The accidental death of Jane Sanderson

(This article was contributed by Frank Sanderson of Liverpool.  Frank’s family used to live in Hamsterley at Pond House. See his entry on the Family History page.)

Frank Sanderson (1828-1915) was close to his older sister, Jane, born in 1826, and they attended the village school in Hamsterley where a tragedy was to happen that would haunt Frank for the rest of his life. In 1834, the year that the Tolpuddle Martyrs were victimised to discourage the British working-class movement, and when slavery was abolished in the British Empire, Jane was at school one Monday in December playing hide and seek with her school friends. In rural communities children helped out on the land at busy times of year, which meant that in the spring and summer months and in October during potato picking, attendance would be poor at the school, but at this slack time of year on the land, most of the village children would be present.

Jane was chasing the other children and they locked her in the classroom to prevent her catching them. The classroom had an open fire and Jane’s dress caught alight; she would have been quickly engulfed by the flames. Jane was trapped in the classroom, and the other children did not believe her when she screamed for help. She would have had extensive burns and must have experienced excruciating pain and suffered terribly.

The Burial Register records that Jane “accidentally burnt to death in the school”. She died on Monday, December 8, 1834, aged 8 years, and was buried in Hamsterley churchyard on 11th December. Given the circumstances surrounding Jane’s death, and the fact that she was only a child, there would have been much shared grief in the village and an exceptional attendance at the funeral.

Poet and philosopher Samuel Taylor Coleridge, political economist TR Malthus, and essayist Charles Lamb also died in 1834 but, unlike Jane Sanderson, they each had had a long life in which to fulfil their promise.

Christmas came exactly two weeks later but there would have been no sense of celebration in the Sanderson household.

Pamela Horn, writing about schools in the 1870s, reports that:

“…heating was normally provided by an open fire at one end of the room, but the warmth thrown out was often inadequate in the winter months, and the children were almost too cold to work”. (p. 57)

It was significant that the tragic accident happened on a Monday during the winter when the teacher would probably have had the fire really blazing in order to heat the building after the cold weekend. And given that children at the time tended to be somewhat ‘overdressed’, it is easy to imagine how a child, seeking the warmth of the fire on a cold day, would have strayed too close to the flames without realising the danger. Where the teacher actually was when this event was happening is not known, but there must have been questions asked, given that the tragedy occurred whilst the children were unsupervised. The first schoolmaster after the school opened in 1822 was the curate, the Rev. Gibson. His successor as curate was the Rev JG Milner and it is possible that he was the teacher in charge of the children in 1834. If so, then he is likely to have sustained heavy criticism for his failure of care, especially as he already enjoyed a less than cordial relationship with members of the parish. Less than two months before the tragedy, he had been involved in bad-tempered exchanges with the Vestry Men, one of whom was John Sanderson, Jane’s father.

There are many reports from the Victorian era of young children being burnt to death at home, often when having been left in the care of older brothers or sisters whilst the parents were both at work in the fields. For example, a 5 year-old girl from Fletwell in Norfolk died in March 1875 “after severe suffering from being burnt”. Her mother was working in the fields and the girl was being looked after by her 10 year-old brother. The boy had left the house briefly and the young girl had “by some means got her clothes on fire, and ran out of the house all in flames”. A Warwick doctor reported in the 1860s that he had attended 8 cases where the clothes of a child had caught fire, with 4 cases proving fatal.

How tragically ironic then that 8 year-old Jane, supposedly safe at school in the care of the in loco parentis schoolteacher should suffer such a terrible fate.

The death of Jane certainly left its impression on the family. Uncle Frank Sanderson recalls that when he was a young boy at Hamsterley, his grandfather, Frank, who had had his sixth birthday the month before his sister died, and who was at school with Jane at the time, wouldn’t let anyone go near the fire, “If I got too near the fire, he would give us (sic) a stroke with his stick”, said Uncle Frank. His grandfather had a big armchair in the kitchen and no one was allowed to be any nearer the fire than the armchair.

It is remarkable and telling that Uncle Frank knew all about the death of his g. Aunt, and was able to recount the sad event with great clarity and some emotion in 1980, almost a century and a half after it happened. He was very well aware of the impact it had made on his grandfather and his continuing anxiety about open fires. Grandfather never got over it.

An insight into the likely trauma experienced by 6 year-old Frank at the horrifying death of his sister is provided by the recollections of nature writer William Hudson. When William was 6 years old, his dog died, and he recalled in later life how astonished he was “at the intensity of feeling” he experienced, “the terrible darkness it brought on so young a mind”, and how the event awakened him “from that beautiful dream of perpetual joy”. In other words, the death of his dog had confronted the previously carefree William with his own mortality.

For Frank, this confrontation must have been particularly traumatic in that the death of a sister, more so it would be imagined than the death of a favourite dog, will have given him a premature acquaintance with the notion of death being applicable to himself. As Wordsworth noted:-

A simple child
That lightly draws its breath
And feels its life in every limb,
What should it know of death?

Frank Sanderson,

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