Thursday, May 1, 2014

Kent writer self-combusts

In the Dartford Chronicle for 7 April 1919 appeared an extraordinary report of a fire. A local writer named J. Temple Thurston had been found dead in his blazing home, Hawley Manor, under quite bizarre circumstances. He was discovered sitting up fully clothed at three in the morning with large red patches on the thighs and lower parts of the legs. At the inquest it was remarked that ‘it was much as if, bound to a stake, the man had stood in a fire that had not mounted high.‘

Although the victim’s torso was severely burnt, his legs were not wholly consumed and his clothes remained unscorched. The firemen found the fire raging outside Thurston’s room. There were no signs of arson, robbery or any such criminal act. The cause of death was given as heart failure due to smoke inhalation.

This is one of the cases included in Charles Fort’s Wild Talents, a pioneering study of unexplained phenomena. It gets in because the seat of the fire seems to have been the torso of the victim himself. Had it begun in the room next to Thurston’s, it surely would have burnt his clothing to ash. Fort suspected ‘spontaneous human combustion ‘and in the 70 years since the book’s publication, other similar cases have occurred that tend to support this theory. Two of the most frequent features of such suspected cases are that extremities, such as legs and arms, are left comparatively untouched and that clothing is sometimes unscorched.

Recent breakthrough research by Cambridge University biologist Professor Brian J Ford, has concluded that the production of highly inflammable acetone
in mainly abdominal tissues through ketosis, is the key factor in spontaneous human combustion. These findings have been   generally accepted. And having interviewed Professor Ford, and witnessed the film he took of his experiments, I have become one of the converts.

Ford demonstrated that the fire produced after ignition, presumably through static or a stray spark, can be extremely intense and long-lasting, and if we assume that the flames that issued from the body of Temple Thurston shot sideways and perhaps upward, this would perhaps explain the significant damage to the door, walls and eventually the roof. Later in 1919, major repairs were undertaken to the house (online historical building report).

But one mystery remains unsolved. Just who was J. Temple Thurston? The Dartford Chronicle describes him as a ‘writer‘. Even if we assume that this term is often used loosely, his name must surely crop up in one literary context or another. But it does not. The middlebrow travel writer and historian, E. Temple Thurston (obit 1933), was perhaps a relative, as could be the living American mystic Leslie Temple-Thurston. But no-one seems to have heard of the writer J. Temple Thurston. Presumably, he was comfortably off, either as owner or tenant of  Hawley Manor, which was, and still is, a sizeable mansion, and was once the home of the famous Victorian painter William Quiller Orchardson.

Also, could it be a coincidence that the coroner who published a detailed account of spontaneous human combustion in 1961 is called Gavin Thurston? [RR]


  1. If memory serves, the sudden death of J. Temple Thurston is discussed at some length in Malcolm Lowry's October Ferry to Gabriola (in which he's confused with E. Temple Thurston).

    One would think that researching such a name would be relatively easy. I wonder whether J chose a nom de plume so as not to be confused with E (whom I have sometimes seen referred to as "F"). Or might it be that the newspaper account confused the two men in describing J as a "local writer".

    I happened upon this sort of confusion last year in the life of the once-popular novelist Arthur Stringer, who was reported to have been killed in a violent explosion - the cause of which was reported in detail - when in fact the victim was another man, in another town, in another country. Very odd.

  2. Thanks Brian. The name is confusing. It is possible that J Temple Thurston was a local gentleman scholar, a sort of latter day Casaubon, researching and writing but never publishing with a grand library etc.,thought of locally as a writer. I remember once a man being described as a genius simply because he had a ton of books. Thanks for pointing out the Lowry connection -a writer who was no stranger to fires himself, as I recall... Nigel

  3. According to it was J. Temple Johnson. Unfortunately he doesn't appear in the BL catalogue either.

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  5. I'd meant to include a link in my previous comment, but something went awry.
    A memorial for John Temple Johnson is shown above. (Fort misquoted the original name.)