CALLS are growing for a more substantial monument to honour the child victims who died in Hereford’s worst disaster as the centenary of the tragedy approaches.

Eight young girls performing in a play to raise money for First World War soldiers were killed when a fire spread through the Garrick Theatre on April 7, 1916.

All the victims were dressed as either Eskimos or snow maidens as part of a ‘winter wonderland’ presentation.

As the performance came to an end, the girls were leaving the stage when one of their costumes made of cotton wool caught fire before the flames spread.

Six of the girls died at the scene while two others died later in hospital from their burns.

After being re-built following the fire, the theatre was subsequently demolished and the Widemarsh street multi-storey car park now stands in its place.

In the immediate aftermath of the tragedy, £500 was raised for a memorial cot and plaque to remember the girls at the Children’s Ward of Herefordshire General Hospital, which has since been demolished.

A tatty small plaque remembering the children does still stand on the Widemarsh Street multi-storey car park but descendants of the girls would like a more prominent memorial.

Jean Watkins is one of those campaigning to keep memories alive. Her aunt Nellie Rutherford was just 13 when she died in the blaze.

She said: “There are so many people new to Hereford and this tragedy is not mentioned and not everybody is aware of it. My recollection is only from what was passed on to me from my dad when I was growing up.”

Her views are supported by the Dean of Hereford Cathedral, Michael Tavinor, who hopes that the community can find an appropriate place for a more prominent memorial.

He said: “The tragedy was ironic as this was being done to support the First World War troops.

“I think a place of remembrance is important. The challenge is to find the right place and that is something for the community to think about.”

An inquest into the girls’ deaths heard the fire could have been started accidentally by a smoker but with insufficient proof a verdict was recorded that death was ‘brought about accidentally through an outbreak of fire.

It was recommended that the regulation prohibiting the use of cotton wool at such performances should be adopted in Hereford.

A joint funeral for five of the victims was held at Hereford Cathedral and the coffins were carried through the city where people were said to have been ‘10 deep’ paying their respects.

Nellie Rutherford’s family held a separate funeral, but her story is one of even more sorrow after she told her father that she didn’t want to take part in the performance on that fateful evening.

“My father Harry Rutherford was seven years-old when it happened,” said Mrs Watkins. “He said that my grandfather never came to terms with the tragedy and blamed himself.

“When Nellie was getting ready she had a late change of mind and begged her father not to make her go.

“He told her it was last minute nerves and not to waste all the practice and rehearsals.”

Remember their names

Connie Bragg, aged five
Nellie Rutherford, aged 13
Cissie Beavan, aged 12
Winifred Mailes, aged six
Phyllis Eugenie White, aged 10
Violet Minnie Corey, aged seven
Linda Alice Illman, aged eight
Peggy Baird, aged five

To mark the date of the Garrick Theatre fire a short act of remembrance will take place at Hereford Cathedral from 4.45pm next Thursday.