Celebration is always tinged with sadness in Paisley, Scotland, on New Year’s Eve. Nearly a century ago the town was rocked by the deaths of 71 children at a matinee showing of King Vidor silent film The Crowd (1928) at the Glen Cinema.
It was traditional in those days to pack children off to the cinema on the afternoon of New Year’s Eve (“Hogmanay” in the Scottish parlance) so that houses could be cleaned and food prepared for the expected visitors that evening. The Glen Cinema was ironically the town’s first licensed picture house. That was in 1910 and equally ironically licensing – the Cinematograph Act of 1909 – was brought in for safety reasons and to control fly-by-night operations in the exhibition wild west of the era.
By 1929, the town had seven cinemas although some mixed movie exhibition with other events and some operated part-time. Apart from the Glen the town boasted the La Scala, the only one equipped with sound, the Alex, West End, Palladium, Rink and Clark Town Hall. Over 700 kids, some as young as three, headed for the Glen to kick off the annual holiday. For some it was their first visit to the cinema. For many it would their last.
Everyone in the movie business knew that the the film used in movies contained a lethal substance – nitrocellulose. “Nitrate film is extremely flammable and once ignited cannot be extinguished because it creates its own oxygen as it burns giving off toxic fumes as it does so,” explained expert Michael Binder. But if people were not killed by a flame that wouldn’t go out or gas that grew stronger by the minute they would die from the one complication common to every fire – panic.
Over 600 people had died in cinema fires, most trampled or suffocated during the panic, in the first three decades of the twentieth century. On the last day of the third decade the toll rose sharply.
In fact, the tragedy should never have happened for the simple reason it was, initially, under control. In those days, once a reel had been screened, it was the duty of the assistant projectionist to take it to the rewind room when it could be rewound, ready for return to the distributor. In doing so, assistant projectionist McVey “small for his age” heard a hissing noise and spotted smoke escaping from the film canister. Aware the film could instantly combust, the brave lad headed for a side exit in the lobby. But it was locked.
So he left it there smouldering and ran through the crowded cinema and upstairs to the office of general manager Charles Dorward. Together they ran back through the cinema, diverting the audience’s attention from the screen. By the time the children turned round smoke had begun creeping in to the auditorium.
Panic ensued. They ran for the back exit. But that was locked. The ones at the back didn’t know it was locked and pressed forward on the ones at the front. The lucky ones broke windows and jumped out into the street.
By the time help arrived, corpses had piled up. Bodies were so tightly wedged together they had to be prised apart.
Alerted by screaming, the town ground to a standstill. The fire brigade and police and passersby rushed to the rescue, removing the canister, helping those still trapped to escape. Buses were commandeered to carry the tiny bodies to an overflowing mortuary. Terrified parents had to enter the mortuary hoping against hope that they would not have to identify their little boys or girls. Other parents were roaming the streets hunting for their offspring.
Despite being given artificial respiration, sixty-nine children were already dead; another two died later. Another 60 children, hysterical and in shock, received treatment, of these 40 were kept in hospital, some with broken bones, others with footprints embedded on their skin or whose injuries were so severe they could not walk again for two or three months.
There was no mental health counselling in those days of course so all the survivors remained haunted by their memories. Like soldiers returning from World War One they would not talk about what they had endured. Some of the older ones just disappeared, quitting school as soon as they could, heading anywhere other than Paisley.
The pain was unimaginable. Three-year-old Margaret Gielty returned home without her two brothers. Hugh Stewart sat stock still in shock in the middle of the panic until rescued. Of the children in his street who had gone to the cinema, ten-year-old William Porter was the only one to survive. Classrooms were decimated. Three-year-old Donald Gribbin was so terrified to go home without a shoe that he returned to the cinema and scrabbled among the sweet-wrappers, orange peel and abandoned clothing until he found it.
After a Government Inquiry new safety laws were passed but flammable film was not banned.