Wearside Echoes Revealing the life of tragic hall magician
world and left Sunderland mourning a lost generation. Queen Victoria even contributed towards funeral costs and donations for a memorial flooded in.
“That day changed Sunderland forever,” said magic historian Dean Arnold, librarian for the Magic Circle, who is to give a talk on Alexander and his magician sister Annie this Saturday.
Billed as “The Greatest Treat for Children Ever Given”, the performance by The Fays of Tynemouth Aquarium attracted thousands of visitors. But 183 children, aged three to 14, were to die.
Inspired by the promise of free toys, hundreds of youngsters ran from the gallery towards the stage. As the stampeding crowd reached a bolted door, dozens were crushed or suffocated.
“The disaster has been very well documented,” said Dean. “Far less well- known is the story of The Fays. I became intrigued after reading of the tragedy, but could find little about them.”
The lack of information inspired Dean to start his own investigations and for the past year, he has been delving into the lives of Alexander and Annie – both before and after the tragedy.
“The earliest records I could find for Alexander dated from March 1877, when he advertised for an assistant. He needed a ‘ young man to deliver bills and make himself useful’,” said Dean.
“By November 1877, Fay was performing with Colonel Cordova and Nella Davenport at the Royal Hall in Jersey. Fay’s ventriloquial entertainment formed a prominent part of the show.
“He went on to perform with them until late 1878, when the show began to feature a Miss Annie Fay – a ‘ world- renowned American Enchantress’ – who was actually his sister.
“Nella, Alexander and Annie toured for another six months before Nella left. Annie and Alexander went on to perform the same act, with slight variations, well into the next century.”
Although Dean traced details of the act through trade papers and bill posters, he found it far harder to secure birth records for the siblings – prompting him to suspect Fay was a stage name.
“The big breakthrough to the true identity of Alexander Fay came from fellow magic historian Gary Hunt, who was researching a book on Gustave Fasola – a contemporary of Fay,” he said.
“Gary came across a notice in The Commercial Gazette in 1882, announcing that a John Butters had loaned £ 60 to one Alfred Hutchinson, now staying at Trinity Buildings, Dewsbury.
“The notice listed Alfred’s trade as a professor of conjuring and stated he was ‘ commonly known as Alexander Fay’. The loan was secured against Fay’s ‘ conjuring appliances’.”
Following the discovery of the notice, Dean tracked down records showing Alfred was born in 1851, to chemist William Hutchinson and his wife, Mary, of Lower Mile End Old Town.
It is believed Alfred changed his name to Alexander Fay between 1871 and 1881, according to census returns, and The Fays were soon winning rave reviews across Britain with their act.
Indeed, just six years before the Sunderland disaster, the Daily Telegraph hailed their magical antics as “the most extraordinary entertainment ever introduced to a London audience”.
There was no reason to believe, therefore, that The Fays’ show in Sunderland would be anything less than stunning. Instead of wonderful reviews, however, inquest reports were printed.
“Once the inquests were over, it appears The Fays followed the phrase of ‘ the show must go on’. They went back to performing at Tynemouth Aquarium before touring again,” said Dean.
“I have found no evidence, however, that they ever again performed at a similar Saturday afternoon event for children after what happened.”
The last official record of Alexander, who married in the 1880s and had several daughters, is in the 1911 census. Listed as an entertainer, he was a boarder at a house in Barnsley.
“I have still not uncovered what happened to his wife, sister or daughters, other then the fact that it would appear his oldest daughter went on to marry Gustave Fasola,” said Dean.
“I have, however, seen a magazine article from 1936, which states Alexander died in poverty at Leeds Workhouse,” said Dean. “But my research into The Fays is still on- going.
“It looks like Alexander retired in about 1915. He was an incredibly hard- working performer who, for one brief moment, achieved his goal of fame – but for all the wrong reasons.”
Dean is to give a talk about his research at Sunderland Museum this Saturday – just yards from where the disaster took place.
The discussion, The Fays: The Tragedy & Trials, has been organised by the Friends of Sunderland Museums, and chairman Elsie Ronald said:
“We are incredibly grateful to Mr Arnold and looking forward to hearing more about the man who was the catalyst for such a dreadful part of Sunderland’s history.”
Admission to the talk, which will last from 2- 4pm, costs £ 1 and includes refreshments. No booking is required.