The locations of our ancestors’ deaths are easy to discover from parish registers or indexes, but without help from a secondary source, be it a death certificate, newspaper report or spoken word, the exact circumstances of their demise is generally unknown. We like to assume, or optimistically hope, that having reached old age, they slipped peacefully away in the comfort of their own beds.
Not true, of course, and one sad exception to the rule was discovered in a newspaper from 1890 reporting the awful details of the death of an Eliza McOwen in Cheltenham. A far cry from Northamptonshire, but in truth she had been born a Holdich in Peterborough in 1811 – a 4 x great granddaughter of Jeffrey Holdich of Wadenhoe.
Eliza’s Holdich family line gradually shifted away from Wadenhoe via Tallington and her father, William, born in Thorney, had married in Peterborough. Eliza was his first daughter, followed by a son, William, born in Stilton in 1813. The next port of call for the family was Bath, where a third child, Maria was born in 1815.
William, his wife and two daughters next appear in Cheltenham. Maria married Edwin Steventon, a local cabinet maker in 1839 and the following year Eliza married William Henry McOwen, a dentist. This particular Holdich family unit ended their days in Cheltenham.
For some reason Eliza’s brother, William Holdich, avoided Cheltenham, choosing to settle in London and becoming a well-known linen draper in Fleet Street. He reared his large and interesting family of children in the Brixton area and their relationships and adventurous lives are other stories. Though, it should be remembered that one of William’s grandsons gave his life as a young officer at Loos in the 1914-1918 war, whilst another received the Order of the British Empire (Military Division) in the 1919 Birthday Honours of King George V, for valuable service in connection with military operations in France.
To return to Eliza’s story, her marriage was childless and in 1869 a newspaper reported that her husband had met his death from injuries sustained “from falling upon his own doorstep”. In contrast, her sister Maria had a large family of children and it ultimately fell to one of them, Jane Steventon, to identify the body of her aunt Eliza McOwen, following a fire in Eliza’s bedroom on the night of 18th March 1890.
Eliza had been a lodger in the house of a Mrs Jenkins for about 6 months and was in receipt of parish support and help from various ladies having lost the use of one arm. On 18th March, she had retired to bed as usual at 9pm. Her room was lit by a paraffin lamp which usually stood on the mantelpiece. At 10pm the landlady heard noises and shrieks from Eliza’s room and discovered her in the doorway with her clothes on fire. She snatched the shawl from Eliza’s shoulders to damp down the flames and, failing, picked up a strip of carpet, but fell with Eliza onto the floor until a third person arrived ultimately extinguishing the fire. Eliza was taken alive to hospital though badly burned about the chest and face, but managing to articulate “the lamp… ”
Jane visited her aunt in hospital who asked whether her hands were burned and expressed the desire to return home when she was recovered. It appeared she had been attempting to turn down the wick of the lamp and trying to blow out the flame when the lamp exploded. She died from her injuries soon after.
Such a horrifying account illustrates most clearly the extreme hazards within Victorian households, where fires were commonplace in consequence of basic flames for lighting, heating and cooking. As we switch on electric lights or our central heating controls to gain immediate vision and comfort, spare a thought for poor Eliza.
This article was written by Deborah Taylor and first appeared in Issue 49 of the HFHS Journal in August 2016