Dangerous Show

For much of human history, wherever people gathered, there was always a chance of something dangerous happening, but this seems to have been particularly common for shows, as many people often crowded into a small space, often lit by open flames. One of Cambridgeshire’s greatest tragedies happened at a puppet show. This is from Honor Ridout’s ‘Cambridge and Stourbridge Fair’:

“A certain Richard Shepherd stopped with his family-run show at Burwell on September 8th 1727, surely on his way to Stourbridge just 1.5km away. He hired a barn and stable for the night and, with wife, daughter and two servants, set up his puppet show in the barn. The opportunity for the villagers was enticing for 1d they could see a show on their doorsteps without walking to the Fair. Some 140 people packed into the barn. They enjoyed the preliminary performances – conjuring by a performer who stood on a table in front of the set (the table was then folded up and put out of the way across the barn door), and a two-handed piece by the Shepherds. But earlier, an ostler employed by the barn owner, coming to his work in the adjacent stable, had hoped to be admitted free to the show. Told he must pay his penny, he had retired, but found a chance to climb over the partition between stable and barn. As he scrambled over straw bales, the candle he was carrying lit the straw, and the flames roared up to the timber roof. In panic, the audience fought for the barn door – barred by the table and also inward-opening. Eighty people died in the crush and the fire. Many of them were identified in the casualty list as ‘son’, ‘daughter’ or ‘servant’, so were probably children or teenagers.”

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