‘DEATH FROM FALLING INTO A TUB OF SCALDING BEER’

The Hazards of Domestic Brewing

In the next few posts, I want to venture out of the house and explore the hazards lurking in the gardens and yards of the Victorian home. Today, I am going to begin with the hazards of domestic brewing.

Brewing was an integral part of Suffolk rural life. Whilst in decline in many areas of the country, in rural Suffolk “home brewing [remained] the order of the day,” and was a task predominantly undertaken by housewives to supplement the household income, or merely to “cut out the brewer and the publican.”[1] Nonetheless, as John Burnett comments, “Brewing […] presupposed a standard of living above mere subsistence. To provide the necessary equipment of vats, mash-turns, pails and barrels was an initial expense [and] thereafter to buy regular supplies of costly malt and hops.”[2] G.F. Millin, a journalist and Liberal propagandist for social causes, observed, the householder paid “four and six or five shilling for a bushel of malt, and a shilling a pound for hops, and out of this they brew eighteen gallons of beer, for which at the public-house they would have to pay two-pence-ha’penny a pint.”[3] 

The cook and housekeeper's complete and universal dictionary

The cook and housekeeper’s complete and universal dictionary

Brewing was a time-consuming task and was, for the most part, a task undertaken in designated brewhouses or in other outhouses. When not purchased ready, the grain first had to be ‘malted’ in a tub, often referred to as a ‘keeler’. The malt was then ‘mashed’, the resulting mixture being ‘sweetwort’. This was then boiled in a ‘heated vessel’ and hops added for flavour. Then, Sambrook states, “the spent hops are strained from the wort, which is run off and cooled in shallow coopered tubs or wooden trays.”[4] It seems from the inquest reports that this part of the process was sometimes done, weather permitting, outdoors in the yard. This, however, was the most hazardous part of the process – although nothing compared to the hazards of domestic life in the multifunctional living space discussed in earlier posts.

In the period 1840-1900, at least 11 children in St. Etheldreda (East Suffolk) playing in their yards were fatally scalded after falling into tubs of boiling hot sweetwort/beer left to cool there (while such an accident befell one child in a backhouse). One Friday in May 1863, the Ipswich Journal reported, three-year-old Ellen Bloomfield, of Pettistree, “was at play in the yard, at the back of her father’s house […] where her mother had put some beer in three small tubs to cool.” Hearing screaming, Ellen’s mother “went into the yard and found her lying in the tub, with her feet on one side and her head on the other; her back and left arm were in the beer, which was just off the boil. She was quite sensible, and said she had fallen into the tub.” As in the case of so many other domestic scalds, the mother had only momentarily turned her back or briefly gone into another room, giving the child an opportune moment for mischief or mishap. A medical attendant, Mr Cochrane, was called, “but the shock to the system was so great that she died on [the] Sunday morning.” At the inquest, the jury returned the verdict of “Accidental death from falling into scalding beer.”[5]

Likewise, in September 1879, the Ipswich Journal reported on four-year old Edith Emma Skinner’s accidental death when staying at her grandmother’s home in Shottisham during the harvest.  The article, entitled “DEATH FROM FALLING INTO A TUB OF SCALDING BEER,” describes how her grandmother, after brewing some beer in the copper, left it in the yard to cool. Soon after, Edith, who had been playing in the yard, was found “lying on her back with her head against the sieve over the tub to catch the hops.” A doctor was called, but “he considered the case most hopeless from the first” and Edith died the following afternoon. At the inquest, where so often advice was given though not necessarily heeded, the jury concluded that they “wish to impress upon people brewing or using scalding water, in all cases when it can be done to place the tub or utensil in use for such purpose on a stool or raised place, for by so doing fatal accidents may be avoided.”[6]

However, danger did not just lurk in the activity of brewing in the rural yards. As will by explored in my next post, ponds and wells also consumed the lives of some rural inhabitants – and not all of these victims were young children.

Notes:

[1] Jobson, A Window in Suffolk, pp. 48, 120; George Francis Millin, Life in Our Villages, by the Special commissioners of the “Daily News”: being a series of letters written to that paper in the autumn of 1891 (London, 1891), p. 62.  Also John Burnett, Plenty and Want. A Social History of Diet in England from 1815 to the Present (Harmondsworth, 1996), pp. 18-20 details the decline of domestic brewing in nineteenth-century rural society.

[2] Burnett, Plenty and Want, pp. 18-19.

[3] Millin, Life in Our Villages, p. 62.

[4] Pamela Sambrook, Country House Brewing in England, 1500-1900 (London, 1996), p. 19. Sambrook’s book is a comprehensive history of brewing.

[5] Ipswich Journal, 6 June 1863, p. 5.

[6] Ipswich Journal, 6 Sept 1879, p. 5.

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“Death from Eating Poisonous Mushrooms”

Accounts of Victorian poisonings involving bath buns, lozenges, and chocolates in several posts this week reminded me of a newspaper report that only made it into the footnotes of my thesis. Unlike the aforementioned accounts involving deliberate/accidental adulteration or malice, this case demonstrates the danger of eating foraged food.

On 22nd September 1860, the Ipswich Journal reported on a “distressing affair” of a coroner’s inquest held in the town on two siblings, Thomas Boothroyd, aged 15, and Adelaide Boothroyd, 13. They had both died as a result of eating poisonous mushrooms. Recently widowed, Sophia Boothroyd, recounted to the coroner’s court:

Thomas and Adelaide Boothroyd are my children…On Sunday last (9th inst.), I fried six mushrooms for breakfast, which my son had brought home the previous evening, having as he told me gathered them in Stoke Park [where he worked]. Myself, Thomas, Harriet, Elizabeth, all my children ate of these mushrooms, but Adelaide was not present and a piece was saved for her. The mushrooms were all small and I saw nothing in them to excite my suspicion.”

That evening the entire family began to suffer from sickness and diarrhoea. The mother stated, “All my children seemed better on Monday morning, the sickness had ceased but not the purging.”  However, on Tuesday Adelaide began to decline and on the Saturday morning Thomas died “and his sister shortly afterwards.”

Called to give evidence to the coroner’s court, Mr G.C. Edwards, surgeon, stated:

Mrs Boothroyd, her son Thomas, and daughter Harriet had medicine off me for diarrhoea during the week. I had not seen any of the family until this morning [Saturday], except Mrs Boothroyd, whom I saw Tuesday. I was called upon this morning about nine o’clock by Mrs Boothroyd, who said ‘Thomas is dead, and I am afraid the girl is dying’. My assistant went at once, and I attended by ten o’clock… Adelaide was dying; she was screaming with pain, and insensible. I have heard the evidence given, and the symptoms detailed, and as seen by myself, are quite consistent with death from poisonous fungi.” He therefore saw no reason to perform a post mortem examination.[1]

Returning a verdict of ‘accidental death’, the jury appended “that a great deal of caution should be exercised by persons eating mushrooms.”

Notes:

[1] Post mortem examinations were still quite uncommon at this time in Ipswich, a large part, no doubt, due to a lack of adequate facilities.

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The ‘Hazards’ of Laundry

As discussed in my previous post on candles, I was surprised to uncover just how infrequent certain fatal accidents were in the homes of the Victorian (middle and) working classes. The ‘back-breaking’ task of laundry was seemingly hazardous, with tubs of boiling water and clothes drying by the fireside. Yet, between 1840 and 1900, only six children in Ipswich and rural East Suffolk (Liberty of St. Etheldreda) died after falling into laundry water, two in the indoor space of the home and four in the yard. In 1853, in the village of Ufford, Charles Wood Manby, aged five years, was playing in the cottage of Mrs Mealing and “while swinging between a chair and a cupboard he lost his balance, and fell backwards into a keeler of boiling water standing on the floor”—“dreadfully scalded” he died several weeks later.[1] In July 1854, the Ipswich Journal reported on the inquest of Charles Markham, aged four years, who had been fatally scalded at home in Marlesford. The article recounts:

Mrs Markham, the mother, takes in washing, and on Tuesday morning had gone to Little Glemham after some linen.  [Another] woman left at home had put some boiling water into a small tub standing on the ground in the yard: [Charles] and his sister were blowing bladders [used for footballs], and on stepping backwards he fell into the water.[2]

Other domestic hazards are also evident in this illustration: clothes drying by the fireside, the candlestick on the dresser in reach of small children. Illustrated Police News, 30 December 1882.

Other domestic hazards are also evident in this illustration: clothes drying by the fireside, the candlestick on the dresser in reach of small children.
Illustrated Police News, 30 December 1882.

There are similar accidents recorded in coroners’ inquests and newspapers around the country.  In 1882, the Illustrated Police News reported on the death of Emma Dixon, “left by [her] mother for a few minutes, the mother having gone out on an errand. It appears that the child was left seated in a high chair, which must have toppled over, for upon the mother’s return the poor little thing was found immersed in a tub of hot water. It was so severely scalded that but faint hopes are entertained of its recovery.”[3] Yet, such accounts remain surprisingly infrequent in comparison to other domestic accidents.

During the winter months or on rainy days, drying clothes indoors posed a hazard. Nevertheless, accidents were still infrequent. In November 1865, four-month-old Harry George Self was burnt to death in the back room of his home in Saxmundham. His mother stated to the coroner’s court that:

on Saturday evening, [she] went out, leaving the deceased lying on the hearth before the fire.  There was a chair standing by the fire with some linen on it.  She was not absent more than five minutes, and when she came back the child’s clothes were on fire, as also the linen on the chair.  It was supposed that the back door being open, the wind blew the linen into the fire, which ignited and set fire to the clothes and burned the child.

The mother further stated, “there was no fireguard on but the fender was in front of the fire.”[4]

Although, even fireguards did not prevent such accidents from occurring, especially when being used for the purpose of drying laundry—as with most other items in the working-class home, the fireguard, when present, served more than one purpose. An inquest held in Ipswich, September 1892, noted how an infant who “was sitting tied to a chair by the side of the fire in the front room,” was burnt to death after “some clothes which were hanging on a guard in front of the fire became ignited, and set fire to a cushion against which the child was leaning.”[5]

Young children were probably most vulnerable when the mother was preoccupied with the task of laundry, and therefore distracted from the care of her children.[6] Sambrook’s study of childhood death in mid-nineteenth-century Staffordshire found several instances of children being fatally burnt after being “left to play ‘safely’ in the kitchen-cum-living room,” while the mother was “scrubbing” in the brewhouse “or hanging the washing out to dry.”[7] Similarly, in Ipswich and St. Etheldreda, there are a number of accounts of household accidents befalling children, whilst their mother was washing or hanging out the washing. For example, in Melton, in 1863, 16 month-old Alfred Barrell’s mother was washing in the backhouse, “on hearing screams ran into her house; [to find Alfred] in the middle of the back-room […] on being asked 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.”[8]

Children succumbed to a number of other domestic-related accidents while their mother was busy with the laundry. In 1868, the Ipswich Journal reported on the accidental death of twenty-month old Hannah Hunt. The necessaries of fire-lighting and laundry apparently combine in her tragic accident. 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.”[9]


[1] Ipswich Journal, 16 Apr 1853, p. 2.

[2] Ipswich Journal, 22 Jul 1854, p. 3.

[3] Illustrated Police News, 30 Dec 1882, p. 1.

[4] SROi EC5/8/30 Inquisition at the parish of Saxmundham on the body of Harry George Self, 6 Nov 1865; Ipswich Journal, 11 Nov 1865, p. 5.

[5] Ipswich Journal, 24 Sept 1892, p. 5.

[6] Davidson, A Woman’s Work is Never Done, p. 152

[7] Sambrook, ‘Childhood and sudden death’, p. 235.

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

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

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‘save th’ candle’

In 1899, 86-year-old Maria Webb, suffering from paralysis, was burnt to death in her Ipswich home. Sat in a chair by the fire one summer evening, a burning candle fell from the mantelpiece and landed upon her dress. Physically unable to extinguish her burning clothes, it was not until a neighbour noticed “smoke issuing” from the house and the “reflections of the flames” that assistance was gained.[1]

Candles, by their very nature – with their exposed flame – were and still remain hazardous objects and account for numerous domestic conflagrations throughout history.[2]  So, when undertaking my research on fatal household accidents in Victorian Suffolk (Ipswich and the Liberty of St. Etheldreda), I was rather surprised to uncover just 12 candle-related fatalities among the coroners’ reports – most of whom, like Maria Webb, were elderly and infirm women. In addition, many of the victims’ general isolation at the time of the accident meant that the fire took a hold of their flammable dresses or nightclothes before neighbours and passers-by could respond to their cries for help, the sight of fire, or smell of smoke.

So what accounted for this low incidence of candle-related fatalities in Victorian Suffolk?

Perhaps it may simply be explained by the dangers of candles being well known and therefore measures being taken to minimize the risk of accident, such as placing them out of the reach of young children on the mantelpiece.

The use of candle guards/shields (image on the right) may have also helped to reduce accidents. Some householders, O’Dea explains, would also fill the bottom of the guard with water, “so that if the candle burned down completely it would be extinguished before it could do any harm.[3] 

© Museum of English Rural Life, University of Reading. MERL 52/380/1-2

© Museum of English Rural Life, University of Reading. MERL 52/380/1-2

Another possible explanation for the low incidence of candle-related fatalities could be simply the time it took a candle fire to catch on (unlike their successor – the paraffin lamp), which allowed most persons the time to extinguish the flames.

However, it seems to me that the low incidence of candle-related accidents may simply be explained by candles not being used in the homes of the Victorian poor as much as one would expect. A great portion of the labourer’s family weekly wage went on candles. The Crick family of Lavenham, Suffolk, spent 3d a week on candles, representing their children’s combined wage.[4] Therefore, to economise on fuel, inhabitants frequently moved about in darkness. Unlike today’s dependency upon artificial light in both the home and outdoor spaces, in the era before the electric light bulb, people were accustomed to moving around the home in the dark, relying on the light from the fire and their sense of touch.[5]  Ekirch notes, “Individuals long committed to memory the internal topography of their dwellings, including the exact number of steps in every flight of stairs.”[6] Furthermore, people were able to perform all manner of tasks in the darkness of their homes, relying only on the light of the fire which was “confined to a radius of several feet.”[7] In Grey’s Cottage Life in a Hertfordshire Village, he comments:

the light from [a rush-light] and the fire-light being quite sufficient for their needs, for straw plaiting could be done almost in the dark, so clever had most of the women and girls become at this work; in fact, I have known the candle to be extinguished purposely, with the remarkthere’s plenty o’ fire light, so we’ll work by that, an’ save th’ candle.”’[8]


[1] Ipswich Journal, 12 Aug 1899, p. 5.

[2] For a great blog on the domestic hazards of candles in the early modern period: http://materialhistories.wordpress.com/2013/05/11/wallingtons-household-hazards/

[3] O’Dea, A Social History of Lighting, p. 46.

[4] Burnett, Plenty and Want, pp. 44-45.

[5] Ekirch, At Day’s Close, p. 110; Worsley, If Walls Could Talk, p. 193.

[6] Ekirch, At Day’s Close, p. 110.

[7] Ekirch, At Day’s Close, p. 103; Grey, Cottage Life in a Hertfordshire Village, p. 55; Worsley, If Walls Could Talk, p. 193.

[8] Grey, Cottage Life in a Hertfordshire Village, p. 55.

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