‘Old Stories Retold; The Bell Street Hall Catastrophe in 1865.’ (21 January, 1888)

The following is a retelling of the dreadful crush at the music hall on Bell Street which claimed 20 lives, only three of which were over 18 years old. This was the first ‘Old Story Retold’ in a sequence that appeared in ‘The Peoples Journal’.

Bell Street Hall was, exactly 23 years ago, the scene of a fearful tragedy. The dreadful occurrence put an untimely end to New Year holiday festivities, it saddened many hearts, and overshadowed many lives for over, and it created a widespread feeling of dismay, not in Dundee only, but over the whole country. For, as the Scotsman pointed out, the occurrence was one that might happen anywhere, and among any class of people.

It is a strange thing that, while one man would probably not lose his presence of mind in the face of danger, yet men in a crowd always become panic-stricken. The ever recurring stories of theatres on fire, with audiences, composed of people usually sane, madly rushing to the doors, and bearing down everybody and everything in their way, are sufficient proof of this extraordinary tendency. The proverbial flock of sheep are not more uniformly animated by a single desire than is every man and woman there determined on the same thing—to be out first. On board a sinking ship, too, the passengers and crew have been known to make a wild rush for the boats; but for this there is some excuse. The danger is great and obvious. But why men should crowd and push and jostle when there is no danger and no panic whatever is more than any one can understand.

This, however, is what happened on the 2d [2nd?] of January 1865, at the door of Bell Street Hall, Dundee. This building, which has long been used as a furniture wareroom, was then a popular Music Hall. It was occupied by a Mr Springthorpe, who had provided a specially attractive entertainment for the Christmas and New Year holidays. The year 1865 began on a Sunday, and Monday the 2d [2nd?] was, therefore, a general holiday. Some snow had fallen, and the weather was seasonable. About seven o’clock in the evening a large crowd of people might have been seen making their way to Springthorpe’s Music Hall. They were mostly young men and women, factory operatives, shop assistants, and the like, bent on having an evening’s amusement. Springthorpe’s Music Hall was very popular among this class.

The hall was reached by a flight of steps, lending downwards, not upwards, from the street. Such an arrangement would not, of course, be permitted now-a-days. At the top of the steps an iron gate stretched across. The gate was in two divisions, only one being open, and here the money-taker was stationed. Entrance to the hall was thus not very easily or quickly obtained, and soon the crowd began to stretch up and down, and right across the street. Then the people grew impatient. The night was cold, the waiting was tedious, the delay seemed, to those behind, both long-protracted, and unnecessary. Would the people in front not move off a little quicker? Those on the outskirts showed a tendency to crowd in upon the centre, and the money-taker began to find himself borne back by the pressure of the dense, ever-increasing mass of human beings that surged and swayed before him.

At this point a young man, who does not seem ever to have been identified, undid the fastening of the half of the gate, which had till now been closed. As he did so he exclaimed, “What do you think of me for letting you in?” In an instant the crowd precipitated itself headlong down the stairs. Those behind, not understanding that anything was wrong, kept pushing forward; those in front, unable to withstand such a tremendous pressure, stumbled and fell. Still the crowd came pouring down the stair, nothing seemed able to stop the rush—not even the shrieks of those who were being knocked over, and immediately there was a dense mass of men, women, and children mingled inextricably together, struggling, fighting, screaming, and praying. One or two of those who had got safely inside the hall seeing what had happened made their exit by the back-door, and going round to Constitution Road implored the crowd to desist. Then doctors were sent for, and steps were taken to extricate the people in the area below from their dangerous position. So closely were the unfortunate people packed together that the limbs of many were broken in the more attempt to rescue them. There were some 60 or 70 persons lying in the narrow space at the bottom of the fatal stair. They were mostly young men and women, with a number of boys and children. They were thrown together in every conceivable position, some even feet upmost, and very few were able to help themselves. Terror and suffocation had rendered even those who had escaped with his life incapable of any exertion. When the medical men arrived everything possible was done to revive those still living. Many were despatched to the Infirmary in cabs. On thier arrival there all kinds of restoratives were used, including even the galvanic battery, and in most of those cases the treatment was successful. Many, alas! of the unfortunate people were pronounced to be beyond the doctor’s skill.

Soon the floors of the hall and of several rooms adjoining were covered with bodies some dead, some yet breathing. Two lads who had been in the fatal crowd, but had fortunately escaped the worst consequences, looked round with a vacant look on their livid, swollen faces. In a smaller room to the back were the bodies of three or four young girls who had been crushed to death, their tattered crinolines and disordered garments giving evidence of the fearful struggle that had taken place. On the floor lay the dead body of a stout man, with mouth wide open and features rigid, as if their owner had died in a gigantic effort to overthrow the mass of living beings above him. Upstairs lay four bodies with features much discoloured from suffocation. They were all young people thus suddenly and fearfully cut off. A girl lay there, too, in the agonies of suffocation, while kind hands chafed her temples, and did all that was possible for her relief. Fortunately in this case the measures taken were successful.

Five dead bodies were removed to the Deadhouse in the Howff, and by singular thoughtlessness on the part of those in charge the building was locked up, and no one was stationed to answer the inquiries of anxious friends. Crowds of these besieged the Advertiser Office, in the immediate vicinity, for information as to the bodies in the Deadhouse. This was given as far as possible, but the action of the authorities in the matter gave rise to much comment. By eleven o’clock in the evening all the bodies except these five had been identified, and taken to those houses which the unfortunate people had left in full strength and vigour such a short time ago. It put a end ending to the innocent New Year festivities.

Next day the Sheriff granted a warrant for a full inquiry into the circumstance of this catastrophe, and he himself accompanied the Procurator-Fiscal in the investigations. The cause of the accident was plain enough. The only wonder was that an accident of the kind had not happened before. Any responsibility, apart form that incurred by the owners of the building, lay with the crowd themselves. Many of them were drunk, and all were careless and reckless to the last degree. The stair is said to have been badly lighted, and undoubtedly the gate at the top should have been fasted so that it could not be opened from the outside. But all these discoveries were made too late. The accident no doubt led to a much greater degree of care being taken in the construction of public buildings, and to a better regulation of the entrances, more especially at holiday times, when a crowd might be expected.

The following are the names of those who were killed in this dreadful catastrophe:—Andrew Smith, 7 years; Mary Ann Findlay, 17; Joseph Swiney, 44; Peter Swiney, 15; Jane Smith, 13; Wm. John M’Connell, 14; Jane Mitchelson, 12; Elizabeth Gowan, 13; James Knight, 60; Robert Bruce, 15; Lilias Urquart, 17; Agnes Hamilton, 13; Elizabeth Hodge, 14; Alex Campbell, 14; John Hollands, 13; Andrew Nicoll, 16; Mary Robertson, 10; James Mudie, 60; Margaret M’Lean, 13; Alex Davidson, 18. From the above list it will be observed that seventeen out of the twenty were young persons, one being a child of seven.

It is gratifying to be able to say that the Bell Street Hall catastrophe is the only accident of the kind that ever occurred in Dundee. It is not so gratifying to add that a very little of the forethought, and a small part of the care which are now exercised with regard to places of public amusement would have prevented this dreadful sacrifice of life. That wisdom, however, which is got by experience, if it is dearly bought, is always firmly retained, and thoroughly acted up to.

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