Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 5/Deaths by fire

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When a hermit, in our day, retires to a mountain, to spend his latter years in the repose which befits declining strength, his out-look from his retreat is very unlike that of the ancient hermit. In the dusty tombs of the Thebaid, where there were scorpions under the stones, and crocodiles in the river below, and jackals made the night dismal with their cry, and no green thing was visible for the greater part of the year but the sombre palm and the scanty foliage of the thorny acacia, the recluse did not want to know anything about the world, or his brethren living in it. He might not object to have somebody come now and then to admire him, and tell him how holy he was, and how wise he must be; but he was far too wise and holy to condescend to learn anything in return, or to suppose that a mundane visitor could have anything to tell that could be worth his listening to.

So it was with the somewhat more comfortable dwellers in the limestone caves of Syria. They must have had rather less to endure, though the heat is quite severe enough between Jerusalem and Jericho; and the winters must have been cold in the windy caverns of the honeycombed limestone; and there were storms and floods which the Egyptian hermits never knew. But the valleys of Syria are green almost all the year round, and the terraced hillsides sustained herds and flocks, and there were people within call almost everywhere. The Syrian hermit might, I suppose, abjure his kind if he pleased; but he was not so far out of the way of them as his brother on the Upper Nile. Still, it was a point of piety and pride to forget life and the world, or to strive to do so; and thus the old hermit could have no interest in the events of the day, nor anything to say on them which was worth anybody’s going far to ascertain.

The case has always been the same with monks and nuns of all denominations—well-meaning persons who consider spiritual prudence a virtue of the highest order, and who are therefore not likely to take large and genial views of human affairs. In this respect they are all pretty much alike—whether they are dressed in yellow, praying by wheel on a Thibetian mountain, or dressed in black or grey in a Spanish or South American convent; or dressed in white, grey, or black in some holy seat of sisterhood, where no pleasant feast ever greets the senses, no gay music cheers the spirits, and no news ever arrives to gratify the needs of feminine sympathy. None of these have ever used their mountain perch as a station whence to study human life. There are other classes of persons too—and not only princesses and their attendants—to whom life itself is made a sort of Happy Valley, where they are encouraged to occupy themselves with such pleasures as they are capable of, without thinking of wishing to know anything that lies outside. Of recluses like these there are multitudes in every highly civilised country. They are present wherever luxury and pride have grown up, and knowledge has not overtaken them, as we all hope it will some day. These people, however, are not conscious of their seclusion from genuine life. They take their world to be the world: and as long as they do that they will not arrive at much understanding of human affairs, or interest in them.

Very unlike all these, ancient or modern, is the old man of our time who has not strength for such strenuous life as that of our cities, and therefore retires to a lodge on the mountain, whence he may survey the past and the present at once, and, by observing and reflecting, come to know more of the world than when he lived in it. There is the press now-a-days, instead of the costly and scanty parchment literature of the early ages. There is the newspaper, which satisfies all yearnings after gossip. There is the post, which now reaches every man who can read a letter. There is the telegraph, which publishes interesting news more rapidly than the king’s riders or the fiery cross could carry it four centuries ago. Thus, when there is the inclination to look on, as human affairs are transacted, the recluse can do it in a way which was not possible of old. The hermit also has leisure, which the man of business has not, to set down his thoughts on what is interesting other men; and if what he sets down is worth other men’s reading, in odd moments of leisure, he may possibly find himself privileged to do something for somebody’s benefit, after he seemed to have gone out of the way of it. Such is the view of a hermit of 1861: and, unless his mountain air has intoxicated him, or distance has made him confound his dreams with the actual movements of mankind, he will venture to discuss, from time to time, some topic of the day in which he is in sympathy with society, or some considerable part of it.


The sympathy of society is roused, but too many times every year, by the Deaths by Fire which take place in perpetual succession. It is a question with many whether there are more or fewer deaths by fire than in an earlier stage of the world’s civilisation. Now that all England is mourning Mr. Braidwood, and that many families are privately aghast at the horrible fate which on the same occasion has overtaken some member of the household, in pursuit of duty, or of gain, or in the apparent wantonness of chance, there must be a multitude of persons thinking and talking of death by fire, and most of them, probably, regarding it as one of the chief disgraces of our civilisation. We do not now burn towns in warfare, as our forefathers did. We do not roast a tribe of aborigines in a cave, as has been done in Africa in our own time. Men are not now burned at the stake for their opinions,—unless in some of the American Slave States and in Cochin-China. Kings and courtiers do not dress up in skins and pitch for a masquerading dance, and catch fire from torches, like the unhappy Charles VI. of France, and writhe in the torture of the damned. Yet it may be doubted whether a larger proportion of the present generation does not die by fire than in the ruder times of old.

Up to this Midsummer we should have said that we were past the danger of such conflagrations as the Fire of London: but to-day men speak less confidently of that than they would have done at any time in their lives before. It seems to be agreed now that a very slight change of circumstances might have laid London (the city) or Southwark low at Midsummer 1861. We have witnessed several great fires within one generation. The Hamburg fire is of itself a warning against security in modern civilisation. Where wooden houses or thatched roofs are in use,—in Russia, in Norway, in Switzerland, in the French provinces, in our colonies, and in outlying, villages in our own counties, great fires are always happening somewhere. We do not forget the monstrous Canadian fires, making a clean sweep of the lower part of Quebec, and of half or a third of a town, here and there. St. John’s, New Brunswick, is subject to fires almost periodically, like an individual here and there who has a terrible fever every seven or ten years. The two New York fires of a quarter of a century ago will never be dimmed in their impression on the minds of those who witnessed either of them.

There are many persons now living who say that no desolation that ever they witnessed can compare with the scene when those fifty-three acres of calcined ruins lay crumbling, after the smoke had at length gone out. In the midst of the white, powdery heaps of ruin, stood up aloft a singularly ugly building;—a tall and narrow fire-proof warehouse, with iron doors, behind which was a store of hay, absolutely unsinged. By this token, our Tooley Street fire was more severe; for fire-proof warehouses, with their double iron doors, were overpowered at last;—the walls and floors calcined and the doors red hot, so that nothing behind them could be preserved. It should be remembered that civilisation may intensify fire as much in one direction as it restricts it in another. Two centuries ago, narrow streets of wooden houses caught like rows of gas jets, blazed up, and were soon mere heaps of wood-ashes; and the more substantial warehouses contained nothing like the mass of combustible substances that our modern commerce accumulates in one place. Probably, no port in the world then held so much tallow as choked the sewers, and flooded the streets, and blazed across i the river at the Tooley Street fire, and went on burning in the vaults after it: and oils were a rare commodity in the days of the Stuarts to what they are now.

We cannot but perceive also that there is something much more barbarous and shocking in the deaths yet known at this recent fire than in the few which happen when slight wooden houses or rows of thatched cottages are consumed. Men in boats burned on the Thames like moths in a candle, are a worse spectacle than we had fancied ourselves exposed to in these days. The flame spreading as the ignited tallow or oil spread over the surface, till it surrounded a boat filled with tallow, and set fire to it; the men in the boat, doomed and seeing their doom, but plunging overboard into one sheet of burning grease to avoid the same agony within the boat;—this sight of horror, witnessed by the glare from the shore, could not be surpassed by any spectacle of old days,—nor equalled, unless by the vindictiveness of war, which drove back enemies into a burning house at the point of the lance.

Whenever there have been conflagrations, there have been deaths by crushing under walls; but the massive walls which we build as a protection against fire are more dangerous than the wooden erections of our fathers, and make a more total destruction when overthrown. In a region of log or frame-houses, Mr. Braidwood would not have perished as he did: but then, again, such a man would not have been engaged in his special duty. In the newly settled American States, and also in Swiss villages, where wooden dwellings and stores exist, the proceeding, in an alarm of fire, is to pull down the logs or planks with hooks, and put out the fire, or let it burn piecemeal. When we build massive walls, in fire-proof warehouses, we do what we can to repel the calamity of fire; but if the fire once gets the upper hand, the danger from the walls is greater than ever before.

There is an air of fatality about such an incident which reminds one of the revolting accumulation of calamity which renders fire after an earthquake or a railway accident so horrible; or, I may add, a conflagration in an American forest or prairie or on a Russian steppe. We are given to understand—and we scarcely need to be told it—that there is a feeling of despair, a sensation of being hunted by fate, in such circumstances which is, of all human experiences, the most terrible. When the earthquake has levelled every house, and imprisoned the inhabitants in the ruins, the worst has yet to come. Fire bursts forth wherever air penetrates, and consumes the life and property that the convulsion had left. At Mendoza, a few weeks since, this was the surpassing horror, as it was in the great Lisbon earthquake.

Most of us remember the railway accident between Versailles and Paris, nearly twenty years ago; and the prominent image in that terrible scene is still the lady—name unknown—who perished in full view of a crowd who could do nothing to help her. She was fixed by the waist (apparently without pain) between two parts of a carriage, and when she became aware that fire was the danger, she at first called wildly for help. When she saw that it could not be rendered, and when her light scarf caught and flickered away, she gave one gaze upward, buried her face in her hands, and stirred no more. Many times since has fire followed the crash of collision till it is naturally almost the most dreaded of the two.

Perhaps even these are not such appalling events at the moment to the sufferers as a forest or prairie-fire. The leaping of the flame from side to side, the capricious ignition far and near, and rapid race of the yellow darting flames, the roar of the fire in the woods, the kindling of great trees as if they were torches, and the flare-up of small ones, shrivelled, burnt, and gone in a minute, and the lowering smoke, which seems to make the wood a burning prison—all these are enough to make the stoutest heart stand still. But the prairie-fire is worse, from its overwhelming speed, which paralyses the imagination, and delays or precludes all rational attempts to escape. There are but two ways: to burn the grass in front soon enough to have it sufficiently cool to pass before the greater fire comes up; and to plunge into water sufficiently broad to admit of breathing amidst the smoke. The rush of animals of all kinds adds to the terror. The wildest are not likely to be mischievous at the moment; but the sudden crowd of beasts, birds, and reptiles, all in terror, and most making for the water, where there is any, is enough to give the sensation of the world coming to an end. When travellers die, in such a case, it is evidently from suffocation—a rapid death at least. When they are saved, it is by going through something very like suffocation, by keeping even their heads under water as much as possible till the smoke and heated air roll off.

In regard to such extensive fires as these, which menace life on a large scale, the natural question is, whether our advanced civilisation cannot cope with their forces. But for the importance and the urgency of this question we could hardly bear to dwell on the subject at all. The answer seems to be that our civilisation introduces new perils, while enabling us to deal with some old ones; and the conclusion is, that the loss of life by fire is still shockingly and shamefully large. Our gas, our explosive compounds, so much more in use than formerly, our lucifer-matches, which nothing can keep out of the hands of dunces and children, and our vast stores of inflammable goods, have increased our dangers from fire at least as much, we are told, as science and skill have lessened them by lightning-conductors, fire-proof buildings, fire-brigades, and water-works, and other devices. But it is comfortable to reflect that we are more likely to be guarded than imperilled by further scientific and practical development. We may surely learn to manage our gas and other explosives better. As popular education advances, there will surely be less folly in the management of dunces and children; and there is, I believe, a strong impression abroad that, though Phillips’ fire-annihilator has not yet proved anything like a match for the great conflagrations of our day, it intimates the true principle of antagonism to the evil. If we can learn to administer at pleasure any substance or action with which combustion cannot co-exist, we shall have the mastery presently. Men used to suppose that water was the true agent. Poor Laura Bridgman—the girl without eyes, ears, or sense of smell or taste—could not make out why people let a fire go so far as to cause the engines to rumble over the pavement. She asked why somebody did not blow it out, having understood that people blew out a candle. That blowing should put out a candle and make a house burn more fiercely puzzled her; and in like manner it was puzzling to people in possession of their five senses that water, which extinguishes a moderate fire, should aggravate a fierce one. As it does so, it directs us to search for substances or forces so antagonistic to combustion as that we have only to bring them into some practicable form for use on the breaking out of fire. To have Phillips’ fire-annihilator is better than to have no resource, and especially in places where no system for the repression of fire is in action; but the great use of the invention will, no doubt, prove to be as a suggestion of the right direction in which to work towards a remedy of one of the greatest calamities of human life.


After all, the greatest loss of life by fire is not in these conflagrations of cities, or even houses, but by accidents to individuals. These accidents are almost always owing to imprudence; but, as they are very frequent, and belong to particular customs and the use of particular implements, it is better to look to the customs and implements rather than scold the imprudence. As long as we have open fires in poor people’s homes there will be burnt children; as long as tipsy tramps carry lighted pipes into hay-lofts and stables there will be inquests on dead tramps and fires in outhouses; as long as women wear hanging or protuberant sleeves and balloon skirts there will be inquests on young ladies and housemaids. The fatal instrument, however, which destroys more life than the parlour or kitchen or nursery fire is the lighting apparatus—from the rude torch of barbarous times to the latest; or, perhaps, we may soon be enabled to say, the latest but one.

Those old torches must have been extremely dangerous,—as indeed they are now in the rural dwellings of Norway, where it is the business of one person in the room to light and renew the slips of resinous pine-wood, which burn out in a few minutes, dropping sparks whenever moved, and with every breath of air. Candles must have been dangerous in days when the floors were strewed with rushes, or sprays from the woods. By King Alfred’s lantern we know how the draughts in the ill-built houses of that age wasted the candles; and the same winds would blow the sparks about. Some Americans now attribute the frequency of fires in their country partly to the haste, and consequent imperfection of house-building, by which chimneys set fire to the whole dwelling, and yet more to the use of wood for fuel, and the consequent carrying about of wood-ashes, which are singularly treacherous in their concealment of fire. These causes were in operation when King Alfred put his candles into a lantern, to make them serve at once as a light and a clock; and those who did not so protect the flame, and preclude sparks, no doubt suffered much from fire.

Candles have, however, lasted from that day to this. Ours is probably the last generation which will be able to say as much; but at present it is true. In each age there have been other lights. There have been cressets in the streets, and courts, and inn-yards; and lanterns in the hands of people of all degrees. There has been a burning of oil in lamps, ever since men caught large fish, or crushed seeds on a large scale. Cressets, lanterns, and oil-lamps have all given way before gas in the open air, and in large edifices, shops, and even private houses; yet has the old-fashioned candle remained—sometimes with an air of new-fashion about it—to this day. The candle, with all its barbarism, its grease, its snuff, its waste, its clumsiness, and its dangerousness, has kept its place with a pertinacity which future generations will wonder at.

Its approaching extinction has been foreshown by a long series of endeavours to improve it. In the same way, we strove to improve our street lamps, when old men like myself were boys. When a lamp of a certain sized wick did not give light enough, we added threads to the wick. We cleaned the glass oftener; and spoke sharply to the lamplighter; we found fault with the oil; and then we again added threads to the wick. Some people hinted at a new method altogether, and pointed to little boys getting a brilliant flame out of a coal in the fireplace through the bowl of a tobacco-pipe; but Sir Humphry Davy said, publicly, that that was all nonsense, and that when we could bring down the moon we might light the streets with gas, and not before. So most people settled their minds to their oil-lamps, and preached content. Yet lighting by gas followed. For many years we have, in like manner, been improving candles. The improvement is real; but not the less must the candle go out before a better flame.

The old candle-drawer of the housemaid is seldom to be seen now, happily. Most households have done with that abomination,—the greased sheet of brown paper, the scrapings of tallow, and shreds of snuff: the filthy glove, and grimed and greased snuffers and candlestick. But in too many kitchens, the cook still has to deal with tallow-candles; and the housemaid has only exchanged tallow for composition or wax. The improvement is great; but there is still more or less dirt; the substance, whether fat or waxy, still runs down when the wick flares; and there are droppings all over the house where any sort of candle is carried. Above all, the danger to life is scarcely at all lessened by any improvement in the quality of the candle. If an expiring mineral wick is less dangerous than the old cotton one, in one way, it is more so in another. In getting rid of the stench, we have lost a warning.

Everybody knows all this, I may be impatiently told; and that is the reason why we have had such a series of domestic lamps for many years. This is true; but the lamps have never superseded the candles, as the candle-makers can show. And no wonder; for the many varieties of oil lamps, up to the date of camphine and naphtha, had little advantage as to sweetness and cleanliness over the candle; and then the camphine and naphtha lamps were denounced as dangerous.

For centuries lives have been lost every year, every month, perhaps—including the whole world—every hour, from something flying against the candle, or sparks from the candle falling upon something. People reading in bed, or falling asleep over a light; men in nightcaps, women in large sleeves, children in pinafores, have all been victims by hundreds. Linen on a drying-horse, a muslin curtain in a window, rags or paper in a closet, waste cotton in a warehouse—anything to which a candle was brought near, might, and did sometimes, cause somebody’s death. Yet we have perhaps heard more outcry since camphine and naphtha-lamps came in than in all the old days of candles. This is not surprising, for accidents have been frequent and very terrible. I have observed in the American newspapers, in particular, a long and steady warfare against this invention, with an occasional publication of the number of deaths caused by it. The answer is twofold. The Americans use camphine and naphtha in small hand-lamps, which are easily upset. This is rash. But in regard to the use of camphine and naphtha in standard lamps, it is safe if the simple rules are observed,—to feed the lamp by daylight, and never to carry it lighted. If carried lighted, it may be dropped; and we know how a housemaid was burned to death in ten minutes, a few months since, by that particular accident. She dropped the lamp, trod on the burning fluid, with the notion of stamping it out, set fire to her under-clothing, and was lost. It is abundantly easy to trim the lamp in the morning; and, if left till after dark, the person who holds the candle while another pours in the fluid is regularly amazed, when an accident happens, at the distance at which it can catch fire.

With camphine we might get on very well in drawing-room or shop; and nobody could be burnt but by criminal rashness: but till recently there has been only the candle, or the unsavoury oil-lamp for the kitchen and bed-rooms, and for going about the house. Now, at last, we seem to have got hold of something which gives us all the good, and none of the bad, of former methods; and we see accordingly whole villages and towns leaving off candles and taking to photogene-lamps. In primitive country towns the tinmen cannot make lamps fast enough for the cottages and kitchens, and shops for miles round, and, cheap as photogene is, its price rises from the vehemence of the demand. I hope it is true, as we are told, that the fluid is harmless if spilt. It seems to have every other virtue, and it is really a pleasant thing to see the change in humble dwellings, as well as to note the increased safety in richer households.

We can now leave alight burning in a chamber without danger as without cost, by tu ruing down the photogene hand-lamp to a mere glimmer, and there are neither sparks nor droppings on the stairs. Instead of the flaring, wasting tallow candle on the kitchen-table, or in the windy cottage, one may see now the pretty tin lamp (only sometimes too gaily painted) suspended overhead, giving an abundant and equal light to all the room. With the ordinary care in cutting the wick there is no smell, there is no dirt, and it is the cheapest light yet known. Whether it will continue so when it has cleared off all the ranges of mountains of small coal round the mouths of our coal-pits, another generation will see. At present, its cheapness causes a saving of pounds in a year to many housekeepers, and affords to the humbler consumers a better light than they have ever before enjoyed for less money. We shall never know what the reduction is in babies burnt; but of the fact of the reduction there can soon be no question.

I must resist the temptation of speculating on the effect on industry of the extinction of candles. It would be amusing to relate what has happened already, and to show what must be expected when there is no demand for dips, moulds, composition, or wax; or for candlesticks or snuffers, of any form or size; and when a brisk trade springs up in lamps, chains, and shades, from the humblest to the most elaborate and graceful. But that view will wait. Our candle-makers export such vast quantities of the commodity that the change at home will not show any great immediate influence on the tallow-trade or the northern fisheries. That part of the subject may wait. And I cannot but feel that my main topic is somewhat too grave for it.

However few may like to speak of it, we all really wish to know something of the endurableness of death by fire. There ought to be a good deal of evidence on this head, considering the number of lives so lost in all ages. There is, in fact, a good deal of evidence; but it is so various as to be found very perplexing. The only rational conclusion is that there are great varieties of suffering, in accordance with the differences in men’s frame of body, and yet more, state of mind.

We must remember that nearly all who perish in conflagrations of dwellings die by suffocation, except the few who die as Mr. Braidwood did. Persons who have had severe burns from which they have recovered have said that all the bodily pain was afterwards: either the flame did not hurt, or the perturbation of mind rendered it unfelt. An acquaintance of mine, burnt in the hands in saving a child, and suffering tortures afterwards, even said that the sensation was for the instant rather pleasant than otherwise. But this has no bearing on what we want to know,—the endurableness of being burnt to death.

We need not, unhappily, go back to the old records of religious martyrdom for evidence. Men are burned alive now, year by year,—not only in Red Indian warfare, nor in missionary life among the heathens,—but in the United States, and wherever slavery exists.

In 1836 a negro was so burned in Missouri. The management of the deed was as cruel as the deed itself. Suffice it that, after the longest half-hour he had ever passed, one gentleman said to another, “His pain is over, he does not suffer now:” when a voice from the foot of the tree, and behind the fire, said “Yes, I do.” This victim had been very quiet: and his steady utterance of prayers and hymns showed what we are glad to know. But there is more direct evidence.

There has never been any doubt about the exhilaration of spirit with which men and women could meet that death, and any other. It is so common in the history of martyrdom that we all expect to find it, in every new instance. Latimer’s exultation about lighting a great candle in England animates without surprising us: and we can sympathise with Ridley’s noble economy in the midst of his last walk, when, seeing, on his way to the stake, a poor man barefoot, he slipped off his own shoes, and gave them to the staring stranger, saying it was a pity a pair of shoes so wanted should be burned. All this we understand: but the declaration of several of the martyrs in the midst of the fire that they felt no pain has perplexed many. The dying men themselves supposed it a miracle. We know now that when the skin has been acted upon to a certain point, sensation is lost. There have been instances of this absence of pain in fatal cases within a few months.

The best thing we know, in this matter, is the beautiful anecdote of one of our Protestant martyrs (was it Fisher of Hadleigh?) and his imperilled friends. Those friends expected that their turn would be next; and in the brotherly spirit of the time and circumstances, they talked over the whole matter with him. They would be present, on a rising ground in front of the stake,—which was very cheering to him: and he engaged to make a sign, if he found the pain endurable,—which would be very cheering to them. He would raise his hands above his head, in a manner agreed upon. They went and looked on; and for long they saw nothing. They could not wonder;—it was too much to expect the sign. At last, the victim raised—not his hands, for they were gone, but his arms, above his head, and kept them there so long as to leave no doubt of his intent. For all generations since this has been a comfort. It may make no difference, in any case, about encountering the martyrdom; but it is a great and genuine solace to know that the faculties may work truly in such extremity.

It is an extremity which is now never endured but by somebody’s fault: and it is doubtful whether the proportion of victims to ignorance and carelessness diminishes. Do we mean that there shall ever be an end to deaths by fire?

From the Mountain.