In the early 90s I wrote a feature article on the 1929 Glen Cinema fire in Paisley. It was never published, for a variety of reasons. I recently found it and thought I’d share, with a few changes. My idea originally was to find some survivors and talk to them but with it not being taken up anywhere that was abandoned. This was the basic story, retelling the horror of that afternoon, 90 years ago this week.
A time of reflection. A time of celebration. A time to look forward to a bright future.
There was little of that optimism in Paisley as it moved from the 1920s into the 1930s. For on the final day of 1929, smoke from a roll of unstable celluloid drifted into a cinema packed with children. Seventy youngsters perished as they tried to flee.
It was a heartbreaking and horrific end to the year and the decade.
It was a tale of deep pathos and tremendous heroism.
It could have been avoided.
At just after 2pm on Tuesday December 31, 1929, a 15-year-old assistant Cinematograph Operator was alone in the spool room of the Glen Cinema in Paisley’s Gilmour Street, unwinding films.
On screen in the picture hall was a western, ‘The Desperate Desperado’, forgotten now but clearly popular as the hall was filled beyond its capacity. Around 2000 youngsters were crammed into the cinema – far more than it could comfortably take. The young projectionist would normally have been enjoying the cowboy thrills too but he had a job to do. Anyway, he’d already seen it a number of times.
It was as he busied himself with the reels that he heard a hissing noise from behind him. He turned and saw smoke creeping out of a tin box used to store film.
Celluloid then used a nitrate-based stock that was highly unstable and prone to catching fire. It was replaced in the 1940s with the safer acetate-based stock.
The young man quickly lifted the box and carried it from the spool room and into the cinema’s vestibule, intending to take it outside to let it burn safely.
He didn’t get that far.
The smouldering film burst into flames in his hand and he dropped it. He had to leave it on the floor while he ran for the manager.
The manager moved as quickly as he could. Smashing a window, he seized the box and threw both it and the blazing film outside, where it could burn itself out safely.
The immediate danger of fire had been lifted. It had not spread. There were no flames to fight.
It had only been alight for a few minutes but in that time the smoke HAD spread, setting in motion a chain of tragic events that would leave 70 children dead and another 59 injured.
The foyer was already thick with smoke and it was creeping into the hall. No-one knows who noticed it at first, or which child first screamed ‘Fire’ but word swiftly spread through the packed hall and with it came panic.
The children at the rear of the hall pushed forward to escape, forcing all before them towards a doorway beside the stage. This exit was very narrow, as was the corridor on the other side, not nearly wide enough to accommodate the hundreds of terrified children hell-bent on escaping the fire that never really was.
Crammed into this narrow space, some of them began to panic even more. Some leaped onto the stage, searching for another way out. Meanwhile, bodies were tumbling from the balcony because they were too frightened to take the stairs into what they believed was a raging inferno.
Sick with fear and frustration, they tore at the screen with their bare hands or turned to rejoin the milling crowd at the only exit. Some lost their footing. They fell.
And when gas fittings were smashed, further fumes were sent hissing into the air. The anguished cries were now mixed with hoarse coughing as the young people began to feel the effects.
All the while the smoke, thick and black, wafted into the theatre. It was so thick the electric lights could barely penetrate it.
The picture hall, which only a few minutes before had been a place of wonder and magic, had now become a living hell.
Those who had been through the door first reached the rear exit. Their relief was short-lived, for it was locked and chained from the outside.
And even if they had managed to tear down the wooden door, there was an iron gate on the other side. It, too, was locked.
In their frenzy they broke into small ante-rooms and smashed windows, screaming for help, screaming for friends, screaming for parents.
And more little bodies were surging through from the hall.
A few children had forced their way through the smoke-filled foyer and into the street. The screams alerted passers-by and men picked up what heavy objects they could to smash the iron gate that blocked the rear exit. While they worked on the door others, handkerchiefs over the mouths to ward off the deadly smoke fumes, smashed the narrow windows and climbed through. They ignored the bloody gashes on their arms and legs as they stretched in to help the terrified children out.
They came out to the street in tears, not through pain or through smoke, but because of the dead bodies they carried.
Dazed and sickened
When rescuers finally forced their way in they found children dead and dying three or four deep in the corridor. One eye-witness said the victims were ‘packed like herring in a box’ in the small corridor. One, a little girl, was found in an upright position.
Another witness who helped force open the rear door said the little bodies were piled waist high. From the bottom he heard a pitiful, thin little voice cry out ‘Hey, mister, help me out.’ He saw a small, pale hand moving at the bottom of the pile. They cleared the bodies away to get to the little boy at the bottom. But by the time they got to him, he had died. The life had been crushed out of him.
A human chain passed each of the dead and injured from the cinema out to the waiting ambulances. Some of the children were turning blue from suffocation and were saved by artificial respiration.
Deputy Firemaster George Wilson later spoke of the terrible sights that met his eyes when he first entered the cinema. Children were packed so tightly into stairways that firemen had difficulty in moving them. Others lay in the hallways, dead from suffocation or having been caught in the stampede.
The injured lay all around, crying, groaning. Many not moving at all. Seats were broken, sweets were scattered around the floor while dazed and sickened adults moved among the destruction. Occasionally there was a cry as someone found a child they knew.
Mr Wilson said, ‘The scene was one of the most heartwrenching in all my long years of experience.’
There were, of course, tales of heroism.
One man had rushed into the cinema as soon as the alarm was raised. He forced his way up the stairs and onto the balcony and then, holding a child in each arm, he leaped onto the stage. He broke two ribs but carried on and took the two children to safety.
Then he went back into the smoke-filled hall, ignoring his own searing pain, and carried out another four children, all dead.
Even when he was forced to submit to his own agony, he refused to go the hospital. He went home, believing the medical staff would have had enough to cope with.
A 12-year-old boy, James Johnstone, managed to escape alive and well. However, he had lost 5-year-old Lily Buchanan, who had been in charge.
‘I’ll need to go back for her,’ he said and slipped away from rescuers to run back inside and through the press of bodies.
He was found later, hand-in-hand with little Lily. They were both dead.
The town’s two ambulances were clearly insufficient to cope with the volume of injured so a fleet of private cars was pressed into use to help transport the children to the Royal Alexandra Infirmary.
Hospital staff were under pressure. They did not have enough beds to house the victims so mattresses were hauled out of storage and placed in corridors.
Doctors and nurses moved from bed to bed, many moved to tears as they watched the little children suffer. They did what they could, saved who they could, but the death toll rose and all too regularly a tiny body was taken gently from a mattress and carefully placed in a corner and covered in a sheet. Some were placed in the hospital chapel to await identification.
A side room was utilised as an improvised dressing station and one witness likened it to a World War One field clearing station.
Another helper, who had carried the injured into the hospital, looked around the corridor, where every possible space was filled with the injured and dying children, many vomiting as they regained consciousness and a number sporting blood-stained bandages, most crying or moaning in pain. The man said, ‘I have seen many a ghastly sight in France, but nothing compared to what I’ve seen this afternoon.’
Parents wandered around the corridors and rooms, searching for their children. Every now and then a mother would wail in grief as she was told her son or her daughter was among the dead.
Others pleaded with strangers at the hospital gates to help them find their children.
Some were taken to the hospital mortuary and the chapel, where they filed past row upon row of the dead.
It was a sad day for Paisley. It was a town in mourning.
That night, the Hogmanay crowd at Paisley Cross was quiet and introverted. In the background the Glen Cinema stood, a dark and silent memorial to the lost.
In all, 70 children died in the tragedy. The following Friday – dubbed Black Friday – many were buried in a mass funeral which brought the town to a standstill. Thousands lined the streets as the hearses passed by carrying the little white coffins.
Hawkhill Cemetery is home to a stone memorial to them all.
Some families had lost more than one child in the tragedy. One mother lost all three of her children.
One father was doing time in prison but was released to be with his wife. They were one of five families who had lost both their children.
It could all have been avoided. The building, known locally as the Good Templars’ Hall, was not purpose-built as a cinema. The exit door should not have been locked. The gate should not have been closed.
A shocked government and film exhibition industry promised new legislation. A relief fund was started with £1,000 from Universal Pictures. The rescue workers were praised for their efforts.
The Glen Cinema no longer exists but the building itself is still there although it’s now a furniture saleroom. The former entrance is where Burton’s the Tailor now stands.
Safety is now paramount in cinemas. Audience levels are strictly monitored. The Fire Service makes regular checks.
And those who perished in the dying hours of 1929 are remembered every year in a memorial service.
Thanks to Tom McIver for the image of the plaque.