Rodwell, Martha 1875 March 5th
On Wednesday afternoon last an inquest was held at the White Horse inn, Castle-street, in this city, by Mr G Smith, the City Coroner, and a jury of which Mr Davis was foreman, relative to the death of Martha Rodwell, aged 86, who had been an inmate of Hussey’s Almshouses in Castle-street, but who was occupying an apartment in a private house in Oldgate-place during the rebuilding of the Almshouses, and who was found dead on the evening of Tuesday under circumstances detailed in the subjoined evidence.
Henry Wootton, a fireman at the Waterworks, said he resided next door to the deceased, at Oldgate-place, Castle-street. About a quarter to eight o’clock the preceding night he was sitting in-doors when he heard someone calling for help in the next house. He went in, and on going upstairs he saw the room full of smoke and fire, so that he couldn’t get in. He went down stairs, and having procured a bucket of water he threw the contents into the room above. That beat back the smoke and flame which proceeded from the doorway, and he then saw a body lying on the floor. He broke the window then to let out the smoke, and afterwards went and gave information to the police. Returning to the house he saw that the body was that of the deceased. He believed she was quite dead when he found her. He heard the nurse leave the house in which the deceased lived about five minutes before he heard the cry for help.
Mr Superintendent Mathews, of the city police, said that at eight o’clock on the preceding evening he was called upon by the last witness, and went in consequence to a house in Oldgate-place. He went upstairs, and in the front room he saw the body of the deceased lying on the floor, the whole of her clothing in front being burnt through, and the face and both arms being very much burnt. The woman was then dead. Witness sent for surgical aid, and Dr Gowing attended. The deceased had evidently struggled to reach the door, as she lay only about eighteen inches from it. Witness produced a paraffin lamp which he found knocked over in the room. It had been newly trimmed and the solder having been melted, the oil had run out.
Ann Dicketts said she had attended upon the deceased, who was 86 years of age. The previous evening, about seven o’clock, she helped her up-stairs, and got her supper. About twenty minutes past seven she left her to get supper for another patient (witness’s sister), who with the deceased had been moved out of Hussey’s Almshouses into the private house until the new buildings were erected. Witness put a lighted paraffin lamp on the end of the chimney-piece, and warned the deceased not to touch it. There was no shade on the lamp. Witness went out to procure some eggs, and was not absent more then two or three minutes. When she came back witness’s sister said, “Mrs Rodwell must have fallen down,” and witness at once went up to see. The room was full of smoke and flame, and running down stairs she called out loud for help. The witness Wootton came in then. The lamp could not have fallen down without being touched, and witness had no doubt deceased had got up from her chair to make the lamp give a better light.
The foreman asked the witness why she put the lamp on the chimney-piece, and she replied that she put it there so that it should be as far as possible out of the reach of the deceased.
Mr Superintendent Mathews said that from what he had observed there was scarcely space on the ledge for the lamp to stand safely. It might have fallen off and into the lap of the old lady as she sat in her chair just beneath it, through the shaking of the place by the shutting of the door or some other vibratory movement in the house or in the street.
In answer to a juror the witness said she had been ordered by the authorities of the almshouses never to leave the woman with a light after she had gone to bed, but she had not gone to bed when this occurred.
Another juror asked if it was not a fact that the clothes of the deceased had caught fire some time ago.
Witness said it was, whereupon the juryman expressed a strong opinion that it was careless to leave the light as it was left on the evening of this fatal occurrence.
Mr B Gowing, surgeon, said he was called to see the deceased the preceding evening. He found her to be quite dead, the body lying midway between the fireplace and the door, with the head in the latter direction. The front of the left arm and a portion of the right arm were much burnt, and the face was very deeply burnt. Witness believed that death was due to the sudden shock – that she dropped dead, in fact – and that the burns were insufficient to cause death.
The Coroner : Is the throwing of water over a person under such circumstances the best mode of seeking to extinguish fire?
Mr Gowing said that under ordinary circumstances rolling in a blanket was the best method, but where there was a great deal of smoke and flame the use of water was not the worst resource.
Mr Mathews, who had gone to the house and measured the ledge on which the lamp was placed, was again called. He said the width was between seven and eight inches, but at the place where the lamp had stood the ledge was worn into a downwardly direction.
The Coroner went minutely over the evidence, and remarked that there was something undoubtedly careless in the leaving of a lighted lamp of this kind, and in such a position too, in a room where so very old and helpless a woman was entirely alone. He would not say that the neglect was of so culpable a character as to amount to criminality, but all the same, there was certainly was a degree of carelessness which was reprehensible. The evidence showed that this old and incapable person had been left for nearly half an hour by herself.
The nurse interposed, and reminded the Coroner that though she was away from the deceased for twenty minutes, before going out for the eggs, she was not of the house; she was downstairs attending to another patient.
The Coroner : Then you should not undertake more than you can properly perform. You were away from your charge, and therefore you might as well have been out of the house altogether.
Dicketts said she had attended on them both for four years past, and had always seen that they had everything they wanted, and that they were kept out of danger.
The Coroner alluded in conclusion to the impropriety of throwing water over a burning person to put out the fire. Such a plan only aggravated the evil by drenching such person with boiling fluid. Where ever it was practicable a blanket or some such thing should be wrapped around the body.
Mr Mathews observed that in this case the man Wootton, when he threw the water in among the smoke and flame, did not know that there was a body in the room at all.
The jury then, after some deliberation, returned a verdict to the effect that death was the result of accidental burning, but appended an opinion that the nurse Dicketts had been guilty of serious negligence in leaving her charge as she did for so long a time, and with so dangerous a thing in close proximity to her as a lamp of the kind produced.
The Coroner thereupon called the woman forward and administered to her a sharp reproof.