Fatal Accident And Fire 1924
From the Buckingham Advertiser Jan:12-1924 (Page 5)

Sad Tragedy at Thornton College.


The tragic death of a nun by suffocation, caused by dense volumes of smoke when a candle set the bed-clothes on fire, was the subject of an inquiry by Mr. Geoffrey M. Barker, L.L.B., on Wednesday afternoon.

The scene of the tragedy was Thornton College, which is situated about five miles from Buckingham, and which was opened as a school for Roman Catholic girls in 1917. The victim’s name was Maria Helen Frauziska Henke, aged 36, who was a Sister at the Convent School and one of the teaching staff of seven.

Nobody who gave evidence could say exactly how the tragedy occurred, and, in the words of the Coroner, it was evidently a pure accident. The deceased had suffered from diabetes, and had been receiving medical attention for this complaint from Dr. T. E. Pemberton. She had been engaged in making arrangements for the village children’s Christmas treat on Monday, and was compelled to take to her bed. The Reverend Mother Superior advised her to rest, and saw to her comfort. At ten o’clock some refreshment was taken to her room, when everything appeared to be in proper order.

At 6.30 the following morning, however, Sister Halpin made the tragic discovery. After ringing the bell as usual at that hour, she went to the bedroom door of the deceased to call her, and was horrified to find the room full of smoke. Summoning the Mother Superior at once, Sister Halpin returned to the fatal bedroom with her, and there found the body of the unfortunate nun on the floor, beyond all human aid.

From the evidence, it appeared that Sister Henke had got up during the night and lit the candle. Presumably, she returned to bed, leaving the candle alight on a table in close proximity to the bed. The mattress and the bedclothes became ignited and caused a great deal of smoke, through which the deceased is thought to have slept for some little time. However that may be, the smoke ultimately awoke her, and the awful plight in which she found herself in her weakened conditioned – with the bed on fire, in pitch darkness and the room full of dense smoke – probably caused her to faint as she endeavoured to find the door, near which her head lay when her body was found.

After a searching enquiry, the Coroner remarked that it was an accident that might happen to anybody at any time, and he expressed sympathy with the Reverend Mother Superior in the accidental death of Sister Henke.



The first witness at the inquest was Monica Maria O’Toole, Reverend Mother Superior of the College, who stated that the institution was a school for girls. She identified the body of the deceased as that of Maria Helen Frauziska Henke, who was a teacher at the College, and was 36 years of age. The deceased had been at the College since November, 1917, soon after it was opened, and she had been one of seven teachers. She had been under medical care for diabetes since last February. Generally, her mental state had been cheerful, but sometimes she had suffered from depression. On Monday last she was cheerful, and was getting things ready for the village children’s Christmas treat, but went to lie down in the afternoon, as she was not feeling well, and remained in bed for the rest of the day under witness’ advice. Witness saw her about 7.30, and sent her some Bovril. She intended to see her again at 9.30, but was informed by Sister Rice that she was dozing, and witness did not go. She had been sleeping with another Sister, but about December 17th she moved to the next floor below, where she slept by herself. She did that because she said she would like to have a room to herself, and it was much warmer , as well as not to disturb other people in the night. Witness did not see the deceased from 7.30 until 6.30 a.m. She was then dressing, when one of the Sisters called her, saying “Mother, will you come?” Witness dressed and went to the deceased’s room, which she found full of dense smoke. Witness went to the bed, and, not finding her there, exclaimed “Thank God, she is not here”, thinking that she had got away. Witness went to the window and opened it. One of the Sisters called out “She’s here”, and drew her attention to something which was hardly discernible in the smoke. The head of the body was near the door. The body was still warm. Witness left the room after opening the window, and one of the Sisters got some water to put out some flames which were fanned by the draught from the window. Witness could not account for the fire. The room was lit by electricity, which, however, was cut off at night. She only knew that there was a candle in the room from what she had heard. A candle would be allowed, but the deceased did not read in bed.

The Coroner: Do you think this woman took her life? - No, not at all.

She never referred to anything like that? – No, never.

If it wasn’t that, you would attribute it to an accident? – Yes.

Answering further questions by the Coroner, witness stated that there was no bell in the room, and it was doubtful if anybody could hear her if she called out. The deceased had no relatives in this country, and held a University degree.


Sister Angela Halpin, cook at the College, said that the bell was rung at 6.30 by her, and she went round to call the Sisters. She went to the deceased’s room on Tuesday morning with a hot drink, which was taken to her especially as she was not well. She opened the bedroom door and found that the room was very full of smoke, but saw no flame. She called the deceased by name, but there was no answer. Witness had a candle with her, as usual, the electric light not being turned on until later. She then called the Reverend Mother, going back into the room with her. Witness stumbled across the body, and, stooping down, found that the deceased was lying on her back. The body was warm, but the clothing was all burnt away, with the exception of a little around the neck. Witness did not see any signs of a candle or candlestick, which was usually kept in the room. The deceased was of a cheerful nature usually, and had never threatened to take her life.

Sister Mary Rice stated that she discharged the household duties at the College. She knew that deceased had suffered from diabetes, and that she had special food. On Monday last, witness took the deceased some food in bed, and was the last person to see her alive. She gave her some Bovril, and left some water and some cream on the table. Witness left her in a cheerful state of mind. There was also practically an unused candle on the table with the other things, but she did not notice whether there were any matches. She had seen the deceased constantly, and had never heard her mention anything about being weary of life.

Answering questions by the Coroner, witness said that the candle was several inches from the edge of the table, which was about a foot away from the bed. She visited the room again shortly after 6.30 on the following morning, being sent for by the Reverend Mother, and she noticed that the table was then quite close to the bed, but she did not notice where the candlestick was, although she did observe that it was not on the table. There was a pedestal cupboard, which witness had emptied before leaving at 10, and she found that it had been used again.


P.C. Gillard said that about 10 a.m. on Tuesday he proceeded to Thornton College and saw the deceased lying in a bedroom on her back, with her head towards the door and her feet towards the bed. She was partially covered with a bathroom towel. The bed and bedclothes were burnt on the left-hand side, next to the cupboard. The mattress was badly burned, and was still smouldering when he got on the scene. He found a number of burnt matches on the floor. On removing the mattress, he found the candlestick wedged between the cupboard and the bed.

In reply to the Coroner, witness said that in his opinion everything pointed to an accident, there being nothing of a suspicious nature.


Dr. Pemberton stated he was called to the College about 7.30 a.m. on Tuesday, being summoned by telephone. On arrival, he was taken upstairs to deceased’s bedroom, where he found her lying on her back, with her head towards the door and her feet towards the bed, her position being about midway between the two. She was dead and very nearly cold, and her joints stiff. He would say that she had been dead two or three hours. The body was badly burnt on the neck, scalp and hair, on the trunk, thighs and arms. In his opinion, these burns were most probably caused after death, because there was no blistering of the skin. There was the remains of a charred garment round the neck. The bedding was badly burnt, and the flock mattress was still smouldering. He noticed some dead matches between the head of the bed and the wall. He looked into the commode, and there was no doubt that she had used it during the night. He returned home, but went back to the College about 11 a.m. and the Police Sergeant showed him the candlestick wedged between the pedestal table and the bed. He had known deceased since early in February last, as she had been under his care. She was always bright and cheerful, and very plucky. He was satisfied with the progress she was making in her illness. There was no sign of any mental trouble at all, and she was one of the last persons whom he would have imagined would attempt to take her life. In his opinion, death was due to suffocation, and not to burning.

Supt. Babbage said that he had caused police investigation to be made in the case, and in consequence of their reports he came to the conclusion that there was no sign of foul play. The institution enjoyed a very good reputation.


In summing up, the Coroner stated that he had heard all the evidence he desired to enable him to come to a decision in this distressing case. The facts were that the deceased went to bed rather earlier than usual on Monday, and was attended by Sister Mary Rice, who saw to her the last thing at night and tucked her up in bed. Sister Rice said there was a candlestick on a pedestal cupboard adjoining the bed. Shortly, the facts were that on the following morning Sister Halpin found the room full of smoke, and the constable afterwards found the candlestick empty and wedged in between the cupboard and bed. The hypothesis of suicide was an impossible one in this case. He had made inquiry of all the witnesses, and also Dr. Pemberton, whose evidence had struck him as being entirely satisfactory, and everybody had declared that the deceased had been of a naturally cheerful disposition, although she suffered from depression from time to time, like most other people. The doctor had stated that the deceased was making satisfactory progress as regarded her ailment, and that she was one of the last people whom he would expect to commit suicide. Then again, in the face of the Roman Catholic faith, a woman of her strong religious convictions would not take action against her own life, and the hypothesis of suicide could not be entertained in this case. Neither was there any ground for suspecting foul play. The evidence of the police on that point was plain enough. What happened was that during the night she got out of bed, and in getting back she did not blow out the candle, which somehow ignited the bed-clothing. Evidently the smoke did not wake her at once, and she did not wake up until the room was full of smoke. In trying to get out in the dark, she fell, being overcome by the smoke, and she remained there until her body was discovered the next morning.

In recording a verdict of death from suffocation by smoke, caused by accidentally knocking over a lighted candle, which ignited the bedding, the Coroner stated he would like to say that the case was a most unfortunate one, and that it had caused great distress to the Reverend Mother Superior. “It might happen to anyone and anywhere,” he remarked. “There is nothing that one could do to help in it. It seems to me there is not a precaution that could have been suggested in this case. I say that because this is a public institution, and people are very prone in anything of this nature to say that every precaution ought to be taken. In that view, I quite agree, but I am quite satisfied that this is one of those distressing accidents that could not be helped.” He tendered his sympathy to the Reverend Mother Superior and her staff.