IN the summer of 1920, a travelling troupe known as Sanger's Circus descended upon Taunton, bringing with them a spectacle of danger, wonder and excitement.

The sounds of trumpets blaring and drums pounding could be heard for miles around, beckoning people from all walks of life to come to witness the grandeur of the circus.

On July 15 a crowd of 1,400 people gathered under the big top to marvel at the acrobats, clowns, and performers who had come to town.

It was around 3.40pm and the air was electric with anticipation as Pimpo the clown stepped into the ring to face off against a pseudo-army sergeant, played by the infamous Leslie Sanger himself.

As the two men squared off, the audience roared with laughter and excitement. But suddenly, without warning, a blood-curdling scream shattered the joyous atmosphere. "Fire!" someone cried out, and chaos ensued.

The big top had only two entrances, and the panicked crowds flocked to them.

Confused early reports spoke of "panic" and a wild stampede towards safety that saw several people injured, crushed, and burned.

As the blaze raged, the circus band continued to play.

In a mere five seconds, the flames had already begun their insatiable climb up the wall of the big top. As if possessed, they devoured everything in their path. The ferocity of the blaze was unparalleled, a monstrous force of nature that defied all attempts to contain it.

Eyewitnesses to the inferno could scarcely believe their eyes as strong winds swept through the area, whipping up the flames and spreading them even further.

Within a mere four and a half minutes, the once-mighty circus tent was destroyed, leaving only fear and pain where it once stood. It was a scene of unbridled chaos and destruction, a living nightmare before their very eyes.

As news of the fire spread, the people of Taunton flocked to the circus field to help. One circus performer burned his clothes and hair carrying a woman to safety. There were heroes amid the fear.

Somerset County Gazette: A news report from the time said the cause of the fire was believed to have been a cigarette being dropped against the big top's side canvas.A news report from the time said the cause of the fire was believed to have been a cigarette being dropped against the big top's side canvas. (Image: Laura Linham)

Joseph Langman Wredden, a doctor who was visiting from India said he had been seated with his son when the boy shouted out: "There's a fire!"

He described seeing a small patch of grass burning, along with a small portion of the canvas that made the big top. Within five seconds, he said the flames had raced up the wall of the big top, and the roof was starting to burn.

He told reporters that strong winds meant the tent had "disappeared off the face of the earth" within four and a half minutes, the flames fanned by the breeze.

He also disputed reports of stampedes, saying the crowd had behaved "splendidly" as the tent burned around them.

Whatever the truth, a 14-year-old schoolgirl called Mildred Drew was caught up in the crush and trampled. Unable to move, she burned to death.

Over 20 cases of burns were treated at Taunton Hospital, but sadly Mildred's was not the only death.

Six-year-old Mark Henry Maltravers, 12-year-old Arthur Gray, and 39-year-old Jane Vickery perished in the flames, while 79-year-old Edward Crabb died later from his burns in hospital.

At the inquest into the tragedy, Caroline Maltravers, Mark's mother, was overcome with grief describing how she tried in vain to help her son. In the rush to leave the tent, she was knocked to the floor as she tried to lead him to safety.

"I lost grip of my poor angel," she said.

"When I got outside, I looked all around the field for him. I searched by the river and feared he might have been drowned as many children ran that way.

"Then I went to the hospital, and there I identified him by his boots. I could not recognise him; he was so shockingly burnt."

Harriet Vickery told the coroner how she saved the life of her six-year-old nephew, but could not save the life of his mother, her sister.

When the fire started, they picked up the child and ran towards the entrance. As they reached the opening, Jane Vickery stumbled and dropped the young boy.

Somerset County Gazette: Three children died in the tragedy.Three children died in the tragedy. (Image: Laura Linham)

Harriet scooped up the boy and managed to carry him away from the tent, but discovered her sister was missing. When she took off her coat, she discovered the back of it scorched and burned.

The circus manager, Edward Sanger, told the court that smoking was permitted inside the big top, but it was not fireproofed in any way.

The risk of fire was thought to be so small that the circus had no insurance against it.

He spoke of several performers who suffered burns trying to save the audience members from the blaze.

Captain Palmer of the Taunton Fire Brigade told the court that they had not been called out to the fire 'immediately' after it started.

He firmly believed that had a couple of firemen been present at the circus with water laid on to the nozzle of the hose pipes, the outbreak could have been successfully fought, and the tragedy averted.

The coroner recorded verdicts of death by misadventure on all those who died following the disaster.

He ruled that the fire had probably started "due to some careless fellow who threw a match down, as is often done, thoughtlessly."

Despite the tragedy, the people of Taunton pulled together in a heartwarming display of community spirit.

They turned out in huge numbers for the funerals, and school children lined up in the road to salute the cortege as it passed.

People collected money for Gray's family, and a resident paid his funeral expenses so his bereaved family would not have to struggle.

The Taunton Circus Fire Disaster of 1920 is a poignant reminder of the fragility of life and the importance of community in times of tragedy.

It is a testament to the heroism of those who helped others in their time of need and a reminder to never take safety for granted.

As we remember those who lost their lives on that day, we also pay tribute to the resilience and spirit of the people of Taunton who came together in the aftermath of the disaster. 

May we always remember the lives that were lost and the lessons that were learned, and may we never forget the bravery and compassion that shone through in the darkest of moments.