Panic at the Newport Empire

After her childhood success in the role of Little Lord Fauntleroy, Ray Maskell (my great grand aunt) remained in the UK to try her hand on the music halls. By the mid 1890s she was touring her ‘turn’ – a song and acrobatic dance routine.
For the month of August 1896 she was engaged by Oswald Stoll to perform at his South Wales Empires; in Cardiff, Swansea and Newport. Since his move from the management of the Parthenon Music Hall in Liverpool, Stoll had been consolidating his business empire in South Wales. He lured artistes with the appealing offer of three weeks employment, one week at each of his halls. Ray Maskell’s Welsh sojourn began at the Cardiff Empire for the week of the 10th August 1896.
The following week of 17th August saw Ray, “a charming songstress and remarkable dancer” on the bill at Newport in company with the following acts;

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South Wales Echo, 18 August 1896.

The Three Polos were a “gymnastic novelty”; the Sisters de Castro and Maud Stoneham presented a farcical sketch, J H Hurst, a vocal comedian; Lily Adair was a serio-comic vocalist; the McConnell Trio and the the Three Sisters Slater were yet more vocalists and magician Paul Valadon bestowed “legerdemain and thought transmission” (legerdemain refers to sleight of hand).

The South Wales Daily News observed, “Notwithstanding the season, Mr Stoll keeps up splendid programmes at all his houses. At Newport this week the show is quite up to the high standard that is always maintained…There should be large houses at Newport throughout the week.” Stoll was bolstering his success in Newport after the destruction by fire of a rival business, the Victoria Hall in May of that year. Fire was a very real hazard becuase of the old wooden building structures, the inflammable nature of stage scenery, curtains and other furnishings. Stage lighting was also by limelight – quick lime heated by an open gas jet – undoubtedly a serious fire risk, as proved by the incident that took place to Ray Maskell on the night of Tuesday 18th August, recounted here by the South Wales Echo:

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“About ten o’clock last evening an exciting scene occurred at the Newport Empire. Miss Ray Maskell, comedienne and dancer, was just finishing her second turn, and was pirouetting on one foot in the front part of the stage, when she suddenly fell over the wire guard and onto the footlights. The leader of the orchestra, seeing her in such a perilous position, rose and pushed her back from the footlights, but in an instant it was seen that her skirts had taken fire and were blazing. She quickly regained her feet and endeavoured to crush the blazing skirts between her knees. Mr J Pople, the stage manager, rushed to her aid and smothered the fire with his hands. Just then the back of her dress was seen to be on fire, and reaching to her long hair. The assistant stage manager (Mr C. Wellington) ran across to where the lady and her mother and Mr Pople then were, near the opposite wing, and threw himself literally against the fire, thus smothering it. The audience got excited, and some shouted, “Take off your coat,” “Get a blanket,” and so on. Something like a panic too, began to set in, but then the audience were reassured by Mr Hurst, a comic singer, who went around and begged the audience to keep their seats. A few minutes later Miss Maskell, happily none the worse for the fiery ordeal she had been through, appeared before the audience in her burnt dress, and did three somersaults – “wheels” in the technical parlance – to show that she had come out unharmed. The stage manager has burnt hands and arms as a token of his courageous part in the incident, and praise cannot be withheld from Mr Wallington, his assistant, for his tussle at close quarters with the fire fiend.”

One month later, there was a presentation of gold medals to Mr Pople, the stage manager and Mr Wellington, his assistant, for “having so gallantly aided Miss Ray Maskell, the danseuse, when in peril from fire at the Empire performance…”. A local Newport jeweller, Mr Abrahamson, supplied the medals to the order of Miss Maskell, each with the inscription:

“For bravery, 1896. From Ray Maskell”.

What a contrast to today, where the Health & Safety Executive would undoubtedly investigate, insurers would be informed and the Manager with burnt arms and hands would receive something more than a gold medal – legal proceedings would undoubtedly ensue and compensation would be paid. Two years later the Empire Newport was re-built for Oswald Stoll by renowned theatre architect Frank Matcham. Newspaper reports championed his introduction of an asbestos safety curtain and a water sprinkler system across the stage. This was all to no avail – in 1942 the Empire was destroyed by fire (thought to have been started by an electrical fault) and subsequently demolished.

Later in September 1896 at the Palace Theatre of Varieties in Aberdeen (later The People’s Palace), another fire was started during the evening performance when some scenery came into contact with the gas jets. The theatre was destroyed, six lost their lives and there were many more casualties. Ray and the audience at the Newport Empire that night had a lucky escape.