Life and Death in the Victorian Working-Class Home: The Dangers of the Day, Part 1

With so many of us stuck inside, and children running about the house, this two-part guest post is especially pertinent. Dr Vicky Holmes here writes her first post about the domestic burn hazards of the past.

Unknown interior, c.1900. © 2020 Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) in Britain. Courtesy of the Library of the Society of Friends. (On Twitter as @LibSocFriends.)

In the homes of the Victorian working class, daily domestic life was centred around the fire. Usually located in the backroom or singular lower room, it was a hive of activity throughout the day. Not only providing inhabitants warmth as they sat by the hearth in their draughty homes, the fire served throughout the year for cooking, heating water, and boiling the kettle for the ubiquitous cup of tea. Above, a mantelpiece not only served as a space for decorative items, but also as storage for an array of domestic articles required to be at arm’s length—cooking oil, matches, and candlesticks are just some of the items noted in inquests—and overhead a looking glass. Located in front of the fire was often a rag rug, softening the hard floor upon which a child or even a pet might be settled to keep warm. Typically absent from this scene, however, was a fireguard. With the fire in almost constant use, fireguards simply got in the way. Yet, such a compromise increased the risk of an accident occurring.

The coroner’s court was therefore frequently presented with the body of someone who had died in consequence of burns and scalds inflicted in the domestic setting. Utilising surviving coroners’ records and local newspaper reports of proceedings—coroners’ inquests being a public affair—my 2012 PhD thesis examined fatal household accidents in Victorian Suffolk. Between 1840-1900, coroners’ inquests held in the Liberty of St Etheldreda, Suffolk, and those reported for Ipswich in the Ipswich Journal reveal a total of 323 persons, mostly young children and infants, being fatally burnt (237) or scalded (86) as a result of an accident in their home—81 per cent of which occurred during the daytime, revolving around the fire and its associated activities. Focusing on burns-injured people, this blog post looks closely at the circumstances of these fatal accidents and the frequent assertion of the Victorian coroner’s court that such domestic deaths were easily preventable. Infants and toddlers were particularly vulnerable when placed by the fireside to keep warm, as once infants’ clothing had been ignited, they were soon fatally engulfed in flames before the smell of smoke or flames were noticed. One March morning, 1844, Mrs Moss of Monewden went to a farm ‘nearby to get some milk’. She stated to the coroner’s court: ‘I fastened [my daughter, aged 23 months] in a chair before leaving my house, about ten minutes afterwards I returned and found [her] clothes…on fire but partly extinguished. [She had been] left about two yards from the fire in the lower room of my dwelling’. Immediately after extinguishing the flames, ‘I tore the clothing off the child as quick as I could and put [her] into some water’ and went for medical assistance. Her daughter ‘lingered’ for several days before finally succumbing to her injuries.[1]

‘A Child Burnt to Death’, Illustrated Police News, 19 May 1883, p. 1. Newspaper image © The British Library Board. All rights reserved. With thanks to The British Newspaper Archive (www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk).

Similarly, at an April 1896 Ipswich inquest on infant Albert Burrows: ‘The mother stated that about half-past one o’clock…she placed the child in his night shirt on a chair near the fire downstairs.  She put a flannel petticoat over the child’s legs and went into the backyard to hang out some linen…When she returned she found the child’s nightshirt on fire, and that the petticoat, which was lying at the feet of the deceased, was burnt up…The child was about a quarter of a yard from the fire, which was not guarded’.[2]

Albert was one of the increasing numbers of working-class children fatally burnt while wearing flannelette—a cotton fabric with a raised surface, introduced to the English market in 1885 and soon popular amongst the poor for children’s clothing, being both cheap and warm. However, flannelette’s raised surface was easily ignitable and, once lit, the fire quickly spread.[3] Furthermore, as the Liverpool coroner, T.E. Sampson, remarked ‘the stuff adheres to the flesh and cannot be so easily removed as ordinary cloth would be; the shock is greater and the burns are more extensive’. Such injuries are evident in the medical testimony regarding Albert’s death.[4] Surgeon, Mr Hoyland, stated, ‘the child was burnt extensively on both arms, both hands, and both legs. Large blisters were formed, and the skin was hanging shrivelled up from the toes’. In a fruitless attempt to treat Albert, he ‘dressed the burns with carbolic oils, and supplied the mother with lint and carbolic oils’. After a fortnight of suffering, Albert died from what the surgeon determined ‘bronchitis occurring from shock to the system and collapse…a very common sequence to burns in the case of children’. [5]

‘This image is taken from Page 31 of Fire tests with textiles : flannelette ‘ordinary’, flannelette ‘fine finish’, art muslin, curtain net, scenic canvas, as also tissue paper and wadding; untreated and treated with Snowdon’s Flame-Proofing Solution submit’ by Medical Heritage Library, Inc. is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

Those most at risk were between the ages of two and five years, peaking in the winter months when they were forced indoors to play. In October 1852, Ipswich mariner’s daughter Hepizibah Woods, aged four years, ‘in the absence of the mother, [was] skipping about [and] fell into the fire, before which no guard had been placed’. A passerby, George Rix Bailey, ran to her assistance, and ‘placed her under the water tap’ to extinguish the flames, but ‘the sufferer was unable to survive the accident’. Just days later George was found drowned,  having taken his own life. His mother told the coroner’s court, ‘Someone, I don’t know who, said my son had done wrong by putting [Hepizibah] under the tap. This distressed him much. He could not bear it’.[6]

Unguarded fires, of course, lured children of this age to the flickering flames. David Smith of Witnesham, also aged four years, ‘puddled the fire with a little poker and the sleeve of his pinafore caught light’. He died from his injuries a week later.[7] Two years later in Capel St Andrew, Amos Collins, again aged four years, also died as a result of burns. A ‘piece of stick’ was found in the ‘bars of the grate’ and it was ‘supposed he had been playing and set fire to his clothes’. Markedly, ‘he had on former occasions been corrected by his grandmother for playing with fire’.[8] Other children caught fire reaching for items upon the mantelpiece; matches for mischief or sweeties thought to be out of reach. In February 1875, the Ipswich Journal reported upon the ‘Death of a Little Girl from Burning’ in the town. It noted that in the brief absence of her mother, having gone across the road to a neighbour’s house, three-year-old Rosa Isabella Hunter ‘got on a hassock to reach something off the mantelpiece’ and in doing so her clothes caught fire. A 14-year-old child passing by the house heard a child crying and entered to find Rosa ‘lying by the fire, in flames. He took his coat off and extinguished the flames’. Rosa was conveyed to hospital, but the wounds were so severe that she died shortly after admission. After passing a verdict of accidental death, the jury remarked ‘that there ought to have been a guard upon the grate’.[9] A common rider appended to many of the above inquests.

‘The Fascinating Fire’, Penny Illustrated, 13 July 1907, p. 28. Newspaper image © The British Library Board. All rights reserved. With thanks to The British Newspaper Archive (www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk).

Nonetheless, such accidents continued to occur in a range of working-class dwellings. In July 1885, 11-year-old Sarah Leech went to visit her grandmother who was an inmate at Seckford’s Almshouse. ‘There was a looking-glass over the mantelshelf, and the girl stood in front of the fire to coomb [sic] her hair, it was supposed she got on the fender in order to see herself in the glass’. Sarah’s clothes caught light, mortally wounding her before ‘effectual assistance could be rendered’. At the coroner’s inquest it was remarked that this was not the first such accident of its kind to at this particular almshouse. Indeed, there were at least five such fatal accidents between 1862 and 1885. Clearly the governors were not heeding the advice of the coroner’s court, who had on more than one occasion strongly suggested that they place fireguards in rooms used by inmates.[10]

Coroners around the country continued to lament at the lack of fireguards in use in working-class homes, categorically advising mothers to obtained one at their earliest convenience before they lost another child in such a manner. Yet, as some inquests reveal, fireguards did not always prevent accidents. In Ipswich 1897, two-year-old Bertie Green burnt to death while his mother was out 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’. His mother told the coroner’s court that ‘she had seen [Bertie] draw a chair up to the fireguard and take matches and other items on various occasions…The fireguard had three bars all around’. Commenting on the design of the fireguard, 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’. In response to the coroner’s question regarding the mother’s culpability, the jury 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’.[11] More substantial guards could provide a source of dangerous fun. In Letheringham, January 1889, the inquest held on George Keeble, aged three years, who had burnt to death, revealed that he had been ‘walking on the top bar of the guard, holding the mantelpiece when his shirt caught fire’.[12] Improper use of fireguards could also result in a fatal accident. At an inquest held in Ipswich, September 1892, it was found that an infant who ‘was sitting tied to a chair by the side of the fire’, 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’.[13] One working-class husband stated in Shoreditch, in 1911, he ‘did not believe in fireguards at all: Women only made clothes-horses of them’.[14] Such denial of monies to purchase a fireguard was not unusual in working-class households, yet time and again it was the mother who was reprimanded for its absence.

Continuing the discussion on coroners’ calls for fireguards in working-class homes, the next blog post examines the second type of injury sustained from proximity to unguarded fire: scalds, before moving beyond the fire to examine the other domestic dangers lurking in the daytime spaces of these homes.

Dr Vicky Holmes is a Visiting Research Fellow at Queen Mary University of London. Her research—with coroners’ inquests at its centre—explores life and death in the Victorian working-class home. Her PhD blog discusses a range of fatal household accidents https://victoriandomesticdangers.com/. While her publication on the campaign to legislate the use of fireguards can be downloaded for free at https://pearl.plymouth.ac.uk/handle/10026.1/8870.


Notes

[1] SRO HB10/9/58/12.[2] Ipswich Journal, 2 May 1896, p. 7. [3] The Times, 22 Apr 1913, p. 22; PP Coroners’ Committee, 1910 (5376) XXI.793.[4] PP Coroners’ Committee, 1910 (5139) XXI.583, pp. 96-97. [5] Ipswich Journal, 2 May 1896, p. 7. [6] Ipswich Journal, 6 Nov 1852, p. 2. [7] Ipswich Journal, 16 Dec 1854, p. 3. [8] Ipswich Journal, 14 Dec 1861, p. 5. [9] Ipswich Journal, 16 Feb 1875, p. 2. [10] Ipswich Journal, 8 February 1862, p. 5; 31 Dec 1870, p. 8, 25 Jul 1885, p. 5; Lowestoft Journal, 1 Aug 1885, p. 4. [11] Ipswich Journal, 24 Apr 1897, p. 2. [12] Ipswich Journal, 4 Jan 1889, p. 5. [13] Ipswich Journal, 24 Sept 1892, p. 5. [14] The Times, 21 Apr 1911, p. 4.

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