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At Home

‘I’m on fire! Save the baby!’

Vera, a 21-year-old domestic servant, quoted in Yorkshire Post, 29 May 1934.


Woman at home in front of the fire with her family

Throughout modern history, British homes have been full of potential dangers - from candles, open fires, and pans of boiling water, to unsafe electrical equipment - which have caused burns and scalds to the occupants. It was only in the early-twentieth century that governments and charities tried to protect people, especially children and vulnerable adults, from these dangers through education and legislation. While our homes have become safer as a result, we still need to be careful to avoid injuring ourselves.

In the 1800s, many working-class people lived in poor-quality housing, including ‘back-to-backs’ and tenements, with few of the comforts many enjoy today. In these small homes, an open fire would be kept alight at all times - especially in the winter - to boil water, provide heating, dry clothes, and cook food. These roaring fires and boiling pans injured people of all ages, but children were often the focus of safety warnings by coroners and charities. As a result, the 1908 Children Act included measures to prosecute parents if their child was fatally injured because they had no fireguard.

By the mid-1900s, people’s homes began to improve as the old ‘slums’ were cleared and governments began to build council housing, including high-rise blocks of flats, on a huge scale. These new homes had running water and central heating, but the danger of burns and scalds did not disappear. In fact, more hazards appeared as families began to purchase electrical goods - washing machines, televisions, electric blankets, hair straighteners, and so on - which, if not properly maintained or switched off when not in use, could cause a fire or a burn.


Charities like the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (RoSPA) played an important role in public education campaigns on ways to avoid burns and scalds. They suggested, as in this 1950s poster, simple solutions like using a fireguard. Safety was not just the responsibility of the government, but parents and individuals.

Image courtesy of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents

RoSPA also warned about hazards linked with cooking. For example, the increasing popularity of ‘chip pans’ in the late-twentieth century led to many house fires, while the cooking of roti/chapatti directly on a gas ring can also lead to burns injuries if not done safely.

Image courtesy of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents

Hands off poster
Wills Cigarettes

Unguarded fires were also a hazard because many people wore clothes made of flammable materials. In 1934 21-year-old domestic servant Vera, from Leeds, was burned when her dress caught fire while bathing a baby, who survived thanks to her swift actions. By the mid-twentieth century, clothes manufacturers began to use flame-resistant materials like Bri-Nylon.

Wellcome Collection CC-BY

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