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.

Please do not reproduce the content of this blog in print or any other media without permission of the author.

“Naughty Lucifers”

Victorian children were well acquainted with the hazards of matches through stories such as Struwwelpeter’s ‘The Dreadful Story of Harriet and the Matches’.  However, not all took heed of such cautionary tales.

harriet

In Ipswich and St. Etheldreda, 1840-1900, a total of nine children (seven of whom were boys) died through ‘playing with matches’, most of which were a result of the ‘habit of leaving about Lucifer matches’.[1]  As the Penny Illustrated cites in 1907, even if ‘the mother is careful to buy only matches which light on the box, if the box is not put out of the possible reach of the child’, but for example ‘left on the table’, an accident could easily occur.[2]  In Ipswich, June 1852, foundry worker’s wife Mrs Harvey went upstairs to make the beds, leaving her two-year-old son, Henry, playing on the doorstep.  ‘In the course of ten minutes she went down to look after him, when she found him in the hands of her neighbours, his dress being on fire’.  Henry ‘told his mother that “he got the Lucifers off the copper,” saying “naughty Lucifers, they burnt me”.’  He died from his injuries several weeks later.[3]  In Trimley St Martin, Susannah Page, aged three and a half years, ‘lighted a match and set fire to herself’ whilst her parents were in the garden.  The Ipswich Journal stated in response: ‘Parents […] ought to be more cautious in leaving matches within reach of young children’.[4]

However, even the most cautious of mothers could not guarantee a safe home for their inquisitive and determined children.  In 1897, Bertie Green, aged two years, was burnt to death while his mother was absent purchasing some sweets for her children, ‘the supposition [was] that prompted by infantile curiosity he raised himself on the guard in front of the fire to reach something from the mantelshelf, lost his balance, and fell forward into the fire’.  It was noted at the inquest into his death, that on previous occasions the mother had witnessed Bertie ‘draw a chair up to the fireguard and take matches and other items on various occasions.’  ‘The fireguard had three bars all around’.  This led the coroner to comment that the mother should have known it was necessary to ‘take extraordinary precautions’ and ‘asked the jury to consider whether there was any culpability on the part of the mother, or any want of precaution on her part’.  In their summary, the jury stated, ‘it is most desirable, in the interests of society, that guards for fires should be constructed with top and bottom bars only, and vertical uprights, instead of horizontal bars, thus preventing children from getting on to the guard and thus reaching the mantelpiece’.  The jury then went on to say, they ‘hope[d] that the mother would not be indiscreet enough to leave so young a child on a future occasion’.[5]

The risk of fire was not the only danger associated with matches. In 1868, The Ipswich Journal reported on the accidental poisoning of twenty-month old Hannah Hunt.  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’.[6]

Given that so few fatal accidents occurred as a result of playing with matches in this period, this would suggest that this dangerous domestic object was generally kept out of reach of small children.


[1] Ipswich Journal, 20 May 1848, p. 2.

[2] Penny Illustrated and Illustrated Times, 13 Jul 1907, p. 28.

[3] Ipswich Journal, 26 Jun 1852, p. 3.

[4] Ipswich Journal, 13 Oct 1846, p. 2.

[5] Ipswich Journal, 24 Apr 1897, p. 2.

[6] SROi EC5/11/3 Inquisition at the parish of Debenham on the body of Hannah Hunt, 11 Jan 1868.

The poisonous nature of these matches is well documented.  Many of those working in the production of yellow phosphorous matches developed a disfiguring disease known as ‘phossy jaw’. See William T. O’Dea, A Social History of Lighting (London, 1958), p. 241; Peter W. J. Bartrip, The Home Office and the Dangerous Trades in Victorian and Edwardian Britain (Amsterdam, 2002), pp. 171-232.

Please do not reproduce the content of this blog in print or any other media without permission of the author.