Isabella Pye was the sole fatality when Sydney’s Her Majesty’s Theatre burned down on March 23 1902. Her family had recently moved to Paddington from Parramatta.


Known affectionately as Bella, the 27 year old widow was working as a live-in domestic at Gaffney’s Bakery, located at 102 Market Street. She had only been there six weeks, but was already very well liked. She was trying to support her four year old son.

The owner’s daughter, Josephine Gaffney, was one of the main witnesses at the coronial inquest.

She said that at about 6.20 am on March 23 she first became aware of the fire. Both women slept in rooms upstairs and Josephine woke Isabella to warn her, urging her to leave as quickly as possible. Josephine then made sure other employees were safe before leaving herself.

Soon after the fire brigade arrived the wall between the theatre and the shops (included the bakery) began to crack. It was over a hundred feet wide and of similar height. There was a great roar when it collapsed, bringing down several hundred tons of brickwork .

The fire in which Isabella was the sole fatality.

In the chaos that followed it was several hours before someone realized that Mrs Pye was missing. It was hoped the young woman had gone to her parents’ home, in Paddington, but they hadn’t seen her. Hospitals were checked in case she had been injured. When that proved fruitless there was an awful realization that she might be buried under the rubble. A search followed, with the general public having to be retrained from rushing forward to help in what were dangerous conditions. Her body was located later that day. The injuries, described in graphic detail at the inquest, were horrific.

Josephine Gaffney thought the kind hearted Bella may had gone back to warn other staff, not realizing they were all safe. She also mentioned another possibility; one that revealed a fractured family relationship.

I fancy she had stuck away somewhere in the kitchen a will or something in the nature of a paper from a solicitor relating to her husband’s father’s property. It is possible she might have lingered to get this paper, and thus met her death. (Cumberland Argus, March 26 1902)

It was such a sad story. The will referred to was that of her son’s great grandfather, the wealthy Parramatta orchardist James Pye.

It appears that the widowed Isabella was not supported or acknowledged by her father-in-law, John Pye. She had been expecting a child when she married his eldest son James ‘Baron’ Pye. Another problem was that the Waites were not of the same social standing as the Pyes.

James had been a noted athlete, in both football and cycling. The following is an extract from an article published after his death in 1898.

The funeral of Mr James Pye, a member of a well-known and highly respected family, for many years residents of Parramatta, took place in that town yesterday, in the presence of a large concourse of people. Deceased had been a noted cyclist, and nearly 100 wheelmen attended with their machines, and led the way to the graveside. The hearse was followed by about 600 other young men of the district, friends of the deceased, and these again followed by a long line of carriages, A large number of wreathes and floral emblems were sent, many being carried by the cyclists, to place upon the grave…..’ (The Daily Telegraph, Aug. 22 1898)

Isabella had not been ashamed to take a menial position after her husband’s death. However, her son’s grandmother Emma had died a few months earlier, and through her, Isabella believed her child may be entitled to an interest in James Pye’s entailed estate. She had recently obtained a copy of the will, with the intention of seeking legal advice.

When her body was recovered she was clutching a brooch. Ironically, it was a gold horseshoe inscribed GOOD LUCK. One report suggested it was this she had returned for, but Josephine Gaffney testified to having watched Bella put the brooch on that morning. In her opinion it was more likely that she was holding it as a protective charm, and that it was the copy of the will she was trying to recover.


The funeral of Mrs Isabella C. Pye, who was killed at the fire at Her Majesty’s through the failing of a portion of a wall, took place yesterday. The funeral was not a pretentious one, but much interest was evinced in it, both at Paddington and Parramatta. Mrs Pye was very highly esteemed by many friends, and by all who knew her. The procession left the residence of her parents, Mr and Mrs C. Waite, 51 Sutherland Street, Paddington, at, and the hearse, mourning coaches, and cabs proceeded along the Parramatta-road to Parramatta, where many other vehicles and friends took part in the funeral…..The scene at the grave, as well as the circumstances attending the life and death of Mrs Pye – a young woman, who had lost her husband whilst a young man had much that was pathetic in them, and Parramatta felt that such was the case. (Australian Star, Mar. 26 1902)

Isabella was laid to rest in a grave adjoining the impressive Pye family monument. It was as close to her husband as her family could manage. She has no headstone and her name was not added to the monument as other Pye family members would be in the future.

Isabella Pye was buried next to the Pye family tomb at Parramatta,

There was no acknowledgement of Isabella’s death by the Pye family. The death and funeral notices were placed by her own relatives, the Waites. They also had memorials published the following year. She was clearly much loved.

John Pye died in 1912, but had taken no part in his orphaned grandson’s life.

Young James was raised by his maternal grandparents, although two years after the theatre fire his grandfather, Clarke Waite, died. When James left school he became a carter in the city. At 18 he enlisted in WWI, naming his grandmother, Elizabeth Waite, as next of kin. He returned home safely in 1918 and married shortly afterwards.

James Pye, son of Isabella.


40 years later an article about the fire appeared in The Sun. Isabella’s younger sister Lizzie now aged 76, took up her pen to correct the writer’s account;

I read with interest the article by Isadore Brodsky (18/6/54), re Old Theatre’s Fire Ordeal. I would like to correct the paragraph dealing with the fire at Her Majesty’s Theatre. He says a girl ran into the fire and was burned to death. The girl was my sister, Isabelle Pye – nee Waite – and after going back into Gaffney’s bakery, where she worked, to retrieve personal belongings, she had almost reached safety when the wall collapsed and crushed her to death. – (Mrs) L. Locchi.


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