The documents in the case of Phyllis Newcombe
Collected by Jan Willem Nienhuys, with the help of Mike Hutchinson,
Clare and Ian Martin, Scott Campbell, Marcel de Jong, Ed Oomes, Joe Nickell,
Ranjit Sandu, Margareth Schroth, Dennis K. Lien, Mike Ashley, Andy Sawyer,
Henriëtte de Brouwer and Edna Newcombe.
If any reader knows of more sources containing stories about
Phyllis Newcombe and/or Maybelle Andrews, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
Texts of 1938 newspapers are verbatim copied,
including typos and dubious style
(marked with [sic]), line breaks etc.
Best viewed with a window just about the width of this line.
Essex Chronicle, 2 September 1938
Essex Weekly News, 2 September 1938
Essex Chronicle, 16 September 1938
Essex Weekly News, 16 September 1938
entry of death
Daily Telegraph, 20 September 1938
Essex Chronicle, 23 September 1938
Essex Weekly News, 23 September 1938
E.F. Russell, Tomorrow, May 1942
E.F. Russell, Fate, December 1950
(= March 1955, UK edn.)
E.F. Russell, Great World Mysteries, 1957
Allan W. Eckert, True, 1964
Emile C. Schurmacher, Strange Unsolved Mysteries, 1967
Emile C. Schurmacher, in: Strange Stories, 1976
Vincent H. Gaddis, Mysterious Fires and Lights, 1967
Colin Wilson, The occult, 1971
I. Sanderson, Investigating the unexplained, 1972
Michael Harrison, Fire from Heaven, 1976/1978
Fortean Times 16, review of Fire from Heaven, 1976
R.J.M. Rickard, Fire from Heaven – A Critique, 1977
Evening News, 4 February 1978
Reader’s Digest, Mysteries of the Unexplained, 1982
Lynn Picknett, Flights of Fancy?, 1987
Randles & Hough, Spontaneous Human Combustion, 1992
Larry Arnold, Ablaze!, 1995
Nigel Blundell, Fact or Fiction? Supernatural, 1996
The Essex Chronicle, September 2, 1938 December 1950
Road, Chelmsford was badly injured when
about to leave the celebration dance arranged
by the Chelmsford City F.C. Supporters’
Club at the Shire Hall, Chelmsford, on
Saturday night. When descending the main
staircase, her frock, apparently ignited by the
throwing down of a lighted match or
cigarette end burst into flames. A number
of people, including members of the football
team, went quickly to her assistance and
wrapped coats around her. The flames were
smothered, but Miss Newcombe sustained
severe burns on the legs and body. After
having been seen by a doctor, she was
removed to Chelmsford Hospital.
Miss Newcombe is the daughter of Mr.
and Mrs. G. Newcombe of 5 Bishop Road.
She manages a confectionery business
belonging to her father, in New Street,
The Essex Weekly News, Friday, September 2, 1938
rd., Chelmsford, was badly burned when
her dress became ignited just as she was
leaving the Chelmsford City Supporters’
Club celebration dance at the Shire Hall,
Chelmsford, on Saturday night.
She was descending the main staircase,
and on discovering that her dress was
alight she rushed screaming up the stairs.
Her dress immediately burst into flames,
and at the entrance to the ballroom she
collapsed, the fire almost completely
enveloping her and setting her hair
Fortunately assistance was immediately
forthcoming from half a dozen people,
including Mr. H. G. Jewell, one of the
directors of Chelmsford City F.C., and
Wass, Sliman, and Keen, playing mem-
bers of the club. Mr. Jewell, who reached
the girl first, flung his jacket round her,
and the other five people did the same,
Wass wrapping his coat found [sic] her head
and face. The flames were quickly
smothered, but not before Miss New-
combe had been badly burned on the legs
and body. A doctor was called, and she
was taken to Chelmsford Hospital.
Mr. Jewell told a representative of the
“Essex Weekly News” that after a dance
a few groups of people stayed talking in
the ballroom. “We were talking
together,” he said, “when we heard a
scream. I rushed to the doorway and saw
the girl all in flames. I flung my coat
on her, and the others immediately did
the same, Wass and Sliman wrapping
their heavy tweed coats round her. Mr.
Jewell’s eyelashes and eyebrows were
singed, and Wass’s arm and cheek were
scorched. On inquiry yesterday at
Chelmsford Hospital Miss Newcombe’s
condition was stated to be “fairly satis-
City F.C.’s playing programme, the Sup-
porter’s Club, whose membership numbers
well over a thousand, held a [celebration]
dance at the Shire Hall on Saturday. The
attendance of over 400 included the Mayor
and Mayoress, Councillor and Mrs. …
Bellamy; directors of the City F.C. and
their wives, Mr. and Mrs. W.H. …
and the players and their wives. Mr.
Coote was M.C. Mr. F. Perkins and Mr.
Alec Beadle, hon. secretaries of the
Supporters, supervised the arrangement.
The Essex Chronicle, September 16, 1938
Road, Chelmsford, died in Chelmsford Hos-
pital yesterday, following severe burns she
received at a dance in the Shire Hall, Chelms-
ford, on August 27 last. Miss Newcombe had
left the ball room, and was descending the
main staircase, when her dress apparently
became ignited by the throwing down of a
lighted match or cigarette end, and burst into
flames. Several people at the dance went to
her assistance, and wrapped coats around
her. The flames were smothered, but Miss
Newcombe sustained severe burns on the legs
The deceased was the daughter of Mr. and
Mrs. G. Newcombe, of 5 Bishop Road,
Chelmsford. She had been managing a con-
fectionery business belonging to her father,
in New Street, Chelmsford.
The inquest on Miss Newcombe will be
held in the Shire Hall, Chelmsford, on Mon-
day at 11 a.m.
The Essex Weekly News, Friday, September 16, 1938
Hospital yesterday of Miss Phyllis New-
combe, 22, of Bishop-rd., Chelmsford.
She had been in hospital since August 27
having been admitted suffering from
severe burns caused when her dress
caught fire as she was leaving a dance
held by the Chelmsford City Supporters’
The incident occurred as Miss New-
combe was descending the stairs of
the Shire Hall. When she discovered
her dress was alight she rushed to the
entrance to the ballroom and collapsed as
the flames almost completely enveloped
her. About half a dozen people in the
ballroom rushed to her assistance and
wrapping their coats round her smothered
the flames. These helpers included
Mr. H. G. Jewell, a director of the C.C.F.C.
and Wass, Sliman and Keen, players.
An inquest will be held.
entry of death
(The details are hand written from left to
right in cells.)
When and where died:
& Essex Hospital
Name and surname:
5 Bishop Road
Daughter of George
Cause of death:
Clothing caught fire
for reason unknown
Accident (undecipherable, possible “PM”)
Signature, description and
resident of informant:
from R A Beccle
Coroner for Southern
District of Essex
19 September 1938
Signature of registrar:
THE DAILY TELEGRAPH AND MORNING POST,
TUESDAY, SEPTEMBER 20, 1938
the dance floor of Chelmsford Shire
Hall at midnight on Aug. 27 when the
girl screamed suddenly. Her frock,
modelled on the old-fashioned crino-
line style had become enveloped in
The girl, Miss Phyllis Newcombe, 22, a
shop manageress, of Bishop-road,
Chelmsford, was so badly burned that she
died in hospital. Yesterday, at the
inquest at Chelmsford, the coroner, Mr.
L.F. Beccles, said: “From all my experi-
ence I have never come across a case so
very mysterious as this.”
Henry McAusland, of Linden-street,
Romford, the girl’s fiancé, said he thought
that a careless person must have thrown
away a cigarette end which must have
come in contact with the dress. He and
others put out the flames.
The girl’s father, Mr. George New-
combe, produced a piece of material of
which the girl’s dress was made and the
coroner applied his cigarette lighter to it.
The material immediately flared up. The
father then put a lighted cigarette to the
material, but it did not ignite.
minutes while the coroner visited the
ballroom. On his return he said that he
could not see how a cigarette end could
have been thrown from the balcony of the
Inspr. Parrot said that the voluntary St.
John Ambulance was called at 12.15 a.m,
and arrived at 12.35.
The Coroner: Do you mean to say that
this town has not got a borough ambu-
The Coroner: I have the greatest
regard for the St. John Ambulance, but if
this is the only available service for the
town, it is a matter for the inhabitants to
see into. He returned a verdict of acci-
dental death, and said that the girls’s dress
undoubtedly caught fire, but for some
The Essex Chronicle, September 23, 1938 listed under deaths:
NEWCOMBE. – On September 15th, 1938 at the
Chelmsford and Essex Hospital, Phyllis
Maud, dearly-loved daughter of Mr. and
Mrs. Geo Newcombe, 5 Bishop Road,
Chelmsford, aged 22 years. Interred at the
Writtle Road Cemetery on Wednesday,
and in the next column in a list of thank you notes:
MR. and MRS GEO NEWCOMBE and
Family very much APPRECIATE the
many kind enquiries made during Phyllis’s
illness, for the letters of sympathy received
and kindness shown them in their great loss,
also the beautiful flowers sent and great
esteem shown them at the funeral. They also wish
to THANK the medical and Nursing staffs
at the Chelmsford Hospital for the devoted
attention given to a dear daughter and sister.
Will all friends please kindly accept this as
an only acknowledgement? – 5 Bishop Road,
The Essex Chronicle, Friday, September 23, 1938
(two column article)
caught fire when leaving the ballroom after
a Chelmsford dance was investigated by Mr.
Coroner L. F. Beccle at an inquest held in
the Shire Hall, Chelmsford, on Monday, and
pieces of material of the dress were experi-
mented with with [sic] a cigarette lighter and a
The inquest was on Phyllis Maud New-
combe, aged 22, a shop assistant, of 5 Bishop
Road, Chelmsford, who died in Chelmsford
Hospital on September 15 following burns
received when she was leaving the Shire Hall
Ballroom after a dance on August 27. The
dance was to celebrate the first game of
Chelmsford City Football Club with Bristol
Mr. George Cyril Newcombe, the father,
gave evidence of identification, saying he was
away on holiday at the time of the accident
to his daughter.
Dr. F. E. Camps, pathologist, said there
were extreme burns on the upper part of the
body, death being due to hypostatic pneu-
monia, secondary to toxaemia, secondary in
turn to the burns.
den Avenue, Romford, gave evidence of
accompanying Miss Newcombe to the dance.
She was wearing a dress made from white
net, or tulle, underneath which was satin.
There was a dark blue sash, and the front
of the dress billowed in the crinoline style.
The dress was long, and swept the floor. All
went well until midnight, when the dance
came to an end.
At the request of the Coroner, Mr. New-
combe then lit a cigarette and applied it to
the cloth, which did not ignite.
The Coroner then went to the ballroom
and inspected the scene of the tragedy, to
ascertain if a match or cigarette thrown or
dropped from the balcony over the landing
could have set fire to the dress.
On his return he remarked, “I am afraid
I can make nothing of it at all. Nothing
could have come from the balcony without
anyone noticing it, and it is not directly
over the landing, but over the stairs. I cannot
imagine anyone deliberately throwing a lighted
match from there.
Mr. McAusland raised the question
whether the satin underneath the net could
have become alight, but the Coroner said he
did not think that could be so, because the
material apparently did not come so far
down as the net and would be several inches
from the feet.
Cyril Herbert Bournbrook, Rectory Lane,
Chelmsford, also gave evidence of seeing the
girl in flames and going to her assistance.
Mr. McAusland told the Coroner that the
dress had been twice cleaned, on the last
occasion six weeks before the dance. There
would probably be some benzine or other
chemical in the material.
Returning a verdict of Accidental death,
the Coroner said he would record that the
clothing caught fire from some reason un-
known. “I must say,” he added, “that in
all my experience I have not met with any-
thing so very mysterious as this.”
The Essex Weekly News, Friday, September 23, 1938
anything so very mysterious as this,”
remarked Mr. Coroner L.F. Beccle at
the inquest on Phyllis Newcombe, 22,
of Bishop-rd., Chelmsford, who died in
Chelmsford Hospital from burns received
when her dress caught fire after a dance
at the Shire Hall on Aug. 27. The inquest
was held at the Shire Hall on Monday.
George Cyril Newcombe, father, gave
evidence of identification, and said that
his daughter’s health before the accident
had been good.
Dr. F. E. Camps said there were burns
on the shoulders, arms, and chest. Some
of them became septic, and death was due
to hypostatic pneumonia and toxaemia,
secondary to burns.
said he accompanied Miss Newcombe to
the dance at the Shire Hall. She was
wearing a dress of white net, with a waist
sash. The bottom flounced out and swept
The dance was crowded, and at the end
they waited until most of the people had
gone before they left the ballroom. Wit-
ness was walking two or three paces in
front of Miss Newcombe as they went out
of the ballroom. He had just got to the
top of the short flight of stairs when he
heard a scream. At that time there were
one or two people hanging about, but no
one near her. The bottom front of her
dress was in flames, burning very brightly
and furiously, and she ran back into the
ballroom. She half collapsed, and several
of the people who were still in the ballroom
smothered the flames with their coats.
Miss Newcombe was not smoking.
In reply to the Coroner, witness said he
did not have a chance to look at the time
for cigarette ends, because he was looking
after Miss Newcombe.
The Coroner : Was she able to say any-
thing at all? – Witness : Not at the time,
but during the first week in the Hospital,
when she seemed to be making quite good
progress, I suggested to her that I should
like to find the careless devil who threw
the fag-end away, and she said, “What does
it matter as long as I get right again?”
You did not see anyone under the influ-
ence of drink at the dance, did you? – I did
not see anyone drunk.
Herbert George Jewell, Victoria-rd.,
Chelmsford, said he was one of about
twenty people remaining in the ballroom
after the dance, standing in three or four
groups, talking. He heard a scream and
saw the reflection of flames, and then the
girl rushed in. He, with others, did his
best to put the flames out. Witness was
four yards away from the door when he
heard the screams; he saw nobody near
the girl at the time. They were all too
worried about her to take any notice of
whether there were lighted cigarette ends
or matches on the floor at the time. “The
ambulance was rather a long time,” witness
added, “but they did very well in the
circumstances at that time of night.”
Questioned by the Coroner, witness said
he did not see anybody the worse for drink.
“Perhaps there were some excited,” he
The Coroner : Sufficient to make anybody
very careless? – Witness: in all probability,
P.c. Thorogood said he looked round out-
side the ballroom and noticed there were
very few cigarette ends; they seemed to be
at the side of the passage. People were
not allowed to smoke in the ballroom, but
went outside into the corridors.
Asked by the Coroner whether he had
seen anybody come out drunk while he
was outside the Shire Hall, the officer
said there was no one drunk, but some time
before the accident there had been some who
explained, “is a lark by someone with
a perverted sense of humour. Obviously,
this was not spontaneous combustion. If
someone dropped a lighted match on the
rubber floor it would probably go on burn-
And presumably if there were not many
people about, it would not likely to be
trampled out? – No.
You found no burnt-out match? – No.
“If nothing was found,” the Coroner
continued, “it is not use theorising about
it. It is a very extraordinary thing,
though. You see, I cannot conceive a
lighted cigarette doing that unless it was
dropped by somebody on that dress material.
The girl’s father produced a piece of
tulle which had been taken from the dress
when it had been shortened. “We have
tried burning it,” he said. “We soaked
it in petrol and tried to ignite it with a
cigarette end, and it didn’t ignite, nor
when it was dry.”
The Coroner was given a piece of the
material, and lit it with his petrol lighter.
A small area quickly blazed up, but he
was able to blow it out without difficulty.
A lighted cigarette was obtained, and it
was found that it did not set the tulle
alight. “That puts the cigarette ends out
of the question,” the Coroner remarked.
The Coroner then went to the scene of
the accident, where he was able to see that
nothing could have been dropped from the
landing above on to the girl. Apparently
it would have had to be thrown.
“I can’t make anything of it all,” the
Coroner said. “If a match had been
thrown from there it would probably be
out before it reached the ground, and the
girl would probably have seen anything
Cyril Herbert Bournbrook, Rectory-lane,
Chelmsford, said he was coming down the
stairs above the ballroom landing when he
heard a scream. There was then nobody
on the landing overlooking the short flight
of stairs up to the ballroom.
said, “would have been a lighted match.
It may be that she stopped over one.”
The witness McAusland mentioned that
the girl’s dress had been cleaned on two
occasions, the last about six weeks before
The Coroner : Did it still have the hang-
over of benzine, or whatever they use? –
I would not like to say. I don’t know
anything about that. There was a slight
trace of some inflammable chemical still
in the material, but, of course, they wear
scent and you do not notice it. The
bottom is where it gets dirtiest, and that
would probably be where there was the most
“I am sure we can’t get any further,”
the Coroner said in recording a verdict of
Accidental death following burns caused
when her dress caught fire through some
Mr. McAusland said on behalf of Mr. and
Mrs. Newcombe and himself he would like
to thank the Hospital staff publicly for all
“About the ambulance?” asked the
Mr. McAusland : That is rather a sore
Insp. Parrot said the St. John ambu-
lance was called at 12.15 and arrived at
The Coroner : isn’t there a town ambu-
lance? – No.
You mean this town has to rely on the
voluntary ambulance? Then the whole
fault is the borough’s, really.
Mr. Jewell : The St. John Ambulance
Brigade is purely voluntary, and I have
the highest regard for them.
The Coroner : If that is the only service
available in this town, it is a matter for
and in consequence of the circumstances
surrounding Miss Newcombe’s death, con-
siderable public interest was evidenced.
The first part of the funeral service was
held at the Cathedral, the Provost of
Chelmsford, the Very Rev. W. E. R.
The mourners were : – Mr. and Mrs.
Goerge Newcombe, father and mother;
Messrs. Harold, Cyril and John Newcombe,
brothers. Miss Edna Newcombe, sister;
Mr. Henry McAusland, fiancee,[sic] Mrs. W.
Hall, Miss M. Hall, Mrs. S. Capers, Mr.
and Mrs. C. Newcombe, Mr. and Mrs. H.
Newcombe, Mrs. B. Newcombe, Miss M.
Newcombe, uncles and aunts; Mrs. G.
Attridge, Mr. and Mrs. C. Brown, Mr. and
Mrs. W. Caton, Mrs. J. Wix, Mr. J. Wix,
jun., Miss D. Willet, Mr. C. Weight, Mr.
D. Lock, Mr. B. Sawyer, Mr. R. Fisk, Mrs.
W. Taylor, Mr. Eric Harrington, Mr. and
Mrs. R. Dannatt, Mrs. S. Clift, Mr. and
Mrs. W. Alderton, Mr. D. Burgess, Mr. R.
Duckworth and Miss Kathleen Bunn.
Others present included the following : –
Mrs. A. Letch, Miss Capers, Miss Cook,
Mrs. R. Cave, Mrs. W. Baker, Mrs. Charles
Lewis, Mrs. H. Ball, Mrs. E. Goodchild,
Mrs. A. Goodchild, Mrs. R. Porter, Miss
Sennett, Mrs. D. Rowland, Mrs. Thorpe,
Mrs. R. Bannister, Mrs. N. H. Day, Mrs.
E. Claydon, Mrs. P. J. R. Bennett, Mrs.
E. C. Willett, Mrs. W. Barnes, Mrs. L.
Burroughs, Mrs. M. E. Kidd, Mrs. L.
Wadey, Miss I. Wadey, Miss H. Everett,
Mrs. Bartram, Miss K. Budd, Miss A. E.
Aldred, Mrs. E. Samuel, Mrs. W. Whit-
more, Mrs. A. Woollard, Mrs. R. Downs,
Mrs. H. Smith, Mrs. E. Ratcliff, Miss
Thorn, Mrs. L. A. P. Parkins, Mrs. M. M.
Rule, Mrs. A. Gresty, Mrs. A. Sanders,
Mrs. E. Middleditch.
The interment was at Wittle-rd. Ceme-
tery, where Chelmsford City F.C. Sup-
porters’ Club, under whose auspices the
dance following which the accident
occurred was held, was represented by Mr.
A. Beadle, secretary; Mr. A. E. Simmons
and Mr. W. C. Parker, members of the
Committee, and Mr. S. MacArthur. Mr.
W. Catton, a member of the committee of
the old Chelmsford Club and of the Sup-
porters’ Club, was also present.
Round the grave were over 100 women,
several with babies in perambulators.
Included in the floral tributes, which
numbered over 60, were wreaths from the
Directors of Chelmsford City F.C.; Old
school friends; Chelmsford Football Sup-
porters’ Club; Friends and sympathisers of
Marconi-rd.; A few frieds [sic]; Boys of the
Bohemian Band, which was playing at the
dance where the accident occurred; Friends
of 37 to 108, Bishop-rd.; and friends of
Lower Bishop-rd. – The funeral was furnished
by Messrs. A. J. Andrews and Son, 20, Duke-
Eric Frank Russell,
Tomorrow, May 1942
Invisible Death p.8-11.
Chelmsford woman burned to death in a dance hall,
cause unknown. After hearing all the evidence, Coroner
L. F. Beccles said, ”From all my experience, I have never
come across a case so very mysterious as this!” – Daily
Telegraph, September 20th, 1938.
On the opposing page, but about 40 lines higher:
Same date, same fate [Dec. 27, 1938] for
James Duncan, Ballina, Co. Mayo, who became a pillar of
flaming agony in his own bedroom. ‘So fierce …
that rescuers were unable to approach.’
Eric Frank Russell,
Fate, December 1950 (vol. 3, no. 8)
Invisible Death p.5-12.
Chelmsford (England) woman
burned to death in the middle of
a dance floor, cause unknown.
After hearing all the evidence, Coroner
L. F. Beccles said, ”From all
my experience, I have never come
across a case as mysterious as this!”
– Daily Telegraph, September 20,
In the second column of page 11,
more or less adjoining the end of the
above story in the first column, we find,
with a distance of two lines between
Beccles and Duncan:
James Duncan of Ballina, Co. Mayo,
Ireland, became a pillar of flaming
agony in his own bedroom. ”So
fierce the fire … that rescuers
were unable to approach.”
Eric Frank Russell,
Great World Mysteries
London, Dennis Dobson, 1957.
On September 20th 1938, the Daily Telegraph published
the story of a woman who burst into flames bang in the
middle of a dance-hall. She had not been smoking. Nobody
bearing a cigarette had gone near her. There was not a fire
or a naked light in the place. Couples glided around the
floor, others chatted and sipped soft drinks. In the middle of
the floor a shrill, tearing scream and a bellow of flames. She
roared like a blow-torch and no man could save her. At the
inquest Coroner L.F. Beccles listened to the evidence of
many dumbfounded witnesses, then said, ‘From all my
experience I have never come across a case as mysterious
Opposite this on page 134, four lines below the line with
“as this!” Russell writes:
James Duncan of Ballina, Co. Mayo, Ireland, became a pillar of
flaming agony in his own bedroom. ‘So fierce the fire …
that rescuers were unable to approach.’
Alan W. Eckert,
The baffling burning death,
True the man’s magazine, May 1964.
p. 32, 33, 104-106.
p.32 is an illustration of a Marilyn Monroe type
lady in a tight fitting short dress surrounded by
flames, and captioned with:
Flames flared out from the woman, and in minutes
she was a pile of ashes on the dance floor.
On September 20, 1938, at Chelmsford,
England a woman in the midst of a
crowded dance floor burst into intense
blue flames seemingly generated from
her body. She crumpled silently to the
floor, and neither her escort nor other
would-be rescuers could extinguish the
blaze. In minutes she was ashes,
unrecognizable as a human being. Coroner Leslie
Beccles made a thorough investigation,
then threw up his hands. “In all my
experience,” he said, “I’ve never come
across any case as mysterious as this.”
Emile C. Schurmacher
Strange Unsolved Mysteries,
First printing: May 1967
(260 park Avenue South New York, N.Y. 10010)
ON A OCTOBER evening Maybelle Andrews, a 19-year-old
typist, was dancing the watusi with her companion, Billy
Clifford, 22, in one of London’s Soho nightspots when she
burst into flames.
Fire suddenly blazed from her back, chest and shoulders,
enveloped her head and ignited her hair. She ran frantically
about, screaming in agony.
Before Clifford and some of the others were able to seize
her and extinguish the fire with their hands and a topcoat,
Maybelle had fatally inhaled flames. She died in an
ambulance on the way to the hospital.
With his burned hands swathed in bandages, Clifford
testified at the inquest and told the mystified coroner:
”I saw no one smoking on the dance floor. There were no
candles or open lights on the tables. I did not see her dress
catch fire from anything. I know it sounds incredible, but it
appeared to me that the flames blazed outward, as if they
originated within her body.”
Other witnesses agreed with Clifford. The unsatisfactory
and reluctant verdict of the coroner’s court was: ”Death
accidental, caused by fire of unknown origin” …
page 155 of the same book, in a note:
Commenting upon the fatal
burning of Maybelle Andrew, [sic]
Coroner James F. Duncan said, ”In all my experience I have
never been confronted by a case as fantastic as this. I can
find no logical explanation whatever as to why the
deceased’s clothing and hair caught fire.”
Strange Stories, Amazing facts: stories that
are bizarre, unusual, odd, astonishing and
often incredible. Pleasantville, New York/Montreal,
On an October evening in the late 1950’s
pretty 19-year-old secretary, dancing
with her boyfriend in a London discotheque,
suddenly burst into flames.
As though driven by an inner storm, fire
burst furiously from her back and chest,
enveloping her head and igniting her hair. In seconds
she was a human torch, and before her horrified
companion and other people on the floor could
beat out the flames, she died from first degree
With his burned hands swathed in bandages,
her boyfriend testified at the inquest: “I saw no
one smoking on the dance floor. There were no
candles on the tables, and I did not see her dress
catch fire from anything. I know it sounds
incredible, but it appeared to me that the flames
burst outward, as if they originated within her
body.” Other witnesses agreed with him, and
the mystified coroner’s verdict was eventually
“death by misadventure, caused by a fire of
On p. 607 the acknowledgements state:
INNER FIRES – (c) 1967 by Emile C.
Schurmacher; adapted from Strange Unsolved Mysteries by
Emile C. Schurmacher (Warner Paperback Library);
Note by JWN: a thorough search by Clare and Ian Martin
has established that no person named approximately Maybelle Andrews
died in England in the periods 1936-1946 and 1955-1960.
Mysterious Fires and Lights,
New York, David
McKay, 1967, reprinted New York, Dell, 1968:
Eric Frank Russell, the English writer, recorded nineteen victims,
six of them men, during 1938, simply by checking several newspapers
daily. Some of these occurrences that baffled physicians and coroners
are of special interest.
On the evening of September 19 at Chelmsford (England)
a woman in the middle of a dance floor suddenly burst into
intense blue flames and within minutes was a blackened
mass of ash. Said Coroner L. F. Beccles: “In all my experience
I have never come across a case as mysterious as this.”
(London Daily Telegraph, September 20, 1938).
On page 193 Gaddis refers to Eckert in a footnote.
The Occult: A History,
New York, 1971.
Several cases are cited in a chapter
of Strange Unknown Mysteries by Emile Schurmacher.
A nineteen-year-old girl named Maybelle Andrews was
dancing in a Soho nightclub with her boyfriend,
Billy Clifford, when flames suddenly burst
from her back, chest and shoulders, igniting her hair. She died on the
way to hospital. Her boyfied, was was badly burned trying to
put her out, explained that there were no open flames in the room – the
flames seemed to come from the girl herself.
… (on static electricity, p. 508)
But this fails to explain how Maybelle
Andrews burst into flames. If she was dancing – Schurmacher
specifies the watusi – she was probably covered with a thin film
of perspiration [etc.]
Investigating the unexplained.
Prentice-Hall, Englewood Cliffs, NJ 1972.
In a list of cases:
20 Sept. 1938, Chelmsford, England
A young woman was in the middle of a dance
floor when blue flames burst from her body: the
flames could not be extinguished and ”in minutes
she was ashes, unrecognizable as a human being.”
[a note refers to Eckert, p.112]
Fire from Heaven: A Study of Spontaneous Combustion in Human
Methuen, New York etc., 1978
(first edition: 1976, Sidgwick and Jackson,
revised edition 1977, Pan Books; these three
editions are not identical)
dustcover, inside front:
ESSEX, ENGLAND, 1938
Phyllis Newcombe engulfed in blue flames on a
dance floor and burned to black ash in minutes.
I record my thanks to the librarians of the Daily Telegraph and of
the London office of The Liverpool Post and Echo for finding me
the particulars of Miss Phyllis Newcombe’s and Mrs. Carpenter’s
tragic deaths respectively ….
page 92 (corresponding to page 103 in the 1977 edition):
As in the case of Phyllis Newcombe, who blazed,
enveloped in ”bluish flames”, as she waltzed on the dance floor.
Phyllis Newcombe was twenty-two, an enthusiastic and practised
dancer. She suddenly glowed with blue flames, and,
while the horrified and (as it seems) momentarily paralyzed
fellow-dancers looked helplessly on, was ”within minutes a
blackened mass of ash.”
This tragic case, that took place at Chelmsford Shire Hall
on 27 August 1938, presented more problems to the coroner,
L.F. Beccles, than the actual fire itself. The headlines in the
Daily Telegraph of 20 September – three weeks after the death of
Miss Newcombe – carried as much of the story as the public
could be expected to know:
GIRL BURNED IN BALL DRESS
A Coroner: ”Most Mysterious Case”
Town in Need of Official Ambulance
At midnight on Saturday, 27 August 1938, Phyllis
Newcombe was leaving the dance-floor with her fiancé, Henry
McAusland, of Romford – the ”weekly hop” at the Shire Hall
was over. Twenty-two-year-old Phyllis, happy to have been
dancing all the evening with her young man, stepped lightly
off the floor – and within a minute or two, died.
She was wearing what was described in court as ”a dress
modeled on an old-fashioned crinoline” – a description which
was eagerly pounced on by authority as providing a ”reason”
why the dress should have flared up – as Henry McAusland
testified – ”in seconds.” Phyllis screamed; Henry tried to beat
the flames out with his bare hands; and badly, indeed, fatally,
burned, Phyllis was taken off to the manager’s office – there to
await an ambulance which did not turn up.
Immediately after the ”accident,” the manager of the Shire
Hall telephoned the police – it was then only a minute or two
after midnight. Not until 12.35 a.m. did the ambulance turn up,
St. John Inspector Parrot ”explaining” that the police – having
no ambulance of their own – had ”passed on the call” to the St.
John Ambulance Brigade; but, as the ambulance (their only one
a city of some 25,000 people!) was ”out on a call,” Inspector
Parrott had had to wait until its return before redirecting it to
the Shire Hall.
The ball gown ”modeled on an old-fashioned crinoline”
was too good to miss – and the coroner surmised that, as the
sides of this ”old-fashioned” dress stuck out, the light from a
cigarette may ”inadvertently” have touched it – upon which
(”inevitably”) the dress flamed up,” with the tragic results that
we have heard.”
Now this case would have gone the convenient way of all
well-handled inquests had not Miss Newcombe had a father of
inquiring mind. He asked – and was given – permission to
speak; and what he had to say caused the Coroner to declare:
”In all my experience I have never come across a case as
mysterious as this.”
Producing a piece of the material of which his dead
daughter’s dress had been made, Mr. Newcombe invited the coroner
to try its inflammable properties. ”Begin with this lighter,” said
Mr. Newcombe. The material flared up. ”Now let me light a
cigarette,” said Mr. Newcombe; ”and let us try that …” A
lighted cigarette would not ignite the material – and, recalled,
all the witnesses swore that no one had even produced a lighter
at midnight in the Shire Hall, let alone a flaming one …
Even if we subdivide the occurrence of spontaneous
combustion into many classes, none of these classes is unique. An
almost precisely similar case to that of Miss Newcombe is
described by Emile Schurmacher in his Strange Mysteries, and
quoted by Colin Wilson in The Occult.
Again we have a young woman dancing- that is, moving
rhythmically with rotary movements (a potent source of power,
according to ”primitive” belief) – in a place in which there were
no open flames: it was the large room of a Soho, London,
Nineteen-year-old Maybelle Andrews was dancing with
her friend Billy Clifford, ”when flames suddenly burst from
her back, chest and shoulders, igniting her hair. She died on
the way to hospital. Her boyfriend, who was badly burned
trying to help her explained that there were no open flames
in the room – the flames seemed to come from the girl herself.”
In the fact that Maybelle was dancing with her male
companion, her case most closely resembles that of Phyllis
Newcombe; but in the fact that the flames seemed to come from
her back and chest, rather than from her dress, her case bears a
strong resemblance to the several cases quoted in this book, …
p.186, in a list of patterns, under FIRE:
HARMFUL-to person through clothing:
Miss Phyllis Newcombe’s dress caught fire
at dance at Chelmsford; she, twenty-to,
was burned to death. (See page 92.)
p. 268, in a note grouping Russell’s cases into
Her dress flamed up as she was dancing
”Her fiancé tried to beat out the flames,
but the heat drove him back…”
Fortean Times 16, June 1976,
Review of Fire from Heaven,
The danger of 2nd-hand quoting is
illustrated by the way Harrison has obviously
been influenced by the sensational aspects of
cases as hammed up by Russell via Gaddis, for
example. One such classic is the burning of
Phyllis Newcombe in a ballroom in Chelmsford
about midnight, 27 August 1938. Russell/Gaddis
maintain the girl ”suddenly burst into intense
bluish flames and within minutes was a
blackened mass of ash” (cf. Gaddis p224). Now
Harrison has tracked down the original report
in the Daily Telegraph 20 Sept 1938 and summarises:
The girl and boyfriend, Henry McAusland, stepped
off the dancefloor having danced
most of the night (Harrison finds something
suggestive about ”rythmic rotary movements”)
the girl screams as flames sprout from around
her, Henry tries to beat them off with his
hands and is burned; ”within a minute or two”
the girl dies. I have a copy of the key news
report here as I write: no mention of bluish
flames, charred heaps, or Henry flapping his
hands. According to the report, an ambulance
arrived about 35 minutes after the incident
and took Phyllis to hospital, where she died,
I’d guess, not less than an hour later. The
mystery is how how her dress became alight –
it was inflammable, but the inquest ruled out the
explanation by Henry himself of a casually
flicked cigarette butt.
R.J.M. Rickard, Fire from Heaven- A Critique,
Fortean Times 23, Autumn 1977, p.26-28.
As I pointed
out in my first critique, Harrison must
have had a copy of the original source
of the Phyllis Newcombe story in front
of him to write most of the details he
put in (in the first edition as ‘note to
p103’ on p223, incorporated into (coincidentally)
p103 in the paperback) yet
here he is still insisting that the poor
girl ‘glowed with blue flames’ as she
danced, and ‘was within minutes a blackened
mass of ash’, and that her boyfriend
was ‘fatally’ burned trying to
extinguish her with his hands. I tried
to draw attention to the fact that according
to the only testimony we have (the
Daily Telegraph 20 Sept 1938, which
Harrison uses) the girl survived to die in
hospital about an hour later, not on the
ballroom floor instantly. Nor is there
any mention of the boyfriend [sic] attempts
to help or hypothetical injuries. Harrison
saw my criticism and saw fit not to correct
his error. That disturbs me.
Evening News, 4 February 1978
RIDDLE OF THE BURNING DEATH
Water only intensifies the fire
that comes from nowhere…
(part of a review of Fire from Heaven)
Like the FBI, the coroner was completely
foxed in the strange case of the Blazing
Girl in Chelmsford.
On August 27, 1938, Phyllis Maud Newcombe,
a 22 year old shop assistant, of Bishop
Road, Chelmsford, Essex, went with a friend,
Henry McAusland, to a dance at Chelmsford’s
Shire Hall Ballroom.
She was proud of her long, crinolin-style
dance frock, made of white tulle over satin,
with a dark blue sash. But at midnight, after
last waltz, that dress suddenly went up in
flames. And on September 15, the girl died in
Just another burning tragedy?
Not according to the inquest evidence. The
celebrated pathologist, Professor F. E. Camps,
said that there were extensive burns on the
upper part of the body. Had someone thrown down a
match or cigarette from the balcony?
The coroner, Mr. L. F. Beccle, visited the scene
of the tragedy and reported: “I am afraid I can
make nothing of it at all. Nothing could have
come from the balcony without anyone noticing it
and it is not directly over the landing (where
the girl was standing) but over the stairs.”
The dead girl’s father, Mr George Cyril Newcombe,
said that he had experimented with some of the
material from which the crinoline dress was
made, and demonstrated that it would not ignite
from a lighted cigarette.
The really frightening thing about the burning
death is that we know so little about it.
Scientists continue to hedge, but in countries
all over the world there are coroners, policemen
and fire chiefs convinced they had come face to
face with it.
The comforting thing is that they all agree that
it is as rare as it is mysterious.
Mysteries of the Unexplained: How Ordinary Men and Women
Have Experienced the Strange, the Uncanny and the Incredible,
The Reader’s Digest Association, Inc., s.l. 1982.
p.86 (in an SHC case list)
Phyllis Newcombe burst into flames in the middle of
a dance floor on the evening of August 27, 1938, at the Chelmsford
Shire Hall in Chelmsford, England. The 22-year-old girl was wearing
a dress “modeled on an old-fashioned crinoline.” At midnight, just as
she was leaving the dance floor, her dress flared up, and within
seconds she was a blazing mass of blue flames. The young woman’s
fiancé, Henry McAusland, tried valiantly to beat out the flames
with his bare hands, but it was already too late. Phyllis was fatally
burned before the ambulance arrived.
At the inquest the coroner initially surmised that a
light from a cigarette must have set the gown on fire, but the young
woman’s father was able to demonstrate to the court that the dress was
not that flammable. Using a piece from the same material, he showed
that only an open flame would set the cloth on fire and that a cigarette
by itself would not ignite it. Since all the witnesses swore that
no one had used a lighter or struck a match at midnight in the Shire
Hall, the case remained unsolved. (Vincent H. Gaddis, Mysterious
Fires and Lights, p.224; Michael Harrison, Fire From Heaven:
A Study of Spontaneous Combustion in Human Beings, pp.92-93; True,
May 1964, pp.32-33,104-107,112)
Flights of Fancy? 100 years of paranormal experience,
Ward Lock Ltd, London, 1987.
The Cinders Syndrome
It seems as if most victims of SHC die alone,
but there have been witnesses to the abrupt visitation
of flame. On 27 August 1938 twenty-two-year-old Phyllis
Newcombe was dancing with her fiancé Henry McAusland
at the Shire Hall ‘hop’, Romford, Essex. At the end of the
dance she was suddenly enveloped in blue flame, which McAusland
tried to beat out with his hands, but ‘within minutes’ she
had turned into ‘a blackened mass of ash’. The crinoline-style
frock she was wearing was blamed at the inquest for being
intrinsically flammable (precise reasons not stated), and the
inevitable accidental brush with a lighted match or cigarette
evoked. The dead girl’s father, however, produced a piece of
material that had been used to make the ball gown and
deliberately applied a lighted cigarette to it. It would not
burn. The coroner admitted: ‘In all my experience I have
never come across a case as mysterious as this.’
Another sick variation on the line: ‘You shall go
to the ball, Cinders’, was the horrendous case of nineteen-year-old
Maybelle Andrews who was dancing with her boyfriend Billy Clifford
in a nightclub in London’s Soho in the 1920s. Flames suddenly burst
from her back, setting fire to her hair. A badly shaken Clifford,
who was himself burnt by trying to beat out the flames, said afterwards
that they seemed to come from within the victim, who died
in the ambulance.
Picknett lists (p.124) Harrison among the ‘titles that may whet
Jenny Randles and Peter Hough,
Spontaneous Human Combustion.
Robert Hale Ltd., London 1992.
22-year-old Phyllis was an enthusiastic dancer. On 27 August
1938, she was dancing at the Shire hall, Chelmsford, Essex. As she
was leaving the dance-floor with her fiancé, Henry McAusland, in a
matter of a few seconds her dress turned into a mass of flames. She
was taken to the manager’s office to await an ambulance, but it was
over half an hour before it appeared. The poor girl died from her
The dress was modelled on an old-fashioned crinoline, so the
coroner speculated that a lighted cigarette had brushed against it,
setting it on fire. However, her father demonstrated at the inquest
that it was not possible for a cigarette to have set light to the dress
It needed a direct flame.
About twenty years later, there was an almost identical tragedy,
this time in a large public room in Soho, London. 19-year-old
Maybelle Andrews was dancing with her friend, Billy Clifford.
Suddenly, her back, chest and shoulders burst into flames, igniting
her hair. Billy and some other men tried to beat out the flames, but
she died on her way to hospital. He later commented: ‘I saw no one
smoking on the dance-floor. There were no candles on the tables
and I did not see her dress catch fire from anything. I know it
sounds incredible, but it appeared to me that the flames burst
outwards, as if they originated within her body.’
(in a case list):
53. 27 August 1938 Chelmsford, Essex, England
At midnight, 22-year-old Phyllis Newcombe was leaving the
dance-floor with her fiancé, Henry McAusland, at the Shire Hall,
when her dress suddenly flared up in flames. Henry tried to beat out
the flames and burnt his hands. Within minutes the girl was dead.
The coroner thought that perhaps a lighted cigarette had started the
conflagration, but it was demonstrated that a cigarette could not
ignite her dress. (H)
[the H refers to Harrison]
68. October Late 1950s Soho, London, England
19-year old Maybelle Andrews was dancing with her boyfriend,
Billy Clifford, when flames erupted from her back, chest and
shoulders, igniting her hair. She died on the way to hospital. Her
boyfriend said there were no naked flames, and the fire seemed to
come from within the girl herself. (H)
Larry E. Arnold,
The mysterious fires of spontaneous human combustion.
M. Evans and Company, Inc. New York, 1995.
As the clock approached midnight on
August 27, 1938, the fire again
appeared in public. In a very public place –
the Chelsmford Shire Hall in south-east
England. Young and pretty Phyllis
Newcombe, twenty-two, was whirling
and twirling on the floor at the weekly
Saturday dance with her fiancé, Henry
McAusland, when she dance-stepped into
combustion Phyllis screamed. Blue
flames were swirling around her body.
In horror, everyone screamed. The
unnerved McAusland tried to beat out the
flames bare-handed. All attempts to
rescue his fiancée failed, and ”in
minutes she was ashes, unrecognizable as a
The Essex Chronicle (September 2, 1938)
had this story first, one that didn’t
spread like wild fire through the British
press. London’s Daily Telegraph picked
up the story on September 20, when it
chronicled the coroner’s court proceedings.
Ironically, testimony began
with a plea for an ambulance to serve the
city of twenty-five thousand: it had
taken the ambulance from a nearby brigade
thirty-five minutes to arrive at the dance
hall – as if a more timely response
would have saved the poor girl. Not!
McAusland testified Miss Newcombe’s
dress and body ignited ”in seconds”
and that no ambulance could have gotten
there quickly enough.
What material was her dress? asked
Coroner L.F. Beecles. [sic] ”A frock modelled
on an old-fashioned crinoline” came
the answer. Why, crinoline will burn! He
thus declared ”the tragic results that
we have heard” were caused by a dropped
cigarette, which caused the dress (and not
Miss Newcombe) to inflame.
Fortunately for justice, Miss Newcombe’s
father had a more inquiring mind
than the coroner first demonstrated.
Mr. Newcombe produced a swatch of
fabric from which his daughter’s dress
had been cut. It would burn when lit by
a lighter, he showed; but lighted cigarettes
failed to produce the same, expected
result. Coroner Beecles now had to admit,
”From all my experience, I have
never come across a case so very mysterious
A case that became even more mysterious,
if possible. The Essex Weekly
News (September 1938) also covered this
fantastic story, though it appeared to
be a wholly different story. The News
had Miss Newcombe ”descending the
staircase and on discovering that her dress
was alight rushed screaming up the
stairs. Her dress immediately burst into
flames and at the entrance to the ball-
room she collapsed.” On-lookers smothered
the fire, limiting its damage ”to
her legs and body.” Many days later, she
died in the hospital of ”hypostatic
pneumonia and toxaemia secondary to
burns.” In the News‘ version, the coroner
admits this was his oddest case, then
appends this: ”Obviously this is not
October 1938; a nightclub in Soho,
the London district famed for its
nightlife. Nightlife became nighthorror,
then nightdeath for Maybelle Andrews,
a nineteen-year-old out of town with
Billy Clifford. In midstep with Billy
on the dance floor, she erupted in
flames … flames shooting from her back,
chest, shoulders and hair. She died
moments later. According to a personal
communication from journalist Michael
Harrison, the inquest was conducted
by Coroner James F. Duncan, who
concluded: ”in all my experience I have
never been confronted by a case as fantastic
as this. I can find no logical explanation
whatever as to why the deceased’s clothing
and hair caught fire.
Perhaps had His Majesty’s Coroner
known about the long history of SHC,
he would have found the logical –
though no less fantastic – explanation
On December 26, 1938; Ballina, Ireland.
James Duncan, seventy-six, a nonsmoker
and not near any observed fire,
became a pillar of flame in his bedroom.
Fact or Fiction? Supernatural,
Sunburst Books, London, 1996.
That same year 22-year-old Phyllis Newcombe was leaving a dance
hall at Chelmsford, Essex, when blue flames suddenly engulfed her
body and she was reduced to a pile of ashes within minutes. ‘In all
my experience I have never come across anything as remarkable as
this,’ admitted a baffled coroner.
In a similar case, 19-year-old Maybelle Andrews was dancing
with her boyfriend at a club in London’s Soho when flames shot from her
chest and back. ‘The flames seemed to come from within her
body,’ said her tearful boyfriend. Other dancers failed to beat
them out and within minutes she was dead.