This is the sad tale of a young lady whose rather large dress caught on fire. It’s an instructive story about the perils of high fashion. It’s also a warning not to stand next to an open fire when you’re wearing highly combustible fabric.
This account of the death of an 18th century socialite comes from a contemporary book in my large collection of antique volumes, magazines and documents. I am a terrible hoarder of ancient stuff. I scour book fairs and antique markets – plus ebay of course – for new additions to my old library. And then flick through the pages looking for stories that would otherwise be forgotten forever.
And so – let’s go back and discover our teenager from two hundred years ago who caught fire.
Isabella Courtenay lived in Grosvenor Square. She was “most elegantly accomplished” according to a report in 1783, the year of her untimely death. Just eighteen years old, this privileged young lady had everything to live for.
But in March of that year, she was warming herself before a fireplace when a spark flew from the grate setting her clothes on fire. This was in the days of big dresses, petticoats and suffocating corsets.
Still, you might have reckoned that somebody would be able to put out the flames that were now engulfing her. In the same room were Isabella’s sister, Lady Honywood, and child.
But the latter was unable to offer any assistance, for reasons not specified, while her ladyship fell into a fit. Poor Isabella ran screaming from room to room without meeting anybody who could help. In no time at all, she was quite the fireball!
As a contemporary chronicle explains:
It is generally thought her immediate death, however, was owing to the fright
The same chronicle then advises that should you, as a lady wearing big dresses, catch fire – then the best thing to do is NOT run about. In fact, you should fall down and roll yourself up in a carpet or bed quilt.
Here is the contemporary account below from 1783…