The “Killer” Middle-Class Home?

Given the recent media interest on Victorian domestic dangers, in which BBC Four’s “Hidden Killers” focuses on the hazards of the middle-class home, I decided to finally type up my findings from research I conducted a number of years ago on fatal household accidents occurring in middle-class dwellings, 1840-1900.

I rarely venture into the Victorian middle-class homes in my study of household accidents, because, as I established, in comparison to the working-class homes of the period, middle-class homes were the safe havens the Victorians desired them to be – in terms of domestic dangers, at least.  This was largely due to the ideal of separate spaces, in which the functions of daily life were carefully contained in their designated rooms.  The poor simply had not the luxury of separating dangerous domestic tasks from playing children (and other vulnerable members of the household) and, as I discovered, this frequently had tragic consequences.  In my study of 564 continuous coroners’ inquest reports relating to fatal household accidents in the county of Suffolk, 1840-1900, just thirty occurred in what we would deem to be middle-class households.  There are of course issues, such as better medical care after the event of household accidents, which may have contributed to this disparity, but it is clear that the working-class homes were the ‘killer homes’ of the period.

Of those thirty fatal household accidents that took place in middle-class homes, most (thirteen in total over a sixty-year period) were a result of burns.  These victims were generally young children or elderly women, as was the case with the 225 working-class victims of accidental burns.  A fraction of these middle-class burns involved artificial lighting, not the feared gas lighting, but candles and oil lamps, while others were a result of accidents involving kitchen ranges or open fires.  Furthermore, in all my research of fatal household accidents in Suffolk, I have only come across four cases of accidental fatal scalds (all victims were children) occurring within the walls of a middle-class home and not one of these took place in a bathroom, but the nursery.

Of the eighty-one fatal accidental household falls, surprisingly only seven of these took place in Suffolk’s middle-class homes and not all on staircases.  Like their poorer counterparts, nearly all victims of fatal falls in the middle-class home were, for the most part, frail and elderly.  Although, it was carpets and slippers that contributed to their demise more than poorly constructed staircases.  Young servants may have fallen on stairs, but their age meant that such falls would rarely prove fatal.  Certainly, I have not come across a case of a servant dying in such a manner in my own research.

Other fatal household accidents that took place within the walls of the middle-class home involved two fatal cases of drowning in the family’s garden (including one in a fish tank), three infants accidentally suffocated in their beds, while one choked to death while eating.  Each and every one of these were, undoubtedly, tragedies, but were, nevertheless, extremely uncommon occurrences in Suffolk’s middle-class homes.

An explanation for why we might perceive the Victorian (and even Edwardian) middle-class home to be a perilous space, with danger of death lurking in every room, is largely due to the sensational newspaper press of the period who revelled in tales of domestic accidents.  A common source for those looking at violent death in the Victorian period, but one that should be used with caution.  Playing on people’s fears, as the media continues to do so today, newspapers tended to greatly exaggerate the risks of old and new domestic objects and features – after all, it sold newspapers.  Put in perspective then, through both quantitative and qualitative research of coroners’ inquests and newspaper reports of inquests, the middle-class home was far from the ‘killer’ home it was, and still is, portrayed to be.

Please do not reproduce the content of this blog in print or any other media without permission of the author.

Inflammable Flannelette

In 2012, my article Absent Fireguards & Burnt Children was published in the Law, History & Society Journal.  This article explored the hitherto overlooked Section 15 of the Children Act 1908 which introduced legislation in regards to the use of domestic fireguards.  This clause transpired from the outcry of coroners who were horrified by the number of fatally burnt children brought before their courts.  The coroners’ campaign for fireguard legislation in the late-Victorian and Edwardian period was one of numerous in regards to domestic safety.  The campaign and legislation regarding overlaid infants is perhaps one of the most widely discussed of all these, while the call for lamp legislation is discussed in one of my forthcoming publications.  It was whilst writing the latter, that I began to reflect on another issue raised by coroners and that vexed the minds of Parliamentarians on the matter of burnt children that I was only able to discuss briefly in my fireguard’s article: flannelette.

FLANNELETTE ALMOST AS DANGEROUS AS GUNPOWDER

In March 1898, the Manchester Times reported that the city coroner, Mr Sidney Smelt, had:

held several inquests on children burned to death owing to their having played with fire in one way or another.  Mr Smelt said there had been seven such deaths within a week that he had had to deal with, and he attributed the fact to the cold weather we had recently experienced.  Children would go near fires to warm themselves; it, therefore, behoved parents to watch them strictly.  They should also avoid dressing them in flannelette, which was almost as dangerous, if touched with fire, as gunpowder’.[1]

It was not just the young who were put at risk through dressing in flannelette, as illustrated in The Sunday Times’ report, November 1911, ‘INFLAMMABLE FLANNELETTE’, which describes the event surrounding the death of a ninety-five-year-old woman named Bell of Montpelier Road, Kentish Town, who had burnt to death while ‘sitting before the fire’. The doctor, called as a witness to the inquest into her death, stated ‘flannelette was dangerous for anyone to wear near a fire, as it was so inflammable’.[2]

Many coroners increasingly saw flannelette as a chief cause of fatal accidental burns of children in poor homes; irrespective of whether a fireguard was present.  Flannelette, a cotton fabric with a raised surface, had been introduced to the English market in 1885 and soon became popular amongst the poor for children’s clothing; being both cheap and warm.  However, one major disadvantage of this material was that its raised surface was easily ignitable and, when ignited, the fire quickly spread, soon enveloping a child in flames.[3]  Furthermore, as the Liverpool coroner, T.E. Sampson, remarked in 1909, ‘the stuff adheres to the flesh and cannot be so easily removed as ordinary cloth would be; the shock is greater and the burns are more extensive’.[4]  Some coroners even claimed that flannelette was so dangerous that even fireguards would be unable to prevent a fatality if the flannelette wearer was caught by a spark from the fire.  The coroner for Manchester, E.A. Gibson, reported on a case of fatal flannelette burning, ‘where it was said the child was three yards from the fire and there was a fireguard’.[5]

The solution to the ‘THE DANGERS OF FLANNELETTE’ to many coroners and jurors alike was, as in the case of absent fireguards, no longer education but legislation:

Commenting on the dangers of flannelette at an inquest at Poplar yesterday [4 November 1905], the Coroner (Mr Wynne Baxter) said he agreed that [flannelette] was the most dangerous stuff that ever was invented, but it was not a question for the L.C.C., but one for the Home Secretary, as it affected the country generally.  The jury added the following rider to their verdict of accidental death: “We desire the Coroner to inform the Home Secretary that in view of the number of deaths from burning in connection with flannelette, the jury are of opinion that the sale of such dangerous material should be prohibited by legislation’.[6]

In 1908 (the same year fireguard legislation was passed), in response to the outcry of coroners, jurors, and the press, a Select Committee was formed to inquire into the ‘danger arising from the use of flannelette for articles of clothing’.  Under this committee, coroners, flannelette manufacturers, traders and other persons including a hospital surgeon were interviewed, and the flammability of flannelette was extensively tested by chemists.  Nearly all coroners interviewed stated that flannelette accounted for numerous fatal burns suffered by children around the country and supported some kind of legislation being introduced in regards to the flannelette question, such as state standardised testing to ensure the flannelette sold was relatively safe.[7]  One coroner stated that he would ‘be glad to see legislation prohibiting the clothing of children under 10 years of age in low grade flannelette’.[8]

What makes this call from coroners in regards to flannelette particularly interesting is that the responsibility for preventing burns accidents amongst poor children was not falling solely upon mothers, as was common at this time.  Instead, manufacturers and traders of flannelette were increasingly held accountable.  However, unlike the call to introduce legislation to ‘enforce’ mothers to use fireguards, the Government were uneasy to regulate industry in the name of public safety.

Manufacturers and traders of flannelette argued that it unfairly targeted them, claiming other cloths such as calico and muslin were just as flammable but yet did not come under the same scrutiny.  Furthermore, with the flannelette industry being a significant employer, any prohibition in its sale would result in the loss of jobs and grant of monopoly to the ‘small section of the trade’ producing ‘non-flammable’ flannelette.  Additionally, prohibiting ‘lower class flannelettes’ would merely result in poorer people buying other cheap and just as inflammable materials, instead of the more expensive ‘non-flam’ flannelette; as one cloth retailer remarked, poor people simply buy cloth according to cost.[9]  Manufacturers and traders were also critical of the statistical evidence produced by coroners and those in the Registrar-General returns which show a relation between flannelette clothing and burns accidents, which they maintain is more of a correlation than a causation: ‘the only point is this’, stated A.M. Jones, flannelette manufacturer, ‘that children wear flannelette, not that flannelette was necessarily the cause of death’.[10]  One Times correspondent later suggested that flannelette actually saved ‘far more lives than its bitterest opponents have blamed it for losing’, as, he argued, it kept the child warm, thereby preventing an ‘enormous’ amount of deaths from bronchitis and similar diseases.[11]

In its final report, the committee concluded:

‘It is to be observed that, while it is proved beyond doubt that accidents by fire are common occurrences among persons who wear flannelette, the part in which flannelette takes in such accidents is by no means clear.  In the nature of things it must often be difficult to decide whether, in the absence of flannelette, the accident would not have happened all the same or would not have ended fatally.

The true cause of accidents is, in the great majority of cases, carelessness in regards to things which are positively dangerous such as […] open fires, the absence of fire-guards, and the dangerous practice of leaving children without any competent person to look after them.  The wearing of flannelette is generally not so much a cause as a concomitant of the accident’.[12]

They were, therefore, ‘unable to recommend any legislation except for the case in which there is a positive misinterpretation of the character of the goods offered for sale’, such as those flannelette advertised as ‘non-flam’ which become flammable after only a few washes.[13]


[1] ‘Flannelette Almost as Dangerous as Gunpowder’ – Manchester Times, 4 March 1898.

[2] ‘Inflammable Flannelette’ – The Sunday Times, 19 November 1911, p. 14.

[3] ‘Flannelette Industry’ The Times, 22 April 1913, p. 22; Report of an inquiry into the question of the Danger arising from the Use of Flannelette for Articles of Clothing, 1910 (5376).

[4] Coroners’ Committee. Second report of the Departmental Committee appointed to inquire into the law relating to coroners and coroners’ inquests, and into the practice in coroners’ courts. Part II. Evidence., pp. 96-97, 1910 (5139) XXI.583.

[5] Ibid, p. 69.

[6] ‘The Dangers of Flannelette’ – The Sunday Times, 5 November 1905, p. 5.

[7] Coroners’ Committee… 1910 (5139) XXI.583.

[8] Coroners’ Committee… p. 158, 1910 (5139) XXI.583.

[9] Coroners’ Committee… 1910 (5139) XXI.583.

[10] Coroners’ Committee… p. 128, 1910 (5139) XXI.583.

[11] ‘Flannelette’ – The Times, 27 June 1913, p. 50

[12] Report…Danger arising from the Use of Flannelette…, 1910 (5376).

[13] Ibid.

© Please do not reproduce the content of this blog in print or any other media without permission of the author.

The Staircase – Part 4

‘Worse for drink’ – Intoxication and the fatal staircase fall

In 1900, 66-year-old William Sharman died as a result of a fall in an intoxicated state.  The Ipswich Journal headlined: ‘A PENSIONER’S FATAL FALL’, stating that he was ‘a little worse for drink’ and was known to be ‘addicted to drink’.[1]  William’s case, however, was far from commonplace in Victorian Suffolk.

Intoxication appears to have been an infrequent factor in the incidence of fatal falls in Suffolk’s working-class homes.  This is unexpected, given the conclusions of Forbes’s work on nineteenth-century coroners’ inquests that intoxication was a leading cause of falls.[2]  In fact, in my own research of coroners’ inquests – where I examined nearly 100 inquests pertaining to accidental domestic falls – only in three cases did witnesses corroborate that the victim was intoxicated at the time of the fatal incident.

One evening in 1859, 48-year-old Mary Ann Spencer had been out drinking with her husband and returned to their lodgings at the Portobello Inn (one of two fatal falls recorded in Ipswich’s inquests occurring at this location) about 10 o’clock:

[Mary Ann] being very drunk, was advised by her husband (who was also the worse for drink), to go to bed, but she refused, and went up and downstairs several times.  After the husband had gone to bed, [she] again went upstairs, when she fell backwards into the passage […] death arose from extravasation of blood on the brain.[3]

Meanwhile, in 1881, Louisa Carter, wife of a Shipwright, died when she fell downstairs whilst ‘worse for drink’.  The Ipswich Journal, rather than running the usual subheading of ‘A FATAL FALL’ or similar, went with the tagline ‘DRINKING HABITS’.  As well as detailing the circumstances of the accident, the newspaper also noted how a neighbour, Mrs Long, had attempted to intervene in the drinking habits of the deceased: ‘I asked her why she did not become a better woman, and leave the drink alone, and the deceased said she regretted she had not taken that advice before, as she would have been better off’.[4]  Evidently, the fact that Louisa was drunk at the time of her fatal fall caused a commotion in the local press.  This reaction is unsurprising, as the nineteenth century saw an increasing revulsion towards female drinking.  The burgeoning Temperance Movement and teetotallers of the Victorian era, Brian Harrison states, ‘emphasized the need to rouse the dignity of women’.[5]  At a Temperance lecture held in Ipswich, in 1885, it was said: ‘it is disgraceful to see a man drunk, but it is even more disgraceful to see a woman drunk’.[6]

Nevertheless, despite these protestations, it is evident that the connection between drunkenness and the Victorian fatal fall needs to be reappraised.

The Staircase – Part 1

The Staircase – Part 2

The Staircase – Part 3


[1] Ipswich Journal, 1 Sept 1900, p. 5.

[2] Forbes, ‘Coroners’ inquests in the county of Middlesex’, p. 380; Forbes, ‘Coroners’ inquisitions from the county of Cheshire’, p. 489.

[3] Ipswich Journal, 17 Sept 1859, p. 5.

[4] Ipswich Journal, 3 May 1881, p. 2.

[5] Brian Harrison, Drink and the Victorians: The Temperance Question in England, 1815-1872 (London, 1971), p. 368.

[6] Ipswich Journal, 12 Feb 1885, p. 2.

© Please do not reproduce the content of this blog in print or any other media without permission of the author.

The Staircase – Part 3

‘She either turned giddy or trod upon her shawl and fell backward’– Infirmity, gender, and the fatal staircase fall

In G.M.B. Webber’s 1985 study of accidental falls on stairs and steps in England and Wales, he found that most stairs accidents, 85 per cent in total, occurred in the home and that ‘nearly 70 per cent of the fatal falls on stairs and steps involved elderly people, aged 65 years and over’.[1]  Similarly, ROSPA’s report on ‘Accidents to Older People’, notes that ‘falls affect over a third of people over 65 years old and 40 per cent of people over 80’.[2] The Health and Safety Laboratory (HSL) stated that ‘two reasons for the high prevalence of stairway injuries for the elderly is that vision and balance deteriorate with age’.[3]  Such accidents, however, are not a modern phenomenon and were commonplace in Victorian society.

Many of the victims of fatal domestic falls brought before the Victorian coroner’s courts were elderly and infirmity was often seen as the major contributory factor in the fatal incident, with ‘rheumatism’, ‘giddiness’, ‘feebleness’ and ‘frailty’ frequently referred to.

When Martha Saul’s body was brought before the Ipswich coroner’s court in 1872, it was described that the 68-year-old ‘suffered from rheumatics in the hips, and was frequently attacked with giddiness’.  Her husband, an Ipswich shoemaker, stated that they lodged at the Portobello Inn and ‘on Friday night last, about ten o’clock, [they] were going upstairs, he leading the way with a light’.  He went on to state, Martha ‘had to catch hold of each stair in order to assist herself up, and when within three steps of the top she attempted to take hold of a rail, and missing it, fell to the bottom’.  Never regaining consciousness, she died the following morning.  The medical witness stated that in ‘his opinion the poor women was seized with an epileptic fit on the stairs, and that caused her fall’.[4]

In a similar accident in Ipswich, in 1886, 69-year-old widow, Sarah Collins, who was ‘almost blind’, was at about 8 o’clock one evening being assisted upstairs by her son on account of ‘her not being well’.  ‘When he got her up to the top he told [her] to remain there while he placed the lamp on a table, but before he had done [Sarah] had fallen downstairs backward [and] was quite unconscious as she lay at the bottom of the stairs’.  She died a few days later in hospital from the head injuries caused by the fall.[5]  Three years later in the same town, 64-year-old Mr J.O. Kemp was going upstairs to bed, when ‘the stick on which he was leaning slipped, and he fell, the end of his stick pressing against his right side, breaking a rib’.  He never recovered from his injuries, dying a week later.[6]

Gender, to some extent, was also a factor in the incidence of fatal falls in the home, with 55 out of 81 adult victims of all fatal household falls being women in both Victorian Ipswich and the Liberty of Suffolk (East Suffolk); although, this gender gap narrows when it comes to those fatal falls upon domestic stairs.  However, various studies in the incidence of falls in the late twentieth century have found that ‘females [are] more prone to stairway falls than males’, with women aged 65 years and over being involved in twice as many fatal falls on stairs and steps than males.[7]  This, the HSL report states, ‘is probably due to the fact that most stair accidents occur in the home and adult females still spend more time in the home than adult males’.[8]  Furthermore, P.L. Jackson and H.H. Cohen (1995) suggest that lesser upper body strength in women could possibly prevent them for stopping a fall.[9]

However, in 1897, at the inquest of 75-year-old Anna Manthorp of Ipswich it was thought female clothing was also a possible contributory factor in her demise, as, when reaching the top of the stairs ‘she either turned giddy or trod upon her shawl and fell backward’.  Despite the surgeon finding no broken or fractured bones resulting from the fall, Anna ‘complained of pain in her back and neck’.  She died soon after from ‘bronchitis which followed as the result of the accident – Verdict: “Accidental Death”’.[10]  In 1900, the Weekly Dispatch reported how ‘an elderly lady’ in Scarborough was ‘KILLED BY HER COMB’ which she was wearing at the time of falling down a flight of stairs.  The comb lacerated her scalp, leaving her with a wound ‘some two inches in length’.[11]

 The Staircase – Part 1 

 The Staircase – Part 2

 The Staircase – Part 4


[1] G.M.B Webber, ‘Accidental falls on stairs and steps in England and Wales. A study of

time trends of fatalities’, Journal of Occupational Accidents, 7 (1985), pp. 83-99, cited in The Health and Safety Laboratory (HSL) Falls on stairways – literature review. Report number HSL/2005/10, p. 11 http://www.hse.gov.uk/research/hsl_pdf/2005/hsl0510.pdf, accessed 28 Feb 2012

[2] ROSPA, ‘Accidents to Older People’, http://www.rospa.com/homesafety/adviceandinformation/olderpeople/accidents.aspx#falls, accessed 28 Feb 2012.

[3] HSL Falls on stairways – literature review, p. 19.

[4] Ipswich Journal, 24 Sept 1872, p. 2.

[5] Ipswich Journal, 23 Mar 1886, p. 2.

[6] Ipswich Journal, 8 Feb 1889, p. 8

[7] D. Hemenway et al, ‘The incidence of stairway injuries in Austria’, Accident Analysis and Prevention, 26: (1994), pp. 675-679; H. Nagata, ‘Occupational accidents while walking on stairs’, Safety Science, 14 (1991), pp. 199-211; and H. Nagata, ‘Analysis of fatal falls on the same level or on steps/stairs’, Safety Science, 14 (1991), pp. 213-222, cited in HSL Falls on stairways – literature review, pp. 11, 19.

[8] HSL Falls on stairways – literature review, p. 19.

[9] P.L. Jackson and H.H. Cohen, ‘An in-depth investigation of 40 stairway accidents and the stair safety literature’, Journal of Safety Research, 26 (1995), pp. 151-159, cited in HSL Falls on stairways – literature review, p. 19.

[10] Ipswich Journal, 17 Dec 1897, p. 7.

[11] Weekly Dispatch, 4 Mar 1900, p. 6.

Please do not reproduce the content of this blog in print or any other media without permission of the author.

The Staircase – Part 2

‘There was no rail or rope up the stairs, which were rather steep’ – Staircase design and the fatal staircase fall

The staircase only became a common feature in the homes of the poor in the early-nineteenth century.  As with most other internal areas of working-class domestic residences, there were at this time few relevant building regulations designed with the safety of the inhabitant in mind.[1] In fact, it was not until the Public Health (Amendment) Act 1890 that local authorities were empowered (though not enforced) to make byelaws in regards to the ‘structure of floors, hearths, and staircases, and the height of rooms intended to be used for human habitation’.[2]  Staircases in working-class housing built prior to the new byelaws were treacherous, since ‘builders almost inevitably built down to the lowest standards permitted’.[3]  The design of nineteenth-century working-class staircases varied widely.  In some urban homes in this period, the staircase was enclosed, and, as Stefan Muthesius describes, ‘tortuous, steep, with several turns’.[4]  In other urban homes in this period, where landings and hallways were uncommon a ‘narrow’ staircase often ran alongside the wall in the already cramped single lower or back room, egressing directly into one the bedrooms above.[5]

Unsurprisingly, therefore, the steepness and narrowness of staircases and the absence of handrails in the homes of the working classes was frequently remarked upon at the coroners’ inquests of those who had died as a result of an accidental fall while ascending or descending stairs, as revealed in the following examples:

In 1893, The Ipswich Journal reported on a ‘FATAL FALL DOWNSTAIRS AT IPSWICH’.  Sarah Tracey, an Ipswich widow, aged 70, residing with her daughter and family at 21 Turin Street, St. Mary Stoke, had been coming downstairs one May morning, when she fell.  Her daughter, upon hearing the fall, ‘open[ed] the door of the staircase [and] saw her mother completely doubled up’.  Despite the attention of Mr Staddon, an Ipswich surgeon, Sarah soon died from ‘shock to the system, resulting for the fall’.  An inquest was held the following day, where the daughter, responding to a question from the jury’s foreman, stated that there ‘was no handrail to steady a person coming downstairs [and that] the deceased suffered from dizziness’.  Mr Staddon also stated to the court that ‘he considered the stairs frightfully steep, and not fit for any person of the age of deceased to climb’.  The jury remarked at the inquest’s close that ‘a handrail should be placed on the staircase’.[6]

At another coroner’s inquest, in 1887, 92-year-old John Emery of Framsden, St. Etheldreda, was found partly dressed at the bottom of his stairs; it was thought he had fallen down the stairs during the night.  It was commented upon at the inquest that there was ‘no handrail on the landing and only a low one on the stairs[7] Similarly, in 1890, in Farnham, 85-year-old Susan Clouting was found by her husband ‘delirious in bed; her face was bleeding. [She] said that she fell in the corner of the staircase and hit her head, and then fell down into the house.  There was no handrail’.  Susan later died of ‘concussion of the brain and spinal cord, and [at the inquest into her death] the jury returned a verdict of “Accidental Death.”’[8]

Similar accidents occurred around the country during the Victorian period.  In 1900, The Weekly Dispatch reported on a ‘DANGEROUS STAIRCASE’ in East Sussex. 30 year old builder’s labourer William Henry Jones died from injuries received through falling downstairs in his home at Bexhill-on-Sea.  The inquest noted that ‘there was no handrail to the stairs, and the top stair was only six inches from the sitting room’, there being no hallway or landing.  On the night of the accident, around midnight, William ‘said “Good night” to his mother, and told her he did not want a light.  She immediately afterwards heard a crash, and she and [his] wife found [him] lying at the foot of the stairs with his skull fractured’.  As the accident had occurred after the introduction of the building byelaws regarding stairs, the jury ‘requested the coroner to draw attention to the surveyor of the District Council to the necessity of a proper banister being provided’.[9]

‘A rickety ladder’

Most typical staircase falls were concentrated in urbanised areas, as the upper floor of the rural labourers’ homes, even throughout the Victorian period, was often accessed via a staircase-ladder (as seen in the image below).  Remarking on the homes of agricultural labourers’ in Suffolk, Wilson Fox notes that, ‘In Barrow a number of cottages have no staircase but a rickety ladder, up and down which a woman has somehow to drag her children’.[10]

Penny Illustrated News, 12 January 1850

Penny Illustrated News, 12 January 1850.

However, these staircase-ladders appear not to have been as hazardous as one may assume.  In rural Suffolk, where, the ‘staircase-ladder’ often featured, just one fatality was recorded in St. Etheldreda’s Victorian inquests.  In 1858, at the inquest of a 65-year-old widow, Priscilla Harvey of Butley, witness James Malster, Constable, stated that, on neighbours becoming concerned, he broke down the door and found Priscilla ‘lying on her back between the ladder, used as a staircase, and the wall, her head resting on the wall at the end of the room and one foot suspended on the ladder, she was then quite dead.  I have no reason whatever to suspect but that she accidentally fell down stairs which I believe was the cause of her death.  The door was barred inside.  I searched the house but found no one there’.[11]

Perhaps, being perceived as more perilous than the traditional staircase, people took more caution on ladders than they did on stairs or they simply avoided going upstairs unless it was absolutely necessary.

The Staircase – Part 1

The Staircase – Part 3

The Staircase – Part 4


[1] Burnett, A Social History of Housing, p. 158.

[2] s.23 Public Health Act Amendment Act, 1890.

[3] Burnett, A Social History of Housing, p. 156.

[4] Muthesius, The English Terraced House, p. 67.

[5] Griffiths, ‘The housing of Ipswich’, p. 18; Muthesius, The English Terraced House, pp. 88, 10.

[6] Ipswich Journal, 20 May 1893, p. 2.

[7] SROi EC5/31/6 The Inquisition at the Parish of Framsden on the body of John Emery, aged 93 years, 1 Feb 1888.

[8] Ipswich Journal, 22 Feb 1890, p. 3.

[9] Weekly Dispatch, 17 Jun 1900, p. 6.

The Model Building Byelaws, 1899 stated, ‘Staircases (required to have a minimum of 8 inches tread and a maximum of 9 inches rise) be provided with a handrail, the thickness of the strings to be 1¼ inches, thickness of tread 1 inches thickness, or ¾ inches’ (Ley, A History of Building Control, p. 174).

[10] PP Royal Commission on Labour. The agricultural labourer. Vol. I. England. Part III. Reports by Mr Arthur Wilson Fox, (assistant commissioner,) upon certain selected districts in the counties of Cumberland, Lancashire, Norfolk, Northumberland, and Suffolk, with summary report prefixed, 1893-94 (6894-III) XXXV.317, p. 36.

[11] SROi EC5/1/2 Inquisition at the parish of Butley on the body of Priscilla Harvey, 29th Apr 1850.

Please do not reproduce the content of this blog in print or any other media without permission of the author.

The Staircase – Part 1

front cover

One chapter of my PhD thesis was entirely dedicated to the dangers of the “the staircase.”  I had, after my initial literature review, assumed that the two common causes of these accidents would be darkness and drunkenness.  Yet, I was soon to discover that the causes of fatal falls were far more complex: in addition to darkness, staircase design, absent handrails, age, infirmity, gender, and even marital status frequently played a role in these fatal events.  Drunkenness, however, did not.  Beginning with today’s post on darkness and the fatal household fall, I will, over the following weeks, explore the various causes and discuss why drunkenness rarely contributed to the fatal domestic fall.

Having no light [he] fell down stairs

Working-class dwellers were accustomed to moving around their homes in darkness.  Yet, despite this familiarity with the dark, the staircase was one part of the home where a lack of light did nevertheless result in a number of untimely deaths.  An absence of light was frequently attributed in the coroners’ inquests of Ipswich and the Liberty of St. Etheldreda (East Suffolk) as a foremost cause of stair-related falls, with over half of all fatal staircase falls occurring in the late evening and night-time.  In 1847, 77-year-old Samuel Ellis of Woodbridge, upon getting out of bed around 2 o’clock in the morning to let another resident into the house, and ‘having no light fell down stairs, falling with his head upon the flag stones; he was taken up bleeding from the mouth and nose and quite senseless, and died in about 12 hours’.[1]

Just how dark the home could be behind the closed shutters is illustrated in the case of another fatal fall in Woodbridge, in 1871, where 68-year-old tallow chandler, Joseph Horkins, was found unconscious at the bottom of his stairs.  A neighbour, noticing that Joseph, who resided alone, had not left his house as usual that morning, broke into the house through an upstairs window.  He stated at the inquest: ‘I searched for but could not find him up stairs.  I then went downstairs.  It was quite dark from the window shutter being closed, in getting into the room at the bottom of the stairs [and not seeing him] I stamped upon his head.  I found the shutter and let in some light, I then saw he was lying on his back with his head on the bottom stair, he was quite unconscious’.[2]

Darkness not only played a part in the incidence of fatal falls inside the home.  In the countryside (and in towns before the introduction of street-lighting) people relied on the light of the moon or lanterns to make their way about at night.[3]  And as happened by day, even one’s garden harboured night-time dangers.  One February evening, in 1878, 78-year-old Judy Harvey of Framsden, ‘went out into the yard, for the purpose of going to the water-closet, carrying a lantern with her. She had to pass a pond at the end of the house, and was heard to call out twice to her son.’  He immediately came outside and found his mother drowned in the pond.  ‘A neighbour hearing her cries hastened thither at once, and with the assistance of a croom stick [Judy] was got out, but she did not revive’.[4]

Rising in the dark winter morning could also be hazardous to the inhabitants of the working-class home.  In contrast to agricultural labourers, who worked shorter hours in winter months and longer hours in summer months, for Ipswich’s working-class men the working day generally began at 6 o’clock throughout the year.[5]  From evidence given at the Ipswich inquests upon infant victims of overlaying and suffocation in bedclothes, working men generally arose around 5 o’clock, departing for work before the rest of the house had risen.  When 54-year-old Ipswich brazier, William Barker, arose one December ‘morning at five o’clock, he left his bed, and lighting a lamp endeavoured to place it upon the landing, when […] he had the misfortune to lose his footing and to fall downstairs.  He was taken up by his wife insensible’.[6]

The Staircase – Part 2

The Staircase – Part 3

The Staircase – Part 4


[1] Ipswich Journal, 20 Nov 1847, p. 2.

[2] Ipswich Journal, 22 Aug 1871, p. 2; SROi EC5/14/21 Inquisition in the parish of Woodbridge on view of the body of Joseph Horkins, aged 68 years, 18 Aug 1871.

[3] A Roger Ekirch, At Day’s Close: A History of Night-time (London, 2005), pp. 24-26; William T. O’Dea, A Social History of Lighting (London, 1958), pp. 67-105.

[4] Ipswich Journal, 9 Feb 1878, p. 5.

[5] Frank Grace, Rags and Bones:  A Social History of a Working-Class Community in Nineteenth-Century Ipswich,(London, 2005), pp. 116-124.

[6] Ipswich Journal, 9 Dec 1854, p. 6.

Please do not reproduce the content of this blog in print or any other media without permission of the author.

The Treatment of Burns and Scalds

Home remedies and herbalists were still relied upon in some households during the Victorian period for the treatment of burns and scalds.  A popular home-remedy for the treatment of burns, recommended in Cassell’s Household Guide for example, was to cover the affected area with flour and then wrap it up in cotton wadding,[1] although the coroners’ inquests reveal a range of treatments utilised by the working-class community.

Cassell’s Household Guide

Cassell’s Household Guide

Yeast, Potatoe, Snowy Water & Ointment

In December 1875, Annie Meadow, age three years, upset a kettle of hot water and was badly scalded.  Instead of immediately calling for medical assistance, her mother, the inquest records, ‘applied some yeast to the injured part, and also some scraped potatoe, and she called in the assistance of a neighbour, and the scald was damped with snowy water’.  The mother then went to the local herbalist who provided her with ‘some ointment’, ‘as well as a mixture to keep the child’s mouth moist’.  Several days after the fateful incident, with the child’s health deteriorating, the mother was advised by the herbalist to seek professional medical aid.  However, the child died before medical aid arrived.  At the inquest a post-mortem examination was held to determine whether the child would have lived if proper medical assistance had been immediately called for.  The surgeon stated that the wounds had become gangrenous and ‘the injuries were not in themselves such as would necessarily have led to fatal results, and in all probability they would have yielded to proper medical treatment’.  Nevertheless, even though the coroner believed the mother and the herbalist ‘guilty of great neglect’, there was insufficient medical evidence for a charge of neglect to be sustained.  All the coroner could do was simply warn the mother and the herbalist ‘to be more careful in future’, for ‘on a future occasion they might have to answer for such neglect to another jury’.[2]

Folly and Superstition

To the horror of the coroner’s court and the local press, even superstition still played a role in the treatment of burns.  In an article with the tagline, ‘Folly and Superstition’, the Ipswich Journal reported on a coroner’s inquest held by the Liberty of St. Etheldreda’s coroner, Mr Wood, in Woodbridge on the body of William Catchpole, ‘aged two years and a half, the only child of John Catchpole, labourer, who lives rather more than a mile from the town’.  At the unusually long inquest, it was established that on the 10th November 1851, ‘Mrs Catchpole was gone to an adjoining cottage with some bread to be baked ([and] although not absent more than two minutes) the clothes of the child caught fire, and he ran to the door, which increased the flames, and in attempting to put out the fire himself, burnt both his hands very much’.  His mother, ‘with the assistance of a neighbour… stripped the burning clothes from the child’.

However, rather than calling for professional medical assistance, which the coroners’ records suggest was becoming more commonplace in poorer communities for the treatment of burns and scalds, ‘a consultation was held by [what the newspaper states] a house full of old women as to what was to be done.’  Their decision was that William would be taken to Framlingham, some eleven miles away, ‘to a Mr John Oakley there, who was to charm away the fire’.  The 1851 census records John Oakley to be a 74 year old man and a ‘Proprietor of Houses’.  The newspaper reported that Mr Oakley: ‘rubbed the child with some of his own spittle, muttering at the same time some cabalistic words… and told the mother “to do nothing to the child.”  The following morning early, Mr Oakely went on his own accord to see the child again, because he thought he had not “done enough” and then repeated his charm’.

William, however, showed no signs of recovery and the local Rector then intervened, suggesting that the mother take him to see Mr Wilson, the local surgeon.  The surgeon attended William daily, but ‘lockjaw came on about the 18th, and death put an end to his suffering on the 24th’ – 14 days after the fatal incident.  The coroner’s inquest, as in the previous case, were not able to established ‘whether the life of this child could have been saved’ had professional medical attention been sought sooner, but admonished the ‘folly and superstition of [both] his mother and her neighbours’.

Mr Oakley, unsurprisingly, was also summoned to give evidence at the inquest.  The Ipswich Journal records that ‘he was examined at great length, but persisted in his power of being able to charm away fire from persons who have been burnt, and he did not appear to be abashed by the ridicule of the Jury’.  The coroner’s court and the newspaper concluded: ‘It is a lamentable fact the (in the middle of the nineteenth century) many poorer people in that parish are still superstitious enough to believe in the power of this man’s charms’.[3]


[1] Cassell’s Household Guide. Being a Complete Encyclopaedia of Domestic and Social Economy, and forming a guide to every department of practical life, vol. IV (London, 1869-71), pp. 73-74.

[2] Ipswich Journal, 1 Jan 1876, p. 5; Ipswich Journal, 4 Jan 1876, p. 2.

[3] Ipswich Journal, 29 Nov 1851, p. 2.

Please do not reproduce the content of this blog in print or any other media without permission of the author.