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One-Place Tragedy

There is perhaps more talk of tragedy in the press today than at any time in most of our lifetimes. The coronavirus pandemic has brought changes to all of us, and most of us know of someone lost years before their time. Badingham and Cransford residents and former residents have been no exception, and my heart goes out to all affected. 

A theme of #OnePlaceTragedy for February, then, might have seemed a bit much. On the night I did the first research for this piece, it was pretty awful – I’ll be honest – to read about all the horrible things that have happened in my places one after another. Yet it’s hardly surprising that Badingham and Cransford have seen their fair share of nasty accidents, illnesses, drownings, burnings – even murders. The sheer amount of time the places have existed and the thousands of inhabitants that have come and gone during that time makes it inevitable. Covid-19 isn’t even the villages’ first pandemic, of course, although the way this one is playing out has been unique.

Yet if we don’t write about tragedy, we miss a huge number of stories and end up with a lopsided study. As such, I am writing this blog as planned. I don’t want to glorify sad things that have happened, nor do I want to celebrate perpetrators of horrendous acts. However, I do wish my blog to remember the lives of those directly (or indirectly) affected by tragedies – and not just individuals, but their communities. No One-Place Study should look to provide a rose-tinted view of the past; the point is to record research and stories as best we can for the future, not deliberately record just the ‘nice’ bits – a lot of history wasn’t very ‘nice’!

The lady I’m going to write about here was much more than her death, and for that reason, she deserves to be remembered. There is, I’m sure, much more to Annie’s life than her untimely death, but as with many things local history and genealogy, it is the manner in which she passed that brought her the most column inches in the local press and a window into her life. 

With no further ado, I’d like you to meet Annie.

Annie Jemima Backhouse was unusual for Badingham in 1884 for a straightforward reason. She wasn’t born in Suffolk, let alone within five miles of the village. Today that wouldn’t be very unusual, but it made her part of a small minority back then. She was a Yorkshire lass who arrived in the parish in 1883 to teach at the elementary school – now the village hall. (‘Primary’ schools didn’t exist then). I imagine she talked somewhat differently to everyone else; her arrival must have been quite the locals’ discussion point. 

[Was it really so unusual to come from out of county? Analysis of local census returns during the Victorian period shows that almost everybody living in Cransford and Badingham was born reasonably locally. It was usually the preserve of the vicar, preachers, and their respective families (and perhaps the richer landholders), to be born out-of-County at that time.]

What do we know of Annie’s life before she came to Badingham? She was born in Bradford in 1859, the daughter of John, an upholster’s clerk (later Master Upholsterer), and Mary. Annie grew up in Bradford’s West End and later in Manningham, an industrial area known for its mills and back-to-back housing. By 1881, Annie was an Assistant School Mistress, living with her parents, elder sister Julia (Assistant Librarian) and elder brother Arthur (French Polisher). 

What brought her to Badingham? Did she answer an advertisement? Did her uncle (living in Ipswich) influence her ambition or her appointment? Had she held other posts in between? Was she, like her uncle, a member of the Society of Friends (Quakers), and did this help determine her journey to Suffolk? After all, Backhouse is a name with strong connections (although this may be a red herring in Annie’s case). All of these questions and more arise, and perhaps somebody else reading this blog will already have the answers. For now, I will be honest and say that I do not. I would love to get my hands on some more records, but for now, the archives remain closed, and the material I’d like to look at isn’t yet digitised. [eg TNA: ED21/16305]

For whatever reason, Annie found herself in Badingham. A topic of gossip as the residents of Badingham probably found her, she, in turn, must have viewed the village as vastly different from her home. She had made a significant shift from urban to rural living in a community where perhaps she had no connections at all, a brave thing for a single woman in Victorian England. Yet one thing hadn’t changed: her role as a schoolmistress. 

The 1881 census of Badingham included about 70 scholars. The image below is somewhat later than this but nevertheless gives an idea of the school’s size and the building’s look a couple of decades later. It was a National School built in 1875 for 84 children. By 1888 it had an average attendance of 65 (Kelly’s 1888). 

Badingham Elementary School, dated 1915, from my collection of village images. Copyright untraced – possibly EADT.

We know that Annie took up her position in 1883 and that, sadly, she did not hold it for long. This post is, after all, a blog about a tragedy. Much of the information contained in these paragraphs comes from newspaper reports in local newspapers (including the Ipswich Journal, Framlingham Weekly News and Norfolk Chronicle) following her untimely death on 3 March 1884 at the age of just 24.

Monday, 17 December perhaps started as any non-Sunday in Victorian Badingham. It was most likely cold, and Annie would have been grateful for the roaring fire in the schoolroom. Relatively new at the school – having been in post only a few weeks – Annie worked through the morning and, we can imagine, had some lunch after that. But the afternoon would bring horror. At about 2 pm that afternoon, she stood, as usual, marking the register – with her back to the fireplace. 

“Governess, you are on fire!” came the call from one of the boys in her class, a lad of 10 or 11 called Charles Smith. Such, we learn from the inquest. 

We can only imagine the panic that ensued.  

Annie ran first to the Assistant Governess, Miss Short. Unfortunately, according to the inquest evidence, Miss Short was too frightened to render any help. Another newspaper report notes the same for the school monitor, Amy Rose (who was but 13 years old or thereabouts). The newspaper stories are not identical, but it seems that both probably ran into the road to seek help. Luckily Low Street was (and remains) one of the more populated roads in the village, but that was not to be of much immediate use to Annie.  

As others cried for help, Annie ran to some cottages near the school (I suspect these include the ones pictured beyond the school in the image above). If the newspapers are correct, both doors were closed on her by their occupants, who were ‘fearful and frightened’. 

Poor Annie next fled to Mrs Rebecca Newson’s house, where, one paper reported, ‘she caught hold of the palisading in front of the house, and stood there in flames’. Mrs Newson’s son happened to have been one of the boys from the school, and he had run home to tell his mother what had happened (a good candidate is Alfred William Newson, who would have been about 11, but he also had a younger brother, Frederick Harry, who’d have been about 7).

Rebecca, unlike her neighbours, leapt to action, dragged out a rug and ran straight for Annie. 

Again, the write-ups differ slightly in their details. However, it seems Annie was running along the road towards Rebecca and her palisade fence (also pictured) as that lady dashed from her sitting room with her rug. When they met, Rebecca ‘enveloped’ Annie in the carpet. Together with some other neighbours that came onto the scene, the community managed to extinguish the flames, but it took as long as half an hour to put them out entirely. 

Regretfully, the damage was done. Annie had been ‘fearfully burned’. 

Annie was taken back to the school and then on to Rectory Farm. Dr George E Jeafferson, a doctor and surgeon based on the Market Hill in Framlingham, was called to attend her. He continued to do so for the period between her accident and her death – well over two months. According to him, she had ‘suffered a complete loss of skin from the buttocks to the ankles’, and her ultimate cause of death was ‘exhaustion in consequence of the burns’. It must have been horrifyingly painful to linger with such terrible burns.

My modern-day medical expert suggests that having survived the initial shock and fluid loss, the most significant risk to Annie’s life from her burns was the ever-present chance of infection. Butter or fat would not have cured her burns, and there were, of course, no antibiotics. At best, she may have had some pain relief in the form of laudanum, but it must have been terrible, however bravely she bore the results of her ordeal.

The Jury brought in a verdict of Accidental Death at an Inquest held at Rectory Farmhouse on Wednesday, 5 March 1884. Annie’s body was laid to rest in the churchyard at St John the Baptist Church in Badingham two days later. 

It seems that once the flames were out, Annie was shown great kindness and sympathy by the parishioners. After the inquest, the Framlingham Weekly News published her father’s and uncle’s (Rev. S. Collinson, of Ipswich) ‘special and heartfelt thanks to the Rector, and the parishioners in general, for the very great sympathy shown to deceased in her period of sufferings, by many kindly acts and presents to her.’

As we have seen, Rebecca Newson, wife of Badingham’s carpenter, Cornelius, had the presence of mind and calm in a crisis that makes us wonder what might have happened had she lived closest to the school. Through this blog, Rebecca’s actions can be remembered, along with the other community members that tried to help and the kindnesses shown by even more of the village as Annie suffered.

The story leads us to ask whether Annie’s cause of death was unusual. It probably comes as no surprise to many readers that women’s clothing in the 19th Century could be frighteningly flammable. I wrote a blog about it on my personal website back in 2016, but that post focused on celluloid and its accompanying dangers. Unfortunately, burning to death or dying as a result of burns was much less unusual at a time when candles, oil lamps and open fires were the norm for heating and lighting. This risk was especially real for women, who wore clothes with more fabric and more width than their male counterparts.

We do not know precisely what Annie was wearing, but it was almost certainly a long flowing dress. While the widest of crinolines had gone out of fashion by the later years of the 1800s, the fabrics used – even in less showy clothes perhaps worn by school mistresses – still posed a risk. There was still plenty of material to catch fire in a pleated skirt, even in a narrower style of dress than was popular earlier in the century. 

The Ipswich Journal led with a more damning introduction than the other papers when reporting the inquest: ‘The fashion and its results – no guard’. The writers and editor evidently frowned upon the prevailing women’s fashions (not much has changed there, some might argue). 

Is it possible that Annie had a heavily decorated outfit, a particularly full pleated skirt or perhaps even a small bustle? By the time of this Badingham tragedy, women’s fashion was shifting towards fullness in the back of the dress, the same part which caught fire in her case. Multiple layers would have made it more difficult to extinguish the flames. 

For me, the ‘no guard’ part stands out. The same paper noted that a fireguard had been supplied to the school since the accident. A simple action that might have prevented the tragedy in the first place, or at least reduced its likelihood.

Whatever she was wearing, Annie was one of thousands of women in Victorian England who died from burns; a number exacerbated not just by the circumstances in which they lived but by the very clothes they wore. 

Next time I’m home, I will seek Annie in the churchyard and pay my respects. I admire her bravery, heading to Suffolk to teach such a long way from her family, and hope one day to learn more about her life before tragedy struck.

References

1881 Census, England and Wales, Badingham (various entries)
Norfolk Chronicle, 8 March 1884, BADINGHAM, Page 6
Ipswich Journal, 8 March 1884, BADINGHAM, Page 5
Framlingham Weekly News, 8 March 1884, BADINGHAM, Page 4