Sentenced to Imprisonment for a Riot at Sadler's Wells Theatre which occasioned the Death of Eighteen of the Audience
THE true cause of this very shocking circumstance, so fatal in its consequences, is known to but few. If it had been occasioned wilfully, for the sake of plunder, the very worst of deaths should have overtaken the offenders.
As it was, the injured proprietors of the theatre, who alone were entitled to prosecute, could only reach the promoters in a conviction of a riot -- unattended with proof which would lead to capital punishment.
It appeared that a noisy, intoxicated party, among whom were those convicted, sat in the pit, and were observed during the evening to disturb the audience. At length they so greatly annoyed the peaceable part near them that a quarrel arose, and the woman, Elizabeth Luker, cried out to her debauched male associates: "Fight! Fight!" This was, unhappily, by distant parts of the house, supposed to be the cry of "Fire! Fire!" So dread an alarm in such a place -- hundreds crowded together -- will readily be conceived. Each seeking safety in flight, the avenues of the theatre were soon choked up, and the weakest trampled underfoot.
In vain did the performers from the stage call upon them to return; in vain did they assure them that there could be no danger of fire in a theatre filled with water -- even a speaking-trumpet, proclaiming to that effect, was not heard.
Eighteen unhappy mortals thus perished. They were mostly females and boys. The men thus numbered with the dead were small, and apparently of weak habits of body.
From the turbulent part, the three above named, who were, however unintentionally, the cause of this havoc, were identified, seized, tried, and convicted of a riot.
Mr Mainwaring, the chairman at the Quarter Sessions at Hicks's Hall, where they were tried, addressed them in a very impressive and solemn manner, to the following effect:--
"John Pierce, Vincent Pierce and Elizabeth Luker, you have been severally convicted on an indictment which charged you with being riotously and tumultuously assembled for the purpose of disturbing the King's peace, and of having resisted the legal authority to suppress your dangerous conduct in a theatre legally authorised, called Sadler's Wells.
"It has appeared that you obtained admission into that theatre; and it has also appeared from the evidence that you repeatedly interrupted the performance, grossly insulted the audience, and obstructed the officers, duly, authorised, in the performance and execution of their duty, when interposing to prevent your rioting. It is necessary, to preserve the public peace, that propriety of demeanour should be observed, from the highest to the lowest, in persons assembled at places of public amusement. The mischievous and fatal effects which have ensued for want of a due observance of the principles of decorum are too numerous to make it necessary for me to recount, and it is to be lamented that hardly a week passes but those disturbances do arise in one or other of the theatres. But the calamitous and dreadful events which happened in consequence of your outrageous conduct are distressing in the extreme. Not less than eighteen lives were lost! Whole families were plunged into irremediable ruin by the loss of the protection of those who were their natural protectors and guardians. When informed of the mischief you had occasioned, instead of exhibiting horror and dismay, and showing symptoms of sorrow and compunction, you most unfeelingly replied: 'Well, we don't care; we can't be hanged for it!' But surely, if you are not worse than brutes or savages, and void of the feelings which in general govern human nature, you will hereafter feel compunctions of remorse for the misery you have entailed upon the relatives of the deceased. The sentence which the Court is about to pronounce is slight in comparison with your crimes, and affords no atonement for your offence, but it is to be hoped that the punishment will have the effect of calling you to a proper repentance and contrition, and induce you to conduct yourselves, for the future, at all times, and in all places, with decency. Eighteen of your fellow-creatures by your improper conduct have been deprived of their lives. Wives of their husbands. Fathers of their children. And children of their parents. And whole families brought to utter ruin by your outrageous conduct. The sentence, therefore, of the Court upon you, John Pierce, is, that you be imprisoned for the space of six months; and that you, Vincent Pierce, be imprisoned for the space of four months; and that you, Elizabeth Luker, be imprisoned only for the space of fourteen days."