‘DEATH FROM FALLING INTO A TUB OF SCALDING BEER’

The Hazards of Domestic Brewing

In the next few posts, I want to venture out of the house and explore the hazards lurking in the gardens and yards of the Victorian home. Today, I am going to begin with the hazards of domestic brewing.

Brewing was an integral part of Suffolk rural life. Whilst in decline in many areas of the country, in rural Suffolk “home brewing [remained] the order of the day,” and was a task predominantly undertaken by housewives to supplement the household income, or merely to “cut out the brewer and the publican.”[1] Nonetheless, as John Burnett comments, “Brewing […] presupposed a standard of living above mere subsistence. To provide the necessary equipment of vats, mash-turns, pails and barrels was an initial expense [and] thereafter to buy regular supplies of costly malt and hops.”[2] G.F. Millin, a journalist and Liberal propagandist for social causes, observed, the householder paid “four and six or five shilling for a bushel of malt, and a shilling a pound for hops, and out of this they brew eighteen gallons of beer, for which at the public-house they would have to pay two-pence-ha’penny a pint.”[3] 

The cook and housekeeper's complete and universal dictionary

The cook and housekeeper’s complete and universal dictionary

Brewing was a time-consuming task and was, for the most part, a task undertaken in designated brewhouses or in other outhouses. When not purchased ready, the grain first had to be ‘malted’ in a tub, often referred to as a ‘keeler’. The malt was then ‘mashed’, the resulting mixture being ‘sweetwort’. This was then boiled in a ‘heated vessel’ and hops added for flavour. Then, Sambrook states, “the spent hops are strained from the wort, which is run off and cooled in shallow coopered tubs or wooden trays.”[4] It seems from the inquest reports that this part of the process was sometimes done, weather permitting, outdoors in the yard. This, however, was the most hazardous part of the process – although nothing compared to the hazards of domestic life in the multifunctional living space discussed in earlier posts.

In the period 1840-1900, at least 11 children in St. Etheldreda (East Suffolk) playing in their yards were fatally scalded after falling into tubs of boiling hot sweetwort/beer left to cool there (while such an accident befell one child in a backhouse). One Friday in May 1863, the Ipswich Journal reported, three-year-old Ellen Bloomfield, of Pettistree, “was at play in the yard, at the back of her father’s house […] where her mother had put some beer in three small tubs to cool.” Hearing screaming, Ellen’s mother “went into the yard and found her lying in the tub, with her feet on one side and her head on the other; her back and left arm were in the beer, which was just off the boil. She was quite sensible, and said she had fallen into the tub.” As in the case of so many other domestic scalds, the mother had only momentarily turned her back or briefly gone into another room, giving the child an opportune moment for mischief or mishap. A medical attendant, Mr Cochrane, was called, “but the shock to the system was so great that she died on [the] Sunday morning.” At the inquest, the jury returned the verdict of “Accidental death from falling into scalding beer.”[5]

Likewise, in September 1879, the Ipswich Journal reported on four-year old Edith Emma Skinner’s accidental death when staying at her grandmother’s home in Shottisham during the harvest.  The article, entitled “DEATH FROM FALLING INTO A TUB OF SCALDING BEER,” describes how her grandmother, after brewing some beer in the copper, left it in the yard to cool. Soon after, Edith, who had been playing in the yard, was found “lying on her back with her head against the sieve over the tub to catch the hops.” A doctor was called, but “he considered the case most hopeless from the first” and Edith died the following afternoon. At the inquest, where so often advice was given though not necessarily heeded, the jury concluded that they “wish to impress upon people brewing or using scalding water, in all cases when it can be done to place the tub or utensil in use for such purpose on a stool or raised place, for by so doing fatal accidents may be avoided.”[6]

However, danger did not just lurk in the activity of brewing in the rural yards. As will by explored in my next post, ponds and wells also consumed the lives of some rural inhabitants – and not all of these victims were young children.

Notes:

[1] Jobson, A Window in Suffolk, pp. 48, 120; George Francis Millin, Life in Our Villages, by the Special commissioners of the “Daily News”: being a series of letters written to that paper in the autumn of 1891 (London, 1891), p. 62.  Also John Burnett, Plenty and Want. A Social History of Diet in England from 1815 to the Present (Harmondsworth, 1996), pp. 18-20 details the decline of domestic brewing in nineteenth-century rural society.

[2] Burnett, Plenty and Want, pp. 18-19.

[3] Millin, Life in Our Villages, p. 62.

[4] Pamela Sambrook, Country House Brewing in England, 1500-1900 (London, 1996), p. 19. Sambrook’s book is a comprehensive history of brewing.

[5] Ipswich Journal, 6 June 1863, p. 5.

[6] Ipswich Journal, 6 Sept 1879, p. 5.

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Inflammable Flannelette

In 2012, my article Absent Fireguards & Burnt Children was published in the Law, History & Society Journal.  This article explored the hitherto overlooked Section 15 of the Children Act 1908 which introduced legislation in regards to the use of domestic fireguards.  This clause transpired from the outcry of coroners who were horrified by the number of fatally burnt children brought before their courts.  The coroners’ campaign for fireguard legislation in the late-Victorian and Edwardian period was one of numerous in regards to domestic safety.  The campaign and legislation regarding overlaid infants is perhaps one of the most widely discussed of all these, while the call for lamp legislation is discussed in one of my forthcoming publications.  It was whilst writing the latter, that I began to reflect on another issue raised by coroners and that vexed the minds of Parliamentarians on the matter of burnt children that I was only able to discuss briefly in my fireguard’s article: flannelette.

FLANNELETTE ALMOST AS DANGEROUS AS GUNPOWDER

In March 1898, the Manchester Times reported that the city coroner, Mr Sidney Smelt, had:

held several inquests on children burned to death owing to their having played with fire in one way or another.  Mr Smelt said there had been seven such deaths within a week that he had had to deal with, and he attributed the fact to the cold weather we had recently experienced.  Children would go near fires to warm themselves; it, therefore, behoved parents to watch them strictly.  They should also avoid dressing them in flannelette, which was almost as dangerous, if touched with fire, as gunpowder’.[1]

It was not just the young who were put at risk through dressing in flannelette, as illustrated in The Sunday Times’ report, November 1911, ‘INFLAMMABLE FLANNELETTE’, which describes the event surrounding the death of a ninety-five-year-old woman named Bell of Montpelier Road, Kentish Town, who had burnt to death while ‘sitting before the fire’. The doctor, called as a witness to the inquest into her death, stated ‘flannelette was dangerous for anyone to wear near a fire, as it was so inflammable’.[2]

Many coroners increasingly saw flannelette as a chief cause of fatal accidental burns of children in poor homes; irrespective of whether a fireguard was present.  Flannelette, a cotton fabric with a raised surface, had been introduced to the English market in 1885 and soon became popular amongst the poor for children’s clothing; being both cheap and warm.  However, one major disadvantage of this material was that its raised surface was easily ignitable and, when ignited, the fire quickly spread, soon enveloping a child in flames.[3]  Furthermore, as the Liverpool coroner, T.E. Sampson, remarked in 1909, ‘the stuff adheres to the flesh and cannot be so easily removed as ordinary cloth would be; the shock is greater and the burns are more extensive’.[4]  Some coroners even claimed that flannelette was so dangerous that even fireguards would be unable to prevent a fatality if the flannelette wearer was caught by a spark from the fire.  The coroner for Manchester, E.A. Gibson, reported on a case of fatal flannelette burning, ‘where it was said the child was three yards from the fire and there was a fireguard’.[5]

The solution to the ‘THE DANGERS OF FLANNELETTE’ to many coroners and jurors alike was, as in the case of absent fireguards, no longer education but legislation:

Commenting on the dangers of flannelette at an inquest at Poplar yesterday [4 November 1905], the Coroner (Mr Wynne Baxter) said he agreed that [flannelette] was the most dangerous stuff that ever was invented, but it was not a question for the L.C.C., but one for the Home Secretary, as it affected the country generally.  The jury added the following rider to their verdict of accidental death: “We desire the Coroner to inform the Home Secretary that in view of the number of deaths from burning in connection with flannelette, the jury are of opinion that the sale of such dangerous material should be prohibited by legislation’.[6]

In 1908 (the same year fireguard legislation was passed), in response to the outcry of coroners, jurors, and the press, a Select Committee was formed to inquire into the ‘danger arising from the use of flannelette for articles of clothing’.  Under this committee, coroners, flannelette manufacturers, traders and other persons including a hospital surgeon were interviewed, and the flammability of flannelette was extensively tested by chemists.  Nearly all coroners interviewed stated that flannelette accounted for numerous fatal burns suffered by children around the country and supported some kind of legislation being introduced in regards to the flannelette question, such as state standardised testing to ensure the flannelette sold was relatively safe.[7]  One coroner stated that he would ‘be glad to see legislation prohibiting the clothing of children under 10 years of age in low grade flannelette’.[8]

What makes this call from coroners in regards to flannelette particularly interesting is that the responsibility for preventing burns accidents amongst poor children was not falling solely upon mothers, as was common at this time.  Instead, manufacturers and traders of flannelette were increasingly held accountable.  However, unlike the call to introduce legislation to ‘enforce’ mothers to use fireguards, the Government were uneasy to regulate industry in the name of public safety.

Manufacturers and traders of flannelette argued that it unfairly targeted them, claiming other cloths such as calico and muslin were just as flammable but yet did not come under the same scrutiny.  Furthermore, with the flannelette industry being a significant employer, any prohibition in its sale would result in the loss of jobs and grant of monopoly to the ‘small section of the trade’ producing ‘non-flammable’ flannelette.  Additionally, prohibiting ‘lower class flannelettes’ would merely result in poorer people buying other cheap and just as inflammable materials, instead of the more expensive ‘non-flam’ flannelette; as one cloth retailer remarked, poor people simply buy cloth according to cost.[9]  Manufacturers and traders were also critical of the statistical evidence produced by coroners and those in the Registrar-General returns which show a relation between flannelette clothing and burns accidents, which they maintain is more of a correlation than a causation: ‘the only point is this’, stated A.M. Jones, flannelette manufacturer, ‘that children wear flannelette, not that flannelette was necessarily the cause of death’.[10]  One Times correspondent later suggested that flannelette actually saved ‘far more lives than its bitterest opponents have blamed it for losing’, as, he argued, it kept the child warm, thereby preventing an ‘enormous’ amount of deaths from bronchitis and similar diseases.[11]

In its final report, the committee concluded:

‘It is to be observed that, while it is proved beyond doubt that accidents by fire are common occurrences among persons who wear flannelette, the part in which flannelette takes in such accidents is by no means clear.  In the nature of things it must often be difficult to decide whether, in the absence of flannelette, the accident would not have happened all the same or would not have ended fatally.

The true cause of accidents is, in the great majority of cases, carelessness in regards to things which are positively dangerous such as […] open fires, the absence of fire-guards, and the dangerous practice of leaving children without any competent person to look after them.  The wearing of flannelette is generally not so much a cause as a concomitant of the accident’.[12]

They were, therefore, ‘unable to recommend any legislation except for the case in which there is a positive misinterpretation of the character of the goods offered for sale’, such as those flannelette advertised as ‘non-flam’ which become flammable after only a few washes.[13]


[1] ‘Flannelette Almost as Dangerous as Gunpowder’ – Manchester Times, 4 March 1898.

[2] ‘Inflammable Flannelette’ – The Sunday Times, 19 November 1911, p. 14.

[3] ‘Flannelette Industry’ The Times, 22 April 1913, p. 22; Report of an inquiry into the question of the Danger arising from the Use of Flannelette for Articles of Clothing, 1910 (5376).

[4] Coroners’ Committee. Second report of the Departmental Committee appointed to inquire into the law relating to coroners and coroners’ inquests, and into the practice in coroners’ courts. Part II. Evidence., pp. 96-97, 1910 (5139) XXI.583.

[5] Ibid, p. 69.

[6] ‘The Dangers of Flannelette’ – The Sunday Times, 5 November 1905, p. 5.

[7] Coroners’ Committee… 1910 (5139) XXI.583.

[8] Coroners’ Committee… p. 158, 1910 (5139) XXI.583.

[9] Coroners’ Committee… 1910 (5139) XXI.583.

[10] Coroners’ Committee… p. 128, 1910 (5139) XXI.583.

[11] ‘Flannelette’ – The Times, 27 June 1913, p. 50

[12] Report…Danger arising from the Use of Flannelette…, 1910 (5376).

[13] Ibid.

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Hazardous “Toys”

cover image for seriesThis is the beginning of a series of mini blogs examining the hazards of “toys” and play in the homes of the Victorian poor. The aim of this series is to not just examine the dangers of these objects, but to also explore the range of toys available to the children of the poor and their ability to find entertainment in everyday domestic objects.

The Doorway Swing

In the Snelling’s home in Vernon Street, Ipswich, an 1865 coroner’s inquest records that there was ‘a swing fixed from the doorway leading from the back room to the kitchen…The swing had been in the same place and used by the children for two years past, but had frequently had new ropes.  New ropes [had only recently been] hung…and were considered by the parents of quite sufficient strength’.  Unfortunately, however, we only know about this swing fixed in the backroom/kitchen doorway for the Snelling’s children to play upon because in June, that year, Frederick Snelling ‘was amusing himself’ on the swing ‘when suddenly the cord gave way and he fell to the ground and was hurt, and died about two hours afterwards’.  At the inquest into his death, the jury returned a verdict of ‘Accidental death from concussion of the brain’.[1]

This inquest reveals a number of things in regards to childhood play in the homes of the Victorian urban working class.  Play appears as an acceptable encroachment on the family’s indoor living space.  This case is not isolated – my research has illuminated numerous instances of children playing in the family’s living space (a topic that is going to be returned to latterly). Secondly, it provides an example of the make-shift toys children experienced. For many Victorian children, manufactured toys were not widely available or affordable.  Instead, toys, such as the doorway swing, were improvised by parents.  However, what I find most poignant in this particular case is the obvious care and recognition of a child’s need to play by the Snelling parents, and their attempts to meet these needs within the relative safety of the home away from the hazards of the streets.

[1] Ipswich Journal, 10 June 1865, p. 5.

Playing School

During the colder months, the indoor space of the home became the playground for young children and while for some there were toys to play with, many other children had to utilise their imaginations to entertainment themselves and their siblings.

In March 1879, an inquest was held on the body of nine-year-old Caroline Parker.  The Ipswich Journal, reporting on the case, stated that ‘on the morning of [Friday] 28th [February] the mother of the child left her in charge of two other children to visit her mother, and had been gone about ten minutes when a neighbour (Mrs. Hutson), hearing a loud scream, went to the window of the house… and there saw the child screaming, her clothes having been ignited by the fire’. Despite the neighbour ‘immediately extinguish[ing] the flames with a hearthrug’, Caroline was ‘dreadfully’ burnt.  Before her death, ‘she told her mother that as she was playing school with the other two children her dress, as she was standing with her back to the fire, caught fire’.[1] Unfortunately, the inquest does not clarify why she was playing school, rather than being at school.


[1] Ipswich Journal, 22 Apr 1879, p. 2.

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