The history of drama in the 1800s is punctuated by frequent, disastrous theater fires. I can’t think of a single one of London’s major theaters offhand that wasn’t burned down and rebuilt at least once during that century. The structures were almost designed for maximum flammability. Sets and props were made of wood painted with oil-based paints. There were even plenty of items stuffed with cotton or straw. The whole house was draped with fabric and then brightly lit with gas. One miscalculation or careless act and the place was an instant inferno.
March 31, 1849, the Olympic Theater burned to the ground. The blaze brought in crews from around the city and made headlines. Fortunately, the fire took place when the theater was almost completely unoccupied. The only people in the house were a stage crew at work and the stage manager, Mr. Edward Stirling.
The Illustrated London News described the cause of the fire in this manner,
Mr. Sterling, the stage manager, whilst standing on the stage, had his attention directed 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.
The fire is said to have been occasioned by the carelessness of a boy in lighting the gas at the first wing. The lamps at that time being turned towards the stage, and the curtain at the same time being withdrawn, and overhanging the lamps, the curtain took fire, and instantly communicated it to the wing.1
Edward Stirling’s entire account of this event in his autobiography reads as follows:
OLYMPIC (Spicer, manager) burnt, 1846; a gas-man’s neglect caused this calamity.2
In 1881, who can blame the author for mistaking the year a little? However Stirling is completely failing to mention that he was the stage manager in charge of the work crew at the time of the fire. There is good reason for Stirling to be sensitive about this item on his resume, though. Standard accounts of the past of the Olympic Theater that you will find in histories of the London Stage typically contain a line that reads like this one from the Historical Dictionary of British Theatre:
It burned down in 1849, possibly through arson, and was rebuilt but later closed when its then manager, Walter Watts, was arrested for fraud.3
Why was the fire at the Olympic considered a possible arson? Newspaper accounts at the time of the fire seem to take Stirling’s account of the accident that started the blaze at face value. It was only in the following months that questions began to be raised. Since the theater was nearly empty, no lives were lost in the theater. The building was insured, so theater owner lost no money. However, the man who leased the theater at the time (a Mr. Davidson was officially the manager, with Henry Spicer footing the bills) was not insured for his losses. None of the actors or other employees of the theater were insured for the loses they incurred either. Actors had to supply their own costumes for performances at this time. Therefore, a leading actor’s wardrobe of specialized, tailored costumes could come to thousands of dollars. In addition the fire spread to other buildings surrounding the theater, including several shops and an apartment building that housed performers and other theatrical workers. The fire left several people injured, many more homeless, and caused additional thousands of dollars of property damage.
Anger and frustration about the fire continued to grow in the coming months as those usually employed by the Olympic – which included not just actors, but carpenters, seamstresses, gas-men, and other specialists – remained displaced and out of work. For some time there were rumors that the owner of the property would not rebuild at all or that the theater would be converted into a hall for exhibiting horses.
Respected veteran actor William Farren and his son Henry had, before the fire, made a successful bid to take over the lease of the Olympic and had already signed contracts with a full company of actors, musicians, ticket-takers, carpenters, and front-of-house workers for the up-coming season. The Farrens tried to find an alternative venue for their homeless company. There was a good amount of nasty debate in the press about the ethics of using this group for benefit performances to raise money that would go back to the employees of the Olympic. The Farrens went bankrupt. By September, Henry Farren was appearing in debtor’s court.
Despite any shadow the fire at the Olympic might have cast upon his reputation, Stirling had landed on his feet. He was now part of the company at the Marylebone Theater. By September, Edward Stirling was a very busy man.
Over the course of the long summer of 1849, there was rampant speculation on the future of the Olympic. After the Farrens were firmly out of the picture in June, many names were floated as the new potential possessor of its lease. This clipping from the Atlas names two of the front runners;
On Saturday, the ceremony of laying the first stone of the new dramatic edifice in Wych-street, was performed before a large number of persons invited. Mr. J. Cavill, the son of the owner, addressed the assembly, and gave a history of the theater, from the time of its being the residence of the Earl of Craven in the reign of Charles II, through the various phases of the eccentric equestrian John P. Astley, Robert Elliston, Madame Vestris, George Wild, Bolton, and Spicer. Miss Cavill performed the usual ceremonials with the silver trowel, and various toasts were drunk, after which the party retired. Mr. Spicer, the late lessee, has resigned all intention of continuing the direction of the theatre. Amongst the candidates who proposed themselves as tenants is Mr. Conquest, the lessee of the late Garrick Theatre, which was burnt down some years since.4
Suddenly, though, a dark horse candidate whose name had not been previously tied to gossip about the Olympic in the press, swept in and was announced as the new lessee. On August 23rd, the Atlas proclaimed,
Mr. Watts, the spirited lessee of the Marylebone Theatre, has taken the Olympic, which will be re-opened as soon as it is rebuilt and decorated.5
Watts’ hand-picked successor for the top spot as manager of the Marylebone was Edward Stirling. This was quite an advantageous position for Stirling. Certainly, there were numerous responsibilities and headaches that came with this job. However, as manager, Stirling would control which plays were performed by the company. Predictably, his catalogue of hits was in heavy rotation at the Marylebone during his time as manager. The first show he produced after opening with a Christmas pantomime was his adaptation of Charles Dickens’ “Nicholas Nickleby.”
Even after Walter Watts’ world came crashing down in March of 1850, Edward Stirling was sitting pretty and able to re-open the Marylebone by summer and keep making money. One year after he had been alone in the house with a crew and in charge of the junior workman who had caused the fire that had destroyed the Olympic Theatre, Edward Stirling was one of the few people who found himself in a better financial position as a result of the destruction of that theater.
It was from this time that the talk of arson began.
1. “Total Destruction of the Olympic Theatre by Fire.” The Illustrated London News. March 31, 1849. Page 216.
2. Stirling, Edward. Old Drury Lane; Fifty Years Recollections of Author, Actor, and Manager: Volume 1. London: Chatto and Windus, 1881. Page 178.
3. Grantley, Darryll. Historical Dictionary of British Theatre: Early Period. Scarecrow Press: Plymouth, 2013. Page 213.
4. “The Laying of the Foundation Stone of the Olympic Theatre.” The Atlas: London. July 7, 1849. Page 426, col. 3.
5. “Olympic Theatre.” The Atlas: London. August 23, 1849. Page 474, col. 1.