Home » Blog » The Staircase – Part 1

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.

7 thoughts on “The Staircase – Part 1

  1. Very interesting Vicky! These posts on the dangers of staircases prompt me to consider writing about the way stairs sometimes appeared as a location of wife-beating! Must get out some examples …

    • Thanks – I’ve used these particular inquests to explore how people move about in their homes, as well as the domestic lives of elderly men. The staircase is so often overlooked, but such a fascinating space. I’m currently reading about artificial lamps being used to assault wives in late Victorian/Edwardian period.

      • Here’s one of my favourite quotes: ‘a Safety Lamp is, one that can be knocked off the table, *thrown at one’s wife*, carried about the house…without any fear of fire, or explosion. The Defries Lamp satisfies all these requirements’ Charles Marvin, The Moloch of Paraffin (1886).

  2. Pingback: The Staircase – Part 2 | Victorian Domestic Dangers

  3. Pingback: The Staircase – Part 3 | Victorian Domestic Dangers

  4. Pingback: The Staircase – Part 4 | Victorian Domestic Dangers

  5. Pingback: Large Fierce Mammal » Dark Sentiments 2014 – Day 28: Darkness – Literally.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s