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Barnsley Tales: The Public Hall Disaster of 1908

Being a Barnsley lad, born and bred, it always gives me a strange sensation every time I go in the alley between the Civic Hall and the Parkway Cinema on Eldon Street. It was the scene of a sad piece ofhistory that’s been largely overlooked.

On Saturday January 11th 1908, 16 children, aged between 4 and 9 were crushed on a staircase of the Public Hall. 40 more were injured. The staircase was in that alley.

They had gone to a penny picture show put on by the World’s Animated Picture Company. Most of the children had squeezed into the gallery on the upper floor but an attendant seeing the gallery was full turned them back down the stairs.

They collided withthe children coming up the steps and this caused the tragic accident.

What happened next was simply unbelievable. My researcher John Timmis has done a lot of research into the inquest.

The accident happened on the Saturday. They were all buried by the Thursday and the coroner’s inquest was held on the Friday after it was adjourned on the Monday.The jury was comprised of Quakers, school teachers, businessman and policemen.

The Cheapside grocer Brady Webster was the foreman. The same ‘rent a jury’ did similar inquests at the time and somebody had worked really fast in organising the jury in just 2 days after the tragic event.

Credit: Russ Oakes - The former Public Hall

It was a complete ‘whitewash’. The jury returned a verdict of ‘negligence, but not criminal negligence’

Today it would at least have been ‘corporate manslaughter’.

There were all kinds of culpable evidence that was overlooked. The organisers had oversold the event and were taking the entrance money at the top of the stairs instead of at the bottom box office. Also they had no attendants on the twisting stairwell which hadfive landings and 51 steps. There were normally at least 4 attendants on the staircase. The children were also mainly unsupervised.

The most harrowing story is that of John Charles Graham from Hoyle Mill. He was 8, and was killed on the Saturday. His father Nixon Graham tragically died on the Monday with a broken heart. John’s mother Lily, who had four other young children, had to attend the court just hours after losing her husband. She broke down and fainted in the witness box. The coroner Mr Maitland adjourned the inquest until the Friday.

The Barnsley Chronicle on January 25th gave it’s scathing comment- ‘These rules of gangways and staircases in buildings for public entertainment, are admirable enough in theory and on paper, but they of course become a dead letter unless there are attendants sufficient to enforce the observance of the regulations’

To watch my films on the disaster go to:

Part One;-

And Part Two;-


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