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Document title:
Person-environment conditions that inspired regulatory and
other changes to occur in building design from the 19th into
the middle 20th centuries. The case of theatre design.
Ross Thorne
Summary / abstract:
Fires and other catastrophes in theatres, where people were
killed, initiated over time a number of official inquiries that
resulted in improved regulations for the safety and comfort
of patrons. These particularly occured in the second half of
the 19th century, producing major regulatory and licensing
changes in the 20th century. This paper starts with the horror
of disasters in theatres internationally, and continues with a
variety of evidence that produced change in design of theatres
in Australia, and improved comfort of patrons. It particularly
notes the influence of a Royal Commission into the topic in
New South Wales in the 1880s. Many of these modifications
have been tabulated to demonstrate the considerable change
experienced by members of the audience from the late 19th
century to the 1970s.
Key words:
Theatre design; Theatre history; Disasters in theatres, Building standards.
Of fires and there aftermath in Britain and Australia.
Original publication date:
Original publication source:
People and Physical Environment Research, 57, pp. 39-62
Complete / extract:
Complete paper
ISSN 1031-7465
Copyright owner:
Ross Thorne 2002. Extracts according to Australian Copyright law may be used with acknowledgement to the owner.
Copyright is waived upon death of the owner with the exception of acknowledgement.
PaPER 57
Fire at the Duke of Edinburgh Theatre, Bourke Street, Melbourne, in 1871.
Source: Illustrated Australian News, 9th October 1871.
Fire that destoyed the Bijou Theatre, Bourke Street, Melbourne in 1889.
Source: Australasian Sketcher, 16th May 1889.
PaPER 57
Person-Environment Conditions that Inspired Regulatory
and other Changes to Building Design from the 19th into the
middle 20th Centuries: The Case of Theatre Design.
Ross Thorne
Department of Performance Studies, School of Society, Culture and Performance,
University of Sydney
The history of buildings is, especially for the 19
and 20th centuries, one good source of evidence
for social change and change in community
expectations of safety and comfort in everyday
life. It demonstrates the close relationship
between people and the physical environment,
and how either perceived faults in buildings have
initiated change, or increasing expectations of the
community have dictated change. For example,
working class housing changed from being, in the
1850s, one or two rooms with neither services
nor facilities, except for a fireplace, and no yard
space, to being, by 1950, a multi-roomed detached
cottage with a bathroom, kitchen, front and rear
yard, together with reticulated water, electricity
and maybe gas.
Most other building types cater for more specific
sections of the community and may be determined
by particular processes or behaviours, as for
example, factories are determined by the product
being manufactured. Some other types, like schools,
have fallen short of the community expectations
of comfort that is found in another building
type, the office block which had air-conditioning
as a standard since at least the 1960s, whereas
teaching and office accommodation in schools and
Universities have lagged decades behind. These
various types of buildings, in their own way, and
for their own segment of the community, can
provide valuable information of change for that
constituency. But there is one building type that, up
until 1950, contained two particular characteristics
that made it virtually universal to all members of
society. First, all segments of society visited it at
the one time; and second, it was built to a specific
format that changed only marginally from one
built example to another at any one time.
This building type is the theatre (and later, the
picture theatre) as constructed from the early years
of the nineteenth century up until about 1950,
after which stage production theory and practice
would produce a variety of performer–audience
relationships that, nevertheless, still retained some
aspects of the established format of design.
It is proposed that there are four facets to achieving
(or impeding) the changes that have occurred in
theatre buildings.
(i) Events in theatres have prompted governments
to take first investigatory, then regulatory action
to hopefully prevent events occurring again; for
example, disaster, loss of life through fire and/or
(ii) Community demand, explicit or implicit, for
better or different facilities. This facet however,
has largely depended upon the social mores of
the time. For example, the serving of alcoholic
beverages in theatre premises has traversed a
complete circle, from being served, gradually
prohibited, then served again.
(iii) Technical changes unrelated to theatres as a
specific building form. For example, oil lamps to gas
to electric light; from earth closets to full sewerage
systems; or timber and masonry construction to
concrete and steel.
PaPER 57
(iv) Beliefs and behaviours, in particular of building
owners or lessees, that resist or are ignorant of
regulations or patrons' preferences.
Three of these facets involve change of some
kind over the period being investigated. However,
individual and collective behaviours seem universal
to human nature, the same types of behaviour
occurring in relation to different theatre venues,
and more generally in society at any one time.
The paper proceeds with six sections. The first
provides a rationale for the research sources used,
demonstrating that there were events in other
countries that influenced reaction in Australia.
A few of these events are detailed in the second
section. Safety and health were paramount in the
developing changes in design parameters, and
are detailed in the third. So often community
expectations and ‘standards’ were gradual, being
implied more than explicit, except for the pressure
groups who often based their ‘standards’ on
ideologies rather than reason. These will be seen in
the fourth section while the fifth looks at the foreign
(more US) influences that caused changes in design
to produce improved comfort, particularly in the
early 20th century. The sixth part is a little more
difficult to be precise about because it concerns
behaviours, often as a result of beliefs of people
concerned with the operation of theatres
The Rationale
The topic of the paper contains issues far from
being unique to Australia; they were common to
the Euro-centric world at the time. Therefore the
development of the argument has relied largely
on the cultural influences and collective colonial
mentality of the period, in the assumption that
examples from Britain, and to a lesser extent
USA, are relevant to the Australian situation. The
Australian states, over the whole 19th century,
were still colonies of Great Britain and many of
their populations felt that they ‘belonged’ to the
“Mother Country”, even if born in Australia.
When researching a topic, through reading
Australian newspapers of the 19th century, one
is struck by the anticipation expressed of the
arrival of ships bringing mail and newspapers
from, in particular, Britain. Columns in local
newspapers present news from ‘home’ that is
six or more weeks behind the event, but seems
to be eagerly sought. It is through these sources
that local colonial authorities became well aware
of European and even American events. One
recurring event was that of disaster in theatres. As
will be seen fires destroyed Australian theatres but
fortuitously not during performances. Overseas
examples, however, possibly provided authorities
with feelings of dread as to what could happen
under other circumstances.
Many of the British newspapers subscribed
to by an Australian middle class would be the
“weeklies”, fortnightlies and monthlies. One that
was often seen in Australia right up until World
War II was the Illustrated London News.1 Whereas it
was published for some 100 years, its Australian
equivalent, the Australasian Sketcher, published by
the Melbourne Argus, commenced as a monthly
in 1873, then in 1880 became a “fortnightly”.
Like the Illustrated London News, and a few similar
Australian publications, it produced wonderful
wood-cut illustrations, often full tabloid page size.
They were especially noteworthy for the portrayal
of disastrous events – train crashes, sinking ships
and fires, particularly those events where loss of
life occurred, as in a number of theatres.
If Victorian society was prurient about sex and
bodily functions, referring to them publicly
through vague euphemisms, disasters were loved
to be described in lurid detail. A few of these are
drawn upon as examples of what could and did
happen in theatres. The detail of their description
well illustrates aspects of architectural design and
human behaviours that produced poor conditions
for safety.
Another “overseas influence” in the 19th and
well into the 20th centuries, was the origin of
the actor-managers and theatrical entrepreneurs.
Most of the major ones such as George Coppin,
Gustavus Brooke, George Rignold, Bland Holt,
Alfred Dampier, and vaudevillian Harry Rickards,
came from the British Isles, periodically returning
to obtain plays and employ performers to tour.
J. C. Williamson, who commenced the largest
theatrical empire in Australasia, was from USA.
His partners from 1920, the Tait brothers under
the company J. & N. Tait Ltd, continued the firm
until post-mid 20th century. They were born of a
Scottish father and English mother, and one of
PaPER 57
Bijou Theatre, Bourke
after the fire on 22
April, 1889. Illustrated
Australian News, 1st
May 1889.
their number, Nevin, remained in London as the
company’s representative and managing director
until 19612. All these theatre entrepreneurs would
have had considerable knowledge of the design
developments in British and American theatres.
“Local” material drawn upon includes the
proceedings of a New South Wales Royal
Commission into theatres. The Government
Architect, James Barnet, reported on existing
theatres, and made recommendations for safety
measures to the Commission. Barnet was a
Scot who was educated, and had practiced as an
architect-builder in London from 1843 to 1854, the
year that he arrived in Sydney3. As with architects
today he would have been well aware of British
and European architectural “trends”.
A 19th century source used that approaches “hard”
research is a world survey of theatre fires and their
causes, published in 1898.
The 20th century saw a shift to the USA as the
principal influence in Australian theatre (and picture
theatre) design. By the 1920s US film distributors
had achieved considerable influence in Australia,
and in the design of the theatres that would
show their product. Movie exhibitors and theatre
architects in Australia subscribed to US exhibitors
trade journals, such as Motion Picture News and
Exhibitors Herald World, both of which contained
regular supplements on theatre architecture with
interviews of major theatre architects. These
influences will be seen mainly in the section on
design and comfort.
Events in Theatres
Resulted in Change.
The worst kind of people-built-environment
interaction is when a disaster in a part of the
built environment causes loss of life. Earthquake
destruction of buildings and engineered structures
have prompted research into building techniques
that will reduce death by such disaster. Fires in
theatre buildings can risk the death of many
people since there may be a considerable number
in a confined space when such a fire commences.
And it’s not as if such events were rare. Enough
in Australia and reported in Britain occurred from
the time of Australia’s first continuously licensed
theatre (Theatre Royal, Sydney, 1833) to 1882 to
cause the New South Wales Government to set
up a “Royal Commission into the Construction of
Theatres, Public Halls and Other Places of Public
Amusement or Concourse” in that year4. Evidence
from this commission of inquiry is illuminating
PaPER 57
for the attitudes of people who are in some way
concerned with theatres, but its recommendations
did not become effective law until 1909 in New
South Wales5 (later in other states of Australia)
by which time even more spectacular fires had
occurred in theatres.
To provide a flavour of the tragedy that could
be produced by fire and/or panic a number of
examples are provided from Britain and two from
USA. A list of theatres that have been largely
destroyed by fire in Australia is also set out (Table
1); fortunately, the fires in the Australian examples
flared up outside of performance times.
A magnificently dramatic fire destroyed all but
fragments of the perimeter walls of the Theatre
Royal, Drury Lane in 18096. The New Royal
Brunswick Theatre at Goodman’s Fields was
destroyed by fire in 1826, rebuilt with supposedly
Burning of the Adelphi Theatre, Glasgow. The Illustrated London News, 25th November 1848.
PaPER 57
Fire destroying the Theatre Royal, Exeter, England, Illustrated London News, 10th Sept 1887.
all the then known safety provisions and termed
“fire-proof ”, opening on 28 February 18287, but
it “fell down” three days later8. In November 1848
the mainly timber Adelphi Theatre, Glasgow, was
destroyed while only a rehearsal was on. All the
actors escaped safely9. In 1849 the Olympic Theatre
in London went up in flames10, then in 1856, it was
the turn of the Pavilion Theatre, (Whitechapel)
London, to be conflagrated11.
Shortly after The (Melbourne) Argus extolled the
fact that the just built Theatre Royal, Melbourne,
was equal in dimensions to the Covent Garden
Opera House12, the latter was destroyed by
fire in March, 1856 – the fire commencing in
the carpenters’ workshop, high in the building,
during a masquerade. Fortunately, it was found by
firemen attached to the theatre and all staff and
masqueraders escaped, but only the principal walls
remained standing13. In 1863 the monumental
civic theatre complex in Plymouth had a fire in the
theatre portion14. Two years later the Theatre Royal,
Edinburgh, was destroyed with the loss of six
lives15. In the same year (1865) the Surrey Theatre,
Sheffield, had everything between the masonry
walls destroyed. It had a capacity of 1500 people
in the gallery alone16. At daybreak on a Sunday in
October 1866, after a performance attended by
3000 people, a fire was discovered at the Standard
Theatre (Shoreditch), London. It reduced the
building to a ruin17. The Her Majesty’s Theatre
(Haymarket), London, experienced conflagration
twice – in 1789 and again in 186718, with the third
theatre building having another fire in 1881, the
damage though being repairable19. Edinburgh’s
rebuilt Theatre Royal, suffered another fire in July
The Exeter Theatre (Exeter, England) was built
only a year prior to a tragic fire in September
188721. With few people in the more expensive
stalls, dress circle and upper circle there were
between 700 and 800, mainly in the pit (rear stalls
bench seats) and gallery. During a soliloquy being
presented on stage the drop scene (at the front of
the stage) fell without warning. What was thought
to be a humorous accident was soon to turn into
horror. Smoke was seen coming from under the
drop scene. The fright of the audience increased
with the drop scene burning-up “which showed
the stage filled with raging flames”. People in the
pit, stalls and upper circle exited safely but in the
most crowded part of the house, the gallery,
PaPER 57
a fearful panic arose; women shrieked and swooned; men,
half mad with excitement, rushed and stumbled over those
lying prostrate. In descending the gallery staircase a block
ensued; as people were unable to escape, a great number
of deaths from burning and suffocation was the result.
The space of time intervening between the fall of the actdrop and the theatre being in a complete blaze was very
Outside the theatre, the sight was a pitiable one. People
appeared on the balcony over the front entrance, wringing
their hands and crying for help. The scene near the gallery
windows was most distressing. As soon as possible, ladders
were brought; but the fire raged too fiercely for the help to be
of much avail….
The struggle for life inside the theatre at one time must have
been terrible. The rescuers state that bodies on the steps and
in the passages to the gallery were crushed, charred, bleeding,
and mingled in fearful confusion with the falling ruins. The
throng in the [exterior] balconies increased in numbers, and
in their terror some could not be restrained from leaping into
the road, in which several were killed….
The bodies of the dead were during the night conveyed to the
stable-yard at the back of the New London Hotel [opposite
the theatre]….In the shed were arranged in three ghastly
rows the bodies which had been recovered from the gallery….
Many of the faces of the dead were terribly convulsed, and
some were burnt; others presented the calm aspect suggestive
of death from suffocation….In a number of cases the skin
of the hand was so blackened and scorched up as almost
to resemble a kid glove in the act of being taken off. In
the shed nearly sixty bodies lay awaiting identification.
Outside was a pile of bones and cinder…stated to contain
the remains of some thirty human beings. Inside the stable
were three other groups of nine men and women, not to
mention a sickening heap of charred remains calculated to
represent some twenty persons….The list of dead…and
missing amount already to 166…22
In a second report on this fire one week later, and
illustrated by wood-cuts based on photographs,
the Illustrated London News mentions the lives lost in
other recent fires in Europe – the Moscow Theatre
(300 persons), the Ring Theatre, Vienna in 1881
when 794 perished, and the Paris Opera Comique
in 1887 with 77 lives lost. The report notes 16
theatres having been burnt in eleven years, thus
producing an average 193 people killed per year by
theatre fires23.
In USA, after the Brooklyn Theatre in New York
was devastated on Tuesday, December 5, 1876, a
Theatre Royal, Exeter, England. Identifying the bodies deposited in the stables of the hotel
opposite the theatre, after the fire. The Illust London News 10th September1887.
PaPER 57
report, published in London, noted that the 425
people in the gallery rushed to a narrow stair,
broke the balustrade “and were precipitated in a heap
to the cellar of the building, where most of them miserably
perished of suffocation and fire. More than 200 bodies were
found in one charred heap”24. In all, some 300 perished.
In Chicago, the new theatre, the Iroquois, built with
all the latest ideas in fire protection suffered a blaze
on 30th December 1903. A fire commenced in the
grid-iron rig high above the stage of the “fireproof ”
theatre. The orchestra and dancers continued to
play until glowing embers commenced falling on
them. They fled the stage, then the hemp ropes
holding “carloads of scenery in the loft above…gave way
before the fire like so much paper and the great wooden
batons fell like thunder bolts upon the now deserted stage”25.
Only then was a call made for the fire curtain to
be lowered. It shot down a way but then stopped,
leaving a “yawning space” beneath. At the same
time performers fleeing from backstage opened a
door to the fresh air which created a draft from
the stage up to the roof ventilator and exits at the
gallery level. This new supply of air transformed
the stage “into a seething volcano”, and with “a
great puff the mass of flame swept out over the
auditorium, a withering blast of death” instantly
barbecuing patrons in the upper galleries. Of the
almost 600 deaths and 400 other casualties26 many
died from being jammed in doorways, on stairways
and corridors “almost instantly so that no human
power could make egress possible”27.
The above provides a few examples of theatre
fires; Edwin O. Sachs in a Supplement to his
mammoth and definitive Modern Opera Houses and
Theatres, (Volume III, 1898) provides a list of over
1100 fires in theatres from 1797 to 1897 in Europe,
Russia, Britain, North and South America, Japan,
and including six fires in Australia28.
In Australia some 15 capital city theatres have
experienced major fires, right up to 1984 (See Table
One), with one being rebuilt and, in turn re-burnt
(Prince of Wales, Sydney). A few country theatres
have also been destroyed by fire, the most notable
being at least three in Broken Hill29. Also, some
picture theatres have either been consumed by fire
or severely damaged. (For New South Wales, the
Movie Theatre Heritage Register indicates destruction
by fire in the table of all known cinema venues in
the state30.)
What is noteworthy, with the list of theatres
compiled by Sachs, is that 74 per cent of those
fires that occurred from 1867 to 1897; and, in
the decade from 1887 when electric illumination
may have shown a reduction in fires, they actually
increased in number – to 360 or 33 per cent of the
total for the 100 year period31. Sachs was only to
discover the time of fire for 769 cases; most were
at night after the performance and before 7 A.M.
(59.5%). However, 13.5 per cent began during the
presence of an audience for the performance32
(See Table 2).
Many people in fires, such as above, die from paniccaused crushes. Worse is when panic is created by
false alarms, someone in the audience shouting
“Fire!” as a lark. In 1878 the Colosseum [Music
Hall] in Liverpool, England, contained about 4000
mostly young people when such a call occurred.
Two women and 35 boys suffocated in the panicrush33. A similar cry in the Victoria Hall, Sunderland,
caused 180 children to die in 188334, while less than
18 months later 14 adolescents perished at the Star
Theatre of Varieties in Glasgow35.
When police inspector George Waters was asked
about crushes and panic in theatres at the NSW
Royal Commission into Construction of Theatres,
he noted two examples. One was at Sydney’s Royal
Victoria Theatre at a time when circuses were
occasionally presented on stage: a horse jumped
down into the orchestra, “and that caused panic,
although it was a tremendous rush”36. He had also
heard of the [false] cry of fire being raised whereby
there was a rush that blocked the entrances [to the
auditorium]. He notes that he was in a theatre in
Melbourne when a cry of fire was raised.
There was a fearful rush. I was near one of the uprights and
got my arms around it. Several people were trampled upon,
and I saw them carried away fainting.37
There are two basic issues related to the above that
concern the well-being of people. One is of fire,
with the direct possible result of harming people.
The second is of panic, whether or not it is caused
by actual fire, and how the interaction of panic, or
fear, and building design allows harm to come to
people. With fire it is necessary to eliminate or at
least reduce the causes of conflagration. If fires
cannot be prevented methods of containment
might reduce fire reaching areas containing groups
PaPER 57
Theatre Royal, Exeter, England, after fire in 1887. Stairs where many bodies were found. The
lower left illustrations show the third flight of stairs with obstructing pay-box. (I.L.News 10/9/87)
PaPER 57
of people. Of the 328 instances found by Sachs that
provided the location within the theatre buildings
where conflagration commenced, only 20 fires or
six per cent were ignited within the auditorium.
Fifty-one per cent commenced on stages and
the remaining 43 per cent in other parts of the
building. Only 193 cases of stage and backstage
fires showed clear causes of those fires38. Sachs’
numbers have been converted into percentages in
the following table.
On the 23rd June, 1882, at the Royal Commission
into the Construction of Theatres, the architect
for the Opera House (on the corner of King and
York Streets), Sydney, and the Academy of Music,
Ballarat, Benjamin Backhouse, was asked about
fires caused from naked gas lights in the flies of
the stage, for example, when canvas borders might
flap into the flame.
When it [a fire] does happen the gas is turned off and
the auditorium is left in darkness. His next sentence
indicates what today would be considered with
some dismay: Often more is thought of the building than
of the audience39 The later section on the behaviour
by managers and employees appears to confirm a
poor or neglectful regard for the audience.
However, irrespective of the causes of fire and
panic, many deaths occurred in the exit designs of
theatres. They were caused neither from burning
nor asphyxiation, but from the designs of escape
systems that were not suitable for human behaviour
when reacting to fire or panic. A more forensic
description of the staircases during the later stages
of the fire at the Theatre Royal, Exeter, illustrate
how some people may have been saved if they had
not fallen on stairways, and stairways that acted as
chimneys for smoke. A Mr. Harry Foot entered the
building while the fire was still burning in the roof
structure. He described the flights of stairs leading
up to the gallery.
On the first flight I saw a number of hats, coats, caps,
jackets, and other wearing apparel, but no people. On the
second flight, which approaches the ticket-keeper’s office, were
several bodies. The staircase had been filled with a dense
smoke, which had found its way there from other portions of
the house, and the staircase, acting as a sort of flu, carried it
up into the gallery. This smoke had suffocated those whom
I saw lying dead in the second flight, because there was no
sign of any crush there. On the landing at the top of the
second flight, on a level with the ticket-keeper’s office, a large
number of bodies were lying. But the most fearful sight met
our eyes on the third flight, immediately preceding the short
flight of four or five steps which led into the gallery itself. On
both sides of the third flight are hand-rails, about 3 ft. 6 in.
above the level of the steps. The bodies were lying in a heap
piled above these rails. They were all head downwards and
in nearly every instance the face was towards the floor. At the
bottom of the third flight of steps were the bodies of three or
four females. It occurred to me that the crowd, mainly strong
men and boys, who were behind, must have overtaken them,
possibly trodden on their dresses, and so caused them to fall.
Or it may be that the ticket-box fell over the stairs, and they
fell over that. The bodies were lying so thick that they quite
occupied the entire width of the staircase; in some cases, they
PaPER 57
Star Theatre, Glasgow,
showing where 14
people died in the
false fire alarm. The
patrons exiting from
the pit or stalls of the
music hall came into
sudden contact with
the patrons falling
down the stairway at
left. Illustrated London
News 8th Nov. 1884.
were four or five rows deep. At the bottom of the stairs they
lay thicker than at the top, almost as if shot down a shoot
(sic). In the majority of cases the arms were outstretched
beyond the head, as if they had struggled to the last to drag
themselves forward; but their legs were rendered immovable
by the bodies of those who had followed and partly fallen on
them. Those lying on the top must have been overpowered by
the smoke, then fallen forward on the others.40
The rescuer was then driven back by the flames
in the gallery and molten lead dripping from the
roof covering. It was after this that the bodies
“were reduced to the charred remains” that were
removed to the hotel yard. (See Figures 6 and 7.)
At the Star Theatre of Varieties in Glasgow deaths
occurred quite simply through the confluence
of patrons from two exit-ways. The pit or stalls
patrons rushed out through their door from the
auditorium, along a short corridor, through a
gateway to turn right to exit into the open air. The
design characteristic that created a deathly crush,
was that the short corridor had a stairway from
the gallery entering at right angles. People coming
down the stairs could not enter the corridor due to
the crowd of other people exiting from the stalls.
A jam occurred on the stairs with patrons on the
lower steps losing their balance, falling and either
being trodden on or simply suffocating to death.
In this case it was panic from a false alarm – death
with no fire. (See Figure 8.)
Similar exit designs also existed in Australia; for
example, at the Theatre Royal, Hobart. From
1856 until 1911, the 300 or so gallery patrons at
the Hobart theatre only had one enclosed stone
spiral stair for entry and exit. It descended through
three levels to empty the gallery audience into
PaPER 57
the basement near an exit door to a side lane. A
full stairway of panicking people could well have
become a solid mass of suffocation if an alarm
had occurred41.
Changes in “Standards” of Safety
and Health: The effect on theatre
design and audience comfort
Establishing precisely what the comfort, safety and
health standards were in early 19th century decades,
as exhibited by theatre designs, is somewhat
difficult even from inspection of the drawings
of contemporary architects or builders. Unlike
architects’ working drawings of today, which have a
considerable number of large scale constructional
details and quite precise, written specifications, the
documentation in the 19th century was little more
than a set of drawings at a scale of one eighth of
an inch to a foot (approx 1:100). Certainly there is
usually evident on these drawings the number and
width of exits, windows in the side walls, ceiling
ventilator(s), if any (usually over any “sunlight”
gas jet clusters) and the type of construction of
walls (either in masonry or timber frame). Some
architects’ drawings may indicate seating, at least in
bench form, although such indication may not have
been adhered to by the entrepreneur/builder42.
Seldom is it stated precisely how many patrons
could be seated in the auditorium. Such number
would provide the means of calculating the space
(in square feet) per person, and the ability to
compare it to today’s standards. The information
that is mostly available is the amount of money
taken for the sale of tickets for a performance.
Ivor Brown has difficulty coming to terms with a
calculation of about 400 persons squeezing into
the Georgian Theatre at Richmond, Yorkshire,
when he estimates forty pounds taken for a
performance at an average price of two shillings
per person43. According to these calculations the
space per person would average about two and one
half square feet, while the standard today is about
five square feet.
Capacity and space per person has been a problem
with a number of authorities in trying to determine
the size of audience in a number of Elizabethan
theatres. Smith cites the various claimed capacities
of the Fortune Theatre, London, by Wallace (1320
persons) Corbin (2138) and Harbage (2344), while
W.W. Greg estimated it on the basis of Henslowe’s
Diary as 3000 persons44. John C. Adams viewed the
capacity of the Globe Theatre, London, through
his own early 20th century eyes and the space
standards then in use after tip-up seats, with armrests dividing each person, had become commonplace: he allowed a width of 22 inches per seated
spectator and four square feet per person in the
pit45. It was an extraordinarily blinkered and
inaccurate view.
Extant Australian architects’ drawings of
continuous benches in the pit and/or gallery for
both the alterations for the Theatre Royal, Hobart,
in 1856/7,46 and the new Academy of Music (now
Her Majestys Theatre) Ballarat, Victoria47, show
the distance from the back edge of one bench to
the back edge of the next bench to be only two
feet or very close to it. No divisions between the
persons on the bench would mean that people
would sit hip to hip (or be crammed to sit this way
by “packers”). The width of individual hips seated
on a bench will vary but most would occupy from
about 12 inches to about 15 inches of the length
of a bench48. Therefore an average of two and one
half square feet per person in an auditorium is
feasible, providing less space in the pit and gallery
and a little more in the boxes and family circle.
The fortuitous situation that exists in the State
(formerly Colony) of New South Wales is that
much of the written and visual evidence can be
confirmed through the evidence taken at the Royal
Commission into Construction of Theatres etc. It
commenced in 1882, lapsed, then reconvened and
reported in 188649.
It was two years prior to the Royal Commission
being set up that the Royal Victoria Theatre in
Sydney was burnt to the ground50. The only other
theatre in the city, the Prince of Wales, was also
destroyed by fire in 186051, and again in 187252, while
in Melbourne, the Theatre Royal was destroyed
by fire in 187253, the Duke of Edinburgh or
Haymarket Theatre in 187154, the Opera Comique
(or Varieties) Theatre in 187055. Fortunately the
fires ignited at night after performances or, in the
case of the Prince of Wales (1860), in adjoining
buildings. That fire started in a bakery but then
ignited the pine timber framing in the roof of the
theatre56. At the time there was little alternative to
timber for roof trusses and framing -- steel was
only just being “invented” although cast iron had
PaPER 57
been used in structural framing (e.g. the Crystal
Palace, London, 1851).
As noted before, Australia still had strong ties to
the “Mother Country”, England, at the time and
disasters from fire (e.g. Theatre Royal, Covent
Garden, 185657) would have been well-known
from London newspapers that were regularly but
belatedly read by many Australians. Between the
Progress Report of the New South Wales Royal
Commission and its resuming for a final report
there occurred the fatal panic at the Star Theatre
of Varieties, Glasgow, Scotland where fourteen
persons were “stifled or crushed to death”58. This
1884 event highlighted the design of entries and
exits from the most crowded parts of auditoria - the
pit and gallery. The single passage, single staircase
entrance to these parts of the theatre in Glasgow
was very similar to entrances to many Australian
theatres at the time. For example, although mostly
built of stone and brickwork the Theatre Royal,
Hobart, had, as the only access to and escape from
the gallery, one fully enclosed spiral stair. Over 300
patrons would have to climb, from a door directly
from a basement level lane through three stories,
without any intermediate landings, before being
spilled out at the rear of the gallery. With such a
design one fall, in panic, would simply have left
a spiral tube of suffocating humanity59. Similar
single, narrow width exits also existed for the
respective separated portions of the auditoria of
other theatres, such as the Royal Victoria, Sydney60.
In fact, the author of a long letter in the daily
Sydney Morning Herald, as early as 1st March 1860,
warned of the calamity of a fire in a theatre and
the “extreme narrowness of the entrances to all
places of public concourse; and the difficulty of
making one’s way out when the assembly is at once
dismissed.” It can therefore be assumed that the
citizenry was becoming aware of safety problems
in theatres.
The existence of lavatories (or more likely their
non-existence) is also evident on drawings. In the
Mansfield drawings of the Royal Victoria none are
shown61. If they had existed, they would have been
in the hotel portion of the building or in the yard.
However the comprehensive plans of the Theatre
Royal, Hobart, only show one toilet for males and
one for females for dress circle and private box
patrons only -- no others, except for one for each
sex within the actors dressing room area in the
basement. These are unventilated cubicles with
earth closets62. The mingled odours from closet,
grease paint and perspiration from these cellar
compartments must have been ‘memorable’.
The lack of lavatories for gallery patrons is implied
in the requirement for theatres in Newcastle (UK)
in 1837. Richard Southern notes how the picture
of behaviour in theatres of the time “gains one
touch of horrific relief when we learn that . . . it was
PaPER 57
ruled ‘that the floor between the front seats and the front
of the gallery be covered with lead to prevent nuisances’”63
– a euphemistic term used in Victorian times in
relation to urination. The lead would act as a gutter
to at least reduce drips onto the dress circle patrons
For the type of ventilation available, and its
effectiveness, evidence at the Royal Commission
provides some indication. The opening of windows
was considered to cause draughts so one architect
installed a few 18 inch diameter tubes through the
wall above the pit and dress circle patrons, but he
admitted that the gallery was the coolest part of
the theatre64. This part of the house, being the
highest, frequently had its ceiling tilted up above
the remainder to provide headroom over the rear
seats. A ventilator in the ceiling or rear wall allowed
the hot air out but also, if there were a fire on the
stage, this same ventilator would tend to draw the
flames into the auditorium, particularly towards
the gallery to instantly roast its patrons as occurred
at the Iroquois Theatre, Chicago.
The Commissioners conducting the Inquiry
interviewed architects of theatres, police
(concerning crush, panic and quelling fights in
theatres), the superintendent of the Sydney Fire
Brigades, a theatre mechanist and three theatre
proprietors, including J.C. Williamson. They also
commissioned detailed reports on capacity, the
construction of and time taken to empty the
theatres after a performance, from the Colonial
(Government) Architect, James Barnet. Although
theatres were licensed by the Public Exhibitions
Acts of 1850 and 1873, and reports on safety were
required65, there was “no restriction on the license
as to the number he shall put in his theatre”66.
After also investigating the safety of gas lighting
and availability of methods of fire control,
the Commissions recommended that nineteen
conditions be included in the then current licenses
until legislation could be prepared. That was in
the 1882 Progress Report. In 1886 a report by
the Colonial Architect detailing recommended
dimensions of corridors, aisles, stairs etc., lighting,
types of doors, materials of construction,
ventilators, water closets and their ventilation,
emergency fire water tanks and hoses, fireproof
staircases, proscenium fire-wall and safety curtain,
“fire-proof ” rooms for carpenters’ shops etc., was
incorporated in the recommendations of the final
Report by the Commissioners67.
Although the legislation in New South Wales, the
Theatres and Public Halls Act, was not passed
by the Parliament until 1906, the provision of its
more stringent system of licensing did not come
into operation until 1909. This is a case where
the citizens’ representatives perceived community
concern for safety in theatres, and as a result set
up an inquiry from which the relatively sweeping
recommendations were accepted. Notwithstanding
similar changes occurring overseas, it was this
Commission and the legislation that followed that
caused, in historical terms, considerable changes to
the design of theatres in Australia, and produced
benefits for the patrons.
Community Expectation or
Vociferous Minority Ideology
If the Royal Commission into the construction
of theatres is considered to have benefited the
patrons through the actions of their elected
representatives, one might wonder about the same
representatives’ approach to the serving of liquor
within the theatre building (in rooms adjacent to
the auditorium).
Australian theatres were often fit-ups in a large hall
or saloon at the rear or side of a hotel. Purposebuilt regular theatres usually had the name “hotel”
gracing the front although, as with the Royal
Victoria, Sydney, it was no more than one bar at
ground level (level one) and a saloon across the
front on level two. Male patrons from the dress
circle boxes had access to the saloon at intervals68.
Hotel opening times seemed almost unrestricted,
being from 6.00 am till midnight or after. There
were no other places for theatre patrons to lounge
or partake of refreshment.
The plans of the Theatre Royal, Hobart, show a
small bar adjacent to the narrow entrance to the
pit at basement level, in the side lane; and a bar
in the refreshment saloon at ground level (level
two), adjacent to the front street entrance to all
the private boxes and dress circle69. Apart from a
small ladies saloon for dress circle patrons on level
three, these spaces comprised the only refreshment
and/or foyer or lounging space (except the narrow
PaPER 57
From plans of Sydney theatres, drawn by the
Colonial Architect and included in the Report of
the Royal Commission into theatre construction70,
it becomes clear that if patrons wished to have
some respite from sitting in the auditorium they
may have nowhere to go except out onto the street
(for gallery patrons), or adjourn to the saloon or
bar within the hotel section of the building.
Temperance (anti-alcohol consumption) societies,
it seems, were instituted in the USA in 1826, then
spread to Britain in 1829 and then Australia71. In
1834 the Temperance Society of New South Wales
complained that intemperance debased social
habits and corrupted the morals of the community,
and that drink leads to robbery, prostitution,
degradation and misery for spouse and children72.
There are two parallel indications of the
development of the Temperance movement in
the period with which this paper is concerned.
First, there are the number of books or pamphlets
indexed in the State Library of New South Wales.
There is a small number for the 1870s, larger number
in the 1890s and almost an avalanche dated from
1910 to into the 1920s. This parallels a tightening
of the liquor laws, restricting trading hours from
about eighteen hours a day to eight hours (with no
night-time trading) until 1919, when there was a
referendum on total prohibition.
It seems, from deduction of the meaning of various
liquor and theatre licensing Acts of Parliaments,
that theatres were only licensed for where the
performance was performed and observed (i.e.
stage and auditorium). This allowed other parts
of the same building to have a liquor license, but
the two could not be brought together because,
in the period from 1842 to 1856, there became
a prohibition of music and dancing in premises
licensed for serving alcoholic liquor73. The
premises licensed were virtually only the rooms in
which liquor was served. This allowed access from
the auditorium (that had one type of license) to the
bar (that had another type of license).
In the State of Victoria, in 1876, hotels had
to have a limited number of rooms for public
accommodation, which disallowed the “hotel” with
only a couple of bars (such as attached to some
theatres in NSW), and local option (referendum)
was introduced to see whether a liquor license
should continue, or be newly granted. Also,
licensed premises were banned from being “in the
vicinity of a place of public worship, hospital or
school”74. The State of New South Wales did not
implement some of these proposals such as local
option (referenda) until 1882. The new Liquor
Act of that year also brought in “early” closing
at 11.00 pm, thus reducing the hours of trading
to 17, but some people appearing before another
Commission of Inquiry (on Intoxicating Liquor)
said they felt that the closing time should be 11.30
pm near theatres75.
The difference between this Commission and
the Royal Commission into the Construction of
Theatres is the type of evidence that was, and could
be produced. The only pressure group, one might
say for theatres, were the few managers. At the same
time so much of the evidence is “hard” physical
evidence of safety of materials, narrow doorways
and stairs, sagging roof trusses wrongfully loaded
with stage scenery, etc. But at the Intoxicating
Liquor Inquiry most of the evidence was personal,
often emotive opinion (like today’s pro- and antiabortion debate) from individuals and groups who
claimed they represented a sizeable segment of the
public, perhaps the 19th century equivalent of the
silent majority.
The silent majority certainly remained silent, even
in the referenda to allow or disallow licenses to he
granted for hotels. The Registrar General for the
state of Queensland complained that the voter
turn-out for such referenda ranged from one and
one half per cent to ten per cent76.
The State of South Australia also had a Royal
Commission into Liquor in 1879: on the subject of
Sunday closing of hotels two polls were held in the
Port Adelaide district, one by Temperance and one
by the brewing trade. Both came up with majorities
but each majority was for the side organising the
The liquor question seems to have been one of
little interest to the general public but maintained
at a high level of publicity by some religious
groups and ideologically driven pressure groups,
such as Temperance societies. Interestingly, the
Theatres and Public Halls Act completely forced
a disassociation of hotel and theatre because the
license for the theatre (and its safety) was now
to cover the whole site, all rooms, all entrances
and exits. And the Amendment Regulation 107
PaPER 57
stated clearly that “No person shall take spirituous
or other alcoholic liquors or beverages into any
licensed theatre or public hall whilst open to the
This regulation was virtually the mirror image of
not allowing entertainment, music or dancing in
premises licensed for the sale of liquor.
During the time of the First World War the emotive
Temperance argument was one of sacrifice -- the
families “at home” helping the war effort, and our
boys overseas, by restricting the sale of liquor. In
1916, through a referendum the hotel trading hours
were reduced to eight hours, from 10.00 am to 6.00
pm as a wartime measure79. This lasted through an
abortive prohibition referendum in 1919 until 1946
when hours were gradually increased. In 1966 the
restriction of the sale of liquor in theatres was
lifted and bars could be built and licensed to sell
liquor again adjacent to the theatre auditorium.
Whereas the issue of safety and health had a logic
about the outcome with benefits to the patrons
through their parliamentary representatives
working for them, the issue of serving liquor (from
the various papers, transcripts of evidence etc.)
seems unrelated to any power the patron might
have but more one of the power of vociferous
minority groups and individuals who use emotive
arguments and give the impression they represent
more people than they actually do.
In relation to historical change in theatre the sale
of liquor and the use of bars as foyers or today,
foyers as bars, has come full circle.
Foreign Influences
PaPER 57
Community Comfort
When the small bars could no longer be places for
patrons to adjourn, theatres were constructed with
still the minimal space for patrons to ambulate
during interval. Two theatres constructed within
the time frame of this paper, and which were still
in existence within the memory of the author, were
the Adelphi/Grand Opera House/Tivoli Theatre,
Sydney of 1911 and the Majestic/Elizabethan
Theatre, Newtown, Sydney of 1917. Both being
three level theatres, they had a level-one entrance
crush space which was small, virtually forcing the
stalls patrons to their seats upon arrival; and a quite
small dress circle foyer above. The gallery patrons,
as for the whole of the 19th century, were still
required to enter by a different door that took them
directly to the gallery with neither crush space nor
foyer. (Unlike the 19th century examples they did,
however, experience the addition of lavatories.)
The tradition of the separation of classes was
holding on in theatre design in Australia but in
USA it was changing. As early as 1902 architects,
George and C.W. Rapp conducted an elementary
building evaluation study through “unobtrusive
observation” after they received a commission to
design a new theatre for 2000 people. The owner
wanted each patron to “feel content” in his/her
seat80. They stood night after night in the principal
playhouses, watching the expressions and listening
to the comments of the theatre patrons, concluding
that each member of the audience wanted a “clear
direct view of the stage”.
It must be remembered that the vast majority of
theatres in existence in 1902 had an almost ‘forest’
of posts supporting the tiers above the pit or
stalls level. For example, Wade’s Opera House,
San Francisco, the theatre in the Second Boston
Museum81 and the Princess Theatre, Melbourne82,
all had eight columns rising from the stalls floor to
support the fronts of the tiers above.
The patrons, through this evaluation study,
influenced the Rapp brothers to change their
designs. But they did not leave it there; they
continued to monitor the designs of both “live”
and movie theatres, obtaining much anecdotal
data. In commenting about the design of movie
theatres in particular, they noted that the
“purchaser of the cheapest ticket (for the gallery) dislikes the
feeling that he is isolated from the rest of the auditorium.
And so there has been introduced broad and gradually
ascending staircases leading up from lofty and impressive
lobbies making the way to the upper levels of the theatre
attractive and inviting”83.
This description of the new design for stairs to
the gallery is markedly different from the mean
flights of the 19th century that emptied patrons
directly onto the sidewalk. Not only were these
architects responsive to the patrons in this way but
they considered the large movie theatre (with its
flytower stage for variety) to be
“a shrine to democracy where there are no privileged patrons.
The wealthy rub elbows with the poor ... and are better for
this contact”84.
Not only did architects pursue a more radical social
approach to design of movie palace theatres but,
unlike the live theatre entrepreneurs of the late
19th and early 20th century, the movie exhibitor
entrepreneurs supported their architects in this
design improvement85.
Picture palace theatres commenced to be built in
Australia in the early years of the 1920s, obviously
following the architectural trends of the USA86.
However, the architect who designed both “live”
and movie theatres in the second and third
decades of the 20th century in Australia, Henry
White, designed (to open in 1926) a live theatre
that followed the ideas formulated by the Rapp
brothers. It was the St James Theatre, Sydney,
which, like its picture palace counterparts, had
marble foyers and expensive fittings, its auditorium
being tastefully rich in the Adam style of classical
Very few, if any, other “live” theatres were built in
Australia during the 1920s and 1930s until 1939
(although there were a few auditoria remodelled)88.
The Minerva Theatre, completed in Sydney in
193989, is the final example in Australia to completely
exorcise the articulation of theatre design into social
class divisions of differing environmental quality.
From memory and contemporary photo­graphs the
two levels of the auditorium had common foyer
spaces, and all seats were identical in their design
as armed lounge chairs with the same thick wool
upholstery. All patrons experienced the one quality
of luxurious environment. This has continued
into the 1970s and 1980s in the construction
PaPER 57
of the large number of capital city and regional
performing arts centres90.
Behaviours by (and Beliefs of) Those
Concerned with Operating Theatres
The attitudes towards patrons by, to some extent
the architects, but moreso two managers, J.C.
Williamson and W. Dind, demonstrate a rather
cavalier approach to audience comfort. J.C.
Williamson was an American actor-manager who
settled in Australia in the early 1880s and built up
a theatrical entrepreneural empire – a chain of
theatres in Australia and New Zealand – that lasted
for a century. W. Dind was a small-time theatre
lessee and manager who conducted one theatre
at a time. The two managers seemed to make no
attempt to provide either comfort or safety for pit
and gallery patrons. Even in the front stalls – a
few rows of chairs in front of the benches of the
pit – the proprietors would fill up the aisles with
people by putting planks of wood across from
seat to seat so as to squeeze in an additional three
people per row of seats91. J.C. Williamson said that
four square feet per person could not be allowed
in the pit because the “pit people like to crowd;
they do not enjoy themselves unless they are well
packed in . . . they are not comfortable unless they
are uncomfortable”92. Williamson’s argument was
that if the pit was only two-thirds full (i.e. the
capacity number at four square feet per person) it
would be more dangerous than if it was crammed
full of people standing at the doors. His logic was
that when crammed no one could move except
those closest to the doors, but with more space per
person there was the opportunity of making a rush
thereby risking people being trampled upon93.
W. Dind told the Royal Commission that he did
not want arm rest divisions on seats as they take
up too much room, and “the people do not pay
enough for you to make them too comfortable94”.
He also thought people liked to sit close together
when he defended the traditional pit and gallery
seating of long benches without backs95.
E. F. Hilly, an architect who had worked on Sydney’s
Theatre Royal, somewhat reinforced these views
on seating in the pit. My idea, he told the Royal
Commission on 16th June 1882, is that it [the Theatre
Royal pit] would seat 1500 because in the pit their idea of
comfort is very limited . . . . As a rule, people sit very close
in that part of the house96.
In behaviours that ‘resist’ or show ignorance of
regulations, poor storage of materials is possibly the
worst example. William Douglas Bear of the Fire
Brigade gave evidence at the Royal Commission
PaPER 57
The Royal Victoria Theatre, Sydney, after a fire in1880 (looking from where the gallery was to
the stage and throughto the back-stage area. This fire possibly set off the final pressure to
initiate the Royal Commission into fires and construction of theatres in New South Wales.
into Construction of Theatres on 31st July 1884.
He was asked whether exits at the Opera House
(York and King Streets) were sufficient. He replied
in the affirmative then added: The objection is that
there are old properties lying about all over the [public
access] staircases and on different parts of the stage and
the flies, and they have a lot of old timber on the top of
the roof of the auditorium and stage ready to floor it. They
keep the properties on top of the auditorium97. A perusal
of license files in this and other states and NSW
Board of Fire Commission files shows periodic
problems with lessees or managers of live theatres
and cinemas using emergency exit ways as storage
E. F. Hilly, architect, had previously given his
opinion on the causes of fire to the Commission
in 1882:
Except for the chemicals used in the scenery, and the neglect
of the men in using them. They use very combustible
materials, and they do not mix the proper things in the
chemicals to prevent them taking fire. . . . If competent and
careful men were employed it would lessen the risk . . . the
last fire at this theatre was caused by coloured fire, which
was not put into a proper tin.98
Another architect, D. W. Ryan, was more explicit:
[Fires] generally take place in the scene dock behind the
proscenium. They are principally caused by smoking and
carelessness, and sometimes by drunken actors, and men in
charge of the property rooms.99
The above shows not only the attitudes and beliefs
of the private enterprise managers but the lack of
management of theatre employees. Both exhibit
a laissez-faire non-regulated society and a lack of
real concern for the patrons, who actually kept
the actor-managers in business and the backstage
workmen and actors in jobs.
PaPER 57
The data used in this paper demonstrate how
traditional theatre managers of the 19th and early
20th century were not particularly interested in
encouraging the safety or comfort of their patrons.
Licensing of theatres in Australia had followed the
British model of at first licensing a place of public
assembly to view only “approved” plays; that is,
ones that had been approved by a censorship
authority such as the British Lord Chamberlain.
As with most building of the time there was little
in the way of legislative regulation to effectively
produce a particular standard of construction
and safety. During the 19th century regulations to
do with these matters were gradually attached to
the licensing requirements, but from the files of
the licensing authorities, inspectors would make
reports on the inadequacy of particular theatres,
but the reports rarely seemed to be acted upon100.
The inspectors, it seemed, were largely operating
on their personal experience and belief about what
they thought was safe without having legislated
specifications to which they could refer in order to
show actual contravention.
The NSW Royal Commission took the eminent
Colonial [Government] Architect, James Barnet’s
advice and recommendations on what should
comprise a safe building, in the way of aisle
widths, exit widths, seat spacing, safety fire curtain
and construction, etc., in its final report of
1886. However it took another twenty years for
the NSW legislative body to produce an Act of
Parliament that, through regulations, incorporated
these specifications. The Theatres and Public
Halls Act No 13, 1908, came into effect on 1st
January 1909. The Act was administered by the
Chief Secretary’s Department. If a building was
“within easy reach” an annual inspection was made
by the Departmental Architect or his Assistants;
otherwise it was by a local police officer (at level of
sergeant or above) and, if in a Fire Brigade Area, an
officer of the Board of Fire Commissioners with,
if necessary, assistance from the building officer
of the local municipal or shire council101. Table 3
provides a few of the changes dictated by the new
law; however some of the changes that occurred
were dictated by other events, such as assumed
“public opinion”, as in the case of temperance,
or entrepreneurs following the USA in creating
theatre environments that people wanted to visit
because they felt good in them. These are mostly
outlined in Tables 4 and 5.
Through most of the century the theatre
symbolised the social class structure in its divisions
-- keeping the classes apart through separate
entrances and access-ways to the separate parts
of the auditorium. These parts were fitted out
from being very austere to moderately luxurious
depending upon the classes of people that would
use them. The patrons, in a forerunner of a type
of evaluation study, influenced the design of
theatres to allow all of the audience to see the
action on stage. Both the continued monitoring of
theatre patrons and a new breed of entrepreneurs
who wanted to provide environments in which
the audience could maximally enjoy the (movie
picture) product, caused the egalitarian theatre
to be produced. Ironically, now that all classes of
people entered together they were kept separate
when they exited by emergency exits. This had
the functional intent of enabling a constant flow
of people from any one part of the auditorium
without others entering the flow from other parts
of the house (this intermingling having caused so
many of the crushes during panic – as, for example,
at the Star Theatre of Varieties, Glasgow).
The environmental-behavioural conditions of 19th
century theatre buildings produced, from their
deficiencies (and resultant tragedies), pressure for
reform. Added to this was a rising expectation of
comfort from society, and the general progress
in development of building materials and
engineering possibilities. The resultant outcome
was an improved person-environment relationship
for theatre and movie picture buildings in the 20th
The Illustrated London News was frequently seen
by this writer in waiting rooms of dental and
doctors’ surgeries, and was available, together with
monthlies such as Punch, Country Life and English
comic papers as Rainbow and Film Fun, at the
newsagent in the Sydney North Shore suburb of
Turramurra up and into the early years of World
War II.
“Tait brothers”. Entry in Parsons, P., ed., Companion
to Theatre in Australia, Sydney: Currency Press, 1995,
PaPER 57
P. Bridges and D. McDonald, James Barnet, Colonial
Architect, Sydney: Hale and Iremonger, 1988, pp. 2025.
New South Wales – Votes and Proceedings of the
Legislative Assembly, 1887: Royal Commission of
Inquiry into the Construction of Theatres, Public
Halls, and Other Places of Public Amusement or
Concourse, 1886: Report (including a Progress
Report of 1882).
The Parliament of New South Wales, Theatres and
Public Halls Act, No 13, 1908.
Description and two illustrations of the fire of 24th
February 1809 were published by R. Wilkinson, 58
Cornhill, London, 7th August, 1811
Report on its architecture etc in The Mirror of Literature,
Amusements and Instruction No. 302, 8th March 1828,
cover(illustration), pp. 162,163
Mentioned in an article on the Pavilion Theatre,
Whitechapel, London. The Illustrated London News,
23rd February 1856, p.206.
The Illustrated London News, 25th November, 1848,
p. 333.
An unannotated newspaper illustration cutting dated
31st March 1849, in possession of the author. The
date of the fire, 29th March 1849, is from Howard, D.
London Theatres and Music Halls, 1850-1950, London:
The Library Association, 1970, entry number 549,
The fire was on the Wednesday week before 23
February 1856, the day that the report was published
in The Illustrated London News, p. 206.
The Theatre Royal, Bourke Street, Melbourne was
opened in 1855. The Argus, 10th July 1855, supplied an
extremely long and comprehensive article comparing
the dimensions of the theatres in Melbourne, Drury
Lane and Covent Garden in London.
Adelphi Theatre which was destroyed by fire in May
The fire occurred on Saturday before publication in
The Illustrated London News, 1st April 1865, pp. 309,
The fire was on the Sunday before 27th October 1866,
the day of publication in The Illustrated London News,
A history of the theatre from 1705 is provided in The
[Adelaide] Express and Telegraph, 11th February 1868.
Two illustrations are in The Illustrated London News,
14th December 1867, pp. 644,657.
Noted in Howard, D. London Theatres and Music Halls,
1850-1950, London: The Library Association, item
375, p. 112, citing The Standard, 21st January 1881.
Fire on Monday before publication in The Illustrated
London News, 5th July 1884, cover illustration and
The Illustrated London News, 10th September 1887,
cover, p. 300.
The Illustrated London News, 10th September 1887, p.
The Illustrated London News, 17th September 1887, pp.
The Illustrated London News, 6th January 1877, p. 4.
A valuable account of this fire is titled “Lest We Forget”
Chicago’s Awful Theater Horror By The Survivors and
Rescuers, with introduction by Bishop Fallows. No
place of publication or publisher is given, simply
‘Copyright, 1904, by D. B. McCurdy’. Quotations
are taken from pages 35, 36.
Guenzel, L. Retrospects: “The Iroquois Theater Fire”
republished edition, Elmhurst, Illinois: Theatre
Historical Society of America, 1993, p. 3.
“Lest We Forget” Chicago’s Awful Theater Horror by the
Survivors and Rescuers, 1904, p.36
Sachs, E. O., Modern Opera Houses and Theatres,
Volume III, London: Batsford, 1898, Supplement
II, “Theatre Fires”, Record of Eleven Hundred
Fires from 1797 to 1897, pp. 87-119; List of Fires
Arranged According to Locality, pp. 120-126.
Thorne, R. Theatre Buildings in Australia to 1905: From
the time of the First Settlement to arrival of cinema, Sydney:
The fire occurred on the Sunday before publication
in The Illustrated London News 15th March 1856, p.275,
with illustrations, p. 276 and 22nd March 1856,
The fire occurred on 6th January. The Illustrated London
News, 17th January 1863, p.60.
The fire occurred on Friday week before publication
in The Illustrated London News, 21st January 1865. The
theatre opened “nine years ago” on the site of the
PaPER 57
Architectural Research Foundation, University of
Sydney, 1971, pp. 175,176. This work mentions
the Theatre Royal on 11th January 1894, the Tivoli
Theatre on 15th December 1952, and the Crystal
Theatre in 1958.
Thorne, R., Tod, L. and Cork, K. Movie Theatre
Heritage Register for New South Wales, 1896 to1996
Sydney: Department of Architecture, University of
Sydney, 1996, pp.67-181; and the second amended
edition, titled, Cultural Heritage of Movie Theatres in
New South Wales 1896-1996, Sydney: Department of
Architecture, University of Sydney, 1997, pp. 67187.
Sachs, E. O., Modern Opera Houses and Theatres Volume
III, Supplement II, London: Batsford, 1898, p.129.
Ibid., p.128.
The Illustrated London News, 19th October 1878, p.
The date of 16th June 1883 is noteded in an article
on the Star Theatre, Glasgow, The Illustrated London
News, 8th November 1884, p. 446.
The Illustrated London News, 8th November 1884,
New South Wales - Votes and Proceedings of the Legislative Assembly, 1887: Royal Commission of Inquiry into
the Construction of Theatres, Public Halls, and Other
Places of Public Amusement or Concourse, 1886: Report
(including a Progress Report of 1882).Appendix A, p.26.
R. Southern and I. Brown. The Georgian Theatre
Richmon4 Yorkshire: The Story of the Theatre. Richmond,
Yorkshire: The Georgian Theatre (Richmond) Trust
Ltd, 1962, p. 25.
I. Smith. Shakcspeare’s Globe Playhouse: A modern
reconstruction in text and scale drawings based upon the
reconstruction of the Globe by John Crawford Adams,.
London: Peter Owen, 1963, p. 64.
Working drawings by Coote and Andrews for the
Theatre Royal, Hobart, 1856 published in R. Thorne,
1971, op.cit. as the eight end-paper pages of the two
volumes, and in redrawn composite form on plates
19, 20.
Working drawings by George Brown. In the University
of Melbourne, Faculty of Architecture. Collection
in the Latrobe Library of the State Library of
A male person seated, with a 40 inches (1 metre)
perimeter hip measurement was found to occupy 14
inches of seat width. Many males have smaller hips;
perhaps more females have larger hips. At two feet
back to back and 15 inch across hips the floor space
taken up is two and one half square feet.
New South Wales - Votes and Proceedings of the Legislative
Assembly 1887, op.cit.
Town and Country Journal, 31 July 1880.
The Sydney Morning Herald, 4 October, 1860.
The Sydney Morning Herald, 8 January 1872.
Illustrated Sydney News, April 1872, p. 521.
IllustratedAustralian News, 9th October 1871, p. 186.
Sachs, E. O., Modern Opera Houses and Theatres, Vol.
III, Supplement II, London: Batsford, 1898, p.128.
NSW Votes and Proceedings of the Legislative
Assembly, 1887: Royal Commission into
Construction of Theatres etc. Appendix A, p. 22.
The Illustrated London News, 17th September 1887,
See endpapers for the building working drawings by
Coote and Andrews in R. Thorne, 1971, op.cit. and
plates 19, 20.
.Ibid., See Appendix A for evidence by architect E.F.
Hilly stating that the “Managers generally like to
put in the seats themselves” and “put in as many as
they could” irrespective of the architects drawings
(paragraphs 13, 14).
Ibid., p. 64.
!hid., 1st August 1890, p. 10.
The Sydney Morning Herald, 4th October 1860.
D. Howard. London Theatres and Music halls 1850-1950.
London: Library’ Association, 1970, entry number
182, pp. 54-56.
The Illustrated London News, 8th November 1884, p.
See architects drawings in R. Thorne, op.cit. end-papers
and plates 19, 20.
PaPER 57
As indicated on drawings by John Mansfield,
Architect, for alterations carried out in 1865,
deposited at the Mitchell Library, State Library of
New South Wales.
R. Thorne, 1971, op.cit., end-papers and plates 19, 20.
R. Southern, The Georgian Playhouse, London:
Pleiades, 1948, p. 61.
NSW Votes and Proceedings of the Legislative
Assembly, 1887, op.cit., Appendix A, paragraphs 54
to 67.
Amendments Incorporation Act, 1906 (of New
South Wales), assented 8th December 1908,
commencement 1 January 1909, Regulation 107.
J. Webster, op.cit., pp. 57, 61.
G. and C.W. Rapp (interview in) Exhibitors Herald , Vol. 16,
16 May 1923, “Better Theatres Section”, p. xi.
W.C. Young. Documents of American Theater History, Vol.
1; Famous American Playhouses, 1716-1899. Chicago:
American Library Association, 1973, illust. opp. p.
258; illust. opp. p. 266.
R. Thorne, 1971, op.cit., stalls plan, plate 83.
Ibid., paragraphs 128 to 154.
G. and C.W. Rapp, 1923, op.cit.
Ibid., paragraph 72.
Ibid., pp. 10-12.
Sydney Gazette, 2nd March 1838.
C. Morrison. “From Nickelodeon to Picture Palace and
Back”, Design Quarterly, No. 93, 1974, pp. 6-17, cited
in C.K. Hcrzog, The Motion Picture Theater and Film
Exhibition; 1896-1932. Ph.D. Thesis, Northwestern
University, 1980; Xerography facsimile copy, Ann
Arbor: University Microfilms, 1982.
R. Thorne, 1971, op.cit., plates 19, 20.
For a full discussion see R. Thorne, “The
environmental psychology of theatres and movie
palaces”, in Environmental Perspectives; Ethnoscapes:
Vol. 1. Aldershot, UK: Avebury imprint (Gower
Publishing), 1988, pp. 165-187.
See R. Thorne, 1981, op.cit., Introduction, pp. 1-63
and Prince Edward Theatre, pp. 275-278.
See R. Thorne, 1971, op.cit., plate 109, p. 217, and
photographs in private collection.
For example, Theatre Royal, Sydney, and Princess,
Melbourne, see R. Thorne, 1971, op. cit., Chapter
New South Wales Votes and Proceedings of the
Legislative Assembly, 1887, op.cit. drawings appended
to the report tabled in Parliament.
“Half an hours reading from the Temperance Society
of New South Wales”, 1834, pamphlet in the
Mitchell Library of the State Library of NSW, p. 6.
Ibid., pp. 3, 5.
J. Webster. “History and Licensing Legislation
in Australia from 1788 to 1930.” Unpublished
typescript in the Mitchell Library of the State
Library of New South Wales, p. 37.
W.J. Gilchrist. The Licensing Act of 18 76 (Victoria),
1877, pp. iv, vii. The number of rooms required for
accommodation was six whereas the Act of 1862/25
Victoria No. 14 required only two bedrooms.
NSW Commissions: “Intoxicating Drink Inquiry”
Report, 1887, pp. 133-136.
Papers regarding the Present Working of the “Liquor
Laws in Canada, the Australian Colonies and New
Zealand”, presented to both houses of Parliament
in Great Britain, February 1891, London: HMSO,
1891, p. 8.
Ibid., p.44.
The Sydney Morning Herald, 19th May 1939.
See R. Thorne. “Performing Arts Centres: The
Phenomenon and What Has Influenced Their
Being”, In K. Spinks (ed.) Australian Theatre Design.
Paddington, NSW (Sydney): Australian Production
Designers Association NSW Inc., 1992, pp. 1-67.
, NSW Votes and Proceedings of the Legislative
Assembly, 1887,op. cit., Appendix A, paragraph 72.
,Ibid., paragraphs 249 and 258.
Ibid., paragraph 253.
Ibid., paragraph 271.
PaPER 57
Ibid., paragraph 283.
R. Thorne, 1971, op.cit. pp. 160, 192, 204, and
Appendix J, vol. 2, pp. 28, 29.
Circular printed by spirit duplicator commencing
with the sub-heading “Purposes of the Act”, issued
circa 1967 by the NSW Chief Secretary’s Department. Accompanying the circular are a number of
forms in relation to applications for licenses.
Ibid., p. 19.
Ibid., p. 37.
Ibid., p. 20.
Ibid., p. 25.
From the long article in The Illustrated London News, 17th September 1887, pp. 338-340; burying
the dead at Exeter after the theatre fire. The engravings are more accurate than usual in
this article since a local cameraman was soon on the scene and the engravings have been
copied from his prints (rather than from rough on-site sketches or nothing at all).
works used
Argus, The (Melbourne) 10th July, 1855.
Bridges, P. and McDonald, D., James Barnet, Colonial
Architect, Sydney: Hale and Iremonger, 1988.
Chief Secretary’s Department of NSW. Circular
printed by spirit duplicator commencing with the
sub-heading “Purposes of the [Theatres and Public
Halls] Act”, issued circa 1967.
Express and Telegraph, The 11th February 1868.
Gilchrist, W. J., The Licensing Act of 18 76 (Victoria),
Guenzel, L., Retrospects: “The Iroquois Theater Fire”
republished edition, Elmhurst, Illinois: Theatre
Historical Society of America, 1993.
Howard, D., London Theatres and Music Halls, 1850-1950,
London: The Library Association, 1970.
Illustrated London News (various issues in 19th century).
Illustrated Sydney News, April 1872, p. 521.
IllustratedAustralian News, 9th October 1871, p. 186.
PaPER 57
Lest We Forget, Chicago’s Awful Theater Horror By The
Survivors and Rescuers, with introduction by
Bishop Fallows. No place of publication or
publisher is given, simply ‘Copyright, 1904, by D.
B. McCurdy’.
Mirror of Literature, Amusements and Instruction No. 302,
8th March 1828.
Trust Ltd, 1962,.
Southern, R., The Georgian Playhouse, London: Pleiades,
Standard, The 21st January 1881.
Sydney Gazette, 2nd March 1838.
Morrison, C., “From Nickelodeon to Picture Palace
and Back”, Design Quarterly, No. 93, 1974, pp. 6-17,
cited in C.K. Herzog, The Motion Picture Theater and
Film Exhibition; 1896-1932. Ph.D. Thesis, Northwestern University, 1980; Xerography facsimile
copy, Ann Arbor: University Microfilms, 1982.
Sydney Morning Herald, The (various issues).
New South Wales Commissions: “Intoxicating Drink
Inquiry” Report, 1887.
Thorne, R. Theatre Buildings in Australia to 1905: From the
time of the First Settlement to arrival of cinema, Sydney:
Architectural Research Foundation, University of
Sydney, 1971.
Parliament of Great Britain, Papers regarding the Present Working of the “Liquor Laws in Canada, the
Australian Colonies and New Zealand”, presented
to both houses of Parliament, February 1891,
London: HMSO, 1891.
Parliament of New South Wales – Votes and
Proceedings of the Legislative Assembly,
1887: Royal Commission of Inquiry into the
Construction of Theatres, Public Halls, and Other
Places of Public Amusement or Concourse, 1886:
Report (including a Progress Report of 1882).
Parliament of New South Wales, Theatres and Public
Halls Act, No 13, 1908.
Parliament of NSW, Amendments Incorporation Act,
1906, assented 8th December 1908, commencement 1 January 1909, Regulation 107.
Parsons, P., ed., Companion to Theatre in Australia,
Sydney: Currency Press, 1996.
Rapp, G. and C. W. (interview in) Exhibitors Herald ,
Vol. 16, 16 May 1923, “Better Theatres Section”.
Sachs, E. O., Modern Opera Houses and Theatres, Volume
III, London: Batsford, 1898, Supplement II,
“Theatre Fires”.
Smith, I., Shakcspeare’s Globe Playhouse: A modern
reconstruction in text and scale drawings based upon the
reconstruction of the Globe by John Crawford Adams,.
London: Peter Owen, 1963.
Southern, R. and Brown, I., The Georgian Theatre Richmon4 Yorkshire: The Story of the Theatre. Richmond,
Yorkshire: The Georgian Theatre (Richmond)
Temperance Society of NSW, “Half an hours reading from the Temperance Society of New South
Wales”, 1834, pamphlet in the Mitchell Library of
the State Library of NSW.
Thorne, R., “Performing Arts Centres: The
Phenomenon and What Has Influenced Their
Being”, In K. Spinks (ed.) Australian Theatre Design.
Paddington, NSW (Sydney): Australian Production
Designers Association NSW Inc., 1992.
Thorne, R., “The environmental psychology of theatres and movie palaces”, in Environmental Perspectives; Ethnoscapes: Vol. 1. Aldershot, UK: Avebury
imprint (Gower Publishing), 1988.
Thorne, R., Tod, L. and Cork, K. Movie Theatre Heritage
Register for New South Wales, 1896 to1996 Sydney:
Department of Architecture, University of Sydney,
1996, and the second amended edition, titled,
Cultural Heritage of Movie Theatres in New South Wales
1896-1996, Sydney: Department of Architecture,
University of Sydney, 1997.
Town and Country Journal, 31 July 1880.
Webster, J., “History and Licensing Legislation in Australia from 1788 to 1930.” Unpublished typescript
in the Mitchell Library of the State Library of New
South Wales.
Wilkinson, R., publisher of individual engravings and
descriptions of theatres in London, 58 Cornhill,
London, circa 1805-1825..
Young, W. C., Documents of American Theater History, Vol.
1; Famous American Playhouses, 1716-1899. Chicago:
American Library Association, 1973.