London Fire Brigade

LFB150 - The 1882 Alhambra theatre fire

07 December 2016

As we celebrate our 150th anniversary we're looking back at some of the most significant and some of the more unusual incidents that have taken place since we were formed in 1866.

One of the most famous theatre fires in London’s history sadly claimed the lives of two firefighters two weeks before Christmas in 1882.

The fire began in the early hours of Thursday, 7 December in the balcony stalls of the Alhambra theatre and music hall on Leicester Square.

Firefighters from Chandos Street fire station were the first to arrive on the scene.

Twenty-five steam fire engines were at the incident, but the minarets of the theatre were too high for the water from the hoses to reach.

The resulting destruction completely gutted the interior of the building leaving only the external masonry and parts of the structure intact.

Newspapers of that time reported that it was an event that tested the expertise of London’s fire service.

First Class Fireman Thomas George Ashford and Fourth Class Fireman Henry Berg lost their lives while fighting the blaze.

An artist's sketch of the fire, destruction and the aftereffects of the fire to people. ©Illustrated London News Ltd/Mary Evans Picture Library

Alhambra Theatre in Leicester Square before the fire in 1882 ©Mary Evans Picture Library

 

The firefighting Prince of Wales

 

The Prince of Wales (later Edward VII) also attended the Alhambra fire. He was very interested in firefighting and was a close friend of Captain Shaw.

The Prince had his own uniform, kept at Chandos Street. When a significant fire occurred, Shaw would send a carriage to collect the Prince, who would change at the station where an engine would be waiting to take him to the scene of the fire.

 

Very common in the Victorian times

 

Theatre fires were very common in the Victorian times. They were usually caused by the gas lamps used to illuminate the stage.

In 1875 the Lord Chamberlain passed an act which required all theatres to have a fire inspection annually.

Captain Sir Eyre Massey Shaw, Chief Officer of the Metropolitan Fire Brigade was tasked by the government to conduct an inspection of theatres and make recommendations for their protection.

In his report he found many of the theatres were unsatisfactory and should be shut down. Just after finishing his report, the Alhambra Theatre burnt down.

 

Changes to fire regulations in theatres

 

Captain Sir Eyre Massey Shaw’s article “Fires in Theatres” made some recommendations that shaped the future of fire regulations for theatres.

  • He recommended that all walls, including internal walls, should be of strong construction and all areas should have strong divisions
  • He also devised that theatre fire curtains should be made of metal, so when a fire started it could be used to divide the theatre from the auditorium. 
  • All theatres should have good water supplies, rising mains and proper hydrants.
  • The exits should be in proportion to the number of people allowed in the audience.

'Fireman’s corner'


In ‘Fireman’s Corner’ at Highgate Cemetery lies a memorial to the two firefighters who were injured at the Alhambra theatre fire and subsequently died as a result of it.

Memorial to firefighters Thomas George Ashford and Henry Berg . Source

The original inscription reads as follows:

"In memory of First Class Fireman Thomas George Ashford, aged 34 years, and Fourth Class Fireman Henry Berg, aged 24 years, of the Metropolitan Fire Brigade, who both died from the effects of the injuries they received at the burning of the Alhambra Theatre Leicester Square on the 7th December 1882. This memorial was erected by their Officers, comrades and friends to commemorate the loss of two good men, whose lives were sacrificed by their devotion to their duty."