From the Western Times
15 June 1878
GREAT FIRE AT PLYMOUTH
THE THEATRE ROYAL DESTROYED
Plymouth was the scene of a great fire on Thursday night. For the second time within fifteen years the Theatre Royal has been visited by fire, but not with such disastrous results as on the present occasion. The last fire which occurred at this theatre was in 1863, but not being of a very serious nature, the performances were resumed within a few days of the event taking place. Owing to the present visitation many months must elapse before the building can be restored, for the great iron roof of the theatre, which at that time resisted the fire, has fallen, and carried with it the whole interior of the building. What has not been consumed by the fire has been crushed to fragments by the roof, and even the massive walls are so damaged that in portions, if not as a whole, their rebuilding will be necessary. Fortunately, the Assembly Rooms and Royal Hotel, being cut off by a solid wall from the theatre proper, are saved without material injury, even by water. No clue can be gained as to the origin of the fire.
Happily the performance was over at an earlier hour than usual, and but for this accidental and providential fact, it is impossible to say what the loss of life and personal injury might have been. The theatre was crowded during the performance, and had the fire broken out but an hour or so earlier, from the suddenness of the spread and the manner in which the house was almost instantaneously filled with dense volumes of suffocating smoke, a terrible catastrophe must inevitably have resulted.
Mr. Albert Newcombe and Mr. Eldred were the last to leave the theatre at five minutes or so after eleven. Before proceeding to to call at the newspaper offices to arrange for the advertisements for the next day's performances, they looked in at a friend's house where they stayed a few minutes only; and when they came out were instantly alarmed by smelling smoke, which they directly saw issued from the upper windows of the theatre, fronting George Street.
The alarm was at once raised, and the West of England, the town and military engines were on the spot with a large body of willing workers and detachments from the various regiments in garrison, and a good contingent of sailors. Various town officials were speedily at the scene. Superintendent Wreford having the whole available strength of the local police force, and Mr. Hodge and Mr. Bellamy making the necessary arrangements for the supply of water. Although no flame was visible for for some time after the existence of the fire was apparent, those who were best acquainted with the possible dangers and the probabilities of the spreading of the conflagration were very doubtful of the safety, not merely of the theatre itself, but to the entire block. At half past eleven almost all the engines were at work, but still no flames were visible, and hopes were entertained by not a few that the damage would be slight. All attempts to enter the theatre by the box entrance proved of no avail, the volume of smoke being too great to withstand. Access was, however, gained to the treasury, and the greater part of the night's takings were saved also a large number of dresses.
The lessee of the theatre, Mr. Newcombe, together with his sons, did their utmost to direct and assist in subduing the flames. About 12o'clock flames were observed, and precaution was taken to get those out of the way who were in imminent danger. All went to work with right good will, but seemed baffled from time to time in knowing in what way to direct their attention . At about half-past 12 o'clock, the great iron roof varying with it almost the whole of the interior wood work, fell with a terrible crash. The adjoining hotel was guarded and the means used to do this proved effectual. Just after half-past one, the theatre, which at eleven o'clock was in a perfect state, became a scene of utter desolation and ruin.
Mr. Newcombe is insured for £1500, a sum which cannot possibly cover the great loss he sustains. Mr. Eldred and his company are not insured, whilst the Corporation, the owners of the property, had taken the precaution. On the occasion of the last fire it was insured for £7000, of which £1800 was on the hotel and ballroom. The total original cost of the theatre, which dates back to the year 1813, was £60,000."