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The Paisley Cinema Disaster


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Of all festivals in the year, none is dearer to the hearts of Scottish folk than that of Hogmanay, or, as we call it in England, New Year's Eve. On that night Scots the whole world over thrust aside their cares to join in a general rejoicing and giving of presents, and especially is it a feast for the little ones. It was a happy thought, therefore, on the part of the British Broadcasting Corporation when in 1929 it decided to signalise New Year's Eve in a manner which would hold a special appeal to its millions of Scottish listeners. But at 10.15 p.m., in place of the entertainment planned, the following sinister announcement came over the ether: "This is London calling. Our surprise item to-night was to have been all-Scottish, representative of Hogmanay. You have heard of the terrible disaster which has befallen Paisley, and will appreciate the motive which prompts us not to broadcast this surprise item." And then came a pregnant silence of four minutes....

The majority of those who heard these solemn words were, doubtless, already in possession of the facts, but there must none the less have been many to whom this was the first intimation of the awful tragedy in which a large number of little children had met with a terrible death. Apart from the fact that this was by far the worst cinema disaster ever experienced in Great Britain, the tragedy was made additionally poignant by the extreme youth of the victims, the majority of whom were under three years of age, while in the first casualty-list issued only one was over twelve. And again, it derived a special horror from the circumstance of its coming to pass on that one night of the whole year. In his message of condolence to the Provost of Paisley the Prime Minister wrote: "Such a tragedy at any time would have moved the country to sorrow, but happening yesterday, when every one was happy with children, was giving himself to them, and was planning feasts and gaiety so that the little ones might laugh and be glad - deep indeed is the gloom which this devastation has cast upon us.... Every one blessed by having their children around them understands in the most intimate way the torturing sorrow which is in the hearts of so many of your citizens."

The Glen Cinema was a building situated at Paisley Gross, in the Market Square, some 30 or 40 years old and known in former days as the Alexandra Hall. It was established afterwards that on the morning of New Year's Eve the place was inspected by a member of the fire brigade staff and passed as being in order. On the other hand, this report of his can be interpretated only as implying that the building was in order so far as it ever could be so described. For it was stated in evidence by Mr. James Graham, the proprietor of the cinema, that there were not enough exits, and that when he took over the hall he had been promised a new entrance, but that nothing had been done about it. Indeed, now that the catastrophe was fait accompli, he had been informed by the authorities that he must construct two new entrances, two stone staircases to the balcony, and a new rewinding-room and operating-box. His evidence was confirmed by Mr. Robert Christie, an official of the Paisley Corporation, who attested that two or three years before there had indeed been mooted a scheme which included the provision of the cinema with another entrance, though nothing had come of it.

On Hogmanay afternoon there was a special children's matinee, and this was attended by an abnormally large crowd drawn from the poorer classes. Overcrowding is mentioned specifically in the official report as having been one of the direct causes of the dreadful affair which followed. Some of the less responsible newspapers wrote of an audience of 2,000. Actually, it numbered between 500 and 600, but even so it obviously must have been larger than the place was ever meant to hold, for it was officially stated that children had been standing up between the seats.

By an ironical coincidence the film first shown was one entitled "The Crowd," in which occurred a pathetic scene depicting the death of a child. A father comes home with an armful of toys purchased with money won in a slogan-competition. He and his wife call to their children from an upper window and the little ones come running across the street, but in the mad, careless dash the little girl is knocked down by an oncoming lorry and fatally injured. It was when this harrowing drama had just been completed, and when a two-reel comedy was about to be put on to revive the spirits of the audience, that the calamity came to pass.

Following the usual custom, the used film was carried off to the rewinding room by a 15-year-old member of the staff named James McVay, while Alexander Rosie, the operator, a native of Port Dundas, Glasgow, proceeded to start showing the new picture. Scarcely had he commenced, however, when a loud hissing noise suddenly arose from the direction of the rewinding-room, and simultaneously he was horrified to observe black smoke pouring into his operating-box filling the vestibule, and creeping round the door which led into the auditorium. Terror-stricken, young McVay came rushing in to report that part of the film which he had just deposited in a metal box had begun to smoulder.

Hearing screams from the auditorium, Rosie groped his way along the passage through the choking smoke and presently encountered a party of children, in a great state of agitation, whom he conducted out of the premises by a side-entrance. McVay, meanwhile, had picked up the box containing the burning film and attempted to remove it to the open air. On reaching the vestibule, however, he was so overcome by the fumes that he could carry it no farther, so set it down and staggered away to warn Rosie and, this done, to find Mr. Charles Dorward, the manager of the cinema. It must have been a painful thought afterwards to young McVay that if he had only managed to reach one of the side-doors with the box, instead of depositing it in the passage, the whole vast tragedy might have been averted.

Dorward at once rushed to the vestibule, carried the smoking box to a side-door, and kicked it out on to an adjoining piece of waste ground. But by this time the damage was done. Some one had observed the fumes creeping into the auditorium, a cry of "Fire!" had been raised, and, despite every effort of the attendants to calm the children, panic broke out and they made a wild stampede for the exits. Naturally enough, too, it was for the doors farthest removed from where the smoke had been observed that they rushed. In vain Dorward tried to persuade them to return and make their way out by the other doors, which had been thrown wide open: they were maddened by fear, utterly unable to listen to reason or persuasion.

Let some of the children who were lucky enough to escape with their lives tell in their own artless words the story of that mad stampede. Here is the account of James Dickie, aged twelve: "I paid a penny for a seat, which I got near the front. The first picture had just started when I heard screams. Turning round, I saw smoke, and the other children were rushing for the door at the street end of the picture-house. I was knocked down and was trampled upon by other children. I scrambled and shouted, 'Get up!' I managed to raise my head, when I saw firemen. One of them said, 'Follow me.' I did so, and suddenly a man pulled me through the door to safety. When I got out women were at the door crying for their children. My three chums were also saved. It was terrible. My legs were hurt through the children falling on me, and I was nearly suffocated. I took a long time to breathe freely. There was a smell like

Again, "I was sitting in the centre of the hall," we are told by John McDowall, a nine-year-old, "when somebedy in the balcony shouted, 'Fire!' and we all rushed towards the door at the back of the screen. The children in front of me crowded the corridors and fell over each other in a heap. I was pushed from behind, but I managed to keep from falling. I was terribly afraid, and thought I could not get out, when somebody broke the outside door open and helped me out. I could hear little girls shouting that they had lost their babies, meaning that they had lost their little brothers and sisters whom they had taken to the pictures." There is something ineffably pathetic in that ingenuous statement: "I could hear little girls shouting that they had lost their babies...."

But of all the children's narratives, for sheer grit and!evel-headedness we must give the palm to little Jeannie Brown, aged ten. "I smelt reek coming from the operative box," says she, "and then all the folk began to run to the main door. I wasn't frightened. I took Mary by one hand and Emily by the other" - these were her baby sisters, aged five and three respectively! - "and started to follow the crowd rushing to the door. The firemen came in behind us and told us that the other doors were open. When I turned to go to the other door I lost Emily, and it was only then that I began to feel frightened. When we were passing the stage to get to the side-door there was a rush from behind, and both of us were knocked down and Mary began to cry. When I got outside I started looking for Emily, and a policeman told me she had been taken to the infirmary."

Actually, however, the last statement turned out to be erroneous, and attached to this matter of wee Emily there was no little drama. For Emily's mother heard the story of her being in the infirmary, as also did an aunt, and the latter was hastening fearfully to the infirmary when whom should she meet but Emily herself, who had made her escape alone and unaided!

It will have been noticed that the narrators of the foregoing accounts make mention of firemen appearing in the hall during the panic. The theatre being situated in the centre of Paisley, the shrieks of the terrified children very quickly attracted hundreds of would-be helpers, while large squads of police and firemen came hurrying to the scene. Setting ladders against the building, these ran up and smashed the windows, and then, assisted by the onlookers and tram-waymen who had left their cars standing in the street, pulled scores of children through the apertures and passed them hand over hand down the ladders to the ground. The air was still so thick with fumes that the rescuers had to improvise gasmasks by tying handkerchiefs over their faces. One brave lad of 15, James Johnstone, lost his life through re-entering the cinema to save a little girl after he had won to safety....

Terrible sights awaited the eyes of the men who burst their way in on their errand of rescue. "When we reached the theatre," says Deputy Firemaster Wilson, of the Paisley Fire Brigade, who was one of the first on the spot, "several civilians cried out, 'For God's sake get your smoke-helmets; we can't get in through the smoke. The cinema's full of children!' As soon as my men heard about the children there was no holding them back. Smoke-helmets or no smoke-helmets, they were off the engine and through the passage without delay. The fumes were not so bad in the theatre itself. We managed to head off one crowd of children and turned them back to a safe exit.

"On the stair leading to one exit the children were packed in a horrible heap. Some of them had been so badly frightened that they started to climb up the screen at the head of the stair. Behind the screen the space was packed with children huddled together in every conceivable attitude. They were as tightly packed as a wall of cement-bags. Some still moved, others were motionless. Legs and arms were intertwined in the most appalling tangle. In some cases it took two of us, working gently, to extricate one child."

The firemen were badly shaken, disinclined to talk. But here is the description of the terrible spectacle around that screen given by another of the men, when at last he could be induced to speak: "There was a solid mass of humanity round the screen when we fought our way in. Half a dozen terror-stricken youngsters grasped hold of my coat and my belt, and I just turned and grabbed them all out into the fresh air. Living and dead were lying breast-high near the exits. Some of the children were blue in the face and very still: others could still scream. I saw what seemed to be a baby of about eighteen months lying in the pile. Some of the youngsters who were still alive seemed to have gone mad with terror. There was one jammed in a corner surrounded by dead bodies. The child was not looking at the bodies, but upwards, and all the time he whimpered as if he were trying to ward off something that threatened to overwhelm him. His danger from crushing was over, but he still seemed to imagine that he was in that terrible fight for life."

The most awful scenes of all, however, took place on the stairs leading down from the balcony to one of the exits. The question of how the iron trellis-gate at the foot of those stairs came to be shut will be examined in its proper place, when we come to the subsequent official inquiry, but shut it unquestionably was, and as the stampeding children came against this obstruction they piled themselves up behind it in a horrible jammed mass. Sick with horror at the gruesome sight behind the trellis, the crowd wrenched and tugged at it until at last it gave way and they were able to get at the unfortunate little victims. The first man on the scene at this grim gate of death seems to have been one John Lindsay Macpherson, who thus describes what he beheld: "I saw a boy climbing over the iron gate, which was locked. It was a perfectly horrible scene of panic and terror. Behind the trellis-gate was a dense mass of children. I spoke to one or two in order to cheer them up, but after a few seconds I found they were dead. So great was the pressure that the faces of many of them, quickly turned black. I saw one little girl walking slowly forward. She had her arms outstretched and was staring fixedly in front of her. She advanced over this mass of bodies - a human floor of children - but I do not think she knew what she was doing." Another eyewitness tells us that the dead and dying children were heaped up to a height of six feet: "It was a solid mass of children.... From the top to the bottom of the steps, and along the passage, they were jammed with legs and arms intertwined, piled up in a great heap and crushing and suffocating one another."

As fast as the children were extricated they were laid in a builder's yard close beside the cinema. There was only one doctor available on the spot, but he appealed for help to the people there and showed them how to apply artificial respiration. Many of the women, though distraught with anxiety concerning the fate of their own youngsters, pluckily stood by him and worked like Trojans under his direction. Among their number was Mrs. Brown, the mother of brave little Jeannie, whose story has already been told.

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