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‘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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One thought on “‘DEATH FROM FALLING INTO A TUB OF SCALDING BEER’

  1. Pingback: History A'la Carte 5-29-14 - Random Bits of Fascination

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