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Heartbreak at the Garrick Theatre 

Our story today takes us back to the First World War, to a time of uncertainty where a tragedy befell the City of Hereford from which many parents never recovered.

As the war raged on, many fathers, brothers and sweethearts were keenly missed and many of those left behind wanted to raise money in order that they could send treats out to the men of the Herefordshire Regiment. In April 1916 a fund-raising concert was held at the Garrick Theatre in Widemarsh Street.

Many of the performers were young daughters of servicemen who were very excited to take part. The night went well with a variety of wonderful songs and short sketches being performed which regaled the audience and brought some much needed cheer to the crowd. Before long it was time for the grand finale. Soon the stage was filled with fluffy Eskimos and ice queens, the girls were dressed in costumes of cotton wool and sledges and confetti filled the stage. It was a magical end to a wonderful evening. There were snowball fights between the audience amid the applause and laughter and a feeling of exuberance and success filled the room, all knowing that their loved ones now in Egypt would soon be benefiting from this fabulous evening.

The night was over, the curtains closed and the girls giggled their way back stage. But in a split second and to the sheer horror of the audience a loud scream was heard as one of the girls’ costumes caught fire as she passed too close to an open flame. In complete panic she tried in vain to beat the flames but before she knew it the flames had spread and some of the other performer’s costumes were now on fire too. Panic reigned and a stampede ensued as people tried to escape. Mothers and helpers trying to put out the fire were burned, parents who were sat in the audience battled their way to the stage to find their children. Those who had made it out onto Widemarsh Street began to spread the news. Crowds formed outside of the theatre, relatives and parents desperate to hear news of the fate of those inside. It was soon shared that six children had died and two other children had been taken to hospital with injuries so severe they may not survive.

Shock reverberated around the city. Funerals were arranged, flags were flown at half mast and crowds lined the route of the funeral procession. The little coffins were carried through the streets to the cathedral for the service and with a large crowd following finished their journey at Westfaling Street cemetery. Over the next couple of days the death toll rose to eight as the remaining two victims died.

Although an inquiry was opened into the tragedy, it remained unclear as to how the fire had started and a verdict of accidental death was returned.

In 2018 a plaque remembering the eight little girls who tragically died at Hereford’s Garrick Theatre was dedicated at Hereford Cathedral’s Lady Arbour.

A very sad day for Hereford City and one now that will never be forgotten. The victims were Winifred Molly Mailes (6), Violet Minnie Corey (7), Nellie Rutherford (13), Cecilia Mary Beavon (12), Phyllis Eugenie White (10 ½), Constance Daisy Bragg (5 ½), Linda Illman and Peggy Baird.

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