Jan 1, 1918 – teenage girl dies after all her clothes catch alight despite mother’s valiant efforts to save her


The everyday horrors of the battle front came to Market Harborough when a 15-year-old girl died after her dress caught alight from the flames of the kitchen fire.

The tragic story of Iris Alice Fitzjohn of Northampton Road is told in the Jan 1, 1918, edition of the Market Harborough Advertiser.

Her death is made even more painful for the family as it ‘was only a short time ago that Mr and Mrs Fitzjohn suffered the loss of their eldest son, who was killed in action’.

The story says: “This second bereavement under such extremely sad circumstances makes their hour of trial a very heavy one to bear.”

The inquest held by coroner Mr G E Bouskell heard the circumstances of the accident.

“Iris was in the kitchen and her little brother, aged four, was with her. She had on a blue cotton overall and a velveteen dress.

“She had reached up to get something off the kitchen mantelpiece when her overall caught fire and set all her clothes alight, burning her badly.

“Mrs Fitzjohn heard her daughter shout ‘mother!’ but before she could get to the kitchen she met her near the scullery door with her clothing in flames.

“Mrs Fitzjohn threw her to the floor and seized a rug to wrap round her but before she could do this her daughter rushed out of the door.”

A passing rag and bone collector Mrs Eliza Hollingworth heard the shouts and ran to help and was greeted with Iris ‘in a kneeling attitude’ in the garden ‘in flames’.

The story continues: “Mrs Hollingworth got one of her bags and put round Iris and with the mother’s assistance got the flames out and helped to carry her into the house.”

Two doctors arrived quickly and she was taken to the Cottage Hospital but she died shortly afterwards. Dr C T Scott told the inquest: “Iris was suffering from severe and extensive burns practically all over the body. The burns were most severe on her hands no doubt owing to her efforts to put out the flames.

“Death was due to shock from the burns, due more to the large area covered by the burns rather than to their depth.”

The coroner in summing up said: “This was one of those most unfortunate accidents which might have happened to any girl. No doubt when Iris reached up to the mantelpiece her cotton overall caught alight at the fire and she would be ablaze in a second or two.”

The funeral held quietly at Market Harborough Cemetery included a wreath from the family saying: “To dear brave Iris, who is now, we hope, with her much loved Soldier Brother.”

There is no photograph of Iris but there are head and shoulder pictures of three young men from the area who have been killed in action. Their deaths were reported in the Advertiser last week as the editor clearly wanted to tell his community of readers about the sad news as soon as possible. Clearly it takes longer to process and publish a photograph which is why they are in this week’s edition.

The men are, from left to right: Trooper Arthur James Speak of Carleton Road, Kibworth, who was killed in action in Egypt; Gunner Harry Westaway of Prince Rupert’s Farm, Sibbertoft, who died when a shell fell directly on his dugout in France; Private W Holmes of High Street, Kibworth, who died from his wounds and leaves a widow.

  • This column is published every Monday by John Dilley on the Newspapers and the Great War website and will continue until the 100th anniversary of the final armistice in November 2018.
  • My fellow researcher and De Montfort University lecturer David Penman is conducting a similar real-time project with the Ashbourne Telegraph. Check out his Great War Reports.
  • Check out this week’s Harborough Mail for current news from the Market Harborough area.




2 thoughts on “Jan 1, 1918 – teenage girl dies after all her clothes catch alight despite mother’s valiant efforts to save her

    • Thank you Martin for highlighting the correct spelling. I’m not sure why the Advertiser kept spelling the name this way as they would have obviously been in direct contact with the family????

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