Hoarding, Fire, and Two Sisters in the Victorian Era

Fires were always a danger in the Victorian Era, such as the Great Chicago Fire that began in Chicago, Illinois on 8 October 1871 or the tragic Charity Bazaar Fire in Paris that happened in 1897. However, one fatal fire in Gosport* during the Victorian Era was worsened by the hoarding of two sisters. The event happened on High Street in Darby Court on Tuesday, 10 December 1867, at about two o’clock in the afternoon.

 

Artist’s rendering of the fire by Currier and Ives. The view faces northeast across the Randolph Street Bridge. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

A widow named Elizabeth Russell noticed smoke rising from the tenement house of her neighbors, two unmarried women in their 70s who were known in the neighborhood as “Nancy” (Ann) and “Betsy” (Elizabeth) Miller. Russell took immediate action. She broke through the door but could not enter as the lower room was “literally crammed with filth and rubbish, consisting of dirty-worn out articles of wearing apparel, the remains of culinary and domestic articles, rags, bottles, and the various et ceteras usually found in a marine store.”[1]

Borough of Gosport Shown Within Hampshire, Courtesy of Wikpedia

Borough of Gosport shown within Hampshire. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Charles John Harvey, an employee of a builder named Garrett, was also in the area. He too witnessed smoke rising from an upper window of the Miller’s home. He grabbed a ladder and beat in the window’s lower sash but his entrance was blocked by an old stuffed chair, which he removed by destroying it with an axe. However, it did not help him gain entrance and he still could not enter the room. By this time, the smoke was “suffocating,” and, in the meantime, other employees of Garrett’s, with much difficulty, gained entrance.

The sisters’ hoarding made it almost impossible to reach them but a passageway was achieved and the women found. However, what rescuers discovered was sickening: The Miller sisters were “found enveloped in flames, perfectly unconscious, and huddled in front of a grate in which was burning fuel.”[2] The rescuers then grabbed the women, pulled them out, and took them to safety at a nearby neighbor’s house. In the meantime, the fire fighters “fixed their stand pipe and hose, and poured a good quantity of water into the room, which immediately put out the fire.”[3]

With the women safe from the fire, the rescuers discovered that unfortunately both women were horrible charred, with one sister worse off than the other. A surgeon by the name of Dr. Robert John Kealey was called to attend to them. He ordered the women moved to Alverstoke Union, where Betsy expired shortly thereafter. Nancy was burned in “her left arm and under the left side of her head, face, and inner part of the right fore arm were also much burned.”[4] In fact, Nancy’s injuries were so severe she was not expected to survive, and she died two days later.

Inquiries were made with the younger sister Nancy as to how the fire started. She  regained consciousness for a short time and informed rescuers about what happened. According to her, Betsy was “suddenly seized with a fit and fell towards the fire, which ignited her dress.”[5] Nancy claimed she tried to assist her sister, but her dress then caught fire. In addition, the sisters’ hoarding resulted in a pile of nearby rags that were somehow swept into the fire, and after they ignited, they caused the fire to burn fiercer. Both women, now weakened by the smoke, then “became enveloped in flames, and possessed neither strength nor power to relieve [or save] themselves.”[6]

For many years the Millers had been receiving parochial assistance, “and, amongst other peculiarities, they seem to have displayed a special aversion to any third person becoming acquainted with the mysteries of their wretched abode.”[7] The reason for this aversion became apparent with the fire. The women were hoarding all sorts of things and despite their home being filthy and indescribable, the Birmingham Journal attempted:

“The place could not have been cleaned since it has been in the occupation of the woman, a period of nearly twenty years, and the filthy state of the bed and bed-clothing fully bears out this conclusion. Upon one of the women was found a bag containing a quantity of silver coin, and it is alleged that when the women paid their rent [which occurred annually] the coin was so begrimed with filth and dirt that their landlord was compelled to cleanse it immediately upon its receipt.”[8]

Several newspapers offered other interesting details about the sisters’ hoarding. After the fire, the owner and landlord demanded the Miller’s house be emptied of its contents. This, of course, caused “considerable excitement” in the Darby neighborhood. Many items were removed, as described by the Hampshire Advertiser:

“[N]o less than four waggon-loads of miscellaneous articles [were removed] and these included nearly a ton and a-half of coals, which were found covered over with rubbish in the room in which the women slept and performed their ordinary domestic arrangements. Amongst the other things found in the house were several articles of children’s wearing apparel (all new), some lace, and miscellaneous collection of eatables, including a part of a boiled leg of mutton in a box containing dirty oil and spirits of turpentine.”[9]

Signs of a hoarder. Public domain.

*Jane Austen‘s cottage in Chawton stood at a fork where the junction split and headed towards either Gosport or Winchester.

References:

  • [1] “Fatal Fire at Gosport,” in Birmingham Journal, 14 Dec. 1867, p. 6.
  • [2] Ibid.
  • [3] “Gosport,” in Hampshire Advertiser, 14 Dec. 1867, p. 12.
  • [4] “The Late Fire in Gosport,” Hampshire Telegraph, 14 Dec. 1867, p. 8.
  • [5] Ibid.
  • [6] “Fatal Fire at Gosport,” p. 6.
  • [7] “A Revolting Scene,” in Liverpool Daily Post, 14 Dec. 1867, p. 5.
  • [8] “Fatal Fire at Gosport,”p. 6.
  • [9] “Gosport,” in Hampshire Advertiser, p. 12.

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