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  • Penny Death Traps:The Press, the Poor, Parliament, and the “Perilous” Penny Paraffin Lamp
  • Vicky Holmes (bio)

In october 1897, Reynold’s Newspaper, Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, and the Daily News all reported on a fatal lamp accident involving Catharine House, a sixty-seven-year-old pensioned nurse of 30 Devonshire Street, Lisson Grove, Marylebone, London. Reading a newspaper in bed “by the aid of a penny paraffin oil lamp … placed on the edge of the [bedside] table,” House, in an attack of severe pain, “knocked over the lamp, setting fire to herself and the bed” (“The Fatal Lamp”). Awakened by the screams, House’s niece, Ellen Elizabeth Shae, found her aunt “standing in the middle of the room with her night attire in a mass of flames” (“The Fatal Lamp”). Shae managed to extinguish the flames with water; nonetheless, House was so “badly burnt all over her body” that she died in hospital soon afterwards (“Danger of a Penny Lamp”). Upon House’s death, the coroner, George Danford Thomas, was notified and an inquest opened. Providing a summary of the coroner’s comments on the lamp that caused the fatal incident, Reynold’s Newspaper reported

that the lamp was merely a small glass bottle with a piece of tin at the top. … What could be expected if such a lamp as that was used? He noticed that the lamp was marked “Mother’s safety lamp.” Well, all he could say with regard to that was that it was the most dreadful thing to use. This was not the first accident that had taken place through lamps of this description. They were mostly imported from abroad [and] he generally saw that they were marked “Made in Germany.”

(“The Fatal Lamp”)

The jury returned a verdict of accidental death “and condemned [the lamp] as utterly unfit for purpose.” One juror also remarked that “the sale of such deadly lamps should be prohibited in this country” (“The Fatal Lamp”). Such newspaper reports were far from unique in the late-Victorian period. Numerous newspapers, drawing on coroners’ inquests held around the country, reported upon and supported coroners’ and jurors’ calls for government legislation to regulate the manufacture, import, and sale of these “penny death traps” (“The Fatal Lamp”).

Today, we live in a society with legislation to protect us from the risks posed to ourselves both outside and inside the home. The move to fortify the [End Page 125] “Englishman’s castle” from within emerged in the late-Victorian era among the middle classes, who sought to forge the home as a safe haven. In his work on accidents in history, Roger Cooter claims that in the late nineteenth century there emerged “a widespread consciousness of accidental injuries” (108). A rise in press coverage, the formation of various accident-prevention societies, the establishment of the St. John Ambulance service, and a rise in the publication of first-aid manuals indicated an increasing interest in accidents—“their provision, treatment, and avoidance” (108–09). One could argue that this at times somewhat macabre interest in accidents in the late-Victorian era, central to which was a concern over domestic dangers, was largely a preoccupation of the middle class. In support of Elaine Freedgood’s work Victorian Writing about Risk (2000), this essay, through the tale of the penny lamp, argues that the late-Victorian middle class sought to both “banish [danger] from the domestic scene [and] create a safe England in a dangerous world” (1). Not content with eliminating risk from their own homes, they also sought to force this ideal upon the working class.

The outcry over the perilous penny paraffin lamp was part of a larger middle-class movement to regulate the domestic lives of the working class. As is extensively discussed in the historiography of Victorian motherhood, it was a widely held middle-class belief that, ignorant of the dangers of an unsanitary home, working-class homemakers and mothers put their families’ lives at risk. This concern also extended to more immediate risks lurking in these homes. Evident in mid- to late-Victorian coroners’ reports was an increasing view that accidents occurring in the homes of the poor were, for the...


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