‘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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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 Staircase – Part 4

‘Worse for drink’ – Intoxication and the fatal staircase fall

In 1900, 66-year-old William Sharman died as a result of a fall in an intoxicated state.  The Ipswich Journal headlined: ‘A PENSIONER’S FATAL FALL’, stating that he was ‘a little worse for drink’ and was known to be ‘addicted to drink’.[1]  William’s case, however, was far from commonplace in Victorian Suffolk.

Intoxication appears to have been an infrequent factor in the incidence of fatal falls in Suffolk’s working-class homes.  This is unexpected, given the conclusions of Forbes’s work on nineteenth-century coroners’ inquests that intoxication was a leading cause of falls.[2]  In fact, in my own research of coroners’ inquests – where I examined nearly 100 inquests pertaining to accidental domestic falls – only in three cases did witnesses corroborate that the victim was intoxicated at the time of the fatal incident.

One evening in 1859, 48-year-old Mary Ann Spencer had been out drinking with her husband and returned to their lodgings at the Portobello Inn (one of two fatal falls recorded in Ipswich’s inquests occurring at this location) about 10 o’clock:

[Mary Ann] being very drunk, was advised by her husband (who was also the worse for drink), to go to bed, but she refused, and went up and downstairs several times.  After the husband had gone to bed, [she] again went upstairs, when she fell backwards into the passage […] death arose from extravasation of blood on the brain.[3]

Meanwhile, in 1881, Louisa Carter, wife of a Shipwright, died when she fell downstairs whilst ‘worse for drink’.  The Ipswich Journal, rather than running the usual subheading of ‘A FATAL FALL’ or similar, went with the tagline ‘DRINKING HABITS’.  As well as detailing the circumstances of the accident, the newspaper also noted how a neighbour, Mrs Long, had attempted to intervene in the drinking habits of the deceased: ‘I asked her why she did not become a better woman, and leave the drink alone, and the deceased said she regretted she had not taken that advice before, as she would have been better off’.[4]  Evidently, the fact that Louisa was drunk at the time of her fatal fall caused a commotion in the local press.  This reaction is unsurprising, as the nineteenth century saw an increasing revulsion towards female drinking.  The burgeoning Temperance Movement and teetotallers of the Victorian era, Brian Harrison states, ‘emphasized the need to rouse the dignity of women’.[5]  At a Temperance lecture held in Ipswich, in 1885, it was said: ‘it is disgraceful to see a man drunk, but it is even more disgraceful to see a woman drunk’.[6]

Nevertheless, despite these protestations, it is evident that the connection between drunkenness and the Victorian fatal fall needs to be reappraised.

The Staircase – Part 1

The Staircase – Part 2

The Staircase – Part 3


[1] Ipswich Journal, 1 Sept 1900, p. 5.

[2] Forbes, ‘Coroners’ inquests in the county of Middlesex’, p. 380; Forbes, ‘Coroners’ inquisitions from the county of Cheshire’, p. 489.

[3] Ipswich Journal, 17 Sept 1859, p. 5.

[4] Ipswich Journal, 3 May 1881, p. 2.

[5] Brian Harrison, Drink and the Victorians: The Temperance Question in England, 1815-1872 (London, 1971), p. 368.

[6] Ipswich Journal, 12 Feb 1885, p. 2.

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The Staircase – Part 2

‘There was no rail or rope up the stairs, which were rather steep’ – Staircase design and the fatal staircase fall

The staircase only became a common feature in the homes of the poor in the early-nineteenth century.  As with most other internal areas of working-class domestic residences, there were at this time few relevant building regulations designed with the safety of the inhabitant in mind.[1] In fact, it was not until the Public Health (Amendment) Act 1890 that local authorities were empowered (though not enforced) to make byelaws in regards to the ‘structure of floors, hearths, and staircases, and the height of rooms intended to be used for human habitation’.[2]  Staircases in working-class housing built prior to the new byelaws were treacherous, since ‘builders almost inevitably built down to the lowest standards permitted’.[3]  The design of nineteenth-century working-class staircases varied widely.  In some urban homes in this period, the staircase was enclosed, and, as Stefan Muthesius describes, ‘tortuous, steep, with several turns’.[4]  In other urban homes in this period, where landings and hallways were uncommon a ‘narrow’ staircase often ran alongside the wall in the already cramped single lower or back room, egressing directly into one the bedrooms above.[5]

Unsurprisingly, therefore, the steepness and narrowness of staircases and the absence of handrails in the homes of the working classes was frequently remarked upon at the coroners’ inquests of those who had died as a result of an accidental fall while ascending or descending stairs, as revealed in the following examples:

In 1893, The Ipswich Journal reported on a ‘FATAL FALL DOWNSTAIRS AT IPSWICH’.  Sarah Tracey, an Ipswich widow, aged 70, residing with her daughter and family at 21 Turin Street, St. Mary Stoke, had been coming downstairs one May morning, when she fell.  Her daughter, upon hearing the fall, ‘open[ed] the door of the staircase [and] saw her mother completely doubled up’.  Despite the attention of Mr Staddon, an Ipswich surgeon, Sarah soon died from ‘shock to the system, resulting for the fall’.  An inquest was held the following day, where the daughter, responding to a question from the jury’s foreman, stated that there ‘was no handrail to steady a person coming downstairs [and that] the deceased suffered from dizziness’.  Mr Staddon also stated to the court that ‘he considered the stairs frightfully steep, and not fit for any person of the age of deceased to climb’.  The jury remarked at the inquest’s close that ‘a handrail should be placed on the staircase’.[6]

At another coroner’s inquest, in 1887, 92-year-old John Emery of Framsden, St. Etheldreda, was found partly dressed at the bottom of his stairs; it was thought he had fallen down the stairs during the night.  It was commented upon at the inquest that there was ‘no handrail on the landing and only a low one on the stairs[7] Similarly, in 1890, in Farnham, 85-year-old Susan Clouting was found by her husband ‘delirious in bed; her face was bleeding. [She] said that she fell in the corner of the staircase and hit her head, and then fell down into the house.  There was no handrail’.  Susan later died of ‘concussion of the brain and spinal cord, and [at the inquest into her death] the jury returned a verdict of “Accidental Death.”’[8]

Similar accidents occurred around the country during the Victorian period.  In 1900, The Weekly Dispatch reported on a ‘DANGEROUS STAIRCASE’ in East Sussex. 30 year old builder’s labourer William Henry Jones died from injuries received through falling downstairs in his home at Bexhill-on-Sea.  The inquest noted that ‘there was no handrail to the stairs, and the top stair was only six inches from the sitting room’, there being no hallway or landing.  On the night of the accident, around midnight, William ‘said “Good night” to his mother, and told her he did not want a light.  She immediately afterwards heard a crash, and she and [his] wife found [him] lying at the foot of the stairs with his skull fractured’.  As the accident had occurred after the introduction of the building byelaws regarding stairs, the jury ‘requested the coroner to draw attention to the surveyor of the District Council to the necessity of a proper banister being provided’.[9]

‘A rickety ladder’

Most typical staircase falls were concentrated in urbanised areas, as the upper floor of the rural labourers’ homes, even throughout the Victorian period, was often accessed via a staircase-ladder (as seen in the image below).  Remarking on the homes of agricultural labourers’ in Suffolk, Wilson Fox notes that, ‘In Barrow a number of cottages have no staircase but a rickety ladder, up and down which a woman has somehow to drag her children’.[10]

Penny Illustrated News, 12 January 1850

Penny Illustrated News, 12 January 1850.

However, these staircase-ladders appear not to have been as hazardous as one may assume.  In rural Suffolk, where, the ‘staircase-ladder’ often featured, just one fatality was recorded in St. Etheldreda’s Victorian inquests.  In 1858, at the inquest of a 65-year-old widow, Priscilla Harvey of Butley, witness James Malster, Constable, stated that, on neighbours becoming concerned, he broke down the door and found Priscilla ‘lying on her back between the ladder, used as a staircase, and the wall, her head resting on the wall at the end of the room and one foot suspended on the ladder, she was then quite dead.  I have no reason whatever to suspect but that she accidentally fell down stairs which I believe was the cause of her death.  The door was barred inside.  I searched the house but found no one there’.[11]

Perhaps, being perceived as more perilous than the traditional staircase, people took more caution on ladders than they did on stairs or they simply avoided going upstairs unless it was absolutely necessary.

The Staircase – Part 1

The Staircase – Part 3

The Staircase – Part 4


[1] Burnett, A Social History of Housing, p. 158.

[2] s.23 Public Health Act Amendment Act, 1890.

[3] Burnett, A Social History of Housing, p. 156.

[4] Muthesius, The English Terraced House, p. 67.

[5] Griffiths, ‘The housing of Ipswich’, p. 18; Muthesius, The English Terraced House, pp. 88, 10.

[6] Ipswich Journal, 20 May 1893, p. 2.

[7] SROi EC5/31/6 The Inquisition at the Parish of Framsden on the body of John Emery, aged 93 years, 1 Feb 1888.

[8] Ipswich Journal, 22 Feb 1890, p. 3.

[9] Weekly Dispatch, 17 Jun 1900, p. 6.

The Model Building Byelaws, 1899 stated, ‘Staircases (required to have a minimum of 8 inches tread and a maximum of 9 inches rise) be provided with a handrail, the thickness of the strings to be 1¼ inches, thickness of tread 1 inches thickness, or ¾ inches’ (Ley, A History of Building Control, p. 174).

[10] PP Royal Commission on Labour. The agricultural labourer. Vol. I. England. Part III. Reports by Mr Arthur Wilson Fox, (assistant commissioner,) upon certain selected districts in the counties of Cumberland, Lancashire, Norfolk, Northumberland, and Suffolk, with summary report prefixed, 1893-94 (6894-III) XXXV.317, p. 36.

[11] SROi EC5/1/2 Inquisition at the parish of Butley on the body of Priscilla Harvey, 29th Apr 1850.

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