TIGER ON THE LOOSE - SHEFFIELD EMPIRE THEATRE 1933

Ernest Dalton - the last man to be attacked by a tiger in Sheffield

THE EMPIRE THEATRE - SHEFFIELD

I came across the following article just recently and was surprised to find circuses were held in Sheffield Theatres - it was an area of entertainment that I had no knowledge of. I also had to suppress a laugh or two . It is hardly imaginable that such a scenario could occur in this day and age. Can you imagine the looks of incomprehension on local Council Officers and Members faces if a proposal was made for a circus to be held in either the Crucible or Lyceum. Furthermore, would an untamed tiger be permitted to eat the carcass of a horse that was being stored along with a large quantity of other meats beneath the stage.

This actually did occur. The Empire Theatre was one of Sheffield's most prestigious theatres in the first half of the twentieth century. Situated on the corner of Charles Street and Union Street in the city centre, The Empire was first opened in 1895 replacing the Alhambra Theatre of the Victorian era. It cost over 65,000 and boasted a seating capacity of 3,000 and standing capacity of a further 1,000. At this stage I must refer you to what I consider to be one of the definitive books on the subject - The Lost Theatres of Sheffield by Bryen D.Hillerby (1999 Wharncliffe Publishing). In Act V - The Dream Palaces the author comprehensively details the structure of the Theatre and the many varied acts that appeared on stage. There are far to many to mention in this article but the likes of Laurel and Hardy, George Formby Julie Andrews, John Geilgud appear in the narrative which gives an indication of its pre-eminent status as a place of entertainment in Sheffield.

However the book makes no mention of the following "incident" hence it's appearance on this website The article appeared in The Times, Dec 04,1933; pg. 11; Issue 46618; col F

TIGER LOOSE IN A THEATRE

ATTENDANT BADLY MAULED

FROM OUR CORRESPONDENT - SHEFFIELD, DEC 3

News that a circus tiger had mauled its attendant and was at large in the Empire Theatre created considerable excitement in Sheffield yesterday.

The injured man, Ernest George Dalton, 30 of Brixham, was cleaning out a cage of Rajah, an untamed Bengal tiger, when the beast leaped upon him.  His cries brought other attendants to his assistance, and the tiger, which was mauling him, was beaten off with shovels and iron bars.  Dalton was suffering from lacerations to his neck, shoulders, and back, and was detained in the Sheffield Royal Hospital.  One of his shoulders was almost bitten through. 

The tiger dashed into a cellar underneath the stage; where a large quantity of meat was being kept for storage.  The doors were quickly closed upon him.  There were six women cleaners in the theatre at the time, two of them in the pit on a level with the stage.  They were terror stricken and their screams mingled with the roars of the tiger.  When Dalton was attacked one of the cleaners was actually in the cellars.  She heard Dalton's screams and rushing up the steps, came into collision at the top with a gas meter inspector who was going down into the cellars.  Both fell and rolled down the steps, but quickly recovered and dashed out in the street just before the tiger sought refuge in the same cellar.  For over three hours the beast defied the attempts of trainers, firemen and police to recapture it.  Finally the chief trainer, Mr J de Kok, Superintendent Breaks of the Sheffield fire Brigade, and Mr Yesserick, manager of the circus, forced the tiger out of the cellar with a high-powered hose.  The animal was driven through a tunnel of cages into the music room, where it was secured, while another tunnel was built up some steps to its cage on the stage.  While in the music room, the doors of which were held by attendants, the tiger damaged musical instruments and ripped open the upholstery of the furniture.

Mr de Kok stated afterwards that the tiger was one in training.  Apparently it had escaped from its cage to get to the meat.  When they went into the cellar they found the beast tearing at a quarter of a horse's carcass.  Dalton had been lucky to escape with his life.  This was the first incident of the kind that had happened while he had been with the circus.

The snarls of the tiger, and the excited shouts if its pursuers, caused an uproar among the other animals, but the show was continued in the afternoon and evening.

I'm glad the show went on but the scene that afternoon in the Theatre must have been one of sheer pandemonium.

There is an indication in the book  - The Lost Theatres of Sheffield - that may add a bit more information to the article. On page 74, the author writes

"From 30 December 1932, seasonal entertainment was provided by The Royal Italian Circus, and Empire patrons had the opportunity to see a complete staged circus performance complete with elephants, ponies, dogs, monkeys, acrobats, jugglers, trapeze artists and world famous clowns...."

Sadly I don't know what became of the errant Rajah or his attendant Ernest Dalton. The Theatre on the other hand continued to attract crowds (and incident) for another twenty years but the advent of television and the expansion of leisure activities in the fifties meant that attendances had started to decline. This decline was accelerated by the neglect and damage that the Theatre endured at the hands of its owners and the Luftwaffe respectively. On Saturday 2nd May 1959, a packed Theatre witnessed the last Variety Show to be held there and two months later the Theatre was totally demolished and replaced by nineteen shop units that cost 125,000. They are still here to this day and are of not architectural significance whatsoever.

THE EMPIRE THEATRE PRIOR TO DEMOLITION

Notes

The following is taken from "Northern Music Hall" by Frank Graham & G. J. Mellor.

Horace Edward Moss (later, Sir Edward Moss - knighted in 1906) founded the largest and most successful chain of variety theatres in the world. At its peak it controlled 33 music halls. He died aged 60 in 1912. In 1877 aged 25 his first hall was a tiny place called the Gaiety in Chambers Street, Edinburgh. In 1895 Moss, Thornton and Co turned to Sheffield where another Empire began to be built in Charles Street (previously the site of Walter Coopers Alhambra Music Hall). Larger than the Birmingham Empire, Sheffield Empire would hold 3000 people, built at a cost of 65,000. A prospectus issued in 1895 described it as 'The finest in the Country' built in the popular Moorish style. It opened on 4th November 1895 with a big one-nightly bill. As a result of the Empire's opening, several small halls in the West Bar district went out of business. The Grand taken over by Frank McNaughten opening with the virtually unknown 'two houses a night' system as a counter attraction to the expensive bills staged at the Moss' house. The Empire was demolished in 1959.
 

Sources

The Times, Dec 04,1933; pg. 11; Issue 46618; col F

The Lost Theatres of Sheffield by Bryen D.Hillerby (1999 Wharncliffe Publishing)

Wikipedia - further information and links on the Bengal Tiger  

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