Globe Theatre Fire
The Globe Theatre was built in 1599. Staging theatre productions had become more elaborate since the days when the first 'Theatre' had been built. Competition between the rival theatres was fierce. Each theatre wanted to attract as many people as possible to each performance. Costumes improved and so did the props! There were no health and safety regulations - and no safety inspections. There were no such things as fire extinguishers - there was not even a fire brigade in London, or fire-fighters. The only means to fight a Globe theatre fire was to use wooden or leather fire buckets, fill them with water, and try to douse the blaze.
Globe Theatre Fire - Why the Globe was a fire risk
The Globe theatre was built predominantly of timber and had a thatched roof. The interior was also made of wooden structures. There were three tiers of roofed galleries with balconies and the seats in each of the three levels of galleries were tiered with three rows of wooden benches which increased in size towards the back, following the shape of the structure of the building. An audience of 1500 people attended the Globe theatre plays. There were no planned controls for evacuation in the event of fire. The Globe Theatre constituted an accident which was about to happen - a real fire hazard. As we know the props improved - more spectacular effects were required. Someone had the idea of using a live cannon...
Date of the Globe Theatre Fire and the accident
The Globe Theatre had used a cannon for several years. A canon had been used for special effects for several years without any problems. The cannon was situated inside the roof, in the attic above the "Heavens" in close proximity to the thatched roof. The cannon was used to create a dramatic special effect such as heralding great entrances especially in the plays which were about an event in history. The cannon was loaded with gunpowder and wadding. The Globe theatre fire accident occurred on 29 June 1613. The canon was fired during a performance of a play about King Henry VIII. Sparks from the cannon fire landed on the thatched roof starting a massive fire.
Eye witness account of Sir Henry Wotton on the Globe Theatre Fire
An eye-witness account account of the fire is given by Sir Henry Wotton, in a letter dated July 2, 1613.
"... I will entertain you at the present with what happened this week at the Banks side. The King's players had a new play called All is True, representing some principal pieces of the reign of Henry the Eighth, which set forth with many extraordinary circumstances of pomp and majesty even to the matting of the stage; the knights of the order with their Georges and Garter, the guards with their embroidered coats, and the like: sufficient in truth within awhile to make greatness very familiar, if not ridiculous. Now King Henry making a Masque at the Cardinal Wolsey's house, and certain cannons being shot off at his entry, some of the paper or other stuff, wherewith one of them was stopped, did light on the thatch, where being thought at first but idle smoak, and their eyes more attentive to the show, it kindled inwardly, and ran round like a train, consuming within less than an hour the whole house to the very ground. This was the fatal period of that virtuous fabrick, wherein yet nothing did perish but wood and straw, and a few forsaken cloaks; only one man had his breeches set on fire, that would perhaps have broyled him, if he had not by the benefit of a provident wit, put it out with a bottle of ale."
Eye witness account of Mr. John Chamberaine on the Globe Theatre Fire
The Globe theatre fire would have spread very quickly as the building and interior was made of wood. To get to the stairs the members of the audience would walk behind the wooden benches through each of the galleries. The original Globe Theatre was widely believed to have had one entrance, but this was an error. A letter of Mr. John Chamberlaine to Sir Ralph Winwood, dated July 8, 1613, states that the theatre had two doors.
"The burning of the Globe or playhouse on the Bankside on St. Peter's day cannot escape you; which fell out by a peal of chambers, (that I know not upon what occasion were to be used in the play,) the tampin or stopple of one of them lighting in the thatch that covered the house, burn'd it down to the ground in less than two hours, with a dwelling-house adjoyning; and it was a great marvaile and a fair grace of God that the people had so little harm, having but two narrow doors to get out."
The meaning of the words tampin or stopple is a plug or cover for the muzzle of a cannon to keep out dust and moisture.
Facts about the Globe Theatre Fire
The above eye witness accounts provide more information and facts about the cause and effects of the Globe Theatre fire.
- The Globe Theatre Fire occurred during a performance of a new play called All is True ( perhaps this play was re-named Henry VIII and credited to William Shakespeare in the First Folio )
- There were several cannons used
- That cannons were being shot off at the point in the play which describes the entry of King Henry attending a Masque at Cardinal Wolsey's house
- Tampin or stopple (a plug or cover for the muzzle of a cannon to keep out dust and moisture) set the thatched roof on fire
- The Globe Theatre audience first ignored the fire, believing it was just smoke from the cannon
- The fire first kindled inwardly, and ran round like a train, consuming within less than an hour the whole house to the very ground - the other account states it was burnt in less than two hours
- Only one man had his breeches set on fire which he put out with a bottle of ale
- The Globe Theatre had two narrow doors by which the audience got out - perhaps one was the main entrance door and the other was an exit door
- No mention is made of any deaths or serious injuries "it was a great marvaile and a fair grace of God that the people had so little harm"
- Interesting facts, history and information about Globe Theatre Fire
Globe Theatre Fire casualties
The Globe theatre fire would have spread very quickly as the building and interior was made of wood. To get to the stairs the members of the audience would walk behind the wooden benches through each of the galleries. There must have been considerable panic to get out of the building - there were no planned controls for evacuation. There are no records of a death toll or the exact number of casualties or types of injury, but the eye-witness accounts indicate this is because there none!. In 1614 the Globe Theatre was rebuilt which is often referred to as the Globe Theatre 2.
Globe Theatre Fire
Interesting Facts and information about the Globe Theatre Fire. Additional details, facts and information about the Globe Theatre can be accessed via the Globe Theatre Sitemap.