When Sarah was about 8 years old, her father, and then her older brother both died. The following year, her widowed mother re-married to James Wisbey, also of Little Downham.
Sarah married James Johnson in the latter part of 1834, and by 1836, they were taking their daughter Matilda to be baptised. But Sarah's story is tragic.
Newspaper reports in Jackson's Oxford Journal, and The Huntingdon, Bedford, and Peterborough Gazette and Cambridge Independent Press all report the following:
In early February 1837, Sarah had been cleaning her bedroom - whitewashing the walls, and took a pan of ashes into the room to help clean it. Sadly, she left the pan in the room, and that night, she went to bed with her husband, and with infant daughter Matilda in bed too.
Due to the position of the pan, and the lack of a draught, the noxious fumes suffocated Sarah in her bed. Her husband James got up to check her, but was also overcome.
By this time, the young family's inactivity raised concern, and so a neighbour used a ladder to look into their bedroom, and concluding something was wrong, the front door was forced open.
Sarah was dead. James was still alive - but with laboured breathing, and whilst Matilda was at first believed to be dead too, signs of life were spotted and she was taken to her grandmother nearby.
James died on the bed about an hour later of apoplexy. An inquest was held in Little Downham on 10th February 1837 which concluded that Matilda only survived because she was covered over by sheets, and because she was laying on the window side of the bed - therefore escaping the fumes, and benefiting from a draught.
Sarah and James were buried on the same day in Little Downham.
Matilda remained with her grandmother until at least 1851, after which she married and moved to Gorton, Lancashire, England. She became a mother ten times, and also a grandmother. She died aged 83 in 1917, some 80 years after she was initially thought to have suffocated along with her parents.
- 1818 in Cambridgeshire, England.
- 25th January 1818 at St. Leonard's Church, Little Downham, Cambridgeshire, England.
- James Johnson (1814-1837) on 22nd September 1834 at St. Leonard's Church, Little Downham, Cambridgeshire, England.
- Matilda Johnson (1835-1917) married John Artingstall (1828-1897).
- 1st February 1837 in bed with her husband at home at 100 Foot Bank, Little Downham, Cambridgeshire, England, aged 20 years. Cause of death: 'Suffocation produced by the noxious fumes of charcoal being in the bed-room in which she had been sleeping'.
- 5th February 1837 with her husband at St. Leonard's Churchyard, Little Downham, Cambridgeshire, England.