The end of the year

I spent the past year reading news from 1861—every week throughout 2011, I read the Sunday papers that had been published on that day one hundred and fifty years previously.

I’ve always enjoyed browsing old papers and stumbling across weird and horrifying stories that caused a brief sensation the day they were printed but were entirely forgotten by the next day, and I thought it might be worth taking a rather more structured approach, to see if anything interesting emerged. I thought—correctly—that setting up a blog to which I would post a few of the more lurid and flavoursome stories each week would lend discipline to the enterprise and keep it going if my enthusiasm should flag at any point. I decided not to comment on or edit the stories, as I had far too much other work to do, and in any case, one of the main pleasures of reading the papers is in their strange Victorian turns of phrase and melodramatic language.

After fifty-two posts, I’ve reached the end of the year and of the project. The American civil war started, the British Empire almost went to war with the United States and Prince Albert died at the age of forty-two, but I skipped most of those reports. Far more fascinating were the stories of thefts, muggings, murders, industrial accidents, lunatics and—the leitmotif of the year—poor young ladies being burned alive when their enormous crinolines caught fire.

The number of crinoline tragedies was quite shocking—as many as two or three a week during the colder months—and some of the stories were really quite awful to read, with women running screaming through their houses and into the streets, entirely engulfed in flames and suffering a lingering death over the subsequent days as a result of their appalling burns. What a nightmarish way to go.

I included the most noteworthy ones in the blog, but there were dozens more. I’ve pasted all the crinoline stories into a single post here but it’s probably best not to read them all at once.

The main lesson I picked up from the project—which might not come as a surprise—was that 1861 was a truly miserable, brutal and unforgiving year in which to be alive. Anyone who believes that society is breaking down in the 21st century or that our spirit is being stifled by the welfare state or health and safety legislation should spend a year reading Victorian papers, with their murdered babies abandoned in gutters, young men crushed by unsafe factory machinery, servant girls starved to death in wealthy houses and all the rest of the commonplace cruelty, and reflect on how far we’ve come in a relatively short time.

God save the Queen!

29th December 1861


Eliza Durant, an attenuated woman, between thirty-five and forty years of age, but looking much older, was charged with drunkenness and disorderly conduct.

Mr Fox, landlord of the Laurel Tree, Spitalfields, gave evidence of the woman having been guilty of the offences mentioned, the previous evening, in his house, and that he was compelled, from the hindrance to his business, to give her into custody.

In defence, Miss Durant begged, with much apparent truthfulness, to be excused this “once more,” on the plea that she would never transgress again; and also on the ground that she had passed sixteen consecutive Christmases in prison; adding, “My sister is going to buy me a new gown, and I shall have a number of presents for the novelty of being ‘out’ this year; one of which Christmas boxes you [the magistrate] shall have, if you let me go now.

Mr Knox inquired if anything was known of the defendant, and Harris, of the H division, spoke to her frightfully dissipated character and numerous imprisonments. This was perfectly true, for Walker, the guard of the prison van, has had her under his keeping more than one hundred and fifty times during the last twelve years.

She is known as Miss Betsy Durant all over the east end of London, and when locked up invariably amuses herself, and disgusts others, by tearing up her apparel. Such was the case on this occasion, but Bendal, the gaoler, prevented their entire demolition under threats of not allowing her a half pint of beer before she left, if she continue.

She left in the van singing “The County Gal” merrily, to take a further term of one month’s imprisonment and hard labour.


This afternoon, information was received of the death of Miss Sarah Wainwright, a young girl of fourteen years of age, who expired this morning at the City of London Hospital from the effects of dreadful injuries received through the igniting of her crinoline late last evening.

It appears that the unfortunate deceased, who was the daughter of highly respectable parents, residing at Stepney, was alone in a room when her dress caught fire at the grate and, her crinoline being very large, before the flames could be extinguished her whole body was almost roasted, the only part of her person which escaped unburned being her feet, which were protected by her boots.

She was immediately conveyed in a cab to the hospital, where she survived a few hours. Her limbs and arms were perfectly charred and how her life was preserved for even an hour seems miraculous.


An inquest was held yesterday afternoon into the death of Sarah Williams, aged 31 years, the wife of a tailor’s cutter.

On Saturday evening last, the deceased was reaching a piece of paper which was behind a picture hanging over the mantel piece when her dress ignited, and she immediately became enveloped in flames.

She ran screaming down the staircase and was followed by a lodger. The flames were with difficulty extinguished, but not until her body and limbs were fearfully blackened and charred. She soon after expired.

The deceased had on at the time of the sad occurrence a very large crinoline petticoat. The deputy coroner remarked on the dangerous practice of such decorations, when the jury returned a verdict of accidental death.