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An extract from the Gloucester Journal dated 29th January 1853:

DREADFUL DEATH BY FIRE – We regret to record the death of Rev. James Commeline, the respected rector of Redmarley, Worcestershire, on Wednesday morning, under the following most melancholy and painful circumstances: The Reverend gentleman was a paralytic invalid, having three or four months ago suffered an attack which had entirely deprived him of the use and feeling of his lower limbs. It appears that he was unfortunately in the frequent habit of reading in bed, though often remonstrated with upon the danger of such practice. On Monday last he was in his usually good spirits, and at night retired to rest as usual, a servant lad sleeping in an adjoining room. About eleven o’clock, all the family not having yet retired to rest, a shriek was heard to proceed from the bedroom of the deceased; the servant lad ran to the bedroom door nearest the bed, but could not succeed in opening it. He then gave an alarm, and with some of the other domestics went to an opposite door where they found their apartment filled with dense volumes of smoke, and the bed and bedding in flames. They immediately endeavoured to extinguish the fire by means of water, and were thus engaged when, the alarm having spread down stairs, the sister of the deceased with others arrived, and efforts were made to remove the unfortunate gentleman from the flames by which he was surrounded. This was by no means an easy task, as the heat of the fire was so intense and the smoke so suffocating; by a desperate effort, however, he was dragged from his awful position, and medical assistance at once sent for. So far had the fire advanced that fears were entertained for the safety of the house, and the alarm bell was rang and all the burning articles which could be were thrown out of the window.  Fortunately assistance was at hand in the shape of three young men (who were watching close by for a thief). By their assistance, with that of the domestics, the fire was at length subdued, the charring of the door and injury by fire to other portions of the room attesting to the intensity of the heat. The unfortunate deceased was found to be most dreadfully burnt, and presented a frightful spectacle. The head, chest, and arms had most severely suffered, the latter limbs being burned to the bone; the eyes were so injured that the sight was completely gone. Mr Hooper, surgeon, promptly arrived, and did his utmost to alleviate the agony of the sufferer, and which he succeeded in doing, for after the first hour of the accident he seemed to be in no bodily pain; and though his mind wandered occasionally, and he could not at first be brought to think but that the flames were still playing about him, yet he had lucid intervals, and referred to transactions which had or were about to happen. But the injuries he received, though no vital part appeared to have been directly affected by the fire, were of so severe a character, that, after lingering until six o’clock on Tuesday morning, he became perfectly unconscious; and on Wednesday morning, at eight o’clock, he died without a struggle, death only being known to have taken place by his breathing having ceased. The melancholy catastrophe was doubtless caused by the deceased reading in bed; and,  having fallen asleep, the lighted candle, of which a stand was placed near the bed, (and which is entirely burnt,) must have ignited the bedding; and some minutes probably elapsed during which the fire made rapid progress, before the unfortunate gentleman discovered the awful situation in which he was placed, when being unable to move without assistance, he uttered the shrieks which were heard by the servant lad. The deceased was 64 years of age. He was highly respected and his untoward death has cast quite a gloom over the locality in which he was known.

It is well known that James Commeline Jnr, Rector from 1836 to 1853, burned himself to death while reading in bed. He was a Fellow of St John’s College Cambridge before taking up the Rectory here and was a considerable classical scholar,  judging from the correspondence he had with Elizabeth Barrett Browning about the metre of ancient Greek poetry. In the late 1990s, Jennifer and Angela Niblett, daughters of the last Niblett Rector, paid a visit to the Old Rectory where they had been brought up. I showed them round and when they came into a room which now serves as a bathroom, one said to the other “Isn’t this the room where Jimmy Commeline burned himself to death?”  –  as though it had been last week rather than 140 years earlier!

Peter Condon