Seventy-one years ago this month, Derry’s premier theatre was razed to the ground in one of the largest and indeed most mysterious fires ever seen in the town.
What was perhaps Derry’s ‘Golden Age’ of theatre ended in the largest local fire since the Guildhall burned down in 1908.
On the night of March 8, 1940, a blazing Carlisle Road Opera house illuminated the River Foyle, the Waterside and large swathes of the Cityside.
The enforced wartime black out meant the fire could be seen for miles. Reports suggest the flames rose 100 foot above the burning building.
A total of £30,000 in damage was caused, though this figure was much debated in various court cases in the years following the fire.
The fire was the subject of much debate at the Londonderry corporation where a claim of £34,000 in damages was discussed in the weeks following the fire. One city councillor, Mr. J. Hamilton criticised the council’s approach to the matter of damages, stating: “Why should we appoint a valuer when we are not in a position to know if it was a malicious or accidental burning?”
Another, Councillor Simmons asked: “Why should we be troubled in the matter at all?” Councillor Simmons added; “The amount of the claims lodged was an absolutely ridiculous sum.”
Within one week that figure had risen to £42,000 when solicitor for the claimant, Mr. Hugh C. O’Doherty clarified the various expenses, including £12, 301 for loss of profits and £1, 000 for the electric company for loss of plant.
Loss of pigs
There was also a claim lodged by a Mr. Charles Murray in respect of 12 pigs he had in a shed on Bridge Street. Mr Murray alleged the animals suffocated in the fumes of the fire. He was seeking restitution of £12.
The theatre had been built by Belfastman Mr J. F. Warden, it boasted a 1,500 capacity, 500 more than the present Millennium Forum, and a resident orchestra.
For the most part of the 1930s it had operated as a cinema.
After the fire only the exterior walls remained.
The Derry Journal lamented of the fire: “A gaunt roofless building burned out to the walls was all that remained of an entertainment house that during its 70 years existence had seen many famous stage personalities and theatrical companies draw crowded audiences.”
The theatre opened in 1877 and attracted world leading production companies to the banks of The Foyle. Italian Opera companies were frequent visitors. Shows ran six nights per week, 52 weeks of the year. A common practice of production companies was to visit for a week and stage a different show everynight. Production companies would land at Foyle Street and their sets were delivered by horse and cart to the rear of the theatre. Many would then disembark the same evening.
In the 1940s there were only three Opera Houses in Ireland. Such was the popularity of the building in Derry late night trains to Buncrana and trams to Pennyburn were often arranged for theatre goers.
However not all were enamoured by the Royal Opera House as weeks before it was destroyed, the police had to mount a guard on the building following IRA threats to it. Police guards remained at the front of the Opera House day and night following the threat.
In fact the IRA had threatened all seven Derry cinemas only three weeks prior to the fire “if they continued to show British war propaganda movies.”
Two theatres were bombed in the preceeding weeks.
There certainly was some resentment among Derry thespians toward the Opera House. A letter of complaint to the Journal, from ‘A Theatre Goer’ (October 1883) complained: “I would be very sorry for Mr. Warden’s sake that his place of amusement should assume a political hue.”
The letter was objecting to the flying of flags from the Opera House.
The fire itself, according to the Derry Journal report of March 11th, 1940, started only 20 minutes after the last patron had left.
Fire Chief Officer Gaylor claimed in the same news report that the fire had started at the rear of the building. The area was thought to have been inaccessible to the public.
“It could have been due to a fault in the electrical system,” he surmised.
Staff had inspected the building before they left on the night and found “all to be fine.”
“The seat of the fire comprised the dressing rooms etc and unlike the rest of the building comprised a good deal of inflammable material such as wooden partitions.”
But perhaps the actions of the firemen themselves contributed to the extent of the blaze as according to the news report of the day: “The firemen found it necessary to open exit doors in order to get the hoses into play and this caused a strong draught which fanned the flames into the auditorium. Here wooden portions of the structure became ignited and soon the whole interior was a raging inferno. Flames quickly ate their way to the balcony and the roof.”
There was a “terrific” crash as the roof caved in. Many hundreds of people had made their way to Carlisle Road on the night of the fire and had to be forced back by police and B Specials.
In all it took three hours for the fire service to bring the inferno under control.
Some officers had to return the following morning as debris had reignited.
Police were unable to find any definite proof of arson but refused to rule it out as a cause, though they did comment: “It would have been almost impossible for a bomb of any type to have been laid in that part of the premises in which the fire broke out.”
No explosions were heard.
The site on which the Opera House stood lies vacant to this day.
It is a small car park on the left of Carlisle Road as one approaches Craigavon Bridge from the town centre.
The failure to return this city centre site to its former glory is perhaps as big a mystery as the cause of the fire itself.