‘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’. 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’. 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’. 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’.
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. 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.
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. 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’. 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.
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”’. 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’.
 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
 ROSPA, ‘Accidents to Older People’, http://www.rospa.com/homesafety/adviceandinformation/olderpeople/accidents.aspx#falls, accessed 28 Feb 2012.
 HSL Falls on stairways – literature review, p. 19.
 Ipswich Journal, 24 Sept 1872, p. 2.
 Ipswich Journal, 23 Mar 1886, p. 2.
 Ipswich Journal, 8 Feb 1889, p. 8
 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.
 HSL Falls on stairways – literature review, p. 19.
 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.
 Ipswich Journal, 17 Dec 1897, p. 7.
 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.