A magnificent fire

The Burning of Drury Lane Theatre from Westminster Bridge, 1809. Artist unknown. Wikimedia.

The world’s theatres were often aflame in the 19th century, the abundance of wood, the tightly packed interiors, and the increasingly explosive special effects on stage all contributing to the risk. In London it was no different, with venues often burning to the ground: Covent Garden Theatre in 1808, Drury Lane Theatre in 1809, the English Opera House in 1830, the Garrick Theatre in 1846, Covent Garden again in 1856, The Park Theatre in Camden in 1881… all these, and others, met with a fiery end. This entry was written by famous diarist Charles Greville in February of 1830, the day after the English Opera House became an inferno. It would be four long years until it rose from the ashes, as the Theatre Royal Lyceum and English Opera House.

The Diary Entry

Last night the English Opera House was burnt down—a magnificent fire. I was playing at whist at the ‘Travellers’ with Lord Granville, Lord Auckland, and Ross, when we saw the whole sky illuminated and a volume of fire rising in the air. We thought it was Covent Garden, and directly set off to the spot. We found the Opera House and several houses in Catherine Street on fire (sixteen houses), and, though it was three in the morning, the streets filled by an immense multitude. Nothing could be more picturesque than the scene, for the flames made it as light as day and threw a glare upon the strange and motley figures moving about. All the gentility of London was there from Princess Esterhazy’s ball and all the clubs; gentlemen in their fur cloaks, pumps, and velvet waistcoats mixed with objects like the sans-culottes in the French Revolution—men and women half-dressed, covered with rags and dirt, some with nightcaps or handkerchiefs round their heads—then the soldiers, the firemen, and the engines, and the new police running and bustling, and clearing the way, and clattering along, and all with that intense interest and restless curiosity produced by the event, and which received fresh stimulus at every renewed burst of the flames as they rose in a shower of sparks like gold dust. Poor Arnold lost everything and was not insured. I trust the paraphernalia of the Beefsteak Club perished with the rest, for the enmity I bear that society for the dinner they gave me last year.

Further Reading

Greville’s journals were published long ago, in multiple volumes, bearing the title The Greville Memoirs. All are in the public domain and available to read online; however, it would take much time and willpower to get through them in that form. If you’re anything like me you’ll find it easier and more enjoyable to read The Diaries Of Charles Greville, edited by Edward Pearce. And to learn more about the fire traps that were 19th century theatres, read this fascinating article by Nicholas Daly.

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