Clothes were flammable in the Georgian era , children were left unsupervised in kitchens and there were some horrific accidents. Many of the victims were female-of the 14 located in 1816, 10 were female, and almost all of these were in the kitchen unsupervised. Mary Furniss –a child-was boiling milk for her father’s breakfast in London when a spark set her pinafore alight. Mary Wood, another London child, was burned after she was toasting bread for herself. There most poignant case was perhaps that of Susannah Smith, a ten-year old, who died after setting fire to herself in the kitchen. However, she was only partly singed and there were no marks on her body; however, it was revealed by the coroner that a mere 3 weeks earlier in her domestic job in Portugal Street she had had a serious accident in the kitchen which had nearly killed her; the corner decided that the cumulative effect of the two accidents had killed her.
They were almost all described as “accidental death” by the coroner. Sometimes the authorities would offer advice that was not very comforting. When Thomas Burton burnt himself from a spark, bursting into flames, his mother left the room to find water and the poor boy followed her. She was told sternly that the correct procedure was to roll the child on floor, preferably with a carpet. She could not find water; she probably did not have a carpet or indeed a fireguard. Indeed, the poor, with their unguarded fires, were the main victims.
Death by burning was linked to gender, age, poverty and overcrowding. Servants such as Mrs Ann Odell of London were burned to death when she was ordered to find coal late at night with only a candle to guide her to the cellar. She was found dead the next morning; the lack of coal was obviously not noticed.
Children spent a lot of time in kitchens. Charles Chouby was playing with his sister in the kitchen and she put some glue on his clothes; a spark lit the glue and he died the next day. Hannah Sales died when she tried to light a candle in the darkness with another one that was about to go out.
What could you do if your inflammable clothes caught fire? The Hoxton apothecary James Parkinson, who later codified the symptoms of a shaking palsy which now bears his name, suggested that the right course of action was not to rush around or open doors to summon help- both caused the draughts of wind that fed the fire. The thing to do-counter-intuitively perhaps- is to sit on the floor and shout for help, which caused no fatal winds, and extinguished the fire where it touched the ground.
Most victims did not die immediately. They “lingered” in the local infirmary, mostly in agony and death was regarded as inevitable. Eleanor Whitford of Exeter may have survived if she had not set herself alight on a Saturday night. No coach could be found. When a coach was found her agonising screams and convulsions made it impossible to get her on the coach. When she arrived at the Infirmary, the night keeper refused to call the surgeon. She died the next morning, although she probably wished she had died earlier.
The biggest fire calamity of 1816 was on 12 February in Mitchelstown, County Cork. A farmer, described in some newspapers as opulent and others as respectable, was holding a barn dance to celebrate the wedding of his daughter. There was a fire in the centre of the barn, which had burned safely until the end of the evening. The farmer, Mr Chamberlaine, wanted the flames put out safely and requested that water be found. However, an overzealous guest accidently threw a bowl containing spirits and the barn went up in flames very quickly. There was no chimney in the barn and the construction and its dry agricultural products made sure that it burnt quickly. The main exit was locked and 20 people burned to death, including the blind female fiddle player. The death toll rose to 25 in the next few days, and the bodies had to be identified through size and location of remains. Most victims were interned as ashes, for they had been cremated by the intensity of the fire.
The situation did not change much until the second half of the century. This newspaper report comes from 1840; although the fact was ‘awful’ there still seemed little desire to do much about it.
Please consider my social history books on the Georgians and Victorians
The Dark Days of Georgian Britain– a political and social history of the Regency. More details here
Passengers – a social history of Britain 1780-1840 told through travel, transport, roads and hospitality. More details here
Radical Victorians– A history of the reform movement in Victorian Britain, with pen portraits of both famous and obscure reformers. More details here
Voices of the Georgian Age- details here (Amazon link)
All my radical Britain books here