Although the death of Sarah Smith was tragic, it would appear that it was, in fact, caused by an accident as opposed to coming about as a result of heroic self-sacrifice.
It should also be noted that the girl whose death is commemorated here was, in fact, Sarah Gibson (1845 - 1863), "Sarah Smith" being her stage name.
Her memorial plaque in Postman's Park reads, "Sarah Smith, Pantomime Artiste At Prince's Theatre, Died Of Terrible Injuries Received, When Attempting In Her Inflammable Dress To Extinguish The Flames Which Had Enveloped Her Companion. January 24 1863."
The tragedy which cost Sarah Gibson her life actually happened on the evening of Friday 23rd January 1863, not the 24th as reported on the plaque.
At the time of the accident, Sarah was appearing as a ballet dancer in a performance of Charles Perrault's French fairy-tale pantomime, Riquet with the Tuft, which was being staged at the Princess's Theatre on Oxford Street.
The production was a lavish one, and Sarah was one of three dancers - the others being Ada Edison and Mrs Anne Perkins, the latter of whom performed under her maiden name, Anne Hunt.
During one particularly extravagant scene the dancers were to twirl across the stage, which was to be spectacularly illuminated from above by special-effect lighting, created by a mixture of chemicals in eight fire-pans, which were placed on stands – four on either side of the stage.
It was during this scene that tragedy struck.
Reports of the incident began appearing in the newspapers on Monday 26th January 1863.
The Evening Standard, was one of the newspapers that reported the tragedy in its edition of that day:-
"On Friday night, during the performance of Riquet with the Tuft, a serious accident took place at the Princess's Theatre.
While the transformation scene in the pantomime was proceeding, the clothes of Miss Hunt, one of the young ladies of the ballet, caught fire.
Miss Smith, another of the ladies of the ballet, seeing the peril of Miss Hunt, immediately ran to her and tried to get the flames extinguished, and in the attempt her dress also took fire.
Several other persons also rendered their assistance, and the fire was put out.
The accident occurred on the stage, and as may be imagined, produced much excitement among the audience.
Both the young ladies were at once taken to the Middlesex Hospital.
On the medical examination being made it was found that although the injuries Miss Hunt had sustained were of a very painful nature they were not dangerous.
The injuries which Miss Smith had received were discovered to be of a much more serious character. She was burned all over the body, and, although her recovery is not absolutely despaired of, she lies in a very dangerous condition.
On inquiry at Middlesex Hospital yesterday evening, about nine o'clock, it was stated that she was still alive, but it was feared she would not survive the night."
Most of the daily newspapers published the same account of how the tragedy had unfolded as that featured in the Evening Standard.
This prompted William Harris, the super-master of the Princess's Theatre, to write a letter of correction which was published in The Era:-
Having read the account of the accident at the Princess' in several of the morning papers, I being on the spot, and an eyewitness, they must have been misinformed of the facts.
Miss Smith, poor girl, was unable to give any assistance, being on fire almost at the same moment as Miss Hunt, who rushed past her in flames, and from whom Miss Smith's dress caught fire.
The first who did assist was Mr. Roxby, who laid hold of Miss Hunt and tore off her burning dress, wrapped her in his Inverness cape, and succeeded in extinguishing the flames.
He then threw his body coat over Miss Smith's head and face, and those who were then assisting got the fire out; Mr. Roxby being by this time severely burnt, and unable since to return to his Professional duties.
This you will find a true statement of the facts, and I do not think there is one, from the highest to the lowest in the Theatre, who does not give him credit for his manly conduct in endeavouring, at the risk of his own safety, to preserve the lives of these unfortunate girls, and for his speedy recovery he has the best wishes of all.
I am, your obedient servant,
Super-Master, Theatre Royal, Princess's"
By the morning of Tuesday 26th January, 1863, the newspapers were debating the safety aspects of the types of inflammable dresses being worn by women in general (not just in the theatre but in society in general), and some were questioning whether adequate safety precautions had been in place to tackle such an eventuality as that which had occurred at the Princess's Theatre on the Friday night.
The Morning Post published the following letter in its edition of that day:-
For the sake of sufferers, who belong to a class which seldom finds one to speak for it, I beg the insertion of these few lines.
Besides our pain at the sad accident at the Princess's Theatre, great is the disgust of all who are acquainted with stage arrangements that, especially after the numerous victims of neglect, blankets and fire buckets full of water were not constantly at hand on each side of the stage.
Madame Vestris, when manager of the Lyceum, insisted on this, and, I am happy to add, Mr. Mapleson had the blankets, if not the water, at the "first entrance" on each side of Her Majesty's Theatre.
Such neglect ought to be repaired at every theatre in the world; and the girls who suffered recently should be handsomely provided for.
Both may very likely be worthy, but one, I am well informed, is highly respectable.
Pray, sir, do not let this matter drop.
I remain, sir, your obedient servant,
AN OLD STAGER
5. Pump-court, Temple, E.C."
Notwithstanding the debate on safety, the newspapers keep their readers update on the condition of the stricken dancers.
In its edition of Tuesday 27th January, 1863, the Western Daily Mercury reported that:-
"Miss Smith is still alive, but is said to be gradually sinking.
The other lady, who is a married woman, is more seriously hurt than was at first supposed. She is, however, likely to recover.
As predicted by the Western Daily Mercury, Sarah Gibson's condition worsened and, at 5.45 p.m. on Wednesday 28th January, she died.
The Era published the following harrowing account on her final days in its edition of 1st February 1863:
"We deeply regret to state that Miss Smith, one of the unfortunate sufferers from the late accident at the Princess's Theatre, expires, after much suffering, at a quarter to six o'clock on Wednesday evening, in the female accident ward of Middlesex Hospital, to which she was taken immediately after the dreadful occurrence.
Her appearance when lying at the hospital was most painful to behold, the features charred to positive blackness, being scarcely distinguishable.
She was constantly attended at her bedside by her mother, and for some time before her death was delirious..."
The inquest into the death of Sarah Gibson was held on 31st January 1863.
The Era carried a full report in the same edition in which it announced her demise:-
"Last evening Dr. Lankester, the Coroner for Central Middlesex, held a long inquiry into the circumstances connected with the death of Sarah Smith, one of the unfortunate sufferers by the melancholy accident which happened at the Princess's Theatre on Friday night, the 23d ult.
The Jury having viewed the body, the appearance of which we spare the harrowing details, the following evidence was adduced:-
Sarah Gibson said - I live at 45, Oakley-street, Lambeth, and am the mother of the deceased.
She was seventeen years on age last December.
She was employed in what is called the extra ballet at the Princess's Theatre, but was engaged for the whole of the pantomime.
She was burned at the Theatre last Friday week. I saw her at the hospital at nine o'clock. She did not tell me how the accident occurred. She was quite sensible, and only said she was very much burnt. She told me that if there had been rugs there she could have been saved.
Coroner: Do you impute any blame to any one?
Witness: I do not think so because I know nothing about it.
Coroner: Is there anything you wish the Jury to know? or anything further you wish to say?
Witness: No, sir; only that the other young woman told me that there was something wrong as to the blue fire, either that the man was not holding it properly, or had not properly hung it on the rail, or something of that sort.
By a Juryman: We have her name as Smith?
Witness: When she was at Drury-lane she played in the name of Gibson, and when she went to the Princess's she took my maiden name.
Mr Edward Morgan, M.B.C.S said - I am house surgeon at the Middlesex Hospital, I saw deceased when she was admitted on Friday week, about half-past eleven o'clock.
She was in a state of collapse at the time, with very extensive burns of the face, neck, temple, back of the upper part of the chest, thighs, both arms, and other parts. One third of the surface of the body was burnt.
She never rallied, and sank last Wednesday, dying at a quarter before six in the evening. The cause of the death was exhaustion produced by the burns. There was no internal inflammation.
I have since made a post-mortem examination, and there was considerable congestion of the internal viscera.
She said nothing to me of the cause of the accident.
William Harris - I am super-master at the Princess's Theatre. I engage the extra ballet. Mr Milano engages the ballet. Miss Gibson wee in the extra ballet.
I was on the stage on the night of the accident. It happened on the prompt side - that is, the left side from the audience.
I was standing on the other side -the O.P. side.
I saw Miss Hunt's clothes and one of the extra ballet in flames on the opposite side. She passed quickly down to the first entrance on that side and passed a Miss White, who escaped, and in passing Miss Gibson, or Smith, set fire to her.
Mr Roxby followed Miss Hunt, threw her down, and, with his Inverness cape, extinguished the flames.
Coroner: You ran over?
Witness: Yes, all of us did.
Coroner: What then?
Witness: He returned to Miss Smith, the flames about whom were extinguished by the men about her. Several of them called to her to fall down, but she would not do so. She ran about. She wore more skirts than was usual. She prided herself very much on her appearance. The outside skirt is supplied by the Management.
Coroner: That was the part that took fire?
Coroner: Have you ever had any inquiries made as to the providing of uninflammable material for the skirts?
Witness: I believe they have been so provided, but you must understand that new dresses were supplied last Monday, and as the solution in which they are dipped only lasts a week or two, even if these they had were so dipped the good effects would have passed off, as they had been in use since the 26th of December last.
Coroner: Were the dresses ever washed?
Witness: No, never.
Coroner: Then you account for their taking fire that the uninflammable quality bad worn out?
Witness: I believe so.
By the Jury - What arrangements are made for extinguishing fire if it should happen?
Witness: I cannot tell you that. I am not the Stage-Manager.
Mr Robert Roxby, who wore his arm in a sling, and appeared otherwise to have suffered from the effects of the fire, said - I am the Stage-Manager at the Princess's.
On the evening in question I saw a person run through the wings, and I rushed at her, and seized her in my arms. She ran in at the front wing on the prompt-side. I seized hold of her clothes and tore them all off, as much as I could, wrapping my Inverness cape round her, and ultimately extinguished the flames.
I then saw the deceased in flames, and ran to her, taking off my under coat to extinguish the fire on her.
By the Jury - Have you any means of extinguishing fire?
Witness: We have the hose there, and the two wingmen are supposed to be ready for any emergency, but I do think that it would be advisable to have damp cloths or rugs. In this ease it would not have been of any avail. The difficulty I have always found is to catch the person who is on fire.
Ada Edson, living at No. 1, William-street, Kennington-park, deposed as follows. I am one of the extra ballet at the Princess's.
On Wednesday, January the 23rd [sic], I was standing next to and saw bliss Hunt in flames. I said, "Annie, you are on fire," and she rushed down to the first entrance. I screamed and ran away.
I did not see Miss Smith catch fire.
I think Miss Hunt caught fire at the tin plates. I do not think the gas could have set light to her. The tin plates were called light pans.
I saw nothing after that, as I ran to the back of the stage.
We provide the under skirts, but the management find the outside tarlatane. I have never tried if they are inflammable or not.
Miss Hoggins supplies the skirts.
When I saw Miss Hunt on fire it was the blue drapery or mantle that was over her shoulders that was in flames. The flame was from her waist to her shoulders when I saw it.
The drapery is supplied with the tarlatane skirt.
By the Jury - We are not near the gas lights. There is quite sufficient care taken to prevent fire.
Coroner: I may say that I have seen the Theatre lighted up, and there is quite sufficient care taken against the gas. What might be done if any gas escaped I do not know.
William Randle - I am the artist in fireworks to the Princess's Theatre and supply the lights which are used. I make the coloured lights which are used for the purpose of producing the illuminating effects in the Theatre. There were eight burning at the time of the accident on Friday week, four on the prompt side and four on the other. It was a red light that must have burnt these young ladies.
I was attending the first light at the second entrance. There was no light at the first entrance. I lighted my light, which changed from green to red. We do it with a wax taper. They are red and green, but do not throw any flame. They contain sulphur, charcoal, nitrate of birite, and nitrate of strontion. There is no gunpowder. (One of the lights was here produced.) They throw out no sparks, but sometimes the fuze will sputter. I use sublime sulphur. The quick match is made with gunpowder and cotton, the powder being worked into a paste, and the cotton rubbed in it.
I did not see the accident. I saw Miss Hunt pass me in flames, I did not see any spark from my match, or any one else's, set fire to Miss Hunt's dress.
I have used the lights for thirty years, and never knew an accident to occur before.
I know it could not have happened from the gas, and the probable theory is that the ignition was caused by a spark from the fire-pan.
I have, since the accident, thought it might have occurred from the fuze, and I have since introduced another plan of lighting the fire with a Vesuvian light, from which there can be no spark emitted.
William Aitken deposed - I am property-man at the Princess's Theatre, and it is one of my duties to hold one of the light-pans, which I did at the third entrance on the prompt side.
Miss Hunt stood below me considerably, about equal distance between me and Randle. Miss Hunt stood about five feet from me.
I did not see her take fire. I heard her scream, I cannot say whether my fuze sputtered that night.
Coroner (to Mr Randle): Now, Mr Randle, do you think your firelight did it?
Witness: I am not prepared to say. I can only say that I did not see it do so.
Mr Aitken (evidence continued) - I lit my taper at the gas over my head.
Coroner: You did not use a Lucifer?
Witness: Oh, no, certainly not. I never saw one used.
One of the Jury here said - Can we not have the evidence of Miss Hunt?
Coroner: The only question we can ark her is whether she has any idea how her clothes caught fire.
The Juryman: Precisely so; that is just what we desire.
The Coroner, accompanied by Mr Morgan, then proceeded to visit the ward where Miss Hunt was lying, and, on his return, Dr Lankester said - I have visited the ward, and Miss Hunt made the following statement:-
"I am one of the extra ballet at the Princess's Theatre, and on Friday evening, the 23rd, my dress took fire from the blue light. I felt the heat, but could not see the fire. There were two men holding the lights, but I could not see which one was nearest to me. I think it was the young one, but I do not know. Whether I was past the second or third entrance I do not know. I do not know that any one was to blame.
I have been in many Theatres, and wherever I have been wet blankets have been kept in case of fire.
I was once saved from a similar accident at the Surrey Theatre by the aid of wet blankets."
Coroner: I understand Mr. Lindus, the Lessee of the Theatre, is here, I do not know whether he has anything he would like to say to the Jury.
Mr Henry William Lindus said that he was not in possession of any facts to state to the Jury.
I have heard all the evidence which has been given, and I have no doubt that Miss Hunt's dress caught fire first, and that Miss Smith's dress became then ignited.
I have nothing to add, as I know nothing of the incident, not being there; but I may just say that since the accident I have seen that wet blankets have been put there, and every provision made.
But I may say that during Mr Harris's Management there were not any wet blankets or other means provided.
As I have said, since the accident I have done every thing.
By a Juryman - I have read your letter, Mr Lindus, in one of the daily papers, in which you say you think that the ladies themselves ought to take more care.
Lindus: Yes, sir, and I hope they will; but if you were in a Theatre for three months you would find it almost impossible to make those under yon attend to anything - to make them take care of themselves.
The Coroner then summed up, and pointed out that, while the actual cause of the calamity, whether by fire-pan or the igniting cotton, was not clearly ascertained, there was no blame attributable to any one, and their verdict would, therefore, be one of "Accidental death."
At the same time they might consider whether some means might not be adopted either to render the dresses uninflammable, or that Managers of Theatres should take such precautions as would prevent, to a vast extent, the repetition of such calamities.
He then, at some length, recapitulated the opinion he had already expressed, and which has been so thoroughly endorsed by the public press and the well-thinking portion of the community of the people, as to the absurdity of the exceeding size of ladies dresses, and the Jury returned the following verdict:-
"that on the 28th of January, Sarah Gibson, otherwise Smith, was found dead, and did die from the mortal effects of exhaustion from severe and extensive burns on her body, and the said Jurors say that the said burns were produced by her clothes taking fire at the Princess's Theatre, and the said Jurors further say that the said death arose from accidental causes."
To this verdict the Jury appended the following recommendation:-
The Jury wish further to express their opinion that sufficient precautions were not taken at the Princess's Theatre to extinguish any accidental fire taking place in the corps do ballet, and they also consider it is necessary to urge the necessity of rendering articles of linen and cotton clothing uninflammable."
The inquiry then terminated.
We are happy to be able to add that Mr Morgan, the house surgeon at the hospital, has pronounced Miss Hunt out of danger, a circumstance that will give great satisfaction under the circumstances of this most melancholy affair."
Sarah Gibson was laid to rest in Nunhead Cemetery on the afternoon of Wednesday 4th February 1863.
Lloyd's Weekly Newspaper carried a brief report on it - albeit they still used her stage name - on the following Sunday, 8th February 1863:-
"On Wednesday afternoon, the burial of the poor girl, Sarah Smith, who died in Middlesex hospital from the injuries which she received by fire on the stage of the Princess's theatre, took place among some demonstration of sympathy on the part of the theatrical fraternity as well as of the general public.
The body was interred in Nunhead cemetery, having been conveyed thither from the abode of the parents of the deceased in Oakley-street, Lambeth, and the funeral expenses were entirely defrayed by Mr. Lindus, the lessee of the Princess's theatre.
The surviving sufferer, Miss Hunt, remains in a state very favourable to the hope of recovery, no adverse symptoms having appeared.
We take this opportunity of stating that subscriptions will be thankfully received, on behalf of the suffering survivor, by Mr. R. Roxby, at the Princess's theatre."