“Death from Eating Poisonous Mushrooms”

Accounts of Victorian poisonings involving bath buns, lozenges, and chocolates in several posts this week reminded me of a newspaper report that only made it into the footnotes of my thesis. Unlike the aforementioned accounts involving deliberate/accidental adulteration or malice, this case demonstrates the danger of eating foraged food.

On 22nd September 1860, the Ipswich Journal reported on a “distressing affair” of a coroner’s inquest held in the town on two siblings, Thomas Boothroyd, aged 15, and Adelaide Boothroyd, 13. They had both died as a result of eating poisonous mushrooms. Recently widowed, Sophia Boothroyd, recounted to the coroner’s court:

Thomas and Adelaide Boothroyd are my children…On Sunday last (9th inst.), I fried six mushrooms for breakfast, which my son had brought home the previous evening, having as he told me gathered them in Stoke Park [where he worked]. Myself, Thomas, Harriet, Elizabeth, all my children ate of these mushrooms, but Adelaide was not present and a piece was saved for her. The mushrooms were all small and I saw nothing in them to excite my suspicion.”

That evening the entire family began to suffer from sickness and diarrhoea. The mother stated, “All my children seemed better on Monday morning, the sickness had ceased but not the purging.”  However, on Tuesday Adelaide began to decline and on the Saturday morning Thomas died “and his sister shortly afterwards.”

Called to give evidence to the coroner’s court, Mr G.C. Edwards, surgeon, stated:

Mrs Boothroyd, her son Thomas, and daughter Harriet had medicine off me for diarrhoea during the week. I had not seen any of the family until this morning [Saturday], except Mrs Boothroyd, whom I saw Tuesday. I was called upon this morning about nine o’clock by Mrs Boothroyd, who said ‘Thomas is dead, and I am afraid the girl is dying’. My assistant went at once, and I attended by ten o’clock… Adelaide was dying; she was screaming with pain, and insensible. I have heard the evidence given, and the symptoms detailed, and as seen by myself, are quite consistent with death from poisonous fungi.” He therefore saw no reason to perform a post mortem examination.[1]

Returning a verdict of ‘accidental death’, the jury appended “that a great deal of caution should be exercised by persons eating mushrooms.”

Notes:

[1] Post mortem examinations were still quite uncommon at this time in Ipswich, a large part, no doubt, due to a lack of adequate facilities.

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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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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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