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At Leisure

‘… a day of triumph could turn into a day of disaster.’

John Helm commentating on the Bradford City vs. Lincoln City match on Yorkshire TV11 May 1985


Great Chicago theatre disaster
Marshall Everett, The Great Chicago Theatre Disaster (Chicago: Publishers Union of America, 1904)

In the 1800s and 1900s, British people began to enjoy much more leisure time away from work. As well as providing popular entertainment, places like theatres and sports stadiums have introduced new risks from burning, including mass panic and crushing resulting from alarms of fire. Major fatal fires in these places have led to new public safety laws.

Many safety precautions that are now part of everyday life, like lowering the fireproof curtain before every cinema screening and banning smoking in enclosed public places, were responses to fatal fires. Most of these incidents occurred in Britain, as with the 1887 Exeter Royal Theatre fire and the 1929 Paisley cinema disaster, which caused 186 and 71 deaths respectively, but changes to safety practices were also influenced by overseas fires, such as the 1903 Iroquois theatre fire in Chicago, USA, which caused 602 deaths (pictured above).

Charities have also led campaigns to educate the public against carelessly playing with fire, especially fireworks. Whilst they bring joy to families during celebrations like Bonfire Night and Diwali, fireworks have also led to life-changing injuries for children who played with them. Before 1976, children as young as 13 could buy fireworks but this was later raised to 18 years-of-age in response to child fatalities. Some fireworks, like bangers and Jumping Jacks, are now banned.

Fire at Bolton's Top Storey Club

The earliest nightclubs were not subject to fire precautions. It took a fire in 1961 at Bolton’s Top Storey club (Lancashire) - so-called because it occupied the top storey of a factory above a furniture workshop, accessed only by a single, wooden staircase - for Parliament to improve safety. 19 people died in this fire.

By kind permission of The National Archives, Kew (HO346/10, 1961).

Warnings were also targeted at parents to keep matches out of the reach of inquisitive young children, as this 1950s bookmark illustrates. The British Government was so alarmed at the number of burns injuries to young children - approximately 1,000 a year in the 1970s - that it launched a national campaign in 1974, ‘Keep Matches Away from Children’.

Wellcome Collection CC-BY (EPH440 Accident Prevention Ephemera Box 2).

Guard against burns bookmark
Bradford stadium fire

Major football stadium fires, such as the fire at Valley Parade, Bradford (Yorkshire) in 1985, led to improved stadium design and safety.  56 supporters died as a result of burns injuries on a day that was supposed to be a celebration of the club’s promotion to the second division of the Football League.

West Yorkshire Fire and Rescue Service.

Tufty the Squirrel was created by Elsie Mills in 1953. Original stories for the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents featured Tufty and his ‘Furry Folk’ friends to introduce clear and simple safety messages for children, such as this one for enjoying public firework displays safely, illustrated by Ken Langstaff in the 1960s. 

Image courtesy of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents.

Tufty the Squirrel and his furry friends by a bonfire

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