The Market Drayton prop gun tragedy that claimed the life of a 13-year-old boy

An actor, a prop gun, a terrible tragedy – an event in Shropshire over 180 years ago which has eerie overtones of the fatal on-set shooting involving Hollywood star Alec Baldwin.

The scene of the Market Drayton prop gun tragedy
The scene of the Market Drayton prop gun tragedy

There were shrieks from the Victorian theatregoers of Market Drayton as they realised that a 13-year-old boy actor had been shot dead before their very eyes.

During a performance of a melodrama called "The Pilot" one of the performers dropped a percussion gun, causing it to go off, mortally wounding young John Merrill.

The accident happened on May 8, 1839, at Market Drayton Theatre.

DREADFUL ACCIDENT IN DRAYTON THEATRE was the headline in the contemporary Shrewsbury Chronicle.

“This quiet and genteel town was greatly excited on Wednesday by the report of a fatal occurrence having taken place in the Theatre, whereby a fine little fellow, named John Merrill, was hurried into eternity in a moment,” it reported.

“It appears that during the representation of a melo-drama, entitled ‘The Pilot,’ a percussion gun fell from the hands of one of the performers, and its muzzle being pointed to the breast of the poor boy, it exploded, and lodged the wadding in his heart!

“He never drew a breath, but instantly expired: and the shrieks and the consternation of the audience on learning his fate were likely to have caused much danger, had not the good sense of some of the lookers-on been excited to quiet the tumult. A coroners’ jury have acquitted the performers of all blame.”

How the boy's death was reported in the Shrewsbury Chronicle of May 17, 1839

Although it might be assumed that he was part of a travelling company of players, burial records, spelling the victim's name as Morrell or Murrell, show that in fact he lived in Market Drayton.

He was buried in the town, almost certainly in St Mary’s churchyard, on May 12, 1839. However it seems that the grave has disappeared, with no mention of it being made in a survey of the graves in 1982.

An “inquisition” was held on May 9, the record of which is at Shropshire Archives.

The handwriting is difficult to read, and it seems to spell the boy’s name as Murril or Merril.

It says he “was of the age of 13 years and was on stage (two unreadable words) was a play and one of the performers had a gun loaded with powder and some wadding and by some means in falling down the gun accidentally went off and gave to him the said John Merril a mortal wound on the left side... which accidentally, casually and by misfortune he then and there died.”

“The Pilot” was an 1825 play by Edward Fitzball and was one of a number of nautical-related plays which were popular at the time. Based on a novel by Fenimore Cooper about the life of a naval pilot during the American Revolution, it had been one of the longest-running melodramas at the Adelphi Theatre in London.

The plaque on the building

However there is a question mark over whether "The Pilot" was being performed on that dark day. According to the book “A Grim Almanac of Shropshire," Henry Betty, the son of Shrewsbury-born actor William Betty who was one of the most celebrated actors in Britain in the early years of the 19th century, was making an appearance as “Norval” in the play “Douglas” at the theatre when the accident happened.

The theatre building still stands in Stafford Street, although there is no surviving physical evidence of its former use. The building was marked by a plaque by Drayton Civic Society reading: "Market Drayton Theatre, 1792. Built under the patronage of Sir Corbet Corbet. In 1811 it was licensed for an annual season of 60 days. About 1840 a boy actor was killed when a gun went off after it was dropped on the stage. In 1843 it was still in partial use."

Tickets for the theatre were sold from the Phoenix, a coaching house in the town which was demolished in about 1850 and whose name is retained in Phoenix Bank.

The theatre may not have lasted long after the tragedy – by September 1841 is was being advertised for auction as suitable for conversion to houses.

It is speculation, but perhaps after the young boy's death the Drayton audiences lost their appetite for going to the theatre.

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