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, accessed 28 Feb 2012

[2] ROSPA, ‘Accidents to Older People’,, 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 1

front cover

One chapter of my PhD thesis was entirely dedicated to the dangers of the “the staircase.”  I had, after my initial literature review, assumed that the two common causes of these accidents would be darkness and drunkenness.  Yet, I was soon to discover that the causes of fatal falls were far more complex: in addition to darkness, staircase design, absent handrails, age, infirmity, gender, and even marital status frequently played a role in these fatal events.  Drunkenness, however, did not.  Beginning with today’s post on darkness and the fatal household fall, I will, over the following weeks, explore the various causes and discuss why drunkenness rarely contributed to the fatal domestic fall.

Having no light [he] fell down stairs

Working-class dwellers were accustomed to moving around their homes in darkness.  Yet, despite this familiarity with the dark, the staircase was one part of the home where a lack of light did nevertheless result in a number of untimely deaths.  An absence of light was frequently attributed in the coroners’ inquests of Ipswich and the Liberty of St. Etheldreda (East Suffolk) as a foremost cause of stair-related falls, with over half of all fatal staircase falls occurring in the late evening and night-time.  In 1847, 77-year-old Samuel Ellis of Woodbridge, upon getting out of bed around 2 o’clock in the morning to let another resident into the house, and ‘having no light fell down stairs, falling with his head upon the flag stones; he was taken up bleeding from the mouth and nose and quite senseless, and died in about 12 hours’.[1]

Just how dark the home could be behind the closed shutters is illustrated in the case of another fatal fall in Woodbridge, in 1871, where 68-year-old tallow chandler, Joseph Horkins, was found unconscious at the bottom of his stairs.  A neighbour, noticing that Joseph, who resided alone, had not left his house as usual that morning, broke into the house through an upstairs window.  He stated at the inquest: ‘I searched for but could not find him up stairs.  I then went downstairs.  It was quite dark from the window shutter being closed, in getting into the room at the bottom of the stairs [and not seeing him] I stamped upon his head.  I found the shutter and let in some light, I then saw he was lying on his back with his head on the bottom stair, he was quite unconscious’.[2]

Darkness not only played a part in the incidence of fatal falls inside the home.  In the countryside (and in towns before the introduction of street-lighting) people relied on the light of the moon or lanterns to make their way about at night.[3]  And as happened by day, even one’s garden harboured night-time dangers.  One February evening, in 1878, 78-year-old Judy Harvey of Framsden, ‘went out into the yard, for the purpose of going to the water-closet, carrying a lantern with her. She had to pass a pond at the end of the house, and was heard to call out twice to her son.’  He immediately came outside and found his mother drowned in the pond.  ‘A neighbour hearing her cries hastened thither at once, and with the assistance of a croom stick [Judy] was got out, but she did not revive’.[4]

Rising in the dark winter morning could also be hazardous to the inhabitants of the working-class home.  In contrast to agricultural labourers, who worked shorter hours in winter months and longer hours in summer months, for Ipswich’s working-class men the working day generally began at 6 o’clock throughout the year.[5]  From evidence given at the Ipswich inquests upon infant victims of overlaying and suffocation in bedclothes, working men generally arose around 5 o’clock, departing for work before the rest of the house had risen.  When 54-year-old Ipswich brazier, William Barker, arose one December ‘morning at five o’clock, he left his bed, and lighting a lamp endeavoured to place it upon the landing, when […] he had the misfortune to lose his footing and to fall downstairs.  He was taken up by his wife insensible’.[6]

The Staircase – Part 2

The Staircase – Part 3

The Staircase – Part 4

[1] Ipswich Journal, 20 Nov 1847, p. 2.

[2] Ipswich Journal, 22 Aug 1871, p. 2; SROi EC5/14/21 Inquisition in the parish of Woodbridge on view of the body of Joseph Horkins, aged 68 years, 18 Aug 1871.

[3] A Roger Ekirch, At Day’s Close: A History of Night-time (London, 2005), pp. 24-26; William T. O’Dea, A Social History of Lighting (London, 1958), pp. 67-105.

[4] Ipswich Journal, 9 Feb 1878, p. 5.

[5] Frank Grace, Rags and Bones:  A Social History of a Working-Class Community in Nineteenth-Century Ipswich,(London, 2005), pp. 116-124.

[6] Ipswich Journal, 9 Dec 1854, p. 6.

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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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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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The Tea Kettle

© Museum of English Rural Life, University of Reading. MERL 51/438/1-2

In 1861, William Farr[1], Superintendent of Statistics for the General Record Office (GRO), stated in the 24th Annual Report of the Registrar General: ‘Young children drink scalding water out of the spout of the tea kettle, or fall into scalding water.  This happens often in the lower classes, when the mother is out at work, and the young children are left home alone.  [He goes on to say] The means of obviating danger are evident’.[2]

The tea kettle was central to working-class domestic life in the Victorian period.  In his investigation of dwellings of the poor in East Anglia and North-East England, Adrian Green remarks that the tea-kettle ‘was more of an addictive necessity than a luxury’.[3]  At an inquest held in Ipswich, in 1855, it was noted that the tea-kettle ‘was always kept boiling by the children’[4]; low firegrates placed the kettle within easy reach of children, while in some instances kettles were attached to a lever for ease of pouring (as seen in the image below).  This also meant that the tea kettle was all too frequently in the reach of small and inquisitive hands unaware as to the danger of boiling water.

‘Woman with Kettle’
© Museum of English Rural Life, University of Reading. MERL 85/67.

In Ipswich and the Liberty of St. Etheldreda (East Suffolk), 1840 to 1900, a total of 43 children are recorded as having died as a result from scalds resulting from accidents with kettles and saucepans, including a number of cases of young children drinking directly from the boiled kettle.  The majority of these victims were just one or two years of age.

The same year as William Farr’s remark, 20-month-old Mary Ann Hunt of Debenham, Suffolk, died as a result of drinking from the kettle.  The coroner’s inquest, reported in the Ipswich Journal, recorded that Mary Ann was with her mother who ‘was preparing dinner and [on] turn[ing] round to get some bread, [Mary Ann] attempted to drink from the kettle standing on the fireplace […] The inside of her mouth and throat were so much scalded, that she died from the effects the following day’.[5]  Similarly, the following year, 18-month-old Henry Smith of Ipswich, oblivious to the danger of the boiling water, also took an opportune moment to drink from the kettle.  The Ipswich Journal reported: ‘[a]bout noon on the previous day, Anne Smith, mother of the child, was in the front room of the cottage with [Henry] and some of the other children.  She was making up the fire, and [Henry] was by her side.  On turning her head towards the child, she saw him take his mouth from off the spout of the kettle, which was boiling on the fire […] The child died at half-past 10 o’clock in [that] evening.[6]  While just over a year later in Melton, Suffolk, 16 month-old Alfred Barrell’s mother was washing in the backhouse when she heard screams coming from the house.  Upon running in, she found Alfred ‘in the middle of the back-room […] on ask[ing] 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.[7]

Notably, it can be observed in these cases, that such accidents did not occur while mothers were out at work, as suggested by Farr.  Instead, in Suffolk at least, the mother was often in the same room and, in some cases, even right next to their child at the time of the fatal incident.[8]

Assistance from an unwitting sibling also led to tragedy.  In Ipswich, in April 1855, two-year old Ann Sadd died after ‘being accidentally scalded by drinking boiling water from a tea-kettle’ standing by the fire.  Unable to drink from the heavy kettle herself, Ann’s seven-year old sister, ‘having taking hold of the handle […] inclined the kettle forward’.[9]

Scalding was not the only associated hazard of the kettle.  With many poorer households boiling kettles on the open firegrate, slightly older children (especially girls in their flammable clothing), either delegated the task of boiling the kettle or merely playing house, were at risk of being burnt.  In Brightwell, Suffolk, in 1841, the harrowing case of eight-year-old Charlotte Dillerson’s death came before St. Etheldreda’s coroner.  The Ipswich Journal describes that Charlotte’s clothes ignited ‘while she was attempting to put the kettle upon the fire’.  Alone at the time of the accident, her father and mother being at work in the fields and the cottage being ‘in a lonely situation’, ‘[Charlotte] ran nearly a mile across the fields to Mr Everitt’s without any clothing whatever, except her socks and high [shoes], the whole having been burnt off her back’.[10]  While, in Framsden, Suffolk, in 1863, Emma Woods, aged seven years, was ‘terribly burnt’ when ‘her sleeve caught fire in getting the kettle off the fire to put some water into her little sister’s food’.  Her mother was, at the time of the accident, assisting an ill neighbour next door.  Despite medical attention, Emma died two days later.[11]

There still remains the important question as to young children’s motivation to drink from the boiling kettles.  District Nurse, Margaret Loane, suggested that, oblivious to its dangers, thirst drew young children to the kettle and advised mothers to ‘[leave] cold water within easy reach so that thirst would not tempt a child to grab a kettle’.[12]  However, reasons behind young children’s desire to drink from the tea kettle remain difficult to establish.

[3] Adrian Green, ‘Heartless and unhomely: dwellings of the poor in East Anglia and North-East England’, in Joanne McEwan and Pamela Sharpe (eds.), Accommodating Poverty: The Housing and Living Arrangements of the English Poor, c. 1600-1850 (Basingstoke, 2011), p. 86.

[4] Ipswich Journal, 7 Apr 1855, p. 3.

[5] Ipswich Journal, 28 Sept 1861, p. 4.

[6] Ipswich Journal, 8 Mar 1862, p. 7.

[7] Ipswich Journal, 14 Feb 1863, p. 5.

[8] For more details on the whereabouts of mothers at the time of their children’s accidents see: Victoria J Holmes, ‘Dangerous spaces: working-class homes and fatal household accidents in Suffolk, 1840-1900, Essex Ph.D. 2012. In addition, Pamela A. Sambrook ‘Childhood and sudden death in Staffordshire, 1851 and 1860’, in Philip J. Morgan and A.D.M. Phillips (eds.) Staffordshire Histories: Essays in Honour of Michael Greenslade, Vol 19 (Keele, 1999), pp. 217-252, also has similar findings.

[9] Ipswich Journal, 7 Apr 1855, p. 3.

[10] Ipswich Journal, 20 Nov 1841, p. 3; SRO (Ipswich): HB10/9/55/43 Inquisition on the Death of Charlotte Dillerson at Brightwell, 15 November 1841. Verdict – accidentally burnt to death.

[11] Ipswich Journal, 31 Jan 1863, p. 5.

[12] Cited in Ellen Ross, Love and Toil: Motherhood in Outcast London, 1870-1918 (New York, 1993), p. 181.

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“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.


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.

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