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FOOTLIGHT NOTES
no. 375

updated
Saturday, 20 November 2004

Olympic Theatre, London, totally destroyed by fire,
Thursday evening, 29 March 1849

destruction of the Olympic, 1849

'The Olympic Theatre, Wych-street, Strand, destroyed by fire, on Thursday, March 29'
(The Illustrated London News, London, Saturday, 31 March 1849, p.216)

'One of the most alarming and destructive conflagrations that has occurred in the metropolis for several years broke out on Thursday evening, about half-past five o'clock, and resulted in the entire demolition of the Olympic Theatre, and the partial destruction of upwards of a dozen other buildings.
'The flames were first seen from the outside of the theatre by a constable, who lodged at a house in Wych-street, the back windows of which overlooked the theatre. As he was passing up stairs he noticed a dense body of smoke pouring from the roof.
'Messengers were instantly dispatched in all directions for the engines, but before sufficient time had elapsed for one engine to reach the scene, the whole of the roof, gallery, and boxes, were in a general body of flames; and so intense did the heat become that six or seven houses in Craven-buildings, with the Pavilion Tavern, in Newcastle-street, and several other houses, caught fire simultaneously. The scene by this time was one of great confusion. The inmates of the premises surrounding the theatre were to be seen rushing out with their children in their arms, and carrying with them what little property they could lay their hands upon.

destruction of the Olympic, 1849 – fire engines


'The Fire Brigade - The Engines.'

(The Illustrated London News, London, Saturday, 31 March 1849, p.216)

'Numerous engines soon arrived, and not a moment was lost in setting them to work; but, notwithstanding that the supply of water was most abundant, and nearly a dozen engines were in full operation, the flames continued to spread most fiercely in various directions. The firemen mounted the roofs of the houses not on fire, and by that means were enabled to extinguish the fames in the Pavilion Tavern, and also to keep them from spreading further in the direction of Craven-buildings, although it was several hours before the fire in those last-named premises was wholly extinguished.
'The main body of the fire in the theatre continued to blaze until a fearful crash was heard, caused by the falling of the gallery and boxes. This had hardly subsided when the roof fell in.
'By eight o'clock the fire was so far got under as to allay all fear of any further extension.
'The following particulars connected with the origin of the fire were states to our reporter by a gentleman connected with the theatre. Mr. Sterling, the stage manager, whilst standing on the stage, had his attention direction to the curtain, and saw flames running up the lining. He immediately called the carpenters together, and told them to cut the leech lines. The men mounted the wings, and having divided the cords, the curtain partially fell, but the lines still remaining on the other side of the curtain the flames mounted upwards into the machinery, and very soon they extended to the lawn coverings of the boxes and gallery, so that in less than five minutes every part of the theatre was fired. At the time of the outbreak, the gasman was trying the lights on the P.O. of the wings, and it is supposed that he must have accidentally occasioned the mischief.
'The theatre was insured in the County Fire-office; but nothing belonging to Mr. Davidson, the lessee, or any of the actors was insured.
'The houses burned in Craven-buildings were on the Craven estate, which is insured in the Westminster Fire-office; but most of the inhabitants who have been deprived of their furniture, &c., were uninsured. The amount of property must be considerable, as nearly a dozen of the contiguous premises are partially consumed, and the furniture of the several occupants materially damaged.
'To given an idea of the rapidity of the catastrophe, a Correspondent states that he was passing the Theatre at twenty minutes after five o'clock, at which time there was, externally, no appearance of fire; and within half an hour he witnessed, from the parapet of a house in the Strand, the falling in of the Theatre roof.
'The exertions of the Fire Brigade were unwearied; but their efforts to save the property were unavailing.

destruction of the Olympic, 1849 – firemen, &c


'The Fire Brigade - Scaling-ladders, Hose, Etc.'

(The Illustrated London News, London, Saturday, 31 March 1849, p.216)

'We subjoin a brief Sketch of the history of the Theatre.
'The Olympic Theatre, originally the Olympic Pavilion, was situated in Wych-street, Strand, on the site of Drury-house, built by Sir William Drury, an able commander in the Irish wars, in the reign of Queen Elizabeth; whence Drury-lane. In the next century it was possessed by Earl Craven, by whom it was rebuilt. It was next a public-house, bearing the sign of the Queen of Bohemia's Head, the Earl's admired mistress. In 1806, the house was taken down, and the ground purchased by Mr. Philip Astley, of the Amphitheatre, Westminster Bridge-road, who built thereon the present theatre, for horsemanship, &c., and called it the Olympic Pavilion, the performances being similar to those at the Amphitheatre. Astley sold it to Mr. [Robert William] Elliston, whose proprietorship of the Olympic was the most successful scene in his enterprising life. Here he produced Rochester [16 November 1818], founded on a celebrated French anecdote in the life of Henry V., subsequently adapted at Covent-garden as Charles the Second [27 May 1824]. At the Olympic, Mr. Elliston played Rochester, and Mrs. [John] Edwin [junior] the Countess of Lovelaugh, for nearly one hundred successive nights, and drew almost all the rank and fashion of London to a theatre that had previously been considered low. Added to this was the advantage of a regular drama, and a company from the patent houses: and such was the tide of fortune at the Olympic and Sans Pareil Theatres at this period, that the managers of Drury-lane and Covent-garden memorialised the Lord Chamberlain on the grievance. Mr. Elliston's splendid success enabled him to embark into the fluctuations of Drury-lane Theatre, and the Olympic was let for a time. In 1822-23, it was under the management of Mr. [Daniel] Egerton, and the spirited performances of Mrs. [Sarah] Egerton, in melodramas, proved very fortunate. It then fell into the hands of a succession of speculators, till it was purchased of the assignees of Mr. Elliston by the late Mr. John Scott.
'At length, the theatre was let to Madame [Eliza] Vestris, under whose tasteful management it proved a very profitable speculation; the tide of popularity once more set in towards the Olympic, its success reminding one of the good-fortune of Elliston upon the same spot. At length, Madame Vestris relinquished her tenancy, and removed to Covent Garden Theatre. Since this period, the Olympic has been let to parties far too numerous for us to chronicle. The lesseeship and management of Mr. Davidson have, it is understood, been successful. His tenancy was fast drawing to a close, and the performances advertised for Thursday (the evening of the fire) were "for the Benefit of Mr. Bender, and the Last Night but One of the Season."
'the exterior of the theatre was the least slightly of all the London theatres, and for inconvenience of situation it was unmatched. The Engraving shows the principal frontage, in Wych-street. The interior was circular in plan, with one entire circle of boxes, and half-tiers level with the gallery, and the usual private and stage boxes; and the pit was spacious.
'Many favourites of the public have gained their popularity at the Olympic. In the list we find Elliston and Mrs. Edwin, [William] Oxberry, Pearman, [Robert] Keeley, [Edward] Fitzwilliam, and [Tyrone] Power: all prior to Madame Vestris's occupation. Miss [Maria] Foote, [John] Liston, and, we believe, Mrs. [Mary Ann] Orger, last played there; and Mr. Charles Mathews here made his first appearance upon any stage. Mr. [William] Farren was also one of the Vestris company; and, we believe, he had just concluded an agreement to become lessee of the theatre for a term. Mr. Charles Kean and Miss Ellen Tree have also played there; and, among the latest events in the history of theatre, is the début of Mr. Gustavus Brooke, in the higher walk of the drama.'
(The Illustrated London News, London, Saturday, 31 March 1849, p.216)

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