ON Thursday, July 15, 1920, Taunton was struck by tragedy.

An audience of some 2,000 people were shrieking, laughing and cheering, as they enjoyed a show by Sanger's Circus at Jarvis' Field, in Station Road.

Little did they know, 'a fire calamity of unprecedented terror and loss of life' was just moments away...


At around 3.45pm, about halfway through the show, the elephants had just finished their performance and Pimpo the Clown had taken centre stage, bringing sounds of laughter from the crowd with his comic boxing antics.

Suddenly, a cry of 'fire' rang out in the auditorium, and the shocked crowd turned to see flames sweeping through the tent - aided by a strong breeze.

Within four minutes, the blaze had taken hold of the entire roof of the tent with a roar, prompting a wild stampede as the assembled thousands ran for their lives.

Children were trampled, injured, and many suffered burns.

In scenes reminiscent of the final hours aboard the Titanic, the circus band continued to play as blazing poles which had been holding up the tent fell, injuring many.

Others were lucky, and crawled beneath the seating and escaped the flaming canvas.

'Heroic' mothers saved their children and Pimpo himself, the slapstick attraction, turned hero and ripped down the canvas along one side of the tent, saving many by providing an exit from the inferno.

The fire brigade arrived, led by Mr H T Coles, and got to work extinguishing the blaze in a chaotic scene...


As the embers burned, the toll of the fire could be investigated.

Crowds gathered outside the town hospital, awaiting news of the injured.

Blackened grass and a mass of burnt poles and seat boards were all that remained of Sanger's Circus.

A total of 22 people were admitted to the hospital in Taunton.

Of those, five were in a critical condition - 12 were treated as outpatients and were later released.

Four people were killed. They were:

Mark Henry Maltravers, of bradford on Tone, was just six six years old

Arthur Gray, of Bishop's Hull, aged 12

Mildred Drew, of Taunton, was 14

Jane Vickery, of Silver Street, was 39


But the tragedy could have been much worse - but for the actions of a number of heroes.

Pimpo the Clown saved many and the brave firefighters managed to bring the blaze under control.

And a Sergeant in the Somerset Light Infantry, Metford Caddy.

Sgt Caddy, who had just returned from India, carried three children from the blaze - one under each arm and another by his teeth.

He ventured back into the devastating scene to help more people escape, but became trapped by the flames.

He was badly burned 'about the back and chest'.


The cause of the blaze was not definitively established.

Dr J L Wreddon, an assistant surgeon at the Indian Medical Department, said he had been sitting with his son in the south-west corner of the tent - where the blaze began.

"He noticed a man strike a match and light his pipe, after which he threw the match behind him," the County Gazette reported on July 17, 1920.

"It fell to the ground between the canvas and the flower-stand seats.

"His attention was drawn a moment later by a cry of 'fire, daddy!' from his son."

The doctor - aided by people sitting around him - saved many from the blaze and treated them as the chaos erupted around him.


Circus owner, Lord John Sanger, stayed that night at The Castle Hotel in Taunton with his son, Edward.

He told a County Gazette reporter of estimated losses of some £20,000 - but said 'the damage is of very secondary importance'.

"What we are concerned about is the loss of life," he said.

"Our circus has been running for over 90 years and such a catastrophe has never occurred before.

"Until now, we have never lost a life, nor had an accident amongst the millions of people who have, for nearly a century, patronised our performances.

"Our circus has travelled throughout America, and prior to the War it toured France and Germany. In none of those countries has such a tragedy happened."

The circus left Taunton on Thursday night, heading to Yeovil.

It was due to re-open in Weymouth on the following Monday.


The County Gazette concluded: "Nothing but profound sympathy can be felt for the sufferers, suddenly confronted, as they were, with an ordeal which might have dismayed the stoutest heart, but we trust the occurrence will be a warning to those responsible for the safety of the public at such entertainments to take all possible precautions against the repetition of such a disaster."

  • This piece was based on reporting in the County Gazette of July 17, 1920.

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