In 1899 two Sowerby Bridge sisters burst into flame at around the same time while in different houses. At the time the tragic deaths were put down to “singular coincidence” but more recently the deaths have been attributed to spontaneous human combustion (SHC), a controversial and hotly debated phenomenon where people apparently burst into flames for no known reason.
Six year old Alice Ann Kirby lived on Wakefield Road with her father and grandmother, while her younger sister Amy lived with their mother about a mile away on Hargreaves Terrace.
Meanwhile at Hargreaves Terrace Amy's mother left her alone for two minutes to fetch water from a nearby well. As she returned she heard her daughter screaming: Amy too was on fire. A witness said she had flames a yard high coming from her head. The fire was extinguished and the distraught mother hurried to Wakefield Road to tell her estranged husband what had happened. On the way she met a neighbour hurrying in the opposite direction to tell her the news about her eldest daughter.
The case was revisited in 1985 in the Halifax Evening Courier of 13 March and SHC was offered as the explanation. The newspaper offered some circumstantial evidence for this conclusion. SHC victims, the paper said, are usually working class females, it usually happens indoors and cases sometimes happen in close proximity to one another. It is rather strange though that contemporary accounts do not mention SHC despite the controversial phenomenon being in the popular consciousness.
Whether the tragedy is in fact spontaneous combustion or just a horrific coincidence there was one final grim twist to the tale: the doctor who treated the dying girls was called Doctor Wellburn.
Information from Paul Weatherhead
Author of 'Weird Calderdale'
Pub: Tom Bell Publishing