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A Case of Spontaneous Combustion?

Written by Annie O'Riley ( on March 29, 2012

The year is 1898 and the country is hot and dry. Bushfires have left hundreds of people without shelter in the Thorpdale district. The newspapers run accounts of loss and tragedy. Everyone is nervous and tension is building.

Thomas Henry Grant as manager of Toomuc Valley Orchards had a beautiful house near the entrance to the property.  Orchard business took him interstate and overseas on occasion and during these times he left the household in charge of his wife’s niece Emma Ludlow.

On the 29th of January, 1898 a servant girl was ironing clothes while Emma folded them. At about 2 pm a male servant called out “the house is on fire”. She rushed with him into Mrs. Grant’s room and found the window curtains blazing. They pulled them down and dashed them with water, putting out the blaze. 15 minutes later, a second fire was found amongst the bedclothes and this too was put out. Within minutes a third fire had broken out in the wardrobe of the same room.  Half an hour later another fire was found in a spare room amongst some clothing. All together there were 9 separate fires in the building on the same day. Exhausted and distraught Emma sent for Police Constable Flint (a very apt name) from Pakenham.

While the constable was making enquiries so too were the people of Toomuc Valley.  Mrs. Matilda Brown visited on February 1st and stayed for dinner. After the meal, Mrs. Brown put her arm around the servant girl’s waist and said “Now, Fanny, do tell me if you lit the fires. Constable Flint suspects you. You did it didn’t you?”  Fanny replied “I caused the fire in the storeroom, but it was an accident. I was carrying out a burning bodice from Mrs. Grant’s room into the storeroom when the ceiling caught.”

An inquest was held in Pakenham and 18 year old Frances James, a servant, was sent for trial in Melbourne on a charge of arson.  She was convicted and sentenced to one month in gaol. Her explanation for the crime?  She didn’t want her employers to feel out of it.

Written by Annie O'Riley. Annie is the author of and has been researching local history for over 30 years. She is constantly finding new stories and characters to write about.

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