Theatre Royal Fire

Theatre Royal Fire, Covent Garden – 5th March 1856

The Theatre Royal, Covent Garden, lately known as the Royal Italian Opera House, was totally destroyed by fire on Wednesday morning, March 5th 1856.

It was let to Mr Anderson, the “ Wizard of the North,” for a few weeks, for £2,000 and he had announced a “Carnival benefit”, to terminate his occupation, which was to extend over two days, commencing on Monday, March 3, and terminating with a bal masque on Tuesday night. Mr. Gye was in Paris when the announcement appeared, and when he became acquainted with Mr. Anderson’s intention, he at first refused his consent, but ultimately gave an unwilling permission for the masque to take place. At twenty minutes to five o’clock on Wednesday morning the company had dwindled down to the last dregs. Not more than two hundred persons were assembled in front of the temporary orchestra; and the musicians were closing the revels with the usual finale of God save – the Queen. At this moment a bright light was observed shining through the chinks and crevices of the flooring of the carpenters’ shop overhead.

The carpenters’ shop extended, with the single exception of a comparatively small space devoted to the scene painters, from one end to the other of the building, between the ornamental ceiling and the roof of the theatre. Through an open space in the floor of this atelier the central chandelier was lighted, and the place itself was generally filled with the materials of the lightest and most combustible character. The two men who had first seen the fire reached this place, but were nearly suffocated by dense black smoke, and compelled to make a speedy retreat, without having been able to open the fire mains in the floor.

Descending to the next flies they succeeded in turning on the mains, but before they could fix the hose the descending fire from the workshop above overtook them, and drove them to the next flies. The orchestra had not ceased playing the National Anthem when the sudden descent upon thee stage of one of the beams round which thee canvasses are rolled gave the first intimation of danger to thee motley assemblage below.

The few remaining masquers rushed precipitately to the various entrances. The flames rushed forward, and, whirling round the interior, made it at once their own. The proceeds of the night, which lay in the treasury, were rescued, as well as some valuable documents and papers from Mr. Gye’s private room. It was now hardly five o’clock, and yet in thee few minutes which had elapsed the doom of this noble theatre had been scaled.

The flames had burst through the roof, throwing high up into the air columns of fire, which threw into bright reflection every tower and spire within the circuit of the metropolis, illuminating St. Paul’s as if gilded with burnished gold, and throwing a flood of light across Waterloo Bridge, which set out in bold relief thee dark outline of the Surrey Hills in the distance. The theatre, blazing within its four great walls, was like a well of fire, or rather a glass furnace.

At half past five o’clock the roof fell in with a tremendous crash, and the outer walls alone remain standing. The adjacent houses in Bow Street, Hart Street, and the Piazza, Covent Garden, were all more or less injured. The scenery, properties, library, the latter containing among other treasures the valuable operatic scores, some of which can never be replaced, as the ” Elisir d’Amore ” of Donizetti, and the “Oberon “of Weber, are utterly destroyed.

Some of the Wizard’s tricks and a small quantity of furniture, belonging to Mr Costa, only were rescued from the flames. No lives were lost.

As to the origin of the calamity nothing is known. That the fire broke out in the carpenters’ shop there can be little doubt, and the only cause which can be assigned is spontaneous combustion among the inflammable materials there accumulated, heated as the whole building was by the gas which had been burning for forty hours out of the forty-eight.

An inquest has been held by the coroner to examine into the cause of the fire, but after a lengthened investigation no conclusion was arrived at. The only insurances known to exist in connection with the building are two, one of £8,000 upon a portion of the properties, and another of £2,000 effected by Mr. Anderson when he entered on the occupation of the theatre for three months.

On the re-erection of the theatre in 1808, no insurance office would issue a policy upon it. To reassure the public against the alarm then erected, the architect erected a tank on the roof of the theatre calculated to hold 18 tons of water, which, by means of double mains on every floor, could be thrown upon any part of the building at a moment’s notice. Four firemen were appointed to watch and guard the theatre against fire. It was their duty to go over every part of the building, and to see that the fire mains were always accessible, and always charged. This arrangement has been continued up to the present time.

The Theatre which has just been destroyed was built by R. Smirke, R.A. in 1809, after the destruction of the former theatre by fire on Sept. 20, 1808. It was opened Sept. 18, 1809, when the new prices caused the O. P. riots. The interior was entirely reconstructed by Mr. Albano, in 1847, to adapt the theatre to the representation of Italian Operas, at a cost of £40,000.