Every Black Friday Americans manage to hurt or even kill one another for the deals. But stampedes for goods aren’t new. In fact, in 1883 thousands of children ran over one another for toys, killing 183 kids. The Victoria Hall disaster, as its now known, was the worst tragedy of its kind in the history of Britain. But unlike most Black Friday stampedes, Victoria Hall had at least one good outcome: the invention of outward opening emergency exits and the invention of the “push bar” emergency door.
The disaster started when about 1,000 children in the audience of a variety show were told they could get free toys. Kids began pouring down the aisles to get the toys, blocking the exits and piling on top of one another. In the end, 183 of them were crushed to death. Their deaths sparked the invention of the push bar emergency exit, also known as the crash bar.
There was nothing to prevent the development of the push-bar exit in 1882, but of course it took a national tragedy to catalyse the public and political will to make it happen. There are plenty of other technologies birthed by similar events, and retrospectively we can put a human price on those innovations. To wit, the push-bar emergency exit cost 183 dead children. Watertight decks and bow-door indicators on roll-on, roll-off ferries required 193 lives lost on the Herald of Free Enterprise. Improved stadium design required the loss of 96 lives at Hillsborough and 56 at Valley Parade. Workplace safety standards in New York cost 146 lives in the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire. In 1859, Met Office gale warnings were incepted following the loss of 325 ships and 748 lives in the space of two weeks.
But while the crash bar may have been invented in the wake of the Victoria Hall disaster, it wasn’t implemented widely outside of the UK in time to save everybody. In the United States, 602 people died in 1903 in a theater in Chicago because the exits were blocked and there was no push bar. But eventually the crash bar became common and required by regulation in public buildings.
This isn’t the only thing the children of Victoria Hall left behind. A statue was erected in their memory, although it was vandalized and then moved in 2000 to a new location. The hall stood after the disaster for 58 years, eventually destroyed by the Germans during an air raid in 1941.
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