‘Bigger than Ben Hur’. the saying goes. Well that was certainly true of the fire that engulfed Sydney’s Her Majesty’s Theatre in 1902.
Impressario J. C. Williamson’s production of Ben Hur had been wowing audiences since opening night on February 8. It was the biggest and costliest show in the theatre’s history. Audiences were amazed by a spectacular chariot race, with live horses galloping on a treadmill in front of a moving backdrop. There was even an appearance by a camel. Hundreds were employed for the huge choral numbers and marching bands. The show ran for four hours.
Unfortunately, on February 16 a boy selling fruit and peanuts at the theatre contracted bubonic plague and died. The doors closed on Ben Hur, re-opening six days later after deep cleaning and fumigation.
In the weeks that followed, special attention was paid to cleaning and disinfecting after each performance. It was the early hours of the morning when the work was completed on the night of March 22. Taking a last look around, the watchman thought he heard water running somewhere behind the stage. To his horror, it was not water, but fire; racing up the curtains and consuming other soft furnishings. One theory was that it began in the locked costume room. For some reason the safety curtain failed to come down and the fire swept into the auditorium.
By the time the fire brigade arrived, including the brass funneled engine ‘Big Ben’, the building was engulfed. Attention had to turn to saving adjoining properties, including two hotels, which had to be evacuated.
Five hundred people lost their jobs when Ben Hur had to close.
Several firemen were injured, though thankfully none seriously.
A young woman called Isabella Pye lost her life when a wall of the theatre adjoining a row of shops collapsed Her story was particularly sad. Despite an exhaustive coronial inquest, no cause could be found for the fire and the jury returned an open verdict..
FOR MORE ON THE HISTORY OF THE THEATRE, CLICK HERE.