from my school. I waved at my friend Sarah who was with her brother Tommy. When the show started everyone got really excited and started shouting and screaming. It was wonderful.
I wasn’t very happy that we had to go up to the gallery. The bloke on the door said the stalls were full and the dress circle wasn’t being used, so there was hundreds of us stuffed right at the top. When the show got going it was alright, but then the little ‘uns were making a right racket – some of them were going nuts. A few rows behind was Jacka and Bendy Smith from our school. I jumped back to talk to them, Baby never noticed I was gone.
One of the funny things Mr Fay did on stage was with a little puppet that he would hold in his arms, and it would move and talk to him. Some of the things it said were really funny, but there were some things I never heard. Then he did a trick with a big empty box that he covered with a blanket thing, and when he took it off a lady jumped out of the box. She was beautiful.
We must’ve seen only a couple of the acts and then Jacka suggested we go see if there was any room down below for when they were giving the prizes out. I checked on Baby but she was gawping at the show so I left her. We ran down the stairs but a big bloke stopped us from getting into the stalls, said for us to sod off back upstairs. Bendy asked about the prizes but the bloke just told us to clear off.
We ended up on the top flight with some other kids from our school who were trying to see how many steps they could jump off onto the landing. One kid nearly crippled himself jumping off the ninth step. His knee buckled right under his arse. It was a right laugh.
Near the end of the show, after the beautiful lady had been dancing, Mr Fay started doing a trick with a hat. He showed us that the hat was empty but then he started to pull things out of it and throw them into the crowd. It was magical. One boy caught a little wooden horse, he had to jump right up to catch it. Then Mr Fay pulled out a book which he passed to a little girl near the front. Then behind us there was lots of noise and I heard a man shout, ‘This way for prizes,’ so I turned to Billy to ask what we should do, but Billy wasn’t there.
I’m not sure where he was.
As we were jumping off the stairs some other kids came running up shouting about them giving out the prizes. We raced down a few flights where another big bloke was walking up the stairs with a massive box of stuff. You could see that it was full of toys and dolls and that. Bendy asked if he needed a hand cos he looked like he was struggling to lift it. The bloke looked in a right mood and said, ‘Sod climbing these stairs, this box weighs a ton.’
So he put it down next to the door at the bottom of the stairwell, cupped his hands to his mouth and yelled out, ‘This way for prizes.’
Jacka then gave the bloke his ticket and asked if he could have one for his little brother. The bloke gave him a big handful saying, ‘When these are gone son, I’m off for a drink.’ Then the kids from inside the gallery started running down to get their prizes. ‘Slow down,’ shouted the bloke. ‘One at a time.’
After I got mine I knew I had to go get Baby so I pushed past a few kids to climb up the stairs. As I went up the bloke with the box was losing his temper shouting the kids to get back, but there was loads coming down.
Then I heard a scream and as I looked back down one of the kids had been knocked over and the bloke was closing the door to the stairs. He then bolted the door to the floor which meant there was only enough room for the kids to go through one at a time. At the top of the stairs I started to look for Baby.
I couldn’t see her though.
I wasn’t really sure where Billy had gone to, so I didn’t know what to do. But then Sarah and Tommy came running past, ‘Come on, you don’t want to miss out.’ So I went with them to go down the stairs.
Lots of others were there before us and we had to stop halfway down. Just then I noticed Billy come rushing past me going up the stairs. I reached out my hand to stop him but he brushed past me and carried on to the top. I shouted for him to come down but with all the others shouting and laughing I suppose he never heard me. Anyway, I had my ticket and I was with Sarah so I thought I’d get my prize then see Billy after. At the bottom of the stairs someone fell and there was lots of screams. Then a big man pulled at the door, bolting it so that there was only a small gap to go through. I don’t know why he would want to do that.
There was still people coming down the stairs but in front of us there seemed nowhere to go. It started to get a bit squashed. That’s when I got scared – really scared.
At the seat where Baby was everyone had left and was heading to the stairwell. By now the queue for the door was massive and people started to try pushing their way out. Down below in the main hall all the kids had gathered around the front of the stage and some bloke was giving out stuff. The kids were going crazy trying to get them. I headed back to the stairwell door but the crowd wasn’t moving. Then all the excited cheering turned to something else.
I started hearing screams and shouting, moans and crying. I pushed passed some of the smaller ones to see what was happening. I could just see round the door to look down the stairs but I could only see the top of the door below. Blocking the view was kids, loads of kids, all piled up on top of each other. Some of them were crying but some of them had passed out, faces purple in the crush. One lad managed to squeeze out and roll on top of others and crawl up the stairwell to safety. He used a little lasses’ head to push his foot against to move himself up. Her head just flopped to the side as he pushed on it and a blue ribboned bow started to slide down her blonde hair.
I called out to Baby, but I knew she couldn’t hear.
Behind us on the stairs more and more people were coming down and squashing into us. Then all of a sudden there was a large noise that sounded like wood snapping and we surged forward a little way. When we stopped I couldn’t feel my feet on the stairs, they were in midair and I couldn’t really move my arms. By now I was finding it hard to breathe and I could smell something really warm. I started to get a funny sensation in my eyes and my ears. Instead of the shouting and crying all I could hear was a loud ringing, it just went on and on. Then I started to see little white lights flickering either side of me.
The stairwell became really really dark as the white lights flickered even more until they were the only things I could see. Then they stopped flickering and the white light faded until it became black. And then that was all there was. Warmth, a quiet ringing, and black light.
The next few minutes seemed to last forever. The screams of those in the stairwell was so loud. I managed to pull a few kids back from the door but they still wanted to go down, I had to slap a couple of the smaller ones so they would back up. There was a girl about the same age as me and she helped pull some of the kids away from the top of the stairs, shouting at them to go sit back down in the gallery seats. But then after pulling out a few of those we came to the ones who were injured. I pulled out one little lad who just flopped in my arms, he was still breathing and opened his eyes as I laid him down on the floor. He didn’t look well though.
A few grown ups were carrying kids who looked in a bad way so I went back to the stairs to help. I kept looking for the blue ribbon but couldn’t see it. At the bottom of the stairwell some blokes were shouting and arguing as they pulled kids through the small gap.
By now the kids we were lifting up were as limp as wet rags. I was about to pick up one small boy but as I did I felt something touch my ear, and heard a whisper,’Billy, where are you?’ For a moment I went really dizzy, lost my balance and almost blacked out.
I looked all around me but she was nowhere to be seen. One of the dads behind shouted for me to keep pulling the kids out. He was in a right state shouting, ‘Where’s the bairn?’ The heat was unbelievable, so stuffy, but then my head went really cold as I went dizzy again and then I heard the whisper again, ‘Billy, it’s ok, I’m here, I’m fine.’
But she wasn’t there though. She wasn’t fine.
When the black light started changing to different colours I started to get a sense of others being with me. Instead of the crushing stairwell I could feel cool air fluttering past me, giving a gentle tingling sensation. Although I couldn’t see him I had a good idea where Billy was, I reached out for him again and think I got to feel the warmth of him. I wanted him to know that I was fine and that I was going to be ok. Then the coloured light started changing really fast and the ringing noise went so loud that I couldn’t sense anything anymore. I think it might have stayed like that for a long time, it felt like it. Then I heard a loud noise and the colours started changing again and I could sense the others starting to move. I thought I could smell something that was like when it rains, and then I saw the ripples and the reflections. And then I saw.
That’s when I knew everything was going to be wonderful.
When they’d pulled all the bodies out and opened up the door, the stairwell was littered with buttons, caps, bonnets and shoes. Little bits of discarded kids clothing were all over. Dr. Lambert had been called, someone telling him that a kid had died at Victoria Hall. I don’t think he was expecting to find a hundred-and-eighty-three. He was really busy looking after some of the little ‘uns who were badly hurt. We caught each other’s eye, but never spoke.
In the main hall some men had started laying out the dead bodies for people to come identify. They were so quiet you could sometimes hear them weep as they carried them. Watching from up in the gallery I could see the blue ribbon hanging from her blonde hair but I didn’t go down. I thought I’d best leave that to dad.
After the funerals they had an inquest into how all the kids died, but they said no one was to blame, which made people angry. So they had another one soon after. I got interviewed and I told then about the man closing the door at the bottom of the stairwell, but they didn’t ask me to go into the court.
The next few months were hard as well. I ended up going to live with Aunty Mary cos dad didn’t want me in the house. Kept saying it was my fault, said I should’ve looked after her, but I told him he shouldn’t have been gone drinking. He hit me round the side of the head that day and I nearly hit him back. We didn’t speak much after that.
When I left school the first job I got was at Wearmouth pit. I didn’t last long though, going down that shaft and into the darkness, it made me start to see things. I kept hearing funny voices and cold air would brush past me.
Not long after I got an apprenticeship working for Bendy Smiths uncle as a joiner.
Every now and then I would get an urge to go into town. Mowbray park, where they put the statue, is lovely to walk round, and I would for a while, but my mind would drift off and when I’d come to my senses I’d be outside the door that led to the Victoria Hall stairwell.
As I got older I’d have the odd girlfriend but they wouldn’t last long, and then, after Aunty Mary passed away, I became used to living alone. The urges to visit Victoria Hall were, for some reason, always stronger when it rained. There’d be days when I would stand looking at it and get a right soaking.
In my later years I’d go there only when it rained, I don’t know why. I was seventy-two when it was bombed during the war. When I heard about it I decided to walk over into the town. It was a nice day but as I walked up John Street it started to rain heavy. As I turned the corner and saw the damage that the bomb had done I was amazed it hadn’t all fallen down.
Walking closer the rain got heavier and again I found myself at the door of the stairwell. Outside the door there was a large puddle formed by some of the fallen debris. Standing in front of the puddle I started to see images in the ripples. My head went a little light as a breeze caught my breath and the smell of salt air filled my lungs. Little white lights started flickering either side of me. Inside the puddle I’m certain I could see crabs crawling around and tiny fish darting from one side to the other.
I looked down at my feet but instead of seeing my old boots, all I could see was the perfect skin of my bare legs and feet as I balanced expertly on the rocks. Looking back to the puddle I refocused on a reflection that was staring back at me.
Sun kissed Blonde hair tied up with a blue ribbon blowing in a gentle breeze, a big giggling smile beaming back at me. Then her small hand reached out to me, so I reached out too with a skinny sunburnt arm covered with a dusting of sand.
Then her lips moved and I could feel her words. ‘Hey there Billy, let’s go catch some fishes.’