‘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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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 3

‘She either turned giddy or trod upon her shawl and fell backward’– Infirmity, gender, and the fatal staircase fall

In G.M.B. Webber’s 1985 study of accidental falls on stairs and steps in England and Wales, he found that most stairs accidents, 85 per cent in total, occurred in the home and that ‘nearly 70 per cent of the fatal falls on stairs and steps involved elderly people, aged 65 years and over’.[1]  Similarly, ROSPA’s report on ‘Accidents to Older People’, notes that ‘falls affect over a third of people over 65 years old and 40 per cent of people over 80’.[2] The Health and Safety Laboratory (HSL) stated that ‘two reasons for the high prevalence of stairway injuries for the elderly is that vision and balance deteriorate with age’.[3]  Such accidents, however, are not a modern phenomenon and were commonplace in Victorian society.

Many of the victims of fatal domestic falls brought before the Victorian coroner’s courts were elderly and infirmity was often seen as the major contributory factor in the fatal incident, with ‘rheumatism’, ‘giddiness’, ‘feebleness’ and ‘frailty’ frequently referred to.

When Martha Saul’s body was brought before the Ipswich coroner’s court in 1872, it was described that the 68-year-old ‘suffered from rheumatics in the hips, and was frequently attacked with giddiness’.  Her husband, an Ipswich shoemaker, stated that they lodged at the Portobello Inn and ‘on Friday night last, about ten o’clock, [they] were going upstairs, he leading the way with a light’.  He went on to state, Martha ‘had to catch hold of each stair in order to assist herself up, and when within three steps of the top she attempted to take hold of a rail, and missing it, fell to the bottom’.  Never regaining consciousness, she died the following morning.  The medical witness stated that in ‘his opinion the poor women was seized with an epileptic fit on the stairs, and that caused her fall’.[4]

In a similar accident in Ipswich, in 1886, 69-year-old widow, Sarah Collins, who was ‘almost blind’, was at about 8 o’clock one evening being assisted upstairs by her son on account of ‘her not being well’.  ‘When he got her up to the top he told [her] to remain there while he placed the lamp on a table, but before he had done [Sarah] had fallen downstairs backward [and] was quite unconscious as she lay at the bottom of the stairs’.  She died a few days later in hospital from the head injuries caused by the fall.[5]  Three years later in the same town, 64-year-old Mr J.O. Kemp was going upstairs to bed, when ‘the stick on which he was leaning slipped, and he fell, the end of his stick pressing against his right side, breaking a rib’.  He never recovered from his injuries, dying a week later.[6]

Gender, to some extent, was also a factor in the incidence of fatal falls in the home, with 55 out of 81 adult victims of all fatal household falls being women in both Victorian Ipswich and the Liberty of Suffolk (East Suffolk); although, this gender gap narrows when it comes to those fatal falls upon domestic stairs.  However, various studies in the incidence of falls in the late twentieth century have found that ‘females [are] more prone to stairway falls than males’, with women aged 65 years and over being involved in twice as many fatal falls on stairs and steps than males.[7]  This, the HSL report states, ‘is probably due to the fact that most stair accidents occur in the home and adult females still spend more time in the home than adult males’.[8]  Furthermore, P.L. Jackson and H.H. Cohen (1995) suggest that lesser upper body strength in women could possibly prevent them for stopping a fall.[9]

However, in 1897, at the inquest of 75-year-old Anna Manthorp of Ipswich it was thought female clothing was also a possible contributory factor in her demise, as, when reaching the top of the stairs ‘she either turned giddy or trod upon her shawl and fell backward’.  Despite the surgeon finding no broken or fractured bones resulting from the fall, Anna ‘complained of pain in her back and neck’.  She died soon after from ‘bronchitis which followed as the result of the accident – Verdict: “Accidental Death”’.[10]  In 1900, the Weekly Dispatch reported how ‘an elderly lady’ in Scarborough was ‘KILLED BY HER COMB’ which she was wearing at the time of falling down a flight of stairs.  The comb lacerated her scalp, leaving her with a wound ‘some two inches in length’.[11]

 The Staircase – Part 1 

 The Staircase – Part 2

 The Staircase – Part 4


[1] G.M.B Webber, ‘Accidental falls on stairs and steps in England and Wales. A study of

time trends of fatalities’, Journal of Occupational Accidents, 7 (1985), pp. 83-99, cited in The Health and Safety Laboratory (HSL) Falls on stairways – literature review. Report number HSL/2005/10, p. 11 http://www.hse.gov.uk/research/hsl_pdf/2005/hsl0510.pdf, accessed 28 Feb 2012

[2] ROSPA, ‘Accidents to Older People’, http://www.rospa.com/homesafety/adviceandinformation/olderpeople/accidents.aspx#falls, accessed 28 Feb 2012.

[3] HSL Falls on stairways – literature review, p. 19.

[4] Ipswich Journal, 24 Sept 1872, p. 2.

[5] Ipswich Journal, 23 Mar 1886, p. 2.

[6] Ipswich Journal, 8 Feb 1889, p. 8

[7] D. Hemenway et al, ‘The incidence of stairway injuries in Austria’, Accident Analysis and Prevention, 26: (1994), pp. 675-679; H. Nagata, ‘Occupational accidents while walking on stairs’, Safety Science, 14 (1991), pp. 199-211; and H. Nagata, ‘Analysis of fatal falls on the same level or on steps/stairs’, Safety Science, 14 (1991), pp. 213-222, cited in HSL Falls on stairways – literature review, pp. 11, 19.

[8] HSL Falls on stairways – literature review, p. 19.

[9] P.L. Jackson and H.H. Cohen, ‘An in-depth investigation of 40 stairway accidents and the stair safety literature’, Journal of Safety Research, 26 (1995), pp. 151-159, cited in HSL Falls on stairways – literature review, p. 19.

[10] Ipswich Journal, 17 Dec 1897, p. 7.

[11] Weekly Dispatch, 4 Mar 1900, p. 6.

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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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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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