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A bizarre accident?

Posted by on June 10, 2014

James Burnley (born 1831) died suddenly, age 36, in August 1867.  James’ death and the birth of his seventh child, William, were announced in The Leeds Mercury on the very same day.  There is a story that the cause was a bizarre industrial accident[1].  He was said to be near the top of a stack of bales of wool, helping to add to the pile, when standing up suddenly, his head was pierced by a spike of metal hanging from the roof.  I have been unable to trace any report of this gory tale in local newspapers which then, as today, revelled in such misfortunes.  Nor do I have the medical knowledge to speculate if such an occurrence was even feasible.

However the availability of death certificates from 1837 onwards allows some cross-checking and James’ makes no mention of an accident.   Instead, it states that having suffered an inflammation

James' tombstone

James’ tombstone

of the ear for two years, blood poisoning from an abscess set in and killed him in two days.  Doctors then were powerless against bacterial infections.   His funeral was held within the week and he was interred in a new family vault in the graveyard at the rear of Grove Chapel, Gomersal, (the family vault beneath the Chapel itself having the last place reserved for his father Thomas’ second wife Ann Blanche).  A plain grey stone slab marks the spot.

Could these two different versions of his death be reconciled in some way?  Might an earlier blow to the head have caused the abscess?  If there is any truth in this workplace anecdote, it might actually relate to his uncle William, who suffered a sudden, unexplained death in 1833, at the age of 35.  Unfortunately I doubt I shall ever be any the wiser about this one.



[1]  Two Hundred Years of Thomas Burnley & Sons, published in 1954 by the management of Gomersal Mills

2 Responses to A bizarre accident?

  1. Susie Gutch

    What a tragic story. One wonders how his widow managed with six children and an infant to look after. I suppose that the Victorians were more used to sudden deaths, given the lack of effective medicines in the fight against illnesses that we expect to recover from today – but still, a great loss to the family. No doubt your family history will be able to tell us what happened to the widow and her children.
    Poor Uncle William suffered a similar fate at a similarly young age. As you suggest, the two stories might have got confused over the years.


  2. Margaret McAlpine

    His widow was provided for financially. James left about £7000 (in value at that date) and James’ brothers (both childless) provided the family with a quite grand house to live in – five bedrooms and even a water closet. I suspect though the loss did affect his four daughters’ marriage prospects – the Victorians were so mercenary on that score – none of them married.

    In the absence of any other support, except private charity, family was just so important.

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