On 31 December 1929, Hogmanay, seventy-one children died and more than fifty were injured when young cinema-goers panicked after thick smoke billowed around the darkened auditorium during a children’s matinee performance of The Dude Desperado at the Glen Cinema, Paisley, Scotland. Calls of ‘fire’ prompted terrified children to flee towards the exits.
Survivor Sadie Elias said she had chosen the Glen Cinema as it had the most gory and bloodthirsty film, the day’s events, however, would outstrip any Hollywood movie. Hundreds of children were at the packed cinema and some reports stated close to one thousand, and many had earned the coppers needed for the price of the entry by returning jam jars and the like to their local stores. The Dude Desperado, a Western, was shown before the main feature film The Crowd. Many children were in the cinema that day to get out from under their mothers’ feet as they readied their homes for the Hogmanay celebrations.
Minutes before disaster, the projectionist changed the thousand-foot reel of flammable nitrocellulose film as was the norm, half-way through the showing. His fifteen-year-old assistant, James McVey, carried the reel of film in its can to the Rewind Room. He placed the can on an accumulator battery and once the film was rewound, placed the reel in the can causing a short-circuit. Within seconds, the film was smouldering, and McVey, realising the danger, tried to remove it from the building.
Finding the nearest exit jammed, he dropped the still-smouldering reel in the hallway, giving the smoke further opportunity to creep its way around the building and ran to the projectionist’s room, unable to leave his station, the projectionist advised informing the manager. Alerted, the manager forced the door open and kicked the film can outside. But by then, acrid smoke and noxious fumes had spread into the auditorium and while it billowed the children in the cinema panicked.
They ran in all directions searching for a way out, many headed to a staircase leading down to the door that exited onto Dyers Wind, an alleyway at the back of the cinema. The door opened inwards and the ensuing stampede behind meant that it couldn’t be opened easily. The door was not only hard for the children to open but was also secured from the outside with a padlocked iron concertina gate which trapped the suffocating youngsters inside. Many children died at this point, the youngest only eighteen-months-old, bodies trampled and crushed, piled one on top of the other, some died standing up fingers gripping the gate. The rescuers, when they arrived, met with harrowing scenes.
Word of trouble spread fast and soon police, firemen and members of the public rushed to help the stricken children. Crowds gathered outside, at first unaware of the horror unfolding inside. Anguished parents headed for the cinema and the Royal Alexandra Infirmary in a desperate search for good news. Later, newspapers would sombrely report, ‘a holocaust occurred this afternoon’.
Peter Smith, watching the other children race for the exits, some jumping from the balcony above, headed to the toilet where he knew there was a window. Helped by others steadying him from behind, he climbed onto the toilet pan and kicked at the window until the glass smashed. Then a policeman’s hand grabbed his boot and stopped him going further and warned him to steer clear while he used his truncheon to remove shards of glass. He was then helped through the window along with the other children that had followed him into the toilet.
Some children, gaining strength born from their desperation, managed to pull a door off its hinges in their frantic efforts to escape.
There were not enough ambulances to convey all the dead, injured and dying children to the hospital and trams were requisitioned to take them there, others were driven in private motor cars that happened to be in the area at the time.
Ten-year-old James Reilly was caught up in the crush having been at the cinema with his friends. He was believed to be dead and taken to the mortuary. However, a passing nurse noticed a ‘flicker of life’ and resuscitated him, awakening briefly, with the nurse ‘pumping away at his chest’, he remembered seeing other children’s bodies lying in the mortuary before losing consciousness again.
One mother, not realising the enormity of the situation cuffed her son around the ear for returning home with only one shoe, having lost the other in the scramble for safety.
The horror that occurred in Paisley that New Year’s Eve reverberated around the world and dramatic headlines informed readers of the devastating death toll, it became known as the Black Hogmanay. A relief fund quickly amassed more than £5,000.
All the dead children’s death certificates stated asphyxia caused by crushing. Survivor Peter Smith said ‘it was a fire that was never a fire’.
Some families lost more than one child, the McEnhills lost three children; two sons, James and Edward, and a daughter, Margaret. All three were buried together. The Kilkies, who lived in the same street as the McEnhills, lost two children. One gravedigger buried two of his children, another gravedigger, one. The majority of funerals took place on 4 January 1930, a bleak Saturday, flags flying at half-mast in the town.
In the aftermath, it became clear that less that two hours before the disaster the cinema had passed an inspection by the Paisley Fire Brigade and all exits were ‘deemed in order’. The manager of the Glen Cinema, Charles Dorward, was charged with culpable homicide and was eventually bailed and later cleared of the charges.
The cinema’s owner, James Graham, deposed during the enquiry that he frequently reminded the manager not to lock the exits during matinee performances, a practice that Dorward admitted he was want to do. This stopped wily children entering the cinema for free. Nevertheless, he insisted that he had unlocked the gate at Dyers Wynd that Hogmanay, a fact corroborated by the cinema’s chocolate seller, Isla Muir, who could then not explain how it was later locked, apart from suggesting that two boys seen hanging around might have been responsible for the padlock being in place.
The events of Hogmanay 1929 ensured that cinemas were made safer for children and adults: more exits were introduced and they had push bars that opened outwards, to prevent the crush injuries after the stampede that occurred in Paisley. And whilst the cinema manager was cleared of culpable homicide, the ensuing enquiry noted that the cinema did not have enough exits – those exits they had were locked, there was not enough staff on duty, with only one attendant in the cinema and it was hopelessly overcrowded. A recipe for disaster that cost the lives of seventy-one innocent children.
The Thirties, Juliet Gardiner