HER head is bowed. Her eyes are shut. Her long hair is coiled on the top of her head, and the long folds of her sleeveless dress tumble from her shoulders and flow over the outline of her shapely leg until they reveal a bare toe.

On her lap sit two children. One, a girl, stares out with wide, uncomprehending eyes. The other is a faceless baby, unclothed and unborn, its back to the viewer. This memorial is in Kirby Wiske Church between Northallerton and Thirsk, and it is dedicated to Fanny Samuelson, the daughter-in-law of one of Teesside's wealthiest ironmasters.

Fanny died, aged 37, in 1897 in London in an appalling hairdressing tragedy.

“Rarely has a more sensational story been heard,” said the Darlington & Stockton Times of July 24, 1897.

Fanny, a Canadian, had married Francis Samuelson, son of Sir Bernhard MP, in 1888 and they began married life at Sockburn Hall, on the edge of Darlington, while Breckenbrough Hall, on the A167 south of Northallerton, was built for them for £40,000 (£5m today).

By 1897, they were living in the new hall with their four young children, and Fanny was preparing for a housewarming, so she went up to London for a hairdo, on June 26. She wanted a petroleum hairwash applied to her long, luxuriant locks and so went to a fashionable continental hairdressers – Emile et Cie, Parfumeurs of Conduit Street – overlooking Hyde Park.

Hairdresser Emile Kopf warned her that it was a very hot day, but she insisted that she wanted the Paris petroleum wash “to keep her waist-length hair wavy longer”.

Kopf had gas-burning stoves in the salon, which heated curling tongs, but he extinguished them before he applied the wash.

Then, outside the salon, his partner, Emile Fuchs, “a swarthy little Frenchman”, according to the D&S, heard a “boom”. He rushed in and found Fanny engulfed in flames to the waist, and Kopf a little singed. They rolled her in dressing gowns as she screamed at her friend: “My God, I am in awful agony. What can you do to put me out of my misery?”

The Northern Echo said: “She talked wildly about her children and her husband, and advised the witness never to have her head washed with petroleum.”

Fanny was taken to her father-in-law’s house in Westminster where she died, having suffered greatly, three weeks later.

The inquest failed to explain what had caused the petroleum wash to ignite – the sun, the curling tongs, the stove, the rings on Emile’s fingers – although the Samuelson family felt the hairdresser’s celluloid comb was also somehow implicated.

Her body was brought by train to Thirsk Junction for burial at Kirby Wiske. “It was the largest funeral that ever took place in the village,” said the D&S.

Her grief-stricken husband had a famous sculptor, Sir George Frampton, create the tender marble monument to her in the church – and it tells the full horror of the hairdressing tragedy, which eluded the newspapers of the day.

Its Latin inscription says that like Absalom, a Biblical figure, she was the victim of a cruel accident caused by her own beauty.

Absalom was the most adorable man in Israel, his long, luxuriant locks admired and envied by all, until on horseback in battle, they snagged on a low-hanging branch, dragging him out of his saddle. The horse ran off; his enemies found him dangling helplessly, and so drove spears through his body.

Fanny's inscription says: "Her hair set on fire by an evil fate, she died after suffering for 21 days throughout unspeakable pain with no less determination than that of brave men who have fallen in battle.

“O lovable wife, loyal sister, dutiful daughter and the mother most sweet of three little daughters and one boy and of another who did not survive his mother’s death, poor little unfortunate.”

Although not mentioned in any contemporary report, Fanny was heavily pregnant – and her unborn baby died with her, and so it has no face on the memorial.

The memorial concludes: "Never was she a friend more earnest than during those final agonies and tortured was the death that carried her off.”

The Latin concludes with two words beneath her bare toe: “Manet Amor” – love remains.