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.


[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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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 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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Bedclothes, Mothers and Infant Suffocation

Bedclothes were believed to be one of the major causes of infant suffocation in the Victorian working-class home, the other being overlaying, while a small number were attributed to feeding bottles and pillows.  Between 1840 and 1900, 78 inquests held in Ipswich on infants (under one year of age) concluded they had been suffocated accidentally.  Exactly how many of these suffocations were due to bedclothes or overlaying cannot be truly ascertained, as the medical witnesses at the inquests were themselves frequently unsure as to the precise cause of the suffocation (and as will be seen below, even the actual cause of death).  This is illustrated at an 1871 inquest in Ipswich on Eliza and Seymour Durrant’s son, who had been discovered dead in his parents’ bed one Saturday morning in December.  Medical witness Mr Rumpf stated that ‘in his opinion the cause of the child’s death was asphyxia, which might have been produced either by the pressure of the bed clothes against its mouth or the pressure of the mouth against its mother’s breast, probably the latter’.[1]  While in 1890, Mr F.R. Anness, surgeon, stated at the inquest upon an infant named Hurrey, ‘he had no doubt that the child was suffocated, but how he could not say’.[2]

A small number of infant suffocations, 14 in total, took place as the infant slept in their bassinet or bed during the day, supposedly out of harm’s way.  For example, when infant Harriet Ungless was put to bed during the day, she rolled into the dip in the mattress created by the broken rope supporting the mattress and suffocated.[3]  This notwithstanding the bed appears to have been more of a dangerous space at night, when other inhabitants were also sleeping in the bed with 77 per cent of infant suffocations occurring between the hours of midnight and 6am.

In Ipswich, infant suffocation, including overlaying, did peak slightly during the cold winter months, as mothers ‘over-clad’ their infants in bedclothes or clothing in an attempt to keep them warm in the cold and draughty working-class bedroom.[4]  A number of Ipswich’s infants supposedly suffocated after being covered in too many bed clothes in an attempt by the mother to keep them warm.  On a Wednesday night, in December 1866, Jane Gant:

went to bed about half-past 12 [along with her infant daughter], her husband having gone to bed a quarter of an hour earlier [was already asleep].  She put the child to the breast and afterwards laid it upon the pillow by her side (not next to her husband), and went to sleep with her arm around it, having first covered its head with the bed clothes, to keep it warm.

The following morning, Jane Gant, upon waking, found her daughter was struggling to breathe.  She ran downstairs, and finding a fire burning, tried to warm the child, but the child died shortly after.  The surgeon at the inquest, Mr Staddon, having inspected the body (though only externally, as post-mortems examinations on infants and children were relatively uncommon throughout the period studied), concluded that ‘the child was suffocated by the [bed] clothes and probably the pillow’, and the jury agreed.[5]

Other mothers were believed to have overlaid their infants as they pressed them close for warmth on cold winter nights.  In November 1860, in Ipswich, Mary Miller’s mother ‘wrapped [her] child in a flannel petticoat to keep it warm; it is supposed she must have pressed it too closely to her, for the child was found dead the next morning’.  At the inquest, ‘Mr Meadows, who examined the child, was of opinion that death arose from suffocation, caused in the way alluded to’.[6]

Mothers were most often held responsible for overlaying, despite other occupants being present in the bed, partly because of their role as care-giver, but also because babies slept next to them.  In the Hervey family’s Ipswich home , ‘About 5 o’clock on[e] Friday morning the child cried, when it had the breast, and again went to sleep on its mother’s arm’.  When the parents awoke later on that morning, the infant was found to be dead.  ‘Mr Edwards, surgeon, who, upon examining the deceased, stated the body presented the appearance such as would have been produced by the child having been overlaid’.[7]

Even in overcrowded beds, the typical positioning of the infant with the mother meant that she was believed by the coroner’s court to have overlain the child.  At the 1845 inquest of Eliza Bayley, it was noted that, ‘the deceased, her mother, a blind sister, and another [female] person […] all slept in the same bed.  At eleven o’clock, the deceased took the breast, in the morning she was found dead’.  Giving his evidence to the court, ‘Mr Mills, surgeon, said the child died from suffocation, arising from the pressure of the mother’s breast; his belief was that the deceased fell asleep in her mother’s arms, and that, from there being three adult women in the same bed, the child was overlaid’.[8]

In contrast to the contemporary arguments, namely that mothers were usually drunk at the time of overlaying their infants, there appears to be little such evidence in the Ipswich inquests.  Despite infant suffocations peaking at weekends in Ipswich, only two mothers were believed to have overlain their infants whilst under the influence of drink at the time of the fatal incident between 1840 and 1900.  Admittedly, it must be stressed, it was certainly difficult for the coroner’s court to prove whether the mother was drunk at the time of the accident, as it would require others to testify to her intoxicated state.[9]

Tiredness, as first suggested by Jane Lewis,[10] not drunkenness, appears to have been a more common cause of overlaying in Ipswich.  In 1850, the Ipswich Journal reported on the inquest of the illegitimate infant, Sarah Lambley:

The mother of the infant, a single woman, aged 23, is in the habit of carrying water-cresses about the town, and occupies a garret in the Rope-walk, sleeping in the same bed with the child, and her sister […] On the previous day, the mother returned home very tired and went to bed; on the following morning at seven, she found the child dead upon her arm […] Mr Adams, surgeon, [stated i]n his opinion, death had been caused by asphyxia, produced from pressure from the mother.  He added that the fatigue and cold caused to the mother from walking about the street with water-cresses, were enough to occasion the mother to fall into a profound sleep, during which the infant, who was feeble and delicate, from involuntary slight pressure, would be suffocated.  There being no suspicious circumstance attending the case, the Jury returned a verdict “That the deceased was found dead in bed, from asphyxia produced from accidental pressure by the mother.”[11]

In 1896, the Ipswich Journal ran an article entitled: ‘TROUBLE UPON TROUBLE – SAD DISCLOSURES AT IPSWICH’, detailing the death and inquest of the Ipswich infant, Ellen Byford.  At the inquest, the coroner had stated that ‘In this case it was possible the child might have been suffocated by the bedclothes’, but tiredness was also considered to be a factor.  The medical witness, Mr S.O. Eades, surgeon, stated:

The mother had been broken in her rest for some nights with her other deceased child, which died of consumption; and his conclusion was that she had probably turned over during a heavy sleep and got her back against the child’s face.  It being only six weeks old, had not strength to recover its breath, and was suffocated by being overlaid […] The jury returned a verdict of “Accidental suffocation.”[12]

Recent scholarship has thrown doubt on the reliability of verdicts of infant suffocation, both accidental and intentional.  It has argued that many of these ‘suffocations’ were not suffocations at all, but were misconstrued symptoms of respiratory disorders such as bronco-pneumonia or, given the seasonality of these deaths, hypothermia.[13]  Problems in identifying the actual cause of death in the nineteenth century were compounded by a lack of medical expertise and medical facilities.[14]  As William Brend remarked in 1915:

The only post-mortem signs of death from overlaying are those ordinarily accompanying asphyxia, such as engorgement of the lungs and blueness of the face, which are indistinguishable from the appearance often met with in death from rickety convulsions and other causes vaguely certified under the term “debility”.  Even in bronco-pneumonia the patches of consolidation in the lungs, if not well marked, may be overlooked by a general practitioner; and the parents may have failed to notice that the infant has been ill for a day or two, or may have regarded the symptoms as trivial and due to a cold.[15]

Detailed medical testimony in the inquests and newspaper reports of the inquests that had resulted in a verdict of accidental suffocation/overlaying frequently refer to the infant being unwell at the time of death, suggesting that these deaths could possibly have been due to other causes:

‘The deceased had been ailing’

The infant ‘had a bad cold and great difficulty of breathing’

‘The child was not a healthy one’

‘The deceased child appears never to have been like other children, and always appeared to be in a state of semi-stupor and sleep’. 

‘The deceased had had a cold from its birth’

‘The infant was ‘sickly looking’

‘The child has been rather weak since its birth, suffering from thrush’.[16]

Even in the case of a post-mortem examination being held, confusion remained as to the cause of death, with surgeons relying on circumstantial evidence to reach their often tenuous conclusion.  At the inquest upon the infant of Ernest Cuthbert, ‘the surgeon stated that he had made a post-mortem examination of the body, and found that the child died from congestion of the lungs and brain, caused by suffocation, which he thought either took place from overlying on the part of the mother, or convulsions.  He thought the former most likely, as if the child had died of convulsions it would have struggled and awoke the mother’. Verdict – ‘Death from suffocation’.[17]

In some instances, the absence of symptoms in what is now identified as Sudden Infant Death Syndrome  (SIDS); commonly known as ‘cot death’, was perhaps wrongly attributed to accidental suffocation in bedclothes, accidental overlaying or, in some instances, infanticide.[18]  Victorian medical men, unable to account for these sudden and unexplained deaths, found the working-class mother an easy scapegoat.  As Davin explains, the middle-class ideal of separate spaces, that children should sleep separately from their parents, ideally in their own nursery, meant that ‘if an infant died in its parents bed, it must have been “overlaid” because it was in the wrong place’.[19]

Another mistaken sign that an infant had been overlaid was the post-mortem bruising that occurred as the cessation of circulation caused the blood to settle on one side of the body, giving the appearance that pressure (i.e. the mother) had been applied to that particular side.  Therefore, with a supposedly obvious sign of overlaying, at least to the medical witness’ eye on external examination of the body, little more was done to determine the cause of death.  The 1878 inquest of eight-week-old Thomas Piggin, recorded that ‘The child had been prematurely born.  Mrs Piggin gave it solid food twice a day and the breast when it was awake’.[20]  However, one morning Mrs Piggin awoke to find her infant dead by her side.  ‘Mr Adams, surgeon, [stated to the inquest that] he called about eight o’clock and saw the infant, which was quite dead.  It had a long bruise extending all up the left side of the arm, head, and side, which no doubt was produced by the child lying close to the mother, and the blood becoming congealed’.  He further added, ‘He considered the death of the child was caused by suffocation, by its nose and mouth being pressed against the mother, and it being weak died at once […] the jury returned a verdict according to the surgeon’s evidence’.[21]

Unfortunately, what actually caused these infants deaths will never be irrefutably established.  Nonetheless my work does, at the very least, cast further doubt on the verdict of suffocation (whether in bedclothes or through overlaying) in the Victorian coroner’s courts.

[1] Ipswich Journal, 30 Dec 1871, p. 5.

[2] Ipswich Journal, 1 Nov 1890, p. 8.

[3] Ipswich Journal, 3 Apr 1858, p. 3.

[4] Lionel Rose, The Massacre of the Innocents: Infanticide in Britain, 1800-1939 (London, 1986), p. 176.

[5] Ipswich Journal, 29 Dec 1866, p. 5.

[6] Ipswich Journal, 17 Nov 1860, p. 5.

[7] Ipswich Journal, 12 May 1849, p. 3.

William Brend, Barrister-at-law and lecturer on forensic medicine, argued in 1915, that the only genuine cases of overlaying occurred when the mother fell asleep while feeding her infant.  Any other attributed cases, he argues, are doubtful. William A. Brend, An Inquiry into the Statistics of Deaths from Violence and Unnatural Causes in the United Kingdom (London, 1915), p. 52.

[8] Ipswich Journal, 7 Jun 1845, p. 3.

[9] Rose, The Massacre of the Innocents, p. 180

[10] Jane Lewis, The Politics of Motherhood. Child and Maternal Welfare in England, 1900-1939 (London, 1980), p. 78.

[11] Ipswich Journal, 23 Nov 1850, p. 2.

[12] Ipswich Journal, 18 Jul 1896, p. 5.

[13] Brend, An Inquiry into the Statistics of Deaths, p. 52; M. Greenwood, W.J Martin and W.T Russell, ‘Deaths by violence, 1837-1937’, Journal of the Royal Statistical Society, 104 (1941), 146-171, p. 154; Elizabeth de G.R. Hansen, ‘“Overlaying” in 19th-century England: infant mortality or infanticide’, Human Ecology, 7 (1979), 333-52, p.336; Lewis, The Politics of Motherhood, p. 76; Rose, The Massacre of the Innocents, pp. 180-181; Ellen Ross, Love and Toil. Motherhood in Outcast London, 1870-1918 (New York, 1993), p. 189.

[14] Edward Higgs, Identifying the English. A History of Personal Identification, 1500-2010 (London, 2011), pp. 118, 164; Brend, An Inquiry into the Statistics of Deaths, pp. 54-56.

[15] Brend, An Inquiry into the Statistics of Deaths, p. 52.

[16] Ipswich Journal, 23 Nov 1850, p. 2; Ipswich Journal, 17 Jan 1857, p. 2; Ipswich Journal, 29 Dec1866, p. 5; Ipswich Journal, 23 May 1868, p. 5; Ipswich Journal, 7 Nov 1871, p. 2; Ipswich Journal, 19 Oct 1878, p. 5.

[17] Ipswich Journal, 3 May 1881, p. 2.

[18] This has been most extensively discussed in Hansen’s article, ‘Overlaying’. And has also been discussed Anna Davin, ‘Imperialism and motherhood’, History Workshop Journal, 5 (1978), 9-65, p. 52; Thomas R. Forbes, ‘Deadly parents: child homicide in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century England’, Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences, 41 (1986), pp. 175-99, p. 185; Lewis, The Politics of Motherhood, p. 76; Rose, The Massacre of the Innocents, p. 176; Ross, Love and Toil, p. 189; Savitt, Todd, ‘Smothering and overlaying of Virginia slave children: a suggested explanation’, Bulletin of the History of Medicine, 49 (1975), 400–404.

[19] Davin, ‘Imperialism and motherhood’, p. 52.

[20] Ipswich Journal, 3 Aug 1878, p. 4.

[21] Ipswich Journal, 3 Aug 1878, p. 4.

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Resting by the Fireside – Elderly Women and the Hazards of the Fire

Elderly[1] women, in their combustible dresses and aprons, were vulnerable to the dangers of the fire.  Nearly all these accidents occurred from clothing catching fire from a spark or falling coal, or from falling into the fire, whilst they rested by the fireside.  Others occurred while they went about their domestic tasks. Nearly all of these elderly victims were alone at the time of catching fire; they were often too infirm to extinguish the flames themselves and were severely burnt before assistance was gained such that death often ensued within a few hours of the fatal incident.

In Ipswich, 1846, 88-year-old widow Mary Banks, ‘who resided alone in a small tenement’ was believed to have been sitting too near to the fire-grate when ‘her clothes ignited’.  Her daughter and neighbours, hearing the alarm of fire, ‘ran into the house’ and found Mary ‘dreadfully burnt’.  ‘She was undressed, and put to bed, but expired in the course of a few hours, surgical assistance being of no avail’.[2]  Four years later, one July morning, in 1850, 84-year-old widower, Elizabeth Taylor was ‘sitting alone by the grate, when in getting up to put on some coals, a cinder caught her dress, and set it on fire’.  She ‘came to the door of Isaac Giles, a shoemaker, exclaiming “Fire! Fire!”…  Her clothes were burning from the waist, the smoke and flames covering her head’.  Giles extinguished the flames with a piece of carpet, and soon after Elizabeth was put to bed.  However, she died the next day ‘about 12’.[3]

Frances Hearn of Ipswich, though only aged 57, was ‘paralysed and almost entirely helpless’ and suffered an accident similar in circumstance to those befalling the elderly.  Her tailor husband worked away from home during the day with Frances being watched over by a neighbour, Mrs Jacobs.  On the day of the accident, ‘[Mrs. Jacobs] had been at work in the [Hearn’s] house all the morning, she visited the deceased again about three o’clock in the afternoon. [Frances] was sitting too close to the fire, and Mrs. Jacobs moved her further back’.  She returned to her house and at ‘about half-past four […] sent her son into the [Hearn’s] house to see how the fire was getting on.  He found the room quite full of smoke’. Frances Hearn was lying dead on the floor, having been burnt to death.[4]  Undoubtedly, neighbours, such as Mrs Jacobs, helped to prevent numerous domestic accidents involving the vulnerable and elderly residents of working-class communities or, at least, came to the aid of a neighbour before the accident proved fatal.

As with numerous accidental domestic burnings involving children,[5] many of the aforementioned burns accidents involving the vulnerable and elderly occurred due to exposure to an unguarded fire.  Seckford Almshouses, Woodbridge, was the scene of a number of such accidents.  In 1870, 84-year-old Peggs Alderton, who, it was noted, ‘was suffering mentally and bodily from the infirmities of old age, and was not in a fit state to be left alone without some protection from the fire’, caught light whilst sitting in a chair by the fireside during her husband’s temporary absence.  She was found by her husband ‘lying by the side of the fire with her head in the cinder-pit.  Her clothes around her neck and cap were burnt off, and the other part of her clothes smouldering.  She was quite dead’.  After returning a verdict of accidental death, the jury drew ‘the attention of the trustees [of the Almshouse] to the expediency of fixed guards being placed in front of the fire-places in the rooms inhabited by the old and infirm inmates’.[6]  This, however, was not the first occasion where a coroner’s jury had raised the issue of inmates’ safety to Seckford Almshouse trustees.  In 1862, after the fatal burning of an elderly inmate, foreman of the jury Thomas Bays wrote to the Governors and Trustees of the almshouse[7]:


Nevertheless, it appears as though the advice went unheeded.  In 1885, Sarah Leech, aged 11 years, on visiting her grandmother, another inmate of Seckford Almshouses, was ‘endeavouring to do her hair in front of the fire’ when her clothes ignited.  The burns ‘were of such a terrible character that she died [that] same evening’.  Significantly, there was no fireguard present.  At the inquest, ‘the Jury returned a verdict of “Accidental Death,” adding the presentment to the effect that fireguards should be provided to each grate’.  It was then further noted that ‘some 11 years ago an old gentlemen was burnt to death in the Almshouses, which, the Coroner remarked, gave increased force to the recommendation of the Jury’.[8]

In some cases, however, little could be done to prevent such accidents if the elderly person had a child-like inquisitiveness with fire. Septuagenarian Ann Kerridge’s ‘impaired mental faculties’ rendered her impervious to the dangers of fire.  Leaving for work one July day, her 74-year-old farm labourer husband ‘cautioned’ her ‘not to touch the fire’.  The inquest noted that Ann was ‘fond of poking the fire about whenever she had an opportunity, and had, only the day before, a hole burnt in her dress, but fortunately her husband was then present and extinguished the flames’.  However, on this particular day, Ann was as usual left alone; a neighbour discovered her ‘in a blaze’.  Badly burnt, ‘she died in about three hours’.[9]

[1] The definition of ‘old age’ is highly subjective and naturally varies greatly across the centuries –  today we see those in their 80s as ‘old’, while in the 19th century, with a much lower life expectancy, anyone in their 60s would have been considered old; although, the experience of old age varied widely, affected by class, gender, and physical ability. Sonya Rose, ‘The Varying Household Arrangements of the Elderly in Three English villages: Nottinghamshire, 1851-1881’, Continuity and Change, 3 (1998), 101-122 (p. 118); Pat Thane, ‘Social Histories of Old Age and Ageing’, Journal of Social History, 37 (2003) 93-111 (p. 98); Pat Thane, Old Age in English History: Past Experiences, Present Issues (Oxford, 2000) pp. 4-5; Robert Wood & Nicola Shelton, An Atlas of Victorian Mortality (Liverpool, 1997), p. 119.

[2] Ipswich Journal, 14 Feb 1846, p. 2

[3] Ipswich Journal, 20 Jul 1850, p. 3.

[4] Ipswich Journal, 30 March 1878, p. 5.

[5] See Vicky Holmes, ‘Absent Fireguards and Burnt Children: Coroners and The Development Of Clause 15 Of The Children Act 1908′, Law, Crime And History 2 (2012), 21-58.

[6] Ipswich Journal, 31 Dec 1870, p. 8.

[7] Ipswich Journal, 8 Feb 1862, p. 5.

[8] Ipswich Journal, 25 July 1885, p. 5.

[9] Ipswich Journal, 23 July 1864, p. 5.

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