Blazing Dresses (Part 1)

Part 1: Anne Benwell (1818)

The ubiquity of naked flames and open fires prior to the early 20th century presented a continual hazard to people in all walks of life. To keep warm, and to follow fashions, people wore many layers of clothing, which added to the danger. Certain fabrics, such as muslin and flannellette, were particularly flammable. Infants and young children were most at risk, as described in a blog by Dr Vicky Holmes. Women, who typically spent much of their time in the home close to candles and hearths, and who wore long skirts and shawls, were also at high risk of fire-related accidents.

A number of blogs, articles and even whole books have been written about the dangers of fire to Victorian women. Many of them focus on the crinoline, a fashion of the late 1850s. The crinoline was a petticoat cage which gave skirts a bell shape; at their widest, crinolines reached a circumference of six yards. In 1860, at the height of crinoline chic, The Lancet reported that 3000 women had been killed in the UK due to their dresses catching fire. Famous victims included Fanny Longfellow, wife of the poet, and two half sisters of Oscar Wilde. However, women’s clothing and primarily domestic environment put them at risk throughout the 19th century, and indeed in earlier centuries.

In this two-part blog I’ll look at four specific incidents in which women’s clothing caught fire in the 1800s, including two from my own family.


The first accident occurred in 1818, fatally injuring Anne Benwell (a sister of my husband’s 4x great grandmother). It would be a disservice to her to only describe the incident that caused her death, so I’d like to first tell you a little more about her life and family.

Anne, b. c1788, came from a family of many independent and mostly very long-lived women. Her father William Benwell, an eminent Oxford university tailor and senior city council member, had passed away suddenly in 1802. Anne’s mother Sarah (nee Tredwell) continued the family business for several years while raising six surviving children, before moving with her oldest daughter, Elizabeth, to Canal Place in Camberwell. Sarah remained a widow and lived to be 98, while Elizabeth stayed single until her death at 63. The second eldest daughter, Sarah, married Edward ‘William’ Saword, Clerk of Greenwich Hospital. William and Sarah Saword were my husband’s 4x great grandparents. After William died in 1815 aged 42, possibly at sea, Sarah also remained a widow, and lived to be 89. Mary, the third daughter, married Thomas Turner, a King’s Consul. The family lived in Ragusa on the Adriatic Sea and then Panama, until Thomas died prematurely of cholera in his fifties. Mary did not remarry, and lived to be 88. Surviving evidence from these women shows that they were literate, managed their own money (e.g., making investments and purchasing property), were charitable and well-connected, and possessed skills expected from ladies of their class, such as playing the piano (Elizabeth bequeathed her pianoforte to her sister Sarah). Anne Benwell was the youngest daughter in the family. In 1818 she was 29, single, and living in Holborn, London – seeming set to be another independent and long-lived woman.

Elizabeth, Sarah, Mary and Anne Benwell also had two brothers. The eldest son and eldest child, Thomas, left Britain in 1812 to fight in the Napoleonic Wars in Europe and America. The youngest son and child, Charles Benwell, was involved in overseas trade.

Anne’s activities and whereabouts as a young woman are largely unknown to me. In 1811 she was a witness to her sister Mary’s marriage and in 1812 she witnessed a contract for the exchange of property from her brother Thomas to their mother Sarah and sister Elizabeth, drawn up hurriedly before he departed for War. The document was prepared by George Hester & John Brooks. The Hesters were family friends and relations.

In 1818, Thomas returned to England and was indentured for seven years to the same George Hester, of High Holborn, London – ‘one of the attorneys of his Majesty’s Court of King’s Bench at Westminster and a Solicitor of the High Court of Chancery’ and his clerk John Brooks … for the full term of seven years in the practice of an attorney and Solicitor’, thus becoming an ‘Articled Clerk.’ Anne Benwell witnessed the Article of Clerkship (contract).

Anne’s address at that time was 56 High Holborn, which was directly opposite Lincoln’s Inn Fields. In 1819 Messrs Hester & Brooks were listed at the same address. Although I have no evidence that Thomas lived there too, it seems fair to assume that Thomas was living on site with his mentors in 1818, and that Anne was living him. Was she there to support Thomas, or was he there to chaperone her? Perhaps Anne lived with him but had her own occupation, for example as a governess for a local family.

(As a side note, architect and art collector Sir John Soane lived right around the corner, at 12-13 Lincoln’s Inn Fields, having moved in five years earlier. As his former house has long been one of my favourite museums, I do like to think that Anne and Thomas may have known him!) 

One day in May 1818, three months after witnessing Thomas’s indenture, Anne’s clothes caught fire. I have no details about how, where or at what time of day it occurred. Was she perhaps sitting reading or embroidering by the fire, dancing at a party, or asleep in bed? Though it may seem frivolous to think about fashions in this context, Anne comes to life in my mind when I picture her in a typical dress of the Regency era – a single shift (rather than separate skirt and bodice), high-waisted, loose and flowing, following classical ideals. Day attire called for a high collar and long sleeves, even in the summer, while in the evening the decolletage and arms were exposed. At night she may have worn a full-length cotton nightdress and, for decency on leaving her bed, a silk robe. I can picture Anne as an educated and independent young woman in Regency London, but I can also imagine how easily her long, flowing dress could have caught fire through direct contact with a flame, or a stray ember, and how difficult it would have been to remove it.

1818 fashionplate (public domain)

Anne was very badly burned, but did not die immediately. Who found her first? Perhaps Thomas? Was a doctor quickly called for, and how were her burns treated? She probably received ointments and pain relief. However, prior to antibiotics, skin grafts and other medical advances, people who sustained burns extending over a high portion of their body were unlikely to survive.

Sheffield Independent, 26 October 1822,
via BritishNewspaperArchive.co.uk

In 1822, this advice on the treatment of burns and scalds was printed in the Sheffield Independent in response to ‘the melancholy account of the death of Miss Eastwood*, by her clothes taking fire’. The recommendation was first for a large quantity of vinegar to be thrown over the clothes without any being removed. Any broken blisters should afterwards be ‘dressed with ointment usually used for burns’. They also wished all children, especially girls, to know that ‘if their clothes should catch fire, they must throw themselves on the ground, and endeavour to smother the flames by rolling over’. They cite a case in which a woman’s life was saved by her fainting from terror, which extinguished the flames, and only her muslin dress was destroyed.

*This was 19-year-old Margaret Eastwood, who died in Dublin three days after her apron ignited while taking a tea-kettle off the kitchen fire:

Bell’s Weekly Messenger, 9 September 1822, via BritishNewspaperArchive.co.uk

Poor Anne Benwell endured her injuries for 17 days before dying on 7 June. Her death was reported across the country among viscounts and colonels.

Bury and Norwich Post, 17 June 1818, via BritishNewspaperArchive.co.uk

However, in Jackson’s Oxford Journal (13 June 1818), in her home town, she was more than just a name and a horrible death. Her short obituary recalled her ‘truly amiable disposition and sweetness of temper’ and praised the ‘unexampled patience and fortitude‘ with which she ‘bore the most acute sufferings’. Although these sentiments reflect the style of the period, I find them very moving.

It’s impossible for me to know what Anne had hoped and planned for her future life. Was she like Anne Elliot of Jane Austen’s Persuasion (published in 1817) – prevented from marriage due to issues of money and suitability? Or was she independently-minded with no interest in marriage? In my mind’s-eye, she was spirited, intelligent, kind, and respected, a woman who would, given more time, have made a mark on the world.

Anne’s burial was recorded in the register of St Andrew’s, Holborn on 13 June 1818. The church’s primary burial ground at that time was nearly a mile away in what is now St Andrew’s Gardens, a public park. I plan to visit when I can, and search for Anne Benwell among the remaining (re-sited) headstones and chest tombs.

Unfortunately, Anne’s untimely death was soon followed by another tragic accident in the Benwell family, but this time it was caused by water, rather than fire. Just seven months after Anne’s death, the youngest sibling Charles was in Buenos Aires, Argentina, travelling on the Calcutta. As he and ten crew boarded the ship, the boat was upset, and although he was an excellent swimmer, he was drowned. He was 20 years old. A passenger sent news of his death to England via a letter, ‘in which he is spoken of in the highest terms, for his talents, activity, and kindness of heart, which had caused the strongest attachment to him on the part of the whole of the sailors. It is some consolation to his afflicted relations, to remember that his life, though thus early closed, was passed in active and useful exertion; that his deep sense of religion was shown by his exemplary morals, and that his heart was influenced by every noble, manly, and generous sentiment.’ (Oxford University & City Herald, 15 May 1819)


In Part 2, we leave the Regency era and move forward to the 1840s-50s, when two generations of a noble family met with fiery accidents, and finally to 1873, when my 3x great grandmother, tucking her child into bed, suddenly found herself on fire.

Read Part 2

One thought on “Blazing Dresses (Part 1)

  1. Such a tragic story of two siblings. Although, I love how you’ve made the lives and times come alive in my mind with your detailed descriptions. Thank you for sharing.

    Like

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