John Everett Millais, The Somnambulist, 1871
Police constable Dowding (198E) was pounding his beat in the early hours of the morning of July 15th 1878 when he smelt fire. He could hear the ‘crackling noise of something burning’, and rushed over to the rear of 23 Great Coram Street. There he could see that there was pile of burning clothes on top of the conservatory which seemed as if they had been thrown out of a window above.
PC Dowding ‘sprang his rattle’ (these were the days before police were issued with whistles) to call for help and quickly moved to alert the residents in the house. He ran straight upstairs towards the fire and found a room about to be engulfed in flames. Some clothes, the bed sheet and the lower part of the mattress of the bed were all on fire, but there was thankfully no one inside. He looked in the next room and found a 15 year-old girl cowering under a bed quilt.
He grabbed her and escorted her out, asking her what had happened. She told him that a man had entered her room, stayed briefly, then ran out and downstairs. PC Dowding was skeptical; he’d not seen anyone run past him, or run out of the building and he suspected the girl was lying.
He interviewed the landlady, Maria Goodhall who told him the girl’s name was Matilda Hayes and she worked for her as a maid of all work. She’d been with her for four months and ‘was a very good girl’. However, she also suspected that Matilda might have been responsible for the fire. She’d seen the clothes on fire by the bed and thought it likely that the girl had thrown some of the window in panic before being forced back by the flames.
In court at Bow Street Matilda was charged with arson and the source of the fire was found to be a spirit lamp which she kept with her when she went to bed. The lamp had been knocked over and the handle had come off. When Matilda had been found she seemed to be half asleep, as if she’d just woken in a panic. It was also suggested that Matilda and her sister (who often stayed with her) would walk in their sleep. So perhaps this had happened when the girl had been sleepwalking? Mrs Goodhall told the magistrate, Mr Vaughan, that she was sure that Matilda meant no ill will towards her or any of the other residents. It was accident, and nothing more.
Mr Vaughan was probably minded to agree but he decided to remand the serving girl for a week, just to be sure. When she appeared again Mr Vaughan was satisfied she was innocent and discharged her. This drew praise from one newspaper that used the case to write a longish piece on somnambulism and its perils. They also hinted that the young man that supposedly ran out of the girl’s room might have been there as her guest, and it was probably just as well that he was not discovered or it might have damaged her reputation.
[from The Standard, Tuesday, July 16, 1878]