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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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 Treatment of Burns and Scalds

Home remedies and herbalists were still relied upon in some households during the Victorian period for the treatment of burns and scalds.  A popular home-remedy for the treatment of burns, recommended in Cassell’s Household Guide for example, was to cover the affected area with flour and then wrap it up in cotton wadding,[1] although the coroners’ inquests reveal a range of treatments utilised by the working-class community.

Cassell’s Household Guide

Cassell’s Household Guide

Yeast, Potatoe, Snowy Water & Ointment

In December 1875, Annie Meadow, age three years, upset a kettle of hot water and was badly scalded.  Instead of immediately calling for medical assistance, her mother, the inquest records, ‘applied some yeast to the injured part, and also some scraped potatoe, and she called in the assistance of a neighbour, and the scald was damped with snowy water’.  The mother then went to the local herbalist who provided her with ‘some ointment’, ‘as well as a mixture to keep the child’s mouth moist’.  Several days after the fateful incident, with the child’s health deteriorating, the mother was advised by the herbalist to seek professional medical aid.  However, the child died before medical aid arrived.  At the inquest a post-mortem examination was held to determine whether the child would have lived if proper medical assistance had been immediately called for.  The surgeon stated that the wounds had become gangrenous and ‘the injuries were not in themselves such as would necessarily have led to fatal results, and in all probability they would have yielded to proper medical treatment’.  Nevertheless, even though the coroner believed the mother and the herbalist ‘guilty of great neglect’, there was insufficient medical evidence for a charge of neglect to be sustained.  All the coroner could do was simply warn the mother and the herbalist ‘to be more careful in future’, for ‘on a future occasion they might have to answer for such neglect to another jury’.[2]

Folly and Superstition

To the horror of the coroner’s court and the local press, even superstition still played a role in the treatment of burns.  In an article with the tagline, ‘Folly and Superstition’, the Ipswich Journal reported on a coroner’s inquest held by the Liberty of St. Etheldreda’s coroner, Mr Wood, in Woodbridge on the body of William Catchpole, ‘aged two years and a half, the only child of John Catchpole, labourer, who lives rather more than a mile from the town’.  At the unusually long inquest, it was established that on the 10th November 1851, ‘Mrs Catchpole was gone to an adjoining cottage with some bread to be baked ([and] although not absent more than two minutes) the clothes of the child caught fire, and he ran to the door, which increased the flames, and in attempting to put out the fire himself, burnt both his hands very much’.  His mother, ‘with the assistance of a neighbour… stripped the burning clothes from the child’.

However, rather than calling for professional medical assistance, which the coroners’ records suggest was becoming more commonplace in poorer communities for the treatment of burns and scalds, ‘a consultation was held by [what the newspaper states] a house full of old women as to what was to be done.’  Their decision was that William would be taken to Framlingham, some eleven miles away, ‘to a Mr John Oakley there, who was to charm away the fire’.  The 1851 census records John Oakley to be a 74 year old man and a ‘Proprietor of Houses’.  The newspaper reported that Mr Oakley: ‘rubbed the child with some of his own spittle, muttering at the same time some cabalistic words… and told the mother “to do nothing to the child.”  The following morning early, Mr Oakely went on his own accord to see the child again, because he thought he had not “done enough” and then repeated his charm’.

William, however, showed no signs of recovery and the local Rector then intervened, suggesting that the mother take him to see Mr Wilson, the local surgeon.  The surgeon attended William daily, but ‘lockjaw came on about the 18th, and death put an end to his suffering on the 24th’ – 14 days after the fatal incident.  The coroner’s inquest, as in the previous case, were not able to established ‘whether the life of this child could have been saved’ had professional medical attention been sought sooner, but admonished the ‘folly and superstition of [both] his mother and her neighbours’.

Mr Oakley, unsurprisingly, was also summoned to give evidence at the inquest.  The Ipswich Journal records that ‘he was examined at great length, but persisted in his power of being able to charm away fire from persons who have been burnt, and he did not appear to be abashed by the ridicule of the Jury’.  The coroner’s court and the newspaper concluded: ‘It is a lamentable fact the (in the middle of the nineteenth century) many poorer people in that parish are still superstitious enough to believe in the power of this man’s charms’.[3]


[1] Cassell’s Household Guide. Being a Complete Encyclopaedia of Domestic and Social Economy, and forming a guide to every department of practical life, vol. IV (London, 1869-71), pp. 73-74.

[2] Ipswich Journal, 1 Jan 1876, p. 5; Ipswich Journal, 4 Jan 1876, p. 2.

[3] Ipswich Journal, 29 Nov 1851, p. 2.

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