Sunday, 18 January 2009

The madness of crowds

In its review of A Disastrous History of the World, Geographical Magazine wrote “Perhaps most chilling are the tales of stampedes and mass panics – those tragedies that occur, in other words, when people are attempting to escape from something that might have proved less fatal.”

One such story has its anniversary today. On January 18, 1887, the Hebrew Dramatic Club in London’s Spitalfields was putting on a “benefit night” for members with financial problems. It attracted about 400 people, and as the show moved towards its climax, some young men in the gallery wanted to get a better view, and tried to haul themselves up on a gas pipe. It cracked, and as the audience smelt gas, someone shouted “fire”. There was no fire, but the gas was turned off, and the hall plunged into darkness. As people rushed desperately for the exits, 16 – mainly women and children – were crushed to death in the stampede.


  1. Those Wildebeest must have been in a state of some distress (I refer, pompously to my post in End of a tyrant), but the adrenaline seemed to make the whole lot of them behave like a croc-frightening, efficient vehicle. Funny thing, panic; good to get nervous, edgy, but too much of it and you're done for. Or so it seems.

  2. Certainly it can be lethal in confined spaces. One of the worst mass panics of all time came when people tried to leave a huge air raid shelter in Chungking, China in 1941, to get a spot of fresh air between raids. At that moment, the Japanese bombers returned, and those trying to get out collided with those frantically trying to get back in, resulting in 4,000 deaths.