Exeter Theatre Royal Fire

Famous Fires In History – Exeter Theatre Royal Fire

One event that has shaped the modern era is the devastating Theatre Royal fire of 1887. This tragic incident not only claimed the beloved cultural hub but also sparked changes in fire safety regulations that continue to influence building codes to this day. Let’s delve into the details of this catastrophic event that shook the heart of Exeter and reverberated across the nation.

A Jewel of the City

Before the flames engulfed its elegant structure, the Theatre Royal stood as a proud emblem of Exeter’s cultural scene. Situated in the heart of the city on Longbrook Street, it was a bustling hub of entertainment and artistic expression. The theatre had undergone several renovations and expansions over the years, each time emerging more magnificently than before.

With its ornate facade and capacity to seat over a thousand patrons, the Theatre Royal was not just a place for theatrical performances. It was a social gathering point, where the elite of Exeter mingled with its working-class citizens, all drawn by the allure of the stage.

The Fateful Night

The date was September 5, 1887, an evening that began like any other performance night at the Theatre Royal. The play, “Romany Rye,” a popular melodrama of the time, was underway. The theatre was filled to the brim with eager spectators, the stage alive with actors and actresses bringing the story to life.

However, amidst the laughter and applause, tragedy struck. It was around 10:30 pm when smoke was first noticed billowing from behind the stage. Panic quickly spread as it became apparent that a fire had broken out backstage, rapidly spreading its destructive tendrils.

Chaos and Heroism

As chaos ensued inside the theatre, brave individuals worked tirelessly to evacuate the panicked crowd. Actors, stagehands, and audience members alike rushed to assist in guiding people to safety. However, the rapidly spreading flames and thick smoke made the situation increasingly dire.

Outside, the scene was no less frantic. The fire brigade, summoned promptly, arrived to battle the inferno. However, the theatre’s location in a densely populated area posed challenges for the firefighters. The narrow streets and lack of modern equipment hindered their efforts to contain the blaze.

The Aftermath

Despite the valiant efforts of many, the fire raged on for hours, consuming the Theatre Royal in its entirety. By the time the flames were finally quenched, the once-proud structure lay in ruins, a shell of its former glory. Sadly, 186 people lost their lives that day. These deaths came from a combination of the direct effects of smoke and flame, crushing and trampling, and trauma injuries from falling or jumping from the roof and balconies.

The death toll makes it the worst theatre disaster, the worst single-building fire, and the third worst fire-related disaster in UK history.

The aftermath of the fire was a sombre period for Exeter. The loss of the Theatre Royal was deeply felt, not just as a building but as a symbol of the city’s cultural heritage. Theatrical performances were temporarily relocated to other venues, but the void left by the Theatre Royal was palpable.

Rebuilding and Legacy

In the wake of the fire, Exeter rallied together to rebuild. Plans were swiftly set in motion to create a new Theatre Royal, one that would be safer and more resilient to such disasters. The new theatre, designed by local architect W.H. Watkins, opened its doors in 1889, standing as a testament to Exeter’s resilience and determination.

Moreover, the fire had far-reaching implications beyond Exeter. It prompted a reassessment of fire safety measures in public buildings across the country. The tragedy served as a wake-up call, leading to the implementation of stricter regulations and the advancement of fire prevention technologies.

Remembering the Tragedy

Today, the Exeter Theatre Royal fire of 1887 remains a poignant chapter in the city’s history. While the physical scars have long been healed, the memory of that fateful night lingers on.

Visitors to Exeter can still glimpse remnants of the past, with plaques and memorials dedicated to those affected by the fire. These serve as a reminder of the lives impacted and the lessons learned from this tragic event.


The Exeter Theatre Royal fire of 1887 stands as a testament to the resilience of a community in the face of tragedy. It is a reminder of the importance of safety measures in public spaces and the enduring legacy of those who worked tirelessly to save lives that night.

As Exeter continues to flourish and evolve, the memory of the Theatre Royal fire remains etched in its collective memory. It serves as a poignant reminder of the fragility of the places we hold dear and the strength we find in coming together in times of adversity.

Image Source – Clifton Hall Colliery Disaster

Image 1 – The Shocking Truth – link