Death of a child from burns – Frederick George Garner

Death of a child from burns - Frederick George Garner

It was reported in The Bedfordshire Mercury on Saturday 5th April 1890 that an Inquest was held at the Bedford Infirmary on Friday 29th March  before Dr Price, Coroner regarding the death of Frederick George Garner, age seven, who died from injuries received from being burned on the previous Wednesday [27th March 1890]. Mr Wright was foreman of the Jury and the following evidence was given.

‘Geo Wm Garner said: “I am a carter residing in Pilcroft street [No 29]. The body which has been shown to the jury is that of my son. He was seven years old”.

‘Mercy Garner said: “I am the wife of the last witness, and mother of the deceased. About a quarter past 7 am on Wednesday last I was in my bedroom. The child got out of bed and ran downstairs from his own room. Almost immediately afterwards I heard him speak to his brother. In Two minutes after he said “mother my nightshirt is all on fire”. I rushed down and he met me at the stairs door, his shirt all in a blaze. He had been very poorly and he was in the habit of going downstairs and standing before the fire to dress. I pulled the shirt off as quickly as possible. He had a tight fitting vest underneath, which was difficult to get off, but my hands were much burnt in doing so. Then I got hold of a cloth and wrapped it around him, and I ran to Mrs Burnham, my neighbour. When I got back he said “let me go to bed mother” and he ran upstairs and got into bed. He was not at play with the fire. We have a fire guard, but it is not put up till the children are dressed. He had a foot on the fender, and was looking out of the window at the time.’

‘Mrs Burnham said: “I reside next door to the last witness. I was called by her on Wednesday morning at 7.30. I heard her say that her boy was burnt. I ran immediately and found him in bed covered up with sheets. I could see that he was badly burned in most parts of his body. I got some flour and sprinkled over him. That seemed to soothe him and he wanted to lay down. My husband went to see for Mr Garner, who went, I believe, to Dr Kinsey, and received directions to bring him to the Infirmary. Dr Kinsey did not come to the house. A fly was procured and he was taken to the Infirmary.”

‘Dr Skelding, house surgeon, said: “The deceased was brought here at 8.14 on Wednesday morning suffering from extensive burns, on the face, hands, chest and abdomen, and it was suffering from the shock. Towards evening he became delirious and died at 9.45 in a fit of convulsions. Death was due to injuries received.”

‘By a juryman: “About 25 minutes elapsed before I saw the child. I was in bed and I gave directions for the child to be taken upstairs, and two nurses had directions to attend to it, and another nurse attended to the mother. I proceeded to dress and saw the child as soon as I was dressed. The nurses had had considerable experience, and they knew exactly what to do. It might seem a long time for the father to wait. The burns were quite superficial.”

‘Another Juryman: “He could not have done any better than the nurses.”

‘The Coroner said it was an accident which not unfrequently occurred. There was one thing to be notice: – there was no fireguard, which there ought to have been if children went there to be dressed. The doctor had told them that he was not in a position to see the child when it arrived, but he should say that trained nurses were quite capable of seeing after that. The case did not call for any amount of surgical skill, and he did not see there was the slightest reflection upon Dr Skelding.’

The jury returned a verdict of ‘Accidental Death’.

‘After the verdict had been returned one of the jurymen said he heard that the bandages were taken off by the doctor after the nurses had put them on. If the nurses were capable of doing them what necessity was there for the doctor to take them off again?

‘Dr Skelding was then recalled and in answer to the coroner, he said the bandages were not taken off by him, for when he went they had not been applied. It took some time to saturate cotton with oil to put over a whole body. What he did was to lift up the lint just to see if the burns were superficial or deep. The lint covered the whole body, and by lifting it up he found that the burns were superficial. Subsequently the bandages were applied.

‘After this explanation the jury said they were satisfied that no reflection could be cast upon Dr Skelding.’

Pilcroft Street

At the time of the accident the family were living at Pilcroft Street, an impoverished area of the town, which was off the Ampthill Road and not far from the Infirmary, which is now the Bedford South Wing Hospital.

There appear from the 1891 census, to have been three children in the family, Frederick age seven, the eldest, Sidney aged four and Walter aged two. A fourth child, Albert William Garner, died and was buried only two months earlier, on the 28th January 1890, aged 11 months. Mention was made of Frederick speaking to his brother once downstairs and that was most likely the four-year-old Sidney, who later said that his brother was standing on the fender and looking out of the window when his night shirt caught fire. Had the fireguard been in place, the accident may not have occurred, so in that respect, the parents were negligent. By the time of the 1891 census the family had moved to 10 Holme Street, prompted perhaps by the tragedy and loss of their two sons.

It would have been common at the time for home remedies to be used to treat illness and this explains the sprinkling of flour over the wounds. Of the many publications advising on and publicising products and home remedies during the Victorian period, there are Household Guides which recommend that burns be covered with flour and wrapped in cotton wadding. In fact, there is still debate on-line concerning this method of treating burns even today.

There is no doubt that this poor child suffered greatly from the burns he sustained, and perhaps (on reading the script closely) one might suspect that his parents were not entirely satisfied with the treatment he received; for instance, when the incident was reported that morning, no one came to check his wounds and administer assistance, and after a delay in getting to the infirmary, he was not seen by a qualified doctor (‘surgeon’) but referred to nursing staff to attend to his wounds. There is no mention of pain relief being administered, only that he was ‘delirious’ – not surprisingly. Dr Skelding mentioned ‘extensive burns’ and shock; a ‘juryman’ mentioned that the burns were ‘quite superficial’ and all in all, it seems, there was little consensus. The poor child was wrapped in bandages and cotton soaked with oil to cover the burns and Dr Skelding stated that he had ‘extensive burns’. While the child was being treated by the nurses, it must have seemed a ‘very long time’ for Frederick’s father to wait, until Frederick was seen by a qualified doctor or ‘surgeon’. Surely the ‘juryman’ was not qualified to make a statement that ‘the injuries did not require surgical skill’?

It appears from the 1891 census that Dr Robert Kinsey was living at 45 Harpur Street, a fifty-year-old GP born in Lucknow, India. Harpur Street is a fair distance from the boy’s home. As the child lay in pain from his burns, the neighbour sent her husband to locate Frederick’s father, working as a carter so perhaps not easy to find. Mr Garner had then to visit the doctor at his home in Harpur Street and as directed by Dr Kinsey, went to find transport to convey the child to the Infirmary, and then to rush the little boy to the Infirmary and all this, apparently, in the time stated. Notable that the GP did not visit the child at his home to inspect the wounds, but instead directed Mr Garner to take him to The Infirmary. During all this time the child received no medical attention or pain relief, as far as we can tell. There was yet another wait until help was given at the Infirmary – by the nurses (rather than Dr Skelding) . In the circumstances it is surprising that poor Frederick did not die sooner; shock must have been a major factor in his demise.

Perhaps it was not only the parents who were guilty of negligence in the care of this child referred to as ‘it’ on occasions. The 1901 census reveals that Dr Robert H Kinsey, aged 60, was living at 10 Rothsay Gardens and had become Surgeon to HM Prison. He may well have been too busy in his new post to reflect on the misfortunes of children such as Frederick Garner and the sad outcomes. One wonders if Dr Skelding was equally tormented by such thoughts.

Little wonder the child had convulsions and died that night. Frederick was buried on the 29th March 1890 [grave 82 D] next to his baby brother Albert, buried on the 28th January 1890 [grave D6 82]. Sadly there is no headstone or memorial for these little ones.

Sleep in peace little Frederick and Albert.


Burial Records, Bedford Cemetery, grave 82 D and D6 82
Bedfordshire Mercury Saturday August 16 1879
Census reports for 1891 and 1901

Copyright Brenda Fraser-Newstead
19 August 2019