The Death of Sarah Smith

In several previous articles I have endeavoured to provide the stories behind the tiled plaques that appear on the wall of the “Memorial To Heroic Self Sacrifice,” located in Postman’s Park, close to St Paul’s Cathedral, in London.

Each one of the memorials commemorates a moment in time when an ordinary man, woman or child, demonstrated extraordinary, and selfless, courage, and gave their life in endeavouring to save the life of a fellow human being.

The oldest plaque, chronologically, is that of Sarah Smith (1845 – 1863), whose occupation is given as “Pantomime Artiste”, and who died of terrible injuries received when, according to the plaque, “attempting in her inflammable dress to extinguished the flames that had enveloped her companion January 24th 1863.”

The plaque commemorating "Pantomime Artiste" Sarah Smith.
The Plaque To Sarah Smith In Postman’s Park.


Although her name appears on the memorial plaque as Sarah Smith, this was, in fact, her stage name (Smith had been her mother’s maiden name), and her actual name was Sarah Gibson.

At the time of the tragic accident which was to claim her life – and which actually occurred on Friday 23rd January 1863 – seventeen year old Sarah Smith was appearing as a ballet dancer in the cast of Charles Perrault’s French fairy-tale pantomime, Riquet With The Tuft at the Princess’s Theatre on Oxford Street.

It was, by all accounts, an extravagant production, and Sarah was one of three dancers, the others being Ada Edison and Mrs Anne Perkins, who performed under her maiden name, Anne Hunt.

At a breathtaking moment in the performance, as the three girls whirled around the stage, special effect lights, consisting of a mixture of chemicals in eight fire-pans placed on stands – four on either side of the stage  – were lit above the dancers; and the audience gasped in amazement as the stage was bathed in dazzling red and blue light, as the girls swirled across it in their colourful and extravagant dresses.

But, suddenly, it all went horribly wrong.

Without warning, flames suddenly erupted on the back of Anne Hunt’s dress and, within moments, she was ablaze.

Racing from the stage, she passed Sarah Smith and, as she did so, the flames from her dress set fire to Sarah’s dress and seconds later, both women were engulfed in flames.

As the horrified audience looked helplessly on, the two women tried desperately to extinguish the infernos, but to no avail.

It was at this point that a man was seen to race towards the women and proceed to tear of Anne Hunt’s blazing garment and, having done so,  he wrapped her in a heavy Inverness cape to extinguish the flames. Then, removing his jacket, he tried, as best he could, to smother the flames that were raging on the body of poor Sarah Smith.

The two, horribly injured women were then taken to the nearby Middlesex Hospital where Anne Hunt was soon in a stable condition.

Sarah Smith, however, lingered for several days, drifting in and out of consciousness.

Then, on the afternoon of Wednesday 28th January 1863, she became delirious and, at a little before 6pm that night, she died.


As Sarah Smith lay dying in hospital, the newspapers had reported that her dress had caught fire because she had gone to the assistance of her stricken comrade.

However, on the 1st February 1863, The Era published a letter from William Harris, the super-master of the Princess’s Theatre, in which he disagreed with the accounts of the tragedy that had been appearing in the newspapers over the previous few days.

The letter from William Harris.
From The Era, 1st February 1863. Copyright, The British Library Board.


The inquest into Sarah Smith’s death was held at the Middlesex Hospital on Saturday 31st January 1863.

The first witness was her mother, Sarah Gibson.

The Era reported her inquest testimony:-

“I live at 45 Oakley Street, Lambeth, and am the mother of the deceased. She was seventeen years of age last December.

She was employed in what is called the extra ballet at the Princess’s Theatre, but was engaged for the whole of the pantomime.

She was burnt at the Theatre last Friday week. I saw her at the hospital at nine o’clock. She did not tell me how the accident occurred. She was quite sensible, and only said that she was very much burnt. She told me that if there had been rugs there she could have been saved.

Coroner: Do you impute any blame to anyone?

Witness: I do not think so because I know nothing about it.

Coroner: Is there anything you wish the jury to know? Or anything further you wish to say?

Witness: No, sir; only that the other young woman told me there was something wrong, as to the blue fire, either that the man was not holding it properly, or had not properly hung it on the rail, or something of that sort.

By A Juryman: We have her name as Smith?

Witness: When she was at Drury-lane, she played in the name of Gibson, and when she went to the Princess’s she took my maiden name.”


The Daily News featured a full report on the proceedings in its edition of Monday the 2nd of February, 1863:-

“On Saturday afternoon the coroner’s investigation into the circumstances through which Sarah Smith met her death was opened by Dr. Lankester and a jury at the Middlesex Hospital.


Mr. Edward Morgan, house surgeon of Middlesex Hospital, said he saw deceased when admitted to the hospital on Friday week.

She was extensively burnt on the face, neck and forehead, back and front and chest, both arms, and one third of the whole surface of the body.

She never rallied, and she sank last Wednesday at a quarter before 6 o’clock at night.

The cause of death was exhaustion caused by burns. Most of the internal viscera was congested, but there was no inflammation. She said nothing of the cause of the accident.


William Harris said he was super-master of the Princess’s Theatre. He superintended the extra ballet. He saw the accident. It happened on the prompt or the left side from the audience. He was standing on the right or O. P. side.

He saw Mrs. Hunt, one of the extra ballets in flames. She ran to the first entrance on the prompt side, but she did not pass out. She passed Miss White, and in passing Miss Smith, set fire to her. Mr. Roxby followed Mrs. Hunt, threw her down and, with his Inverness cape, put out the fire.

He then returned to Miss Smith and, with the assistance of the soldiers on the stage, put the fire out.

The deceased wore more skirts than were usual. The outside skirt was supplied to the ballet by the manager. He believed that the outside skirt had been dipped in a solution to prevent fire, but he was not positive.

It was the night before the dresses had to be altered, and he accounted for the fire by supposing that the uninflammable qualities had worn out. He was not aware that on the evening of the accident there were any other than the ordinary appliances to put out fire. There were firemen in the building.


Mr. Robert Roxby said he was stage-manager of the theatre. He did not see the clothes of the girls on fire. When he heard the first scream of the girls he was standing on the prompt side.

Mrs. Hunt ran off the stage to the first wing. He seized her and tried to tear off the clothes, and finding he could not extinguish the flames, he threw his Inverness cloak around her.

The fire hose was always ready for fire, but there were no special arrangements. He thought damp blankets on each side of the stage would be desirable.

In the present case he did not think that if there had been rugs at hand the fire could have been extinguished. It was very difficult to catch a person who was on fire.


Ada Edson, 1, Willliam Street, Kennington-park, said she was a ballet girl at the theatre.

She saw Mrs. Hunt on fire.

She was standing next to her, and cried out “Annie, you are on fire.” She screamed and ran away.

She did not see Miss Smith catch fire.

She did not think the fire was caused by the gas.

It was, she thought, from the tin plates or light pans.

She (witness) ran to the back of the stage.

The management provided the outside skirts. She had never thought of trying whether the skirts were inflammable or not. Miss Huggins supplied the skirts. It was blue drapery, but not the outside tarletan skirt that took fire. The drapery over her shoulders first caught.

By a Juryman – she thought sufficient care was taken to prevent fire by gas.

The coroner said he also thought sufficient precautions were taken to prevent fire from gas.


William Randle said he was a firework artist to the theatre.

He made the lights burned to produce the illuminating effects in the theatre. Eight of the illuminating lights were burning at the time of the accident, four on each side. He lighted the lights with a wax taper. The lights were green and red. He did not use gunpowder, and the lights threw out no sparks.

Here the witness exhibited one of the tin pans, and said they were placed two feet from the girls. Sometimes the match of the fuse would sputter, but he did not see any sputtering when the accident occurred. The match was made with cotton, saturated with gunpowder.

He saw Mrs Hunt pass him in flames.

He had lighted the lights for 30 years, and had never seen the fuse sparkle. He had no idea of how the fire occurred. It had not happened from the gas. The most probable theory was that the fire had occurred by sparks from the match, but he could not say whether it had been so or not. He had now introduced another system of lighting the lights.


William Aitken said he was a property man at the theatre.

He held a light at the third wing, and Mrs Hunt was between him and Mr. Randle.

He did not see her take fire. Did not think any sparks from his fuse had caused the fire. His light could not drop out, as it was tied in. He lighted the light with a taper.

He was sure he did not use a lucifer. He held the third light, and Mr. Randle the second.

The dress could not have caught fire from the other lights. It was, therefore, most probable that the dress had caught fire either from his light or from Mr Randle’s.


After some conversation it was arranged that the coroner and Dr. Morgan should proceed to where Mrs. Hunt was lying, to get any evidence she could give.

Upon the return of the Coroner, he said he had seen Mrs. Hunt, and that she had said the first idea she had of being on fire was from an intense heat she felt behind her. She turned round, but could not see the fire. She thought it most probable that her dress must have caught from a spark from the young man’s fire-pan.

She could not say if anyone was to blame.

She had performed at many theatres before, and she never knew of one being unprovided with remedies for fires taking place amongst the members of the ballet. There were always wet blankets kept at the wings. On one occasion, when she was dancing at the Surrey Theatre, she caught fire, and by these wet blankets her life was saved.


Mr Henry William Lindus, lessee of the theatre, said he had not seen the accident.

If anybody was in a theatre for three months he would see how difficult it was to make the people take proper care of themselves.

Since the accident occurred appliances for putting out fires had been provided in the theatre, such as damp blankets, rugs, mops etc. During Mr Keane’s management arrangements for putting out a fire had been put in force in the theatre; but Mr Harris had abolished the whole thing, and this might account for no such arrangement being in operation when the accident occurred. He did not know whether the dresses worn by the girls were uninflammable or not.


After some further evidence of minor importance, the coroner summed up, and the jury, without requiring the court to be cleared returned a verdict of “Accidental death.”

They also passed the following resolution:-

“The jury wish also to express their opinion that sufficient precautions were not taken at the Princess’s Theatre to extinguish any accidental fire of the clothes of the corps de ballet. They also strongly urged the necessity of rendering articles of linen and cotton clothes fireproof by the manufacturer and the laundress.”


The survivor from this melancholy accident will be, at the best, maimed and scarred for life, and it is doubtful whether or not she will ever be able to resume her avocation.

Mrs Hunt continues to improve. The burns on the upper part of her body and on the arms, especially the latter, are of the most terrible description.

The object of the surgeons, now that their patient has passed the crisis of actual danger, will be to prevent the muscular contraction of the limbs, which will, as soon as possible, be placed in splints.”


Interestingly, The Daily News chose to omit the Coroner’s remarks on what he saw as a major contributor to the tragic demise of Sarah Smith – the actual dresses worn by ladies, not only on stage at theatres, but also in their everyday lives.

However, The Essex Standard And Eastern Counties Advertiser, reported Dr. Lankester’s remarks in full in its edition of the 4th of February 1863:-

“The evidence having been heard, the Coroner made some remarks on the whole case, dwelling particularly on the deficiency of preventive measures taken by the managers of theatres and to the dresses worn by the ladies.

On the latter subject Dr. Lankester observed:-

“Then came the more important question of the inflammability of the dresses worn by ladies, not only on the stage but also in private life, for the dresses worn in drawing-rooms rivalled in extent any to be seen on the stage.

He thought it quite impossible by any amount of reasoning or warning to produce any effect on fashion, and persons who had given much consideration to the subject had arrived at a similar conclusion.


He did not know how many women would be required to be burnt to death before any of the fair sex would give up wearing an article of fashion.

Such a thing was not to be thought of, but if there was no chance of getting rid of the dress itself there were means of rendering it uninflammable; yet, strange to say, such an obvious precaution was little thought of, while the danger of ignition had constantly been increased from the time of the ancients till now, when, by the extensive use of gas and the style of our grates, it was very imminent.


In reference to the use of sulphate of ammonia, tungstate of soda, or other chemical preparation by laundresses, it had been stated in a letter to The Times that the light dresses worn on the stage and in ballrooms were never washed.

If that was so, the question in respect to such dresses became one of manufacture, and from a letter published in The Times of that morning, by a firm in Oxford Street, it appeared that if there was a demand for uninflammable materials for ladies dresses there would be an ample supply of such articles.

This remark applied not only to tarletans and muslins, but to linens, and to all articles of cotton manufacture.

There seemed no reason why an inflammable night-dress should be put on any child in the kingdom.


Since his appointment as coroner for Central Middlesex he had held 601 inquests, of which 23 were in cases of burning, 18 of these having been caused by clothes catching fire.

At least two-thirds of these might have been prevented by the wearing of uninflammable clothing.

From these figures they might form some idea of the annual loss of life throughout the kingdom from clothes catching fire; and as the attention of the public had recently been called to the subject by several very melancholy accidents, and by writings in the press, it was to be hoped that a subject in which we are all so deeply interested might at length be dealt with in a satisfactory manner.”


The following are my previous posts on those commemorated on the memorial plaques in Postman’s Park

Tragedy At Three Mills

A Commercial Street Tragedy

Alice Ayres

John Clinton, Death of A Little Hero