Fashion fatality: accidental death by misfortune

Mrs Eliza Baxter – who lived in a house on the premises of the Victoria Steam Saw Mill in the Drayton district with her husband, her stepmother and her son – became another victim of the deadly crinoline fashion on 24 March 1865.

At about 7 am, Eliza – in her dress and a crinoline (petticoat cage) undergarment – set off to get her daily water supply.

Instead of getting water from a cask kept at a safe distance from the machinery herself, Eliza asked for help from a sawyer working at the water tank near the mill’s revolving shaft. Gotlieb Ritmüller stated:

…about 7 o’clock I was down in the mill employed in fetching water; the water there is kept in a cask which is kept constantly full for the use of the people on the place, and is about twelve feet from the machinery; there is also a water-tank used for the boiler, behind the revolving shaft of the machinery; when I was there this morning, standing near the water-tank behind the revolving-shaft, Mrs Baxter came to the place carrying two empty buckets; she did not take the water out of the water-cask abovementioned, but walked up to me, and, standing on the outside of the revolving-shaft, and right up to it, asked me to fill her buckets…

The Darling Downs Gazette and General Advertiser, 29 March 1865

Working in his office adjoining the Victoria Saw Mill was Mr William T Perkins, the saw mill manager. He stated:

…my attention was called by a strange noise; it was first like a scream, and, afterwards, as if a heavy body was violently thrown against wood work; I ran immediately and caused the mill to be stopped; then I went round to where the noise came from, and saw Mrs Baxter lying underneath the revolving shaft of the engine, her clothes tightly wound round the shaft; her crinoline and dress had caught, her flannel petticoat had not caught; the steel of the crinoline was wound round the shaft, and had left impressions and marks on the shaft, which is of iron…

The Darling Downs Gazette and General Advertiser, 29 March 1865

The high velocity of the revolving shaft inflicted fatal injuries upon poor Eliza once her clothes had been caught in the machinery. Bridget Wholohan, another woman who lived at the Victoria Saw Mill with her husband Michael Wholohan, stated that Eliza died at 10 minutes after nine o’clock in the morning.

Many women (and men) died in the poorly regulated work environments of the 1800s. Some deaths are attributable to the loose fashion garments worn at the time. Fatal accidents happened to women working on horseback, operating machinery and working in factories and at home.

QSA DID26183
QSA Digital Image ID 26183

Few victims could have been as ill-fated as Eliza Baxter. The jury empanelled at Eliza’s inquest found the following verdict and stated:

…That the deceased, Eliza Baxter, came to her death accidentally and by misfortune; and, at the same time, the jury wish to express their strong sense of disapproval of working women wearing crinoline during their working hours, thereby endangering their lives by fire and other accidents.

The Darling Downs Gazette and General Advertiser, 29 March 1865

Today, stringent saw mill practices and safeguarding standards – like these published by the WorkCover Authority of New South Wales – mean that avoidable deaths related to improper clothing in the workplace should not occur.

Resource list

Queensland State Archives Item ID 348608, Inquest file 98 of 1865

“Fatal accident at Highfields. Coroner’s inquest.” The Darling Downs Gazette and General Advertiser, Wednesday 29 March 1865, page 3

 

 

 

About Queensland State Archives

For more information about Queensland State Archives visit www.archives.qld.gov.au

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