Visiting the Haymarket Theatre in London was not an especially good idea on 3rd February 1794 – particularly if you had anything to do with the College of Arms. The fact that the King, His Majesty George III, was making a visit that evening may have warned those wishing to attend the performance that there was likely to be a crowd, anxious to see the King. But for the Somerset and York Heralds (respectively, John Charles Brooke and Benjamin Pingo) it was a night neither would forget – or remember, come to that. Both were to die in the crush of eager onlookers, anxious to make their way to the Pit to listen to such masterpieces as ‘My Grandmother’ ‘The Prize’ and that perennial favourite ‘No Song, No Supper’.
Apparently a man in front of them tripped and fell down the stairs leading to the newly re-opened auditorium. Eager theatre-goers behind kept pushing forwards, causing a large group of some seventy people to be crushed. Fifteen people died on the spot, and a sixteenth succumbed to his injuries later. In addition, many suffered broken limbs and had to be helped to the local pharmacist for medical attention.
The disaster did not stop the Royal Command performance going ahead – indeed the King and Queen and the six Royal Princesses in attendance were not told of the incident until after the performance. They naturally expressed their deepest sympathy and regret. Even so, a pamphlet was soon in circulation accusing them of callousness in watching the performance, which was a bit hard considering they knew nothing about what had happened. I blame the theatre manager…
Further criticism followed, because the royal family did not refrain from public engagements in the days and nights afterwards – as borne out by a tub-thumping article which appeared in print on 17 February 1794:
“When the late dreadful Accident happened … it was said that Their Majesties were not acquainted with it. Did THEY know it on Tuesday 4th instant when Her Majesty had her Rout? Did THEY know it on Wednesday the fifth, when they went to the Ancient Musick, Tottenham Court Road; Did THEY know it on Monday the Tenth, when they went to the Covent Garden Theatre; Do THEY know it now?”
To rub it in even more, the criticism continued:
“Did THEY not suspend Public Amusements, and other mourning, for the death of Louis, the avowed enemy of this Country. Which of these circumstances ought to have caused the most public demonstrations of Sorrow?
Ah well, there is always someone wanting to make political capital out of anything to do with the royal family….
The Theatre Royal, Haymarket (also known as Haymarket Theatre or the Little Theatre) had originally opened in 1720 and is still in existence (the third oldest theatre in use in London today). On the other hand the present edifice was the Nash-modelled version opened in 1820
John Charles Brooke had been made Somerset Herald at the College back in 1777. He was aged 48, and was secretary to the Earl Marshal, and a lieutenant in the militia of the West Riding of Yorkshire. He was also a keen antiquarian. He had planned to spend the evening at the theatre with his friend Pingo. Apparently he died standing up, suffocated in the melee, or, in the words of an author of The Heralds College “Mr Brooke had died standing, as he was found as if asleep, and with colour still in his cheeks.” Slightly less peaceful in death, poor Pingo “being corpulent, was much disfigured.”
Pingo was the fifth son of an Italian medallist who had come to Britain in the 1740’s and was responsible for a number of finely engraved medals. In 1769 father had prepared models for Wedgwood representing the battles of Plessy and Pondicherry. He was assistant-engraver at the English mint from 1771 right up until the time of his death in December 1776 at the ripe old age of 84. Son Benjamin was originally working for the Customs Office (1772-4) before joining the College of Arms, where he spent his time preparing family genealogies. He was appointed ‘rouge-dragon pursuivant’ in 1780, and York Herald in 1786. According to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography “he officiated at the celebrations for the Treaty of Paris in 1783, and his equestrian portrait appears on an engraving published for the occasion.” In all likelihood he was unmarried.
Both Brooke and Pingo had left their papers to the College of Arms – in the case of Brooke his will provided for “a legacy of £100 to arrange them and £10 to bind them.” In practice the libraries of both Pingo and Brooke were auctioned off by Leigh and Sotheby in 1794. Brooke was buried in a vault under the Herald’s Seat at St Benet Paul’s Wharf, London, after a funeral attended by such luminaries as the Duke of Norfolk in his capacity as Earl Marshall of England, the Earl of Leicester, president of the Society of Antiquaries, and Sir Joseph Banks, President of the Royal Society – and all the surviving heralds.
(Having prepared this post I came across one on the same topic by Geri Walton. Anyone wanting a different perspective on the tragic events of that fateful night can see it on her excellent website ).