The disastrous Theatre Royal fire
This article commemorating the great fire which destroyed the Theatre Royal, on 28 March 1899, first appeared in Jersey Topic magazine in 1967.
Battle of Jersey drama
Exactly 68 years ago this month billings outside the Theatre Royal in Gloucester Street proudly announced the first night of Jersey's national drama — The Battle of Jersey or The Death of Major Peirson. It drew the crowds.
Opening on 8 March it was recommended by the Jersey Times on rather illogical grounds. "We shall be surprised if every patriotic Jerseyman and Jerseywoman does not feel it to be an incumbent duty to witness this truly memorable play while the opportunity lasts", the newspaper told its readers. The opportunity lasted until 14 March, and Jerseymen and women turned up in dutilful droves.
They applauded gallant, young Major Peirson in his death agony; they loved his blood-and-thunder confrontations with the traitor Journeaux, who lurked in the neighbourhood of Janvrin's tomb; they hissed when the anaemic Governor capitulated to the French; and brave Major Peirson's declaration of intent — "Breathes there a man with soul so dead who never to himself hath said 'This is my own, my native land' ", brought the house down.
The audience's rapture at Peirson's masculine virtues redoubled in scene three when he killed the traitor Journeaux in the neighbourhood of Plemont which, the programme explained, "if not historically correct may be pardoned as satisfying the requirements of poetic justice”.
This was poetry and justice in the true tradition of the Boys Own Paper. And there was a flare. True gallant, young Major Peirson had been 23 years old; true the hero, Wybert Rousby, actor-manager and matinee idol of the Jersey stage for the last 34 years, was aged 64. But he was gallant and young at heart, and wore a dashing fur coat around the town and he was undoubtedly the author, producer and star in Jersey’s first performance of its national drama.
It was a historic moment, and the moment turned out to be more melodramatic than the play itself.
The final night was a complimentary benefit performance. The beneficiaries were Mr and Mrs Wybert Rousby. The band of the 2nd Glosters played in their honour. At the end, after Major Peirson had died his last death, everyone sang Auld Lang Syne and a bouquet was brought on to the stage. With Peirsonian gallantry Wybert handed the flowers to his wife and remarked "Sweets to the Sweet".
A fitting gesture and a final remark, for this was the last line ever acted out on the stage of Jersey's Theatre Royal.
The climax was delayed just two weeks. In the days that followed, a touring company arrived in Jersey complete with costumes and props. Under the supervision of the theatre's owner, Sidney Cooper, they began rehearsing the Easter pantomime. The choice for Easter 1899 was Little Red Riding Hood.
On 28 March evening rehearsals finished late. It was 10.45 when the caretaker, Mr J Le Cras, locked up and carefully turned the gas meter off backstage.
'Burning like a torch'
At 2.35 am Mr Charles Amy was woken up in his bedroom at 30 Seaton Place, by what he thought was a heavy shower of rain or hail. He got out of bed to fasten the window more securely. Opposite, he saw the theatre's dressing room burning like a torch. Dressing quickly, he ran all the way to the police station and arrived about the same time as a cabbie, Mr Daw, who had passed the theatre driving a party of soldiers home and seen smoke pouring out of an upstairs window.
Once the alarm was raised a sergeant and two policemen rushed to the spot. It was another 15 minutes before two rickety, horse-drawn fire engines arrived.
The small band of firefighters climbed on to the roof of a next door house after connecting one hose to a hydrant at the Seaton Place-Gloucester Street junction. It was an energetic and dangerous scramble.
Once on top of the roof they turned the hose on the flames. At a given signal the water was switched on. Lt trickled out and fell in a damp puddle at their feet. The waterworks company had turned the supply down during the night and there was no pressure.
The comic opera continued. A second engine drew up in Seaton Place and another hose was quickly attached to hydrant outside the Minors Hotel, The nozzle was pointed at the burning theatre, but the water cascaded no more than two feet towards its destination.
With only their boots wet, the intrepid firemen dragged the hose further up the street to a hydrant outside the Wesleyan Chapel. From here a far more promising jet of water spurted out, Unfortunately the hose was not long enough and the only target the firefighters managed to soak was a group of bewildered bystanders who could not get out of the way in time. Next they found a cistern of water and dried it up in the space of a few minutes.
By the time the hoses were put into service Theatre Royal was a furnace. The blaze lit up the whole town and sparks shot upwards like fireworks landing all over the neighbourhood. One man reported being able to read a newspaper in the Parade.
Others who weren’t reading the news at 3 am included a party of officers returning from a riotous evening at the Pomme d’Or. They decided to help and their assistance created as much damage as the fire itself. The soldiers went from one home to the next in Gloucester Street throwing all the furniture out of the window. Half the houses they visited weren't in the slightest danger, but they insisted on chucking everyone's belongings, bedroom suites, dining room tables and all, into the street.
Mr P Denize, of 21 Gloucester Street, evacuated his family of three children to the safety of a relative's home in Cheapside. He returned to find his house intact but everything else piled in a broken heap in the middle of the road. Mrs Argo, of 23 Gloucester Street, suffered no damage from the fire but her house was within range of the water supply. All the furniture which wasn't submerged was thrown out of the window and smashed to pieces by the military.
The fire was eventually stopped from spreading, But not by the Island's water resources. Neighbouring houses which caught alight promptly had their roofs chopped off.
By 5.30 the danger was over, and it was at 5.30 that a company of the Glosters arrived on the scene with a fire engine from Fort Regent. This was the island's most efficient fire-fighting unit. Unfortunately it was not a very punctual one. Having been alerted at 3.15, the Glosters did not finally go into action until two and a half hours later which was, noted one newspaperman, "a somewhat tardy arrival".
What they did do was to stop the blaze from spreading, which was small consolation for Mr Cooper, who watched the chaos after being called from his home at Mont Cochon. By this time his theatre consisted of its outer walls and a gable wall of the exit from the stalls (price of a seat 2s) which leant at a crazy angle. Jersey's Theatre Royal — "a chaste and lavishly ornamented building" — was a ruin and a ruin only partially covered by insurance.
The Jersey Times summed up the authorities' firefighting efforts the following day. "Thanks to the States, Municipality and Waterworks, the fire ceased at 5.30", said the Editor, "simply because there was nothing left to burn".
The Theatre Royal had taken its final curtain call. In its place rose a new edifice, the Opera House, to be christened by Lillie Langtry on 9 July 1900 in a performance of The Degenerates. But an era and a century had ended. The Gloucester Vaults, Jersey's show business tavern, no more resounded to talk of the theatre and a few years later gallant, young Major Peirson, Wybert Rousby himself, was laid to rest at the age of 72. The inscription on his tombstone announced him "an actor and a gentleman”.