The Tea Kettle

In 1861, William Farr[1], Superintendent of Statistics for the General Record Office (GRO), stated in the 24th Annual Report of the Registrar General: ‘Young children drink scalding water out of the spout of the tea kettle, or fall into scalding water.  This happens often in the lower classes, when the mother is out at work, and the young children are left home alone.  [He goes on to say] The means of obviating danger are evident’.[2]

The tea kettle was central to working-class domestic life in the Victorian period.  In his investigation of dwellings of the poor in East Anglia and North-East England, Adrian Green remarks that the tea-kettle ‘was more of an addictive necessity than a luxury’.[3]  At an inquest held in Ipswich, in 1855, it was noted that the tea-kettle ‘was always kept boiling by the children’[4]; low firegrates placed the kettle within easy reach of children, while in some instances kettles were attached to a lever for ease of pouring (as seen in the image below).  This also meant that the tea kettle was all too frequently in the reach of small and inquisitive hands unaware as to the danger of boiling water.

In Ipswich and the Liberty of St. Etheldreda (East Suffolk), 1840 to 1900, a total of 43 children are recorded as having died as a result from scalds resulting from accidents with kettles and saucepans, including a number of cases of young children drinking directly from the boiled kettle.  The majority of these victims were just one or two years of age.

The same year as William Farr’s remark, 20-month-old Mary Ann Hunt of Debenham, Suffolk, died as a result of drinking from the kettle.  The coroner’s inquest, reported in the Ipswich Journal, recorded that Mary Ann was with her mother who ‘was preparing dinner and [on] turn[ing] round to get some bread, [Mary Ann] attempted to drink from the kettle standing on the fireplace […] The inside of her mouth and throat were so much scalded, that she died from the effects the following day’.[5]  Similarly, the following year, 18-month-old Henry Smith of Ipswich, oblivious to the danger of the boiling water, also took an opportune moment to drink from the kettle.  The Ipswich Journal reported: ‘[a]bout noon on the previous day, Anne Smith, mother of the child, was in the front room of the cottage with [Henry] and some of the other children.  She was making up the fire, and [Henry] was by her side.  On turning her head towards the child, she saw him take his mouth from off the spout of the kettle, which was boiling on the fire […] The child died at half-past 10 o’clock in [that] evening.[6]  While just over a year later in Melton, Suffolk, 16 month-old Alfred Barrell’s mother was washing in the backhouse when she heard screams coming from the house.  Upon running in, she found Alfred ‘in the middle of the back-room […] on ask[ing] what he had done, he put his finger on the spout of the kettle standing on the fire-place.  The inside of his mouth was much scalded; he died the following day.[7]

Notably, it can be observed in these cases, that such accidents did not occur while mothers were out at work, as suggested by Farr.  Instead, in Suffolk at least, the mother was often in the same room and, in some cases, even right next to their child at the time of the fatal incident.[8]

Assistance from an unwitting sibling also led to tragedy.  In Ipswich, in April 1855, two-year old Ann Sadd died after ‘being accidentally scalded by drinking boiling water from a tea-kettle’ standing by the fire.  Unable to drink from the heavy kettle herself, Ann’s seven-year old sister, ‘having taking hold of the handle […] inclined the kettle forward’.[9]

Scalding was not the only associated hazard of the kettle.  With many poorer households boiling kettles on the open firegrate, slightly older children (especially girls in their flammable clothing), either delegated the task of boiling the kettle or merely playing house, were at risk of being burnt.  In Brightwell, Suffolk, in 1841, the harrowing case of eight-year-old Charlotte Dillerson’s death came before St. Etheldreda’s coroner.  The Ipswich Journal describes that Charlotte’s clothes ignited ‘while she was attempting to put the kettle upon the fire’.  Alone at the time of the accident, her father and mother being at work in the fields and the cottage being ‘in a lonely situation’, ‘[Charlotte] ran nearly a mile across the fields to Mr Everitt’s without any clothing whatever, except her socks and high [shoes], the whole having been burnt off her back’.[10]  While, in Framsden, Suffolk, in 1863, Emma Woods, aged seven years, was ‘terribly burnt’ when ‘her sleeve caught fire in getting the kettle off the fire to put some water into her little sister’s food’.  Her mother was, at the time of the accident, assisting an ill neighbour next door.  Despite medical attention, Emma died two days later.[11]

There still remains the important question as to young children’s motivation to drink from the boiling kettles.  District Nurse, Margaret Loane, suggested that, oblivious to its dangers, thirst drew young children to the kettle and advised mothers to ‘[leave] cold water within easy reach so that thirst would not tempt a child to grab a kettle’.[12]  However, reasons behind young children’s desire to drink from the tea kettle remain difficult to establish.

[3] Adrian Green, ‘Heartless and unhomely: dwellings of the poor in East Anglia and North-East England’, in Joanne McEwan and Pamela Sharpe (eds.), Accommodating Poverty: The Housing and Living Arrangements of the English Poor, c. 1600-1850 (Basingstoke, 2011), p. 86.

[4] Ipswich Journal, 7 Apr 1855, p. 3.

[5] Ipswich Journal, 28 Sept 1861, p. 4.

[6] Ipswich Journal, 8 Mar 1862, p. 7.

[7] Ipswich Journal, 14 Feb 1863, p. 5.

[8] For more details on the whereabouts of mothers at the time of their children’s accidents see: Victoria J Holmes, ‘Dangerous spaces: working-class homes and fatal household accidents in Suffolk, 1840-1900, Essex Ph.D. 2012. In addition, Pamela A. Sambrook ‘Childhood and sudden death in Staffordshire, 1851 and 1860’, in Philip J. Morgan and A.D.M. Phillips (eds.) Staffordshire Histories: Essays in Honour of Michael Greenslade, Vol 19 (Keele, 1999), pp. 217-252, also has similar findings.

[9] Ipswich Journal, 7 Apr 1855, p. 3.

[10] Ipswich Journal, 20 Nov 1841, p. 3; SRO (Ipswich): HB10/9/55/43 Inquisition on the Death of Charlotte Dillerson at Brightwell, 15 November 1841. Verdict – accidentally burnt to death.

[11] Ipswich Journal, 31 Jan 1863, p. 5.

[12] Cited in Ellen Ross, Love and Toil: Motherhood in Outcast London, 1870-1918 (New York, 1993), p. 181.

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“Naughty Lucifers”

Victorian children were well acquainted with the hazards of matches through stories such as Struwwelpeter’s ‘The Dreadful Story of Harriet and the Matches’.  However, not all took heed of such cautionary tales.


In Ipswich and St. Etheldreda, 1840-1900, a total of nine children (seven of whom were boys) died through ‘playing with matches’, most of which were a result of the ‘habit of leaving about Lucifer matches’.[1]  As the Penny Illustrated cites in 1907, even if ‘the mother is careful to buy only matches which light on the box, if the box is not put out of the possible reach of the child’, but for example ‘left on the table’, an accident could easily occur.[2]  In Ipswich, June 1852, foundry worker’s wife Mrs Harvey went upstairs to make the beds, leaving her two-year-old son, Henry, playing on the doorstep.  ‘In the course of ten minutes she went down to look after him, when she found him in the hands of her neighbours, his dress being on fire’.  Henry ‘told his mother that “he got the Lucifers off the copper,” saying “naughty Lucifers, they burnt me”.’  He died from his injuries several weeks later.[3]  In Trimley St Martin, Susannah Page, aged three and a half years, ‘lighted a match and set fire to herself’ whilst her parents were in the garden.  The Ipswich Journal stated in response: ‘Parents […] ought to be more cautious in leaving matches within reach of young children’.[4]

However, even the most cautious of mothers could not guarantee a safe home for their inquisitive and determined children.  In 1897, Bertie Green, aged two years, was burnt to death while his mother was absent purchasing some sweets for her children, ‘the supposition [was] that prompted by infantile curiosity he raised himself on the guard in front of the fire to reach something from the mantelshelf, lost his balance, and fell forward into the fire’.  It was noted at the inquest into his death, that on previous occasions the mother had witnessed Bertie ‘draw a chair up to the fireguard and take matches and other items on various occasions.’  ‘The fireguard had three bars all around’.  This led the coroner to comment that the mother should have known it was necessary to ‘take extraordinary precautions’ and ‘asked the jury to consider whether there was any culpability on the part of the mother, or any want of precaution on her part’.  In their summary, the jury stated, ‘it is most desirable, in the interests of society, that guards for fires should be constructed with top and bottom bars only, and vertical uprights, instead of horizontal bars, thus preventing children from getting on to the guard and thus reaching the mantelpiece’.  The jury then went on to say, they ‘hope[d] that the mother would not be indiscreet enough to leave so young a child on a future occasion’.[5]

The risk of fire was not the only danger associated with matches. In 1868, The Ipswich Journal reported on the accidental poisoning of twenty-month old Hannah Hunt.  During her mother’s brief absence fetching washing water, Hannah discovered some Lucifer matches that had been left on the copper.  Returning home, Hannah’s mother found her sucking on the matches and promptly snatched them off her.  The doctor was called, but Hannah ‘died about 18 hours after’ from phosphorous poisoning.  The mother stated at the inquest that the matches were ‘generally kept on the mantelpiece’.[6]

Given that so few fatal accidents occurred as a result of playing with matches in this period, this would suggest that this dangerous domestic object was generally kept out of reach of small children.

[1] Ipswich Journal, 20 May 1848, p. 2.

[2] Penny Illustrated and Illustrated Times, 13 Jul 1907, p. 28.

[3] Ipswich Journal, 26 Jun 1852, p. 3.

[4] Ipswich Journal, 13 Oct 1846, p. 2.

[5] Ipswich Journal, 24 Apr 1897, p. 2.

[6] SROi EC5/11/3 Inquisition at the parish of Debenham on the body of Hannah Hunt, 11 Jan 1868.

The poisonous nature of these matches is well documented.  Many of those working in the production of yellow phosphorous matches developed a disfiguring disease known as ‘phossy jaw’. See William T. O’Dea, A Social History of Lighting (London, 1958), p. 241; Peter W. J. Bartrip, The Home Office and the Dangerous Trades in Victorian and Edwardian Britain (Amsterdam, 2002), pp. 171-232.

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