Just before Christmas on Tuesday 28 December 1875 the audience in the Alexandra Theatre on Blonk Street, Sheffield were horrified when a fire caused by some flimsy material catching fire occurred right in front of their eyes. It was estimated that there were around 5,000 people in the audience that night , attending the pantomime which involved a ‘transformation scene’. This involved two nymphs ‘descending from their fairy-like homes to the bower below’.
These were created by long pieces of beautiful transparent gauze hanging over the stage. Waiting for her cue one of the nymphs, a girl called Alma Oldale was standing on an iron bar which was suspended over the stage in front of the same gauze like material. She was wearing nothing but a chemise and a costume made of ’cloth of silver’ material. Hidden from view ,Alma suddenly saw a gust of wind caused the nearest piece of gauze to go towards the gas light at the front of the stage. Within a heartbeat, the light fabric caught fire, flaring up so quickly that people were screaming as they jumped from their seats. Seeing the conflagration in front of them, many rushed towards the exits in panic.
Within seconds the theatre was in the wildest confusion with men, woman and children trying all to escape. Alma was still suspended over the stage, watching in horror as the flames shot up the gauzy fabric and set fire to the flimsy dress she was wearing. She screamed in terror, but thankfully one of the stage hands standing in the wings, saw what had happened and he quickly pulled the fabric down onto the stage. He managed to extinguished the flames, but by this time the fire had now reached the rope which suspended the iron bar on which Alma stood. As a result the burning girl fell heavily down onto the stage below.
The stage manager Mr W Cromwell, in order to prevent the panic from spreading any further, ordered the heavy curtains at the front of the stage to be dropped. No one could quite believe how quickly the accident had happened and the devastation it had caused. Then Mr Cromwell instructed some comedians to go onto the front of the stage and continue with the show. Now unable to see the flames or the injured girl behind the curtain, the audience gradually ceased their flight and returned back to their seats, and the programme was restored. Meanwhile those who had escaped the fire, spread the most wild rumours which quickly got to the ears of Mr Jackson, the Chief Constable.
Immediately he dispatched a message to the fire office and within a short period, Superintendent Pound, the fire officer and his men ran out the steam fire engine, attached the horses to it and quickly drove to the theatre where thankfully they were not needed. However Alma, whose dress had caught fire was found to be to be very badly burned. Whilst the comedians entertained the audience in front of the curtain, she was quickly moved to the surgery of Mr Hargreaves on Eyre Street, Sheffield. As he attended to her burns, Alma told him that she had just turned 18 and she lived on Myrtle Road, Heeley with her parents Henry and Annie Oldale.
The surgeon found the worst burnt areas were the girl’s thighs, breast and shoulders, which he treated as best as he could, before she was removed home to her parents care. Sadly on Monday 10 January, Alma succumbed to her injuries and died. A second girl, Alice Gregory was also treated by Mr Hargreaves, but her injuries were less severe and she did managed to recover. Consequently an inquest was held on Alma Oldale on Thursday 13 January 1876 by Mr D Wightman at the Myrtle Inn at Heeley and the first witness was the girl’s mother Mrs Annie Oldale. She told the inquest that she had identified the body of her daughter and described how she had been brought home on the night of the 28 December.
She said that her face and chest had been badly burned and as a result her daughter was in great pain. She said that Alma had described the speed with which the flames came up the gauze towards her. Mrs Oldale said that Dr Hargreaves had attended her daughter most carefully until her death, and that she was sensible for much of that time. The witness stated that before she died Alma had told her mother that it had all been a complete accident and that no one was to blame. Mr Cromwell, the stage manager stated that he had employed the girl as a ballet girl about the 17th or 18th December. He then gave evidence as to how the deceased girl had been strapped onto the iron bar in order to prevent her from falling.
Because of counterweights after the accident, the stage hands had to use handles to lower the girls down onto the stage. He described how he had seen ‘a flash’ before the flames crept up from the bottom of the gauze, and that another ballet girl had also been on fire. Both girls were treated as quickly as possible. He described how the deceased girls clothes had been completely burned off and consequently she was very badly burned. However she did not panic or scream and was conscious throughout her rescue, whereas he said the other ballet girl Gregory, screamed and ‘knocked him about’ a good deal. When asked by the coroner if he could account for the accident at all, the manager thought carefully before he replied.
Mr Cromwell put forward a hypothesis that as the theatre was crowded it had made the air quite hot. So when a current of cold air rushed in, it blew the gauze curtain across to where the stage lights were and they quickly ignited. He told the inquest that they had now dispensed with using the gauze in the show. Challenged by Mr Wightman as to the use of non inflammable material for the costumes in future, the manager stated that he did not know where such material could be obtained from. As if to defend himself, Cromwell said that he had been 16 years in Sheffield and this was the first fire in his experience.
The coroner summed up for the jury and told them that given the evidence, they could come to no other conclusion other than the deceased had been accidentality burned. Given this direction, the jury had no option but to return a verdict of accidental death. However they expressed their opinion that the flimsy dresses that the girls wore, should be somehow made of some non flammable material in future. Mr Wightman added that he would be very glad if this enquiry would lead to some steps being taken for the prevention of such accidents to happen again in the future. The owner of the theatre Mr Brittlebank told the coroner that he regretted the accident most deeply, and that he had already told Alma’s parents that he would pay all the funeral expenses.