Despite a massive proliferation in the literature on ‘risk’ and ‘disaster management’ in the contemporary world, historians have been slow to clarify their thoughts on these issues. The paper seeks to remedy this state of affairs. For the purposes of exegesis, it separates disasters, mishaps and accidents into ‘natural’, ‘social’, ‘symbolic’ and ‘individual’ categories, before summarizing and interrogating the influential theoretical work of Karl Figlio in this field. In terms of conclusions, the article suggests a provisional social-historical methodology for the recovery and reconstruction of the individual ‘moment’ of the accident; proposes a breaking down of the barriers between ‘domestic’ and ‘non-domestic’ occurrences of this type; and analyses reasons for lack of scholarly interest in the area as a whole. Focused predominantly on Britain, the paper also draws selectively on European and extra-European experience; and deploys numerous examples derived from urban history in order to press home its major points.