‘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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