Riddle of blaze at Cork city theatre

The night in December, 1955, when Cork Opera House burned down, is etched forever in the memory of many older citizens. Less well known is the fact its predecessor, the Theatre Royal, also burned down 180 years ago this month. And, PAT POLAND reveals, the finger of suspicion fell on a chancer supreme
Riddle of blaze at Cork city theatre

DRAMATIC SCENE: ‘Young Irelander’ John Mitchel appearing on the stage of the re-modelled Theatre Royal in 1875.

HE was the foremost pop star of his day — if he were around now, he would have top billing at Live at the Marquee.

So when the Hungarian composer and virtuoso pianist, Franz Liszt, arrived in Cork for a series of concerts in 1840, he would have expected to perform at the city’s premier entertainment centre, the Theatre Royal on George’s Street (now Oliver Plunkett Street).

His recitals, however, had to take place in the Clarence Hall of the nearby Imperial Hotel, for the theatre had burned down in a spectacular fire that April.

Opening its doors to the public in July, 1760, the Theatre Royal was the second venue of that name in Cork: the previous one stood at the corner of George’s Street and Playhouse Lane (now Prince’s Street).

The new theatre was erected between Morgan’s Lane (now Morgan Street) and Five-Alley Lane (now Pembroke Street) on the footprint occupied today by the General Post Office. Its address was 29, George’s Street.

Samuel Hobbs, carpenter/architect with Cork Corporation (and the designer of Clarke’s Bridge, still fully functioning) was responsible for the theatre’s handsome colonnaded façade.

Hailed as one of Cork’s finest buildings, its dimensions made it the largest theatre in Ireland outside of Dublin. Every famous artiste who performed in Ireland played the Theatre Royal and the city ‘taxi rank’ was located there.

Protected from the weather by the colonnade, the so-called ‘Chairmen’ waited patiently with their sedan chairs for their ‘fares’. They would carry you — literally — to any point in the city; 4d (four pence) for the ‘flat’ of the city, and 6d (six pence) to the suburbs.

In 1827, the theatre was closed for a time for refurbishment, and the Cork Constitution gives us a brief insight into what it may have looked like on the night of its burning a few years later:

“This theatre is now one of the neatest and most compact in Ireland, and little inferior to many of note in the Metropolis of the Sister Kingdom. All the boxes are newly molded in gold, and tastefully festooned with pink satin. The seats are newly covered, and backed most comfortably. The seats in the pit are also covered with green cloth, which, together with the light appearance of the house, and the brilliancy of the gas, has a very pretty effect indeed.”

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RIVAL: The site of Frank Seymour’s Theatre Royal Victoria in Cook Street, now Woodwards Auctioneers
RIVAL: The site of Frank Seymour’s Theatre Royal Victoria in Cook Street, now Woodwards Auctioneers

Theatres were notoriously susceptible to fire. With little or no effective fire separation between stage and auditorium, many had a common roof extending over both areas.

Lighting was by gas, but supplementary lighting in the form of hanging lamps, sconces and candles was also used. Limelight, used to create brilliant effects on stage, was created by heating pure lime by means of the constant application of gas-fired burners. The swirling skirts or billowing dresses of the actresses on stage were only inches away.

Very little supervision was exercised by the authorities, who were far more concerned with an actress showing a naughty glimpse of leg than with public safety.

Galleries were built with no alternative means of escape. Dark, tortuous passages and steep, obstructed narrow stairs, down which the public in their hundreds were expected to flee in an emergency, were the norm.

Architects of the day saw nothing wrong with incorporating low roofs and small exit doors in their plans. Firefighting appliances, other than water buckets (which more often than not were full of rubbish) were usually non-existent.

Some nights before the fire at the Theatre Royal in Cork, a curious thing happened. The theatre had closed for the night and it appeared everyone had gone home, but two women were left on the premises, quietly working away in a remote corner. One thought she got a peculiar smell, and on investigation, found a bottle with a candle lighting in it, hidden near some flammable material. She called her friend, and when they went to snuff it out, the bottle exploded, scattering burning liquid all around. With great presence of mind, they fortunately managed to quench the incipient blaze.

Then, on the Friday night before the blaze, a policeman on his beat near the theatre ‘perceived a most disagreeable smell’ which he took to be something burning. Not being able to find anything amiss, he had a word with the night watchman to ‘look out against fire’.

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In the early hours of Palm Sunday, April 12, 1840, the Theatre Royal was totally destroyed in a fire after the last performance before Easter.

The curtains had been drawn around midnight following a ‘benefit for Mr and Mrs Wood’, a noted singing duo. The fire was discovered just after 2am when flames were observed bursting through the roof. As news spread across the city, the church bells began ringing the traditional ‘reverse peal’ (known as ‘ringing the bells backwards’) to alert the various firefighting agencies.

In the absence of a public fire service, these comprised private fire brigades maintained by a number of insurance companies and the (mostly decrepit) parish pumps kept up by the Church of Ireland.

All the insurance ‘fire stations’ were located within striking distance of the burning theatre. The Royal Exchange ‘engine house’ at 5, South Mall; the Atlas, at the top of Cook Street at its junction with South Mall; the West of England, on Charlotte Quay (now, Fr Mathew Quay), while the fire engine of the Scottish Union was housed at 50, George’s Street (the old location of Liam Ruiséal’s bookshop). A parish pump from St Paul’s church in Paul Street also attended.

In the entire city, there were just 39 fire hydrants (or ‘fire plugs’, as they were known) owned by a private outfit, the Cork Pipe Water Company. The nearest was right opposite the theatre; others were on Patrick Street and South Mall. (Not until 1858 was the city equipped with a network of fire hydrants provided by Cork Corporation. Cast-iron plaques that identified their location — with the letters ‘FC’ standing for ‘Fire Cock’ — still adorn many walls today).

The Cork Constitution of April 14, 1840, takes up the story: “The engines arrived about half-past two, and the roof of the theatre on the first discharge of water fell in. The flames ascended with a power, a brilliancy, and a variety (the latter arising from the colours employed in the painting and decorations) which, had it been unattended with danger, would have rendered the spectacle magnificent. For miles around, the city was, we may say, illuminated, and the property destroyed is considerable.

“As nothing could be done to save it, the efforts of the engines were directed to the protection of surrounding buildings. The West of England engine took up its station opposite Austen’s Tavern, and to the vigour with which it was worked the preservation of the Tavern is attributable. The same service was rendered to the Savings Bank and Dublin Coach Office by the Atlas, the Royal Exchange and the Scottish Union engines.

 
 

“After the first quarter of an hour, the supply of water was abundant, and to this, and the stillness of the night we owe it, under Providence, that we have not to announce one of the most extensive and calamitous fires with which the city was ever visited.”

Some of the first responders thought they were dealing with two separate buildings, so great was the gap between the blazes. This gave rise to the suspicion that fires had been started at two quite distinct points in the building.

Others said, from their vantage point, they observed only one major fire billowing up through the roof from the bowels of the theatre.

In any event, by 5am the building was a heap of smouldering ruins, along with the wardrobes, orchestral instruments, a valuable collection of old music, and three pianos, two of them of considerable value.

To the consternation of the lessee, a Mr Paumier, it was discovered that no insurance on the building or its contents had been taken out by its owner, John McDonnell.

Frank Seymour, owner of the rival Theatre Royal Victoria in nearby Cook Street (today occupied by Joseph Woodward and Sons, Auctioneers) was among the last to leave the premises that night, but he had a perfectly good excuse for being there.

During the time that Paumier had leased the Theatre Royal, Seymour had agreed to close his own theatre in return for a regular income and to be employed as a sort of general factotum by Paumier. However, they had a row over the arrangement, and Seymour sued Paumier for breach of contract — allegations that he subsequently withdrew. It was no secret, however, that bad blood remained between them.

The newspapers reported that Seymour had now offered the use of his premises ‘in the most liberal manner’ to the company of the Theatre Royal. But many in Cork were suspicious of Seymour’s new-found philanthropy.

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Frank Seymour was a native of Cork who, in his younger days, kept a shop. He was described as having a ‘rubicund visage, portly figure, and a deep, rolling voice’. Always professing an interest in the theatre, over time he gradually drifted onto the stage in a whole-time capacity.

He became well-known for his eccentricities, one acquaintance describing him in the following terms: “He could combine 20 occupations without being clever in one. He was actor, fiddler, painter, machinist, and tailor, besides check-taker and bill poster on occasions. But he prided himself more especially on his talents as an actor. This harmless eccentricity rendered him very dear to the Cork theatre-goers, who mercifully regarded his strong faith in his dramatic abilities as a mental weakness. He was the most impecunious fellow to be found anywhere; always in debt and constitutionally disinclined to pay anybody.”

One too-trusting Italian diva who performed to full houses received her fee in the form of a bundle of ‘banknotes’, well-wrapped, from Seymour, just as she was about to depart by coach for Dublin. The ‘innocent abroad’ did not open her wages until halfway to the capital, to discover that the ‘cash’ was nothing more than old theatre posters cut down to size!

To those Seymour met on the street who politely enquired after his health, the answer was, invariably: “High in spirits but low in purse.”

A critic recalled: “As an actor he had no real ability whatever. On the stage he was a mere parrot. He did his best, poor soul, and he meant well, even if he achieved very little. He often repeated his lines in a play apparently without the least grasp of their real meaning.”

A spectator who saw him perform in Belfast said he was “a queer character and a most unreliable man, who attempted all manner of parts and played them all badly”. Theatre scholar W. J. Alexander regarded him as “an adventurer of the shadiest type, as unscrupulous as he was illiterate”.

As well as acting, Seymour managed theatres in Ireland and Scotland, one fellow thespian recalling that his nickname was “‘Schemer’ Seymour for his extraordinarily sharp practice played upon the various stars who had visited his theatre”.

In time, he rose to owning his own place in Glasgow, which burned down in 1829. That all but ruined him, and he never fully recovered.

Returning to Cork, in 1832, he secured a position as manager of the Theatre Royal. Six years later he was able to scrape enough money together to open his own venue at 26, Cook Street, which he named the Theatre Royal Victoria.

And now, with the main opposition a heap of smouldering ruins, people had no option but to turn to Frank Seymour for their entertainment...

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Facing financial ruin, John McDonnell took a malicious injuries claim against the city for his loss in the sum of £4,000. If successful, the sum would have been levied on the city rate.

On May 16, 1840, his submission was heard by representatives of the ratepayers at the City Presentment Sessions. McDonnell testified he was early at the scene of the fire. At that point, he said, the auditorium was still intact, but fires were raging round the lobby and stage areas — at opposite ends of the building.

Witnesses were called, some of whom generally corroborated McDonnell’s evidence.

Conspiratorially, the Cork Standard revealed: “We have just heard that some most extraordinary facts have transpired with respect to the cause of the fire, but as the whole matter is at the moment the subject of a strict inquiry, we forbear, for prudential reasons, further alluding to it.”

Although Seymour’s name was never mentioned in court in connection with the fire, the dogs in the street knew to whom McDonnell’s lawyers were alluding when claiming the fire was maliciously set.

Hardly had the last ashes been doused when the rumour mill among Cork’s chattering classes moved into top gear, and all the fingers of suspicion fell on one suspect only: Seymour.

But hearsay, of the ‘Dúirt bean liom go ndúirt bean léi’ variety, is not, and was not then, admissible as evidence in a court of law, and McDonnell’s claim failed. Unfazed, he reopened his case before a judge and jury at the City Court in August, with the same result.

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For some 13 years after, Seymour’s theatre was Cork’s main venue for the performing arts. A visit by Thackeray left the famous novelist singularly unimpressed. At the time, a military brass band was playing with gusto, and Thackeray, who thought the place small and unremarkable, fled, unable to stand the cacophony of sound. The last performance in the Theatre Royal Victoria took place in 1859 after which it became Lambkin’s Tobacco Factory.

For a while, Pablo Fanque operated his Circus Royal on the site of the burned-out theatre, and in 1853 local builder and entrepreneur, Dick Burke, opened his new Theatre Royal there, “remodelled from designs under the superintendence of Sir John Benson”, the City Architect.

In 1875, the building was sold to the Royal Mail, whose General Post Office already stood around the corner in Pembroke Street. Elements of the old theatre’s façade were incorporated into the newly-enlarged GPO, which opened in 1877 and can still be admired to this day.

Although, it must be acknowledged, Frank Seymour came through the whole episode with honour intact, for a generation of Corkonians ‘Schemer Seymour’ had a lot to answer for...

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