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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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.

FLANNELETTE ALMOST AS DANGEROUS AS GUNPOWDER

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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The Treatment of Burns and Scalds

Home remedies and herbalists were still relied upon in some households during the Victorian period for the treatment of burns and scalds.  A popular home-remedy for the treatment of burns, recommended in Cassell’s Household Guide for example, was to cover the affected area with flour and then wrap it up in cotton wadding,[1] although the coroners’ inquests reveal a range of treatments utilised by the working-class community.

Cassell’s Household Guide

Cassell’s Household Guide

Yeast, Potatoe, Snowy Water & Ointment

In December 1875, Annie Meadow, age three years, upset a kettle of hot water and was badly scalded.  Instead of immediately calling for medical assistance, her mother, the inquest records, ‘applied some yeast to the injured part, and also some scraped potatoe, and she called in the assistance of a neighbour, and the scald was damped with snowy water’.  The mother then went to the local herbalist who provided her with ‘some ointment’, ‘as well as a mixture to keep the child’s mouth moist’.  Several days after the fateful incident, with the child’s health deteriorating, the mother was advised by the herbalist to seek professional medical aid.  However, the child died before medical aid arrived.  At the inquest a post-mortem examination was held to determine whether the child would have lived if proper medical assistance had been immediately called for.  The surgeon stated that the wounds had become gangrenous and ‘the injuries were not in themselves such as would necessarily have led to fatal results, and in all probability they would have yielded to proper medical treatment’.  Nevertheless, even though the coroner believed the mother and the herbalist ‘guilty of great neglect’, there was insufficient medical evidence for a charge of neglect to be sustained.  All the coroner could do was simply warn the mother and the herbalist ‘to be more careful in future’, for ‘on a future occasion they might have to answer for such neglect to another jury’.[2]

Folly and Superstition

To the horror of the coroner’s court and the local press, even superstition still played a role in the treatment of burns.  In an article with the tagline, ‘Folly and Superstition’, the Ipswich Journal reported on a coroner’s inquest held by the Liberty of St. Etheldreda’s coroner, Mr Wood, in Woodbridge on the body of William Catchpole, ‘aged two years and a half, the only child of John Catchpole, labourer, who lives rather more than a mile from the town’.  At the unusually long inquest, it was established that on the 10th November 1851, ‘Mrs Catchpole was gone to an adjoining cottage with some bread to be baked ([and] although not absent more than two minutes) the clothes of the child caught fire, and he ran to the door, which increased the flames, and in attempting to put out the fire himself, burnt both his hands very much’.  His mother, ‘with the assistance of a neighbour… stripped the burning clothes from the child’.

However, rather than calling for professional medical assistance, which the coroners’ records suggest was becoming more commonplace in poorer communities for the treatment of burns and scalds, ‘a consultation was held by [what the newspaper states] a house full of old women as to what was to be done.’  Their decision was that William would be taken to Framlingham, some eleven miles away, ‘to a Mr John Oakley there, who was to charm away the fire’.  The 1851 census records John Oakley to be a 74 year old man and a ‘Proprietor of Houses’.  The newspaper reported that Mr Oakley: ‘rubbed the child with some of his own spittle, muttering at the same time some cabalistic words… and told the mother “to do nothing to the child.”  The following morning early, Mr Oakely went on his own accord to see the child again, because he thought he had not “done enough” and then repeated his charm’.

William, however, showed no signs of recovery and the local Rector then intervened, suggesting that the mother take him to see Mr Wilson, the local surgeon.  The surgeon attended William daily, but ‘lockjaw came on about the 18th, and death put an end to his suffering on the 24th’ – 14 days after the fatal incident.  The coroner’s inquest, as in the previous case, were not able to established ‘whether the life of this child could have been saved’ had professional medical attention been sought sooner, but admonished the ‘folly and superstition of [both] his mother and her neighbours’.

Mr Oakley, unsurprisingly, was also summoned to give evidence at the inquest.  The Ipswich Journal records that ‘he was examined at great length, but persisted in his power of being able to charm away fire from persons who have been burnt, and he did not appear to be abashed by the ridicule of the Jury’.  The coroner’s court and the newspaper concluded: ‘It is a lamentable fact the (in the middle of the nineteenth century) many poorer people in that parish are still superstitious enough to believe in the power of this man’s charms’.[3]


[1] Cassell’s Household Guide. Being a Complete Encyclopaedia of Domestic and Social Economy, and forming a guide to every department of practical life, vol. IV (London, 1869-71), pp. 73-74.

[2] Ipswich Journal, 1 Jan 1876, p. 5; Ipswich Journal, 4 Jan 1876, p. 2.

[3] Ipswich Journal, 29 Nov 1851, p. 2.

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Resting by the Fireside – Elderly Women and the Hazards of the Fire

Elderly[1] women, in their combustible dresses and aprons, were vulnerable to the dangers of the fire.  Nearly all these accidents occurred from clothing catching fire from a spark or falling coal, or from falling into the fire, whilst they rested by the fireside.  Others occurred while they went about their domestic tasks. Nearly all of these elderly victims were alone at the time of catching fire; they were often too infirm to extinguish the flames themselves and were severely burnt before assistance was gained such that death often ensued within a few hours of the fatal incident.

In Ipswich, 1846, 88-year-old widow Mary Banks, ‘who resided alone in a small tenement’ was believed to have been sitting too near to the fire-grate when ‘her clothes ignited’.  Her daughter and neighbours, hearing the alarm of fire, ‘ran into the house’ and found Mary ‘dreadfully burnt’.  ‘She was undressed, and put to bed, but expired in the course of a few hours, surgical assistance being of no avail’.[2]  Four years later, one July morning, in 1850, 84-year-old widower, Elizabeth Taylor was ‘sitting alone by the grate, when in getting up to put on some coals, a cinder caught her dress, and set it on fire’.  She ‘came to the door of Isaac Giles, a shoemaker, exclaiming “Fire! Fire!”…  Her clothes were burning from the waist, the smoke and flames covering her head’.  Giles extinguished the flames with a piece of carpet, and soon after Elizabeth was put to bed.  However, she died the next day ‘about 12’.[3]

Frances Hearn of Ipswich, though only aged 57, was ‘paralysed and almost entirely helpless’ and suffered an accident similar in circumstance to those befalling the elderly.  Her tailor husband worked away from home during the day with Frances being watched over by a neighbour, Mrs Jacobs.  On the day of the accident, ‘[Mrs. Jacobs] had been at work in the [Hearn’s] house all the morning, she visited the deceased again about three o’clock in the afternoon. [Frances] was sitting too close to the fire, and Mrs. Jacobs moved her further back’.  She returned to her house and at ‘about half-past four […] sent her son into the [Hearn’s] house to see how the fire was getting on.  He found the room quite full of smoke’. Frances Hearn was lying dead on the floor, having been burnt to death.[4]  Undoubtedly, neighbours, such as Mrs Jacobs, helped to prevent numerous domestic accidents involving the vulnerable and elderly residents of working-class communities or, at least, came to the aid of a neighbour before the accident proved fatal.

As with numerous accidental domestic burnings involving children,[5] many of the aforementioned burns accidents involving the vulnerable and elderly occurred due to exposure to an unguarded fire.  Seckford Almshouses, Woodbridge, was the scene of a number of such accidents.  In 1870, 84-year-old Peggs Alderton, who, it was noted, ‘was suffering mentally and bodily from the infirmities of old age, and was not in a fit state to be left alone without some protection from the fire’, caught light whilst sitting in a chair by the fireside during her husband’s temporary absence.  She was found by her husband ‘lying by the side of the fire with her head in the cinder-pit.  Her clothes around her neck and cap were burnt off, and the other part of her clothes smouldering.  She was quite dead’.  After returning a verdict of accidental death, the jury drew ‘the attention of the trustees [of the Almshouse] to the expediency of fixed guards being placed in front of the fire-places in the rooms inhabited by the old and infirm inmates’.[6]  This, however, was not the first occasion where a coroner’s jury had raised the issue of inmates’ safety to Seckford Almshouse trustees.  In 1862, after the fatal burning of an elderly inmate, foreman of the jury Thomas Bays wrote to the Governors and Trustees of the almshouse[7]:

newspaper

Nevertheless, it appears as though the advice went unheeded.  In 1885, Sarah Leech, aged 11 years, on visiting her grandmother, another inmate of Seckford Almshouses, was ‘endeavouring to do her hair in front of the fire’ when her clothes ignited.  The burns ‘were of such a terrible character that she died [that] same evening’.  Significantly, there was no fireguard present.  At the inquest, ‘the Jury returned a verdict of “Accidental Death,” adding the presentment to the effect that fireguards should be provided to each grate’.  It was then further noted that ‘some 11 years ago an old gentlemen was burnt to death in the Almshouses, which, the Coroner remarked, gave increased force to the recommendation of the Jury’.[8]

In some cases, however, little could be done to prevent such accidents if the elderly person had a child-like inquisitiveness with fire. Septuagenarian Ann Kerridge’s ‘impaired mental faculties’ rendered her impervious to the dangers of fire.  Leaving for work one July day, her 74-year-old farm labourer husband ‘cautioned’ her ‘not to touch the fire’.  The inquest noted that Ann was ‘fond of poking the fire about whenever she had an opportunity, and had, only the day before, a hole burnt in her dress, but fortunately her husband was then present and extinguished the flames’.  However, on this particular day, Ann was as usual left alone; a neighbour discovered her ‘in a blaze’.  Badly burnt, ‘she died in about three hours’.[9]


[1] The definition of ‘old age’ is highly subjective and naturally varies greatly across the centuries –  today we see those in their 80s as ‘old’, while in the 19th century, with a much lower life expectancy, anyone in their 60s would have been considered old; although, the experience of old age varied widely, affected by class, gender, and physical ability. Sonya Rose, ‘The Varying Household Arrangements of the Elderly in Three English villages: Nottinghamshire, 1851-1881’, Continuity and Change, 3 (1998), 101-122 (p. 118); Pat Thane, ‘Social Histories of Old Age and Ageing’, Journal of Social History, 37 (2003) 93-111 (p. 98); Pat Thane, Old Age in English History: Past Experiences, Present Issues (Oxford, 2000) pp. 4-5; Robert Wood & Nicola Shelton, An Atlas of Victorian Mortality (Liverpool, 1997), p. 119.

[2] Ipswich Journal, 14 Feb 1846, p. 2

[3] Ipswich Journal, 20 Jul 1850, p. 3.

[4] Ipswich Journal, 30 March 1878, p. 5.

[5] See Vicky Holmes, ‘Absent Fireguards and Burnt Children: Coroners and The Development Of Clause 15 Of The Children Act 1908′, Law, Crime And History 2 (2012), 21-58.

[6] Ipswich Journal, 31 Dec 1870, p. 8.

[7] Ipswich Journal, 8 Feb 1862, p. 5.

[8] Ipswich Journal, 25 July 1885, p. 5.

[9] Ipswich Journal, 23 July 1864, p. 5.

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