Towards a Historical Geography of Burns

We recently announced a two-year postdoctoral research fellowship for the next stage of our project. The key role of this post will be to lead on the digital mapping of burn and scald incidents in our three cities – Glasgow, Birmingham and London – using ArcGIS software. Burns occur somewhere, both in a specific place and on a specific part of the body, are treated somewhere, and, where death follows, interrogated somewhere. They involve circulation and movement – of bodies, materials, emergency services – within and around the city. An historical geography of burns is waiting to be produced, and we think that mapping offers a way of analysing and presenting the incident, care, and prevention of burns, visually and spatially.

We talked about some of our findings at the annual Urban History Group Conference in Keele, arguing that the quality of housing was a significant causal factor in the incidence of burning accidents, especially amongst children, during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In Birmingham, roughly 200,000 people lived in some 43,000 back-to-backs in 1920 (from a total population of approximately 900,000) and, whilst their quality of construction varied, they were inferior places for living in. Domestic space was at a premium for the urban poor, and their children, as the burns specialist, Leonard Colebrook, noted disapprovingly in 1947, had ‘nowhere … to play, except near the fire’, where they risked being burned every time their mother removed the guard.

Ford Street 1950

Children playing in Ford Street in the 1950s.

 This lack of internal domestic space meant that working-class children often had to “play out” in the street. Not that this especially mattered to children, who viewed the built environment as one big playground in which they could build dens, play games, and explore cities in ways that adults never envisaged. This was the case with 5-year old Ivy, who, one August morning in 1920, was playing outside with her brother, Sammy, 6, and a neighbour, William, 4, on Ford Street, in the neighbourhood of Hockley in north Birmingham. The street was a sought-after residential area, being situated near to the Corporation’s Tramway Depot, which marked the beginning of the main passenger transport routes into the city and neighbouring Handsworth, and with the large Hockley Abbey Works towering over the rows of terraced houses and small workshops lining the street.

Hockley Works

Image of Hockley Abbey Works from John Rabone & Sons catalogue, 1878.

Ivy lived with her family in a small Victorian back-to-back house, situated in one of the court-yards off Ford Street, which was shared by a number of families. Court-yards functioned as a working space as well as a crowded playground, with amenities including the washhouse, water tap, communal toilets and ‘miskins’ (receptacles for waste and ashes) often preventing children from having freedom to play safely. Ivy came from a poor family, but a close-knit community – mothers often kept an eye out for each other’s children whilst they played outside, as was the case here whilst her mother ran some errands.


Ivy home

Ivy’s home, Hockley, Birmingham.

© Crown Copyright and Database Right [2018]. Ordnance Survey (Digimap Licence).


In this instance, the children visited the tram depot where they found an empty shed containing a refuse pit filled with burning used tickets. Seeing this as the perfect setting for a camp-fire, they centred their play around it, before Ivy fell into the pit, setting fire to her flammable flannelette clothing. Coated in flames, Ivy was too young to know the best thing to do would be to lie on the ground and extinguish the flames with a rug or some other material (this was before the official adoption of the “stop, drop and roll” message). Instead, she panicked, and ran screaming from the shed towards the street, where she was found by tramcar workers, who extinguished the flames with their dirty overalls before a passing pedestrian wrapped her in the shirt off her own back; the first responders in this – as with many domestic cases – were neighbours and passers-by. Ivy, who was badly burnt about the face and arms, was then taken to the General Hospital by a tram conductor, presumably along the Corporation route into the city up Hockley Hill, a distance of two miles. Even though Birmingham managed a small street ambulance service by 1920, people still travelled to hospital by whatever means necessary, which included taxi, tram, wheeled litter, coal van or even by foot. This was especially the case with domestic injuries, which reflects the fact that most members of the public didn’t know that they should contact the emergency services and wait for an ambulance to arrive. Ivy’s mother learned about her burn when she returned from shopping: she rushed to the hospital, where Ivy later died from shock.



Birmingham Corporation Tram No. 843, at the corner of Ford and Whitmore Streets, 1938.


Ivy’s case points towards some of the ways that we might produce a historical geography of burns. We have located Ivy to various fixed points in the landscape in 1920: her home, the tram depot, the hospital and the coroner’s court, through the fragments that have been left about her short life in institutional records and local newspapers. Mapping these, we can trace her final movements through the city, and situate her spatially as a vulnerable child in the industrial city.

Ivy hospital

Probable route taken by Ivy to Birmingham General Hospital.

© Crown Copyright and Database Right [2018]. Ordnance Survey (Digimap Licence).


Given the hundreds of cases we have on file for Birmingham, Glasgow and London, we are looking to produce digital maps that depict the cumulative spread of burning and scalding incidents. We want to use these maps to engage communities in their specific local histories of burns and emergency services, through pop-up exhibitions and teaching materials, and perhaps even offer various authorities new ways of seeing the places and people for whom they are responsible. Ivy’s case demonstrates that incidents were shaped by local geographical contexts, including the nature of housing stock, and reflected complex identities and experiences shaped by age, class, ethnicity, and gender. The nature of a burn and the response to it could vary according to the type of residence and its location. Our maps, therefore, have to take into account changing social and cultural practices over time, as well as reflect changing materials used within the home. Mapping incidents such as these reveal how burns and their impact on community and individual identity are never fixed, either spatially or temporally, and that is what makes the new postdoctoral fellowship such an interesting and important addition to our project.

Shane Ewen



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