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.

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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.


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.

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