Forged by Fire: Burns Injury and Identity in Britain, c.1800-2000

Forged by Fire

Forged by Fire is a unique collaboration between medical historians at the University of Birmingham and urban historians at Leeds Beckett University, supported by the AHRC.

Together the team are exploring personal and collective tragedies involving burns and scalds that have been connected to British culture and society, and are rooted in the habits and design of home, workplace, war and play. This project investigates how such injuries have shaped identity in Britain during the past two centuries. According to burns treatment pioneer Dr Leonard Colebrook in 1950, burns and scalds reflected peculiarly British practices: tea drinking, open fires in homes, and widespread use of inflammable, raised-nap cottons. 

Like Colebrook, 'Forged by Fire' finds meaning in the causes and in the material culture of burns. A core part of this is the design and construction of homes, workplaces and cities and the efforts of coroners and the emergency services to develop measures to keep property, health and lives safe. Tying together the personal experiences of sustaining and treating past burns injuries with these broader issues, develops understandings of what being modern meant at key moments in wider British history.


University of Birmingham

Leeds Beckett University

UKRI Arts and Humanities Research Council


This project is funded by an AHRC Standard Grant (AH/N00664X/1)

Images © Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents

Aims of the project


Lit cigarette with a smiley faceCentring on Glasgow, Birmingham and London, and embracing Northern Ireland and Wales, this project investigates burn and scald hazards, how they have changed and the efforts that have been invested in preventing and treating injuries.

In doing so, it  reveals the impact burns and scalds have had on the identities of injured people, professional organisations, as well as communities in Britain



Meet the team

Principal Investigator:

Professor Jonathan Reinarz (University of Birmingham)

Jonathan Reinarz



Dr Shane Ewen (Leeds Beckett University)

Shane Ewen

Postdoctoral Research Fellows:

Dr Rebecca Wynter (University of Birmingham)


Rebecca Wynter

Dr Aaron Andrews (Leeds Beckett University)

Dr Aaron Andrews


About the project

Warm the Child - but Guard the FireThroughout the past two centuries, Britons have experienced personal and collective tragedies involving burns and scalds, which have been connected to British culture and society and rooted in the habits and design of home, workplace, war and play. This project investigates how burns have shaped identity: individual and collective. In 19th-century Britain, the mortality rate for burns injuries was 50%. Between 1900 and 1950, of the 100,000 people burnt and scalded every year, 20-30,000 were admitted to hospital and around 2,000 died - over half of them children. Today, burns injuries make up 175,000 of all A&E visits; 16,000 people are hospitalised and 300 (2%) die.

On the surface, this is a story of progress, yet in some ways this is just skin deep. Unlike other aspects of public health, there has been little progress in burns prevention. According to burns pioneer Dr Leonard Colebrook in 1950, statistics, such as those above, reflected peculiarly-British practices: tea drinking, open fires in homes, and widespread use of inflammable, raised-nap cottons. Not only is meaning attributed to the causes, but the material culture of burns – from changing fuels to the resultant technologies that shape how we live – is also tied into what being modern meant at key moments in the wider chronology of British history. For emergency services, emerging hazards meant pooling information and devising countermeasures, informing the design and construction of new, safer homes and workplaces. This project examines how these decisions were reached.
Illustration of rabbits around a campfire
While burns incidents have influenced the professionalisation of ambulance and fire services, little is known about the roles played by emergency services in co-ordinating life-saving and treatment. Moreover, given that many ambulance services evolved out of municipal fire brigades in the early 20th century (including our three cities), both services are ripe for comparative study to better understand their joint roles as first responders to emergencies. Alongside this, priorities around treatment have shifted from resuscitation and isolation in the 1840s (when the first 'burns unit' was established in Edinburgh in 1845), to infection control and shock prevention in the 1890s, and reconstruction in the 1940s. Each shift has introduced new specialists to burns teams. Gradually, as mortality rates began to fall noticeably after the Second World War, the ultimate goal of burns practitioners also changed from survival to full rehabilitation and psychological recovery.

Despite this progress, burns remain a visually distinct, sensually assaulting and emotionally overwhelming injury, with significant effects on mobility, the self and identity. They also have a significant bearing on psychological wellbeing, not only of the injured, but their families and those involved in fire rescue and burns treatment. Burns are felt to be horrific and iconic. Self-immolation in particular jars our collective and emotional response, but might also inspire people. In 2010, Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire in protest at police treatment in Tunisia. In doing so, he has been said to be the human spark for the Arab Spring and its darker wake. Indeed, rarely are burns just individual tragedies. They can galvanise collective action, as they did following the 1981 New Cross fire, which claimed 14 young lives and is recognised as having helped foster a Black British identity. The 1987 King's Cross fire was the largest fatal fire on the London Underground, killing 31 people and injuring 100 more. It transformed health and safety regulations in London's transport network and led to the creation of the Healing Foundation (1999), a charity working for people who have sustained burns injuries. The recent establishment of support groups suggests a more collective and consoling experience of burns, yet our cultural image of the person who experiences extensive burns remains that of a solitary, tragic, and mysterious figure – Miss Haversham and spontaneous human combustion.

Patient and public involvement

Through our varied and non-academic outputs, 'Forged by Fire' offers a wide reach, impacting on the work of policy makers, fire services, burns physicians, third-sector groups, former patients and their families, schools and workplaces, and the wider public.

The deep links team members have with other individuals and organisations have been embedded throughout the project. Jonathan Reinarz has made close links with burns clinicians. Shane Ewen has a strong relationship with the fire and rescue service via service associations, charities and heritage groups. 'Forged by Fire' has made connections with Changing Faces, The Children’s Burns Trust, The Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents, St John Ambulance, and Care of Burns in Scotland.

Free public exhibitions are part of our core impact strategy with Rebecca Wynter as lead. The first run of our exhibition was at the Museum of the Order of St. John, London, in January 2020. Plans are in place for exhibitions to be hosted by different venues, including The Mitchell Library, Glasgow, the University of Swansea, and in Leeds. 

The project aims to make a sustained difference to prevention strategies, potentially feeding into national policy. Through our established and developing associations with local fire services these refreshed strategies are reaching schoolchildren and workplaces. Fire prevention and basic first aid activities - building on our proven record of medical simulations created by former public-outreach officer Julia Hyland - aim to engage such groups with the experience and treatment of burns in their own communities. Birmingham artist Sarah Silverwood Taylor is producing a graphic novel reconstructing and anonymising 4-6 stories from our research. The publication will be distributed through our fire service partners, primarily in schools in our three cities, and material will also be made available for digital download.

Project Steering Group

The Project Steering Group provides independent expert advice and oversight of this study.

The independent members of the Steering Group are:

  • Dr Emily Mayhew, Department of Bioengineering, Imperial College London.
  • Darren North, Watch Commander, West Midlands Fire Service.
  • Kelly McMeekin, Heritage Development Officer, Prevention and Protection Directorate, Scottish Fire and Rescue Service.
  • Professor Naiem Moiemen, Clinical Service Lead for Burns, Queen Elizabeth Hospital.
  • Peter Holland CBE, Chief Fire and Rescue Adviser, Her Majesty's Government.
  • Professor Diana Harcourt, Centre for Appearance Research, University of the West of England.
  • Professor Anthony Metcalfe, School of Chemical Engineering, University of Birmingham (formerly of The Blond McIndoe Research Foundation).
  • Paul Fuller, Chief Fire Officer of Bedfordshire and Trustee of the Child Burns Trust.
  • Krissie Stiles, medical practitioner and author (previous Head of Clinical Services, Katie Piper Foundation).


We have our own 'Forged by Fire' blog hosted by Wordpress. All four of the team have contributed posts and we also invite guest bloggers.

Team members have themselves been guest bloggers. We’re adding to our blog posts all the time:

As part of the foundations for ‘Forged by Fire’, Jonathan Reinarz wrote a series of blog posts for the ‘Saving Humans’ project at the University of Birmingham. 

Shane Ewen has written for the Wellcome Collection, the Fire Brigades Union, and West Yorkshire Fire and Rescue Service. Jonathan and Shane together wrote a piece for the Children’s Burns Trust, which informed their ‘A burn injury is for life’ campaign.

Rebecca Wynter has worked with ‘Modern British Studies’ at the University of Birmingham and with the ‘Railway Work, Life and Death’ project, a joint initiative between the University of Portsmouth, the National Railway Museum, and the Modern Records Centre, University of Warwick.

Aaron Andrews has written blog posts for School of Cultural Studies and the Humanities, Leeds Beckett University and for the Social History Society.

Follow us on Twitter for updates:  @BurnsHistory

Thirteen Dead and Nothing Said:  The 1981 New Cross massacre and Black People's Day of Action

On the evening of 17 January 1981, friends and family of Yvonne Ruddock and Angela Jackson gathered at 439 New Cross Road in the London Borough of Lewisham to celebrate their 16th and 18th birthdays.

At around 5:45 am on 18 January, a fire broke out in the front room on the ground floor. While most people had already left, a small group were still in the house waiting for the first trains and buses to start running.

13 young Black Britons aged between 14 and 22 died in the fire.

26 more were injured.

Two-and-a-half years later, a fourteenth name was added to the list of victims.

Read their story