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.

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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.

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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.

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