An imagined vision of the Brunswick Theatre collapse – hand coloured print
I have written before about the descendants of Scudamore Winde, the close friend of Robert Cooper Lee after whom he named his youngest son.
Scudamore Winde made his fortune as a merchant in Jamaica, but elected to remain there until his death rather than returning to England. He made generous provision for his illegitimate children – Robert whose mother was a slave and Penelope, John and Thomas the children of Sarah Cox, who was probably a free Negro. John died young and Thomas elected to work as a merchant in Kingston like his father. Robert became a merchant in London and Penelope in due course married David Steel, bringing with her a handsome dowry.
David Steel began life as a barrister, but his father (also David) ran an important printing business publishing nautical charts, and when he died in 1799 his son took over the business. David Steel senior had an interest in the theatre, and indeed probably a rather close interest in the wardrobe mistress Ann James, who with her four children was left well provided for at his death! In the last decade of the 18th century David Steel senior bought the Royalty Theatre, situated in Well Street running parallel to Wellclose Square in the East End of London.
The Royalty had been built for the actor manager John Palmer who ran into difficulties over the licensing of the premises, because at the time only a limited handful of ‘patent’ theatres were permitted to perform plays. The remainder were licensed on an annual basis to put on musical entertainment, ballet, and the increasingly popular melodramas. In this they were the predecessors of the music halls. Some also, such as Philip Astley’s Amphitheatre, had performances which prefigured modern circus.
When David Steel senior died he left his shares in the theatre equally to his daughter Elizabeth and his son David.
David senior also had a sister called Hannah who in 1784 married Thomas Maurice. They had a son David Samson Maurice. After Hannah died in 1788 Thomas Maurice left England for America where he set up as a merchant in Albany, New York and appears never to have returned to England. His son was apprenticed to a printer under the guardianship of David Steel senior, and it seems likely that Elizabeth Steel, who never married, stood in place of a mother to David Samson Maurice.
In January 1803 David Steel junior died at his house in Union Row, Little Tower Hill, which was also the premises for the printing business. In his Will he left his wife Penelope the option of either selling the business or, if she preferred, continuing to run it in her own right, and this she chose to do, keeping the business afloat for the sake of her for surviving children. Three and a half years later she married William Mason, and with him had a son called William Scudamore Mason who died as an infant, by which time Penelope was about forty.
Nothing seems to be known about William Mason who must have died before 1818, when Penelope married for the third time to Stanley Goddard who was about twenty years younger than she was. Her marriage to Mason may have had something to do with the family row that caused her eldest son David Lee Steel to leave home, since from 1810 onwards he no longer lived at Union Row in his mother’s house. He died in May 1818 at the relatively young age of thirty.
Penelope’s second son Scudamore Winde Steel began what would be a distinguished career in the Indian army in 1805. Her two daughters Penelope Sarah and Ann remained at home. In 1820 Stanley Goddard was declared bankrupt and the printing business which had been variously known as D.Steel, P.Steel, P.Mason, Steel & Co., Steel & Goddard and Steel, Goddard & Co, and had moved from Union Row to Cornhill not long after Penelope’s marriage to William Mason was sold to J. W. Norie & Co, which already had an established business in Leadenhall.
Penelope must have retained some money in her own right, or else the sale of the business the house and the furniture cleared Stanley Goddard’s debts and left them still with some money, for when she died in 1840 Penelope was living at 14 Euston Place, a pleasant address on the south side of what is now Euston Road opposite Euston Square. The elegant terminus for the London and Birmingham Railway was opened just three years before her death.
A particular feature of that first Euston station was its beautiful iron roof. Iron roofs had been in use since the late 18th century, and the 19th century railway stations created many of the most beautiful ones.
However it was a wrought iron roof which brought tragedy to Penelope’s daughter Ann.
Ann Steel married her cousin David Samson Maurice in 1824. In 1826 the Royalty Theatre burnt down. It was sadly common for theatres to be destroyed by fire. In this instance it was not due to the spectacular special effect of the eruption of Mount Etna at that evening’s performance, but to gas lights at the side of the stage which had not been properly turned off after the performance and which set light to some scenery. The man whose responsibility it was to tend the furnace that created the gas spotted the fire late in the evening and was able to rouse the family who lived on site and get them out. But by the time he had gone next door to wake the landlord of the Black Horse the flames were already bursting out of the stage door into the street. It was only the collapse of the roof, which helped to dampen the flames, that prevented the fire spreading to the adjacent sugar refinery in Dock Street and the many houses of ill repute serving sailors from the docks.
Following a payout on the fire insurance Elizabeth Steel made the theatre site over to David Samson Maurice and gave him the £6,000 insurance money with which he decided to rebuild the theatre. Together with an ambitious partner Richard Carruthers, who combined wholesale haberdashery with selling a patent fluid for lubricating carriage axles, he sold shares in the new Brunswick Theatre to raise the necessary capital of about £20,000.
Building work began on 3 August 1827, and the walls went up with astonishing speed, tied together with temporary wooden beams that were removed when the iron roof went on. The architect was Stedman Whitwell, and he produced a splendid design combining classical Greek with Egyptian styles sculpted in cement on the brick frontage. Natural light was let into the theatre through a series of tall narrow openings in the front wall filled with a glazed iron lattice. Particular attention was paid to fireproofing the building, with stone staircases, gas lighting rather than candles, water piped through the walls (presumably to provide an early form of fire fighting) and a wrought iron roof. Whitwell seems not to have known much about the actual workings of the theatre (unlike David Maurice who was said to enjoy amateur theatricals) and arrangements were made for him to visit Drury Lane Theatre to see how the flies were constructed and the theatre machinery installed.
Whitwell claimed afterwards that his brief extended only to completing the shell of the building which was roofed over in haste in order to meet the licensing deadline in October, with the intention of being open for the first performance at the end of December. It proved impossible to meet this deadline and a new date was scheduled for the end of January. On the 26 January David and Ann Maurice’s elder son was buried at St Botolph Aldgate aged just twenty-one months.
The theatre finally opened on Monday 25 February to a full house of about 3000, with a second performance on the Tuesday. Work fitting out the interior was still continuing on the Wednesday in expectation of the next performance on Thursday. On the Monday there had been a problem when the scenery flats would not slide in the grooves of the flies which had dropped on one side. All the weight of the flies, the theatre machinery and the painters and carpenters workshops, amounting some estimated to 100 tons, was hung from the wrought iron roof, as was common practice in theatres with timber roofs. Whitwell was there on the Monday when instructions were given to crank up the flies by throwing a chain over a tie beam, and a similar process was gone through on the Tuesday after the flies had dropped on the other side. It was assumed that the scenery had swollen slightly due to the damp – after all the building had been given no time at all to dry out and it was winter.
On Thursday 28 February David Maurice and his friend William Evans, a former editor of the Bristol Observer, left Anne Maurice to go and visit friends and went to the theatre where rehearsals were in progress. There were about 80 people in the theatre including dancers, actors, musicians, gas fitters, roofers, and carpenters. Some were in the dressing rooms and the Green Room under the stage, some on the stage, others were right up at the top of the building. Shortly after half past eleven an odd rumbling was heard, there was a sound as if something had been dropped in the carpenters’ workshop above the auditorium, but no one paid any attention. Then there was a sharp crack like a firecracker followed by two or three more and the entire roof collapsed down into the building pushing the front wall out into the street.
David Maurice was killed but his partner Richard Carruthers survived. In all fifteen people died, although the last of those severely injured did not die at the London Hospital until the end of April. Two of the victims had been passers-by in the street but there were many miraculous escapes. A group of carpenters were persuaded by one of them not to try to flee but to remain on the staircase (which you can see in this print was tied into the south-east corner of the building) while the slates and beams cascaded around them – all of them survived. Many people were dug out of the wreckage and in many ways the hero of the day was the Reverend George Smith. An ex-Navy man who had fought at the Battle of Copenhagen he organised the initial rescue attempts, later in the afternoon assisted by Philip Hardwick who brought over a large number of men from St Catherine’s Dock to help. By the middle of Friday all the victims had been accounted for.
A fund was initiated for the support of the survivors, a number of families had lost their chief breadwinner, many workmen had lost all their tools and both actors and workmen were expecting to be paid on the Saturday. Destitution threatened them. The landlord of the Star Inn, which lost its front wall, was ruined because he was on a repairing lease.
George Smith wrote an immediate and very vivid account of the events (he was an enthusiastic evangelical and inveterate pamphleteer) and the inquest was a protracted affair lasting for many weeks. The ultimate verdict of the jury was that the roof had collapsed because of the weight of the flies and theatre machinery suspended from it. I suspect that the filling of a large lead cistern in the painters shop above the stage shortly before the accident may have been the final straw. There was of course a great deal of interest in the disaster not simply because so many had died, and so many more would have died had it happened a few hours later, but because of the innovative technology used in the wrought iron roof.
Poor Ann Maurice who had lost both her child and her husband in the space of a month found herself in serious financial difficulty. In September 1828 the newspapers reported that she had decided not to rebuild the theatre and the site was sold to George Smith and a group of trustees who created the very first purpose-built mariners asylum to provide shelter food and clothing for seamen and to protect them from the corrupt practices of crimping.
Ann was clearly made of the same tough stuff as her mother Penelope for she carried on the printing business on her own account. Eighteen months after the tragedy she remarried to Robert Edgar, the brother of a man who had worked for her first husband. Edgar, a wine merchant, was declared bankrupt in 1834 and died six years later (both Ann and her mother seem to have had better business sense than their husbands) but Ann continued in business until the late 1850s when she retired, dying at Kilburn in 1868.
Ann’s son Richard Lee Steel died young and his widow took her family to America, where descendants still live today. Her daughter Eliza married the widower of her own cousin Mary Steel (Anglo-Indian daughter of Scudamore Winde Steel) – he died soon after and she brought up his two surviving children. Ann’s other son Robert Edgar worked as a writer for the Reuters Telegraph Agency as did his son. Their descendants still live in England, almost certainly quite unaware of their connections to a theatrical disaster and a black heritage in Jamaica.
NOTE ON SOURCES:
I have to thank Yuri, a reader of this website, for alerting me to Penelope Winde’s third marriage and the history of her publishing house. It was while looking further at her family that I came across the story of the ill-fated Brunswick theatre.
Most of the images displayed here have been taken from a wonderful scrapbook about the disaster compiled about the beginning of the twentieth century and now in the possession of the East London Theatre Archive. There and in some other places the theatre is referred to as the Royal Brunswick.
This blog includes a full version of the story of the disaster written some years later by Charles Dickens, which drew upon the many press reports of the disaster and the lengthy inquest.
Other sources include:
A Bibliography of the Works Written and Published by David Steel by Mario Witt, Greenwich Maritime Monographs, 1991.
A Directory of Printers and Other Allied Trades London & Vicinity 1800-1840 by William B Todd, Printing Historical Society, 1972.
George Charles Smith of Penzance : from Nelson Sailor to Mission Pioneer by Roald Kverndal, William Carey Library 2012.