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These pages arise from an ESRC funded seminar series that examined theories of malicious fire setting, including the social and cultural responses to arson, including strategies for diagnosis, prevention and methods of treatment.  The seminars built a collaborative forum for theory building between stakeholder, including clinicians, fire service professionals and academics.  

See: Daily Telegraph Article by Eric Clark Oct 17th 2009

Google: fire Winship BBC


In a footnote to my Civilization and its Discontents I mentioned - though only incidentally - a conjecture which could be formed on the basis of psycho-analytic material, about primal man's acquisition of control over fire. I am led to take up this theme again by Albrecht Schaeffer's contradiction (1930) and by Erlenmeyer's striking reference in the preceding paper to the Mongolian law against 'pissing on ashes'.¹

   For I think my hypothesis - that, in order to gain control over fire, men had to renounce the homosexually-tinged desire to put it out with a stream of urine - can be confirmed by an interpretation of the Greek myth of Prometheus, provided that we bear in mind the distortions which must be expected to occur in the transition from facts to the contents of a myth. These distortions are of the same sort as, and no worse than, those which we acknowledge every day, when we reconstruct from patients' dreams the repressed but extremely important experiences of their childhood. The mechanisms employed in the distortions I have in mind are symbolic representation and turning into the opposite. I should not venture to explain all the features of our myth in this fashion; apart from the original set of facts, other and later occurrences may have contributed to its content. But the elements which admit of analytic interpretation are, after all, the most striking and important - viz. the manner in which Prometheus transported the fire, the character of his act (an outrage, a theft, a defrauding of the gods) and the meaning of his punishment.

FN   ¹ This refers no doubt to hot ashes, from which fire can still be obtained, and not to ashes which are quite extinct. - The objection raised by Lorenz (1931) is based on the assumption that man's subjugation of fire only began when he discovered that he could produce it at will by some sort of manipulation. As against this, Dr. J. Hárnik refers me to a remark made by Dr. Richard Lasch (in Georg Buschan's compilation Illustrierte Völkerkunde, 1922, 1, 24), who writes: 'Presumably the art of conserving fire was understood long before that of kindling it; we have evidence of this in the fact that, although the present-day pygmy-like aborigines of the Andamans possess and conserve fire, they have no indigenous method of kindling it.'

The myth tells us that Prometheus the Titan, a culture-hero who was still a god¹ and who was perhaps originally himself a demiurge and a creator of men, brought fire to men, having stolen it from the gods, hidden in a hollow stick, a fennel-stalk. If we were interpreting a dream we should be inclined to regard such an object as a penis symbol, although the unusual stress laid on its hollowness might make us hesitate. But how can we bring this penis-tube into connection with the preservation of fire? There seems little chance of doing this, till we remember the procedure of reversal, of turning into the opposite, of inverting relationships, which is so common in dreams and which so often conceals their meaning from us. What a man harbours in his penis-tube is not fire. On the contrary, it is the means of quenching fire; it is the water of his stream of urine. This relationship between fire and water then connects up with a wealth of familiar analytic material.

Secondly, the acquisition of fire was a crime; it was accomplished by robbery or theft. This is a constant feature in all the legends about the acquiring of control over fire. It is found among the most different and widely separated peoples and not merely in the Greek myth of Prometheus the Bringer of Fire. Here, then, must be the essential content of mankind's distorted recollection. But why is the acquisition of fire inseparably connected with the idea of a crime? Who is it that was injured or defrauded by it? The Promethean myth in Hesiod gives us a straight answer; for, in another story, not itself directly connected with fire, Prometheus so arranged the sacrifices to the gods as to give men the advantage over Zeus. It is the gods, then, who were defrauded. We know that in myths the gods are granted the satisfaction of all the desires which human creatures have to renounce, as we have learnt from the case of incest. Speaking in analytic terms, we should say that instinctual life - the id - is the god who is defrauded when the quenching of fire is renounced: in the legend, a human desire is transformed into a divine privilege. But in the legend the deity possesses nothing of the characteristics of a super-ego, he is still the representative of the paramount life of the instincts.

FN ¹ Heracles, at a later time, was a demi-god, and Theseus wholly human.

Transformation into the opposite is most radically present in a third feature of the legend, in the punishment of the Bringer of Fire. Prometheus was chained to a rock, and every day a vulture fed on his liver. In the fire-legends of other peoples, too, a bird plays a part, and it must have something to do with the matter; but for the moment I shall not attempt an interpretation. On the other hand, we feel on firm ground when it comes to explaining why the liver was selected as the location of the punishment. In ancient times the liver was regarded as the seat of all passions and desires; hence a punishment like that of Prometheus was the right one for a criminal driven by instinct, who had committed an offence at the prompting of evil desires. But the exact opposite is true of the Bringer of Fire: he had renounced an instinct and had shown how beneficent, and at the same time how indispensable, such a renunciation was for the purposes of civilization. And why should the legend treat a deed that was thus a benefit to civilization as a crime deserving punishment? Well, if, through all its distortions, it barely allows us to get a glimpse of the fact that the acquisition of control over fire presupposes an instinctual renunciation, at least it makes no secret of the resentment which the culture-hero could not fail to arouse in men driven by their instincts. And this is in accordance with what we know and expect. We know that a demand for a renunciation of instinct, and the enforcement of that demand, call out hostility and aggressiveness, which is only transformed into a sense of guilt in a later phase of psychical development.

The obscurity of the Prometheus legend, as of other fire myths, is increased by the fact that primitive man was bound to regard fire as something analogous to the passion of love - or, as we should say, as a symbol of the libido. The warmth that is radiated by fire calls up the same sensation that accompanies a state of sexual excitation, and the shape and movements of a flame suggest a phallus in activity. There can be no doubt about the mythological significance of flame as a phallus; we have further evidence of it in the legend of the parentage of Servius Tullius, the Roman king. When we ourselves speak of the 'devouring fire' of love and of 'licking' flames - thus comparing the flame to a tongue - we have not moved so very far away from the mode of thinking of our primitive ancestors. One of the presuppositions on which we based our account of the myth of the acquisition of fire was, indeed, that to primal man the attempt to quench fire with his own water had the meaning of a pleasurable struggle with another phallus.

It may thus well be that, by way of this symbolic analogy, other elements, of a purely imaginative sort, have made their may into the myth and become interwoven with its historical elements. It is difficult to resist the notion that, if the liver is the seat of passion, its significance, symbolically, is the same as that of fire itself; and that, if this is so, its being daily consumed and renewed gives an apt picture of the behaviour of the erotic desires, which, though daily satisfied, are daily revived. The bird which sates itself on the liver would then have the meaning of a penis - a meaning which is not strange to it in other connections, as we know from legends, dreams, linguistic usage and plastic representations in ancient times. A short step further brings us to the phoenix, the bird which, as often as it is consumed by fire, emerges rejuvenated once more, and which probably bore the significance of a penis revivified after its collapse rather than, and earlier than, that of the sun setting in the glow of evening and afterwards rising once again.

The question may be asked whether we may attribute to the mythopoeic activity an attempt to give (in play, as it were) a disguised representation to universally familiar, though also extremely interesting, mental processes that are accompanied by physical manifestations, with no motive other than the sheer pleasure of representation. We can certainly give no decided answer to this question without having fully grasped the nature of myths; but in the two instances before us, it is easy to recognize the same content and, with it, a definite purpose. Each describes the revival of libidinal desires after they have been quenched through being sated. That is to say, each brings out the indestructibility of those desires; and this emphasis is particularly appropriate as a consolation where the historical core of the myth deals with a defeat of instinctual life, with a renunciation of instinct that has become necessary. It is, as it were, the second part of primal man's understandable reaction when he has suffered a blow in his instinctual life: after the punishment of the offender comes the assurance that after all at bottom he has done no damage.

A reversal into the opposite is unexpectedly found in another myth which in appearance has very little to do with the fire myth. The Lernaean hydra with its countless flickering serpent's heads - one of which was immortal - was, as its name tells us, a water-dragon. Heracles, the culture-hero, fought it by cutting off its heads; but they always grew again, and it was only after he had burnt up the immortal head with fire that he overcame the monster. A water-dragon subdued by fire - that surely makes no sense. But, as in so many dreams, sense emerges if we reverse the manifest content. In that case the hydra is a brand of fire and the flickering serpent's heads are the flames; and these, in proof of their libidinal nature, once more display, like Prometheus's liver, the phenomenon of re-growth, of renewal after attempted destruction. Heracles, then, extinguishes this brand of fire with - water. (The immortal head is no doubt the phallus itself, and its destruction signifies castration.) But Heracles was also the deliverer of Prometheus and slew the bird which devoured his liver. Should we not suspect a deeper connection between the two myths? It is as though the deed of the one hero was made up for by the other. Prometheus (like the Mongolian law) had forbidden the quenching of fire; Heracles permitted it in the case in which the brand of fire threatened disaster. The second myth seems to correspond to the reaction of a later epoch of civilization to the events of the acquisition of power over fire. It looks as though this line of approach might take us quite a distance into the secrets of the myth; but admittedly we should carry a feeling of certainty with us only a short way.

In the antithesis between fire and water, which dominates the entire field of these myths, yet a third factor can be demonstrated in addition to the historical factor and the factor of symbolic phantasy. This is a physiological fact, which the poet Heine describes in the following lines:-

Was dem Menschen dient zum Seichen

Damit schafft er Seinesgleichen.

The sexual organ of the male has two functions; and there are those to whom this association is an annoyance. It serves for the evacuation of the bladder, and it carries out the act of love which sets the craving of the genital libido at rest. The child still believes that he can unite the two functions. According to a theory of his, babies are made by the man urinating into the woman's body. But the adult knows that in reality the acts are mutually incompatible - as incompatible as fire and water. When the penis is in the state of excitation which led to its comparison with a bird, and while the sensations are being experienced which suggest the warmth of fire, urination is impossible; and conversely, when the organ is serving to evacuate urine (the water of the body) all its connections with the genital function seem to be quenched. The antithesis between the two functions might lead us to say that man quenches his own fire with his own water. And primal man, who had to understand the external world by the help of his own bodily sensations and states, would surely not have failed to notice and utilize the analogies pointed out to him by the behaviour of fire.


As clinicians we are often hampered by ethical constraints in reproducing case material but in this case the material has been made public in newspapers, court reports, interviews by journalists who spoke to family members subsequent to the trial.  I was interviewed on several occasions by  journalists involved in the case so I was able to gather further data too.  I have cut and pasted various accounts together, including newspaper reports.  I think the B... case is an exemplar of the complex interweave of past and present that leads to an index offence. 

Directed study: Using the narrative of the case account, what are your reflections on the aetiology of the events.  Given our discussions about the meaning of fire; the emotional resonance in particular, what are your thoughts on the causal pathways?  What else could have been done? And finally, in terms of developing risk assessment tools what are the implications from the case?  




By Lucy Thornton 19/04/2007 - Daily Mirror

"A JEALOUS father tried to kill his two young stepsons in an arson blaze, a court heard. The eldest boy Aaron, aged nine, was trapped and died from 95 per cent burns. His plucky brother Brandon, seven, ran through the fire and escaped.  Wayne Burtonshaw, 30, thought his partner's two children would come between them as they had just had a baby of their own, the court was told. He allegedly set fire to a bedroom carpet while the youngsters were asleep in their bunk-bed.  As the flames raged, it was claimed, Burtonshaw hung back, apparently unwilling to try to rescue the lads.  Prosecutor Peter Collier, QC, said: "Our case is that Burtonshaw had a different attitude to the children.

"You will hear that he didn't want them. He just wanted his own child."" (from Thornton).

It is alleged Mr Burtonshaw, 30, set fire to the child's bedroom using an aerosol and a lighter on May 16, 2005. Aaron suffered 90 per cent burns and died on July 29.  Margaret Smith (Maggie), who had put Kieran to bed in a different room, woke to hear Aaron and Brandon screaming.  In court the prosecution argued that: "She shouted for Wayne to help her and went to get Kieran. "She saw Wayne coming up the stairs with a mop and a bucket. But she didn't see him go in the room."  Mr Collier said Margaret and Burtonshaw were shouting "Get out! Get out!' to the boys. Margaret urged her partner to rescue them.  But the court heard that Burtonshaw did not seem to want to go in the room, and Margaret asked him "Why aren't you doing that?"  Aaron climbed out of the bedroom window on to a kitchen roof but died in hospital 75 days later, Hull crown court was told.  Brandon, jumped off the bed and ran to safety across the blazing floor.  Burtonshaw denied murdering Aaron. 

Mr Burtonshaw had moved in with Miss Smith in August 2003 and within a month of their relationship she began having arson attacks on her home.  The jury heard Mr Burtonshaw was found guilty of 14 arson attacks at an earlier trial last year.  The court were told he would drink cider all day and tell her he hated her sons Aaron and Brandon, six, from a previous relationship.  She told the court that when she had a child, Kieran, with him, he was fine with his own child, but wanted her to get rid of her other children.   She said: "Wayne was okay towards Kieran with it being his own son, but, as he put it, Aaron and Brandon were not his sons.  In March 2004 he had been drinking one night. He came upstairs and was calling the bairns names and saying he hated them and how he didn't like them. He said he wanted to burn their clothes in the garden. He wrecked their bunk beds and threw the wood out of the window.  I was scared of him and the threats that he had made. I wish I'd had the strength to leave him, but I didn't. When he had a drink he frightened me."

The court heard on another occasion he set fire to a shed containing all the children's toys on Brandon's fifth birthday.  She told the court when the fire service rescued her from her home in Ruskin Street, west Hull, following an arson attack on January 31, 2005, she and the children were taken to hospital for treatment.  She said: "Wayne wouldn't come. All he was bothered about was his dog."    

(Here is another sample of reporting plus some further data from Harriet Jones).

Burtonshaw's history of arson dated back to the age of 14.  Fire setting started after his father and mother had split up, and his mother had taken up with new partner.  Burtonshaw came home after being away for the weekend and set his first fire. 

Although Burtonshaw was found guilty, of 14 counts of arson, in the trial the court heard that Aaron (aet 8 years) had aroused concerns because he had been talking about killing himself and had been found with matches at school.  By then there had been a dozen or so fires at the house and the fire service staff had even taken to teaching Aaron and his younger brother how to put out a fire.  There appears to have been a reasonable question in the juries mind about whether or not Aaron may have set the fires. 

Apart from the complex circumstance of the trial, one wonders why there was not greater involvement from health and social services in the family given the number of warning signs. 

Burtonshaw's relationship with his Maggie Smith was not straightforward.  He met her when she was staying in a women's refuge.  Burtonshaw claimed that she was pregnant by his father.

During two-and-a half hours of evidence given to a jury at Hull Crown Court David Wayne Burtonshaw, denied murder, gave mainly yes and no answers.  He told prosecutor Peter Collier that he would "rather not" discuss the 13 fires he was last year convicted of starting before being told he had no choice but to answer questions.  As Mr Collier recounted the verdicts to Mr Burtonshaw, one by one, he simply said "yes" or "that was what they thought".  When asked about the fire at Ruskin Street on May 16, 2005 Mr Burtonshaw began by agreeing that it would be "extremely danger" to start a fire in a bedroom where two children slept.  When asked what he had felt about Aaron when he was trapped in the burning bedroom, he replied: "that is very difficult to say, very difficult."  Mr Collier asked why Mr Burtonshaw, 30, of Alexandra Road, Grimsby, had failed to hear Aaron's "blood curdling screams." He replied it was because he was in the living room of the house and the door was shut.

Mr Collier than asked if that was his final answer he replied "yes".

Mr Collier said: "Aaron was screaming for help out of the window he was shouting 'help me, help me' what help did you offer him?

Mr Burtonshaw replied: "I tired to persuade him to come to the edge of the bed."

He had earlier told his barrister Gary Burrell QC : "I was trying to persuade Aaron to come to the edge of the bed so I could grab him because at the time he was wrapped in a duvet clinging to the bed far side of the bed."

He told Mr Burrell, that he then helped Aaron's brother Brandon to escape and was about to go back for the eight year-old when the fire brigade arrived.  Mr Collier put it to Mr Burtonshaw that he had blamed his mother's violent ex partner for the fires at five addresses he had lived at. He replied: "I thought that at the time."  Mr Collier then asked Mr Burtonshaw if he believed Mr Spencer had started the blaze in the bedroom he replied "no" when asked if the boys mother Margaret Smith could be responsible he replied: "I wouldn't. No.".

He was then asked: "So who does that leave?"

He replied: "The two people in the bedroom."

At first he told Mr Collier he did not know which boy had started the fire but he later agreed he thought it was Aaron and that he had taken the lighter from the kitchen cupboard and lain awake for two hours thinking about his life.

He admitted he was the first to get burned in the bedroom but denied the second degree burn on his thumb was sustained when lighting the fire.

At The age of 14, David Wayne Burtonshaw got his first taste of the thrill and attention lighting fires would give him.  Following the break-up of his parent's marriage, his life was split between his mother's home and his grandparents.  Burtonshaw was unhappy with his mother Mary setting up home with a new boyfriend, Paul Spencer, as he did not like anybody replacing his father.  One Saturday, in December 1990, he set fire to his mother's home in Grimsby as she was out Christmas shopping and Mr Spencer was in bed.  He set fire to the sitting room carpet, using scraps of paper which he had doused in oil, before leaving the house.  When his mother returned she noticed a strange smell, which she later discovered was oil.  When she investigated further she found burned scraps of paper resting on singed carpet and she called the police.  Burtonshaw denied arson but he was convicted at Grimsby Magistrates' Court and was given a 12-month conditional discharge.  He went to live with his grandmother and his father, while he finished school.  His grandmother died when he was about 19 and he went to live with an aunt and uncle.  They moved to Lincolnshire and having completed a catering course at Grimsby College, he worked at the local racecourse for two years before going on to complete a course in forestry and fencing.  Aged 25 he moved to Hull to be near his father, who lived at a hostel in Ash Grove, off Beverley Road, west Hull.  It was in Hull he got back in contact with his mother, after bumping into her and her friend Margaret Smith.  Within months he had developed a relationship with Margaret and in August 2003 he moved in with her and her two sons Aaron and Brandon.  Within weeks she too had become the victim of arson, and would go on to suffer multiple fires at her home before Aaron was fatally injured.  He would drink cider almost every night and although he reduced his intake from about 16 cans a day to four, he was still unable control his temper.  Margaret has since revealed how he "disliked" Aaron and Brandon and wanted them to leave.  She says he once trashed their bedroom, breaking Aaron's bed, telling her he would be happy for them to "walk the streets".   Today, an expert in arson said Burtonshaw would have started fires at home intent on "causing damage and harm".

Arsonists can be motivated by a number of factors, including the desire for attention, the desire to destroy or kill or for a sexual kick.  He believes a number of problems are likely to have prompted Burtonshaw to resume lighting fires as an adult.  Having heard the details of the Burtonshaw case, he said jealousy may have been a motivation.

Prof Winship said: "It seems that the relationship disturbance he suffered as an adolescent and the jealously he felt was replayed as an adult when he stepped into the role of stepfather.  It seems that his initial motivations are largely derived from relationship disturbance.  When he started a fire aged 14 he was trying to understand and make some sense of the relationship between his mother and stepfather.  As an adult that developed to a threat to cause great harm and damage. Lighting a fire in a child's bedroom is homicidal, it is not like lighting a fire at an isolated barn.  Domestic fires tend to be motivated by an urge to destroy and harm."

Boys, Father & Fires

The following people are acknowledged in the development of the series:  

Mr John Adlam - Henderson outreach  

Dr Gwen Adshead - Broadmoor

Professor Les Back - Goldsmiths, University of London

Dr Stephen Blumenthal - Tavistock & Portman Clinic, London.   

Mr Mick Collins - Rampton, forensic researcher 

Dr Chris Evans - Rampton/Tavistock 

Dr Peter Goward - Sheffield University/Rampton

Mr Mick Hagget - Consultant nurse, Pathological Arson, Rampton 

Professor Bob Hinshelwood, Essex University 

Dr Rex Haigh - RCP/BSPD/Thames Valley Institute

Dr Kevin Healy - Cassel/ATC Clinical Director, liaison for young persons services SW London

Dr Gill Mcgauley - Broadmoor/St Georges, Forensic & Personality Disorder Group

Professor Nick Manning, Nottingham University

Mr Mike Maher, Group analyst

Dr Mark Morris - Portman Clinic.  

Dr Kingsley Norton - Henderson Hospital

Mr Terry Pretious - Arson Control Forum, Office Deputy PM 

Professor Barry Richards - Bournemouth University

Dr Jean Ruane - Sheffield University/Rampton

Dr Stan Ruszczynski, Director of Portman Clinic

Ms Yvonne Smith - Psychotherapist, formerly Broadmoor

Mr Mike Tait, Group analyst 

Mr Neil Thompson - E-fire, ODPM

 Dr Fiona Warren, University of Surrey

Mr Alan Worthington, Pepper Harrow

Dr Anne Zacharey, Tavistock 


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