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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