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Eccentric British Funerals September 5, 2011

Author: Beach Combing | in : Modern , trackback

Given Beach’s almost constant obsession with death – we’ve done capital punishment, human sacrifice, wills and last words in the past year… – the funeral had, sooner or later, to make an appearance. Here then is a small collection of last rites from the eccentric side of the English nineteenth century: actually one is from Wales and one from the eighteenth century, but anyway.

First up is Charles Thompson who was so horrified at seeing bones protruding from graves in his local cemetery in Mansfield that he arranged to be buried out in the ‘Sherwood Forest, about a mile from Mansfield, in the county of Nottingham, on the left hand, and near the turnpike-road leading from Mansfield to Newark.’  In his lifetime ‘[h]e daily visited the spot on which he had fixed for his grave, and enquired of the clergy as to the propriety of being buried on the forest ; and notwithstanding their discountenancing of it, he persisted, where we will leave him, in hopes of a joyful resurrection.’ Then when his death came the fun began – remember CT’s whole aim was to have his body buried away from prying eyes and in such a safe location that his body would be left in peace. The following instructions come from his will. ‘I desire that Edmund Bulbie be employed as undertaker, that he make me a good strong plain coffin without any ornaments; that I be dressed in a flannel shirt better than two yards long, a flannel cap, a slip of flannel round my neck, and in that state to be put into my coffin, and then to have two yards of plaid flannel thrown over, no shroud snipt or cut. About the coffin after I am put in, I would have three iron hoops or plates, one towards the head, another about the middle, the third towards the feet, fastened to the coffin, in each of these plates to have an iron ring inserted at the upper part of the coffin for the ropes to run through, to let me down into the grave; that six or eight poor men be employed as bearers to put me into the hearse and take me out, and that they be allowed five shillings each; that George Allen and assistants be employed to make my grave, and if they can make it six yards deep, to be handsomely paid for their trouble, but to make it as deep us they can. I would have my interment private as possible, no bell to toll, and the hearse to go down Bathlane. I desire that George Allen may be employed to build me a good strong square wall, by way of enclosure, seven Yards withinside. I desire that after my funeral as much earth be brought as will raise a mount, and that some trees may be planted thereon, and then finish a wall.’ A correspondent describes how these wishes were ‘punctually fulfilled’ ‘and the trees surrounding his grave- are now grown to a great height’. However, CT got neither privacy nor rest: ‘Notwithstanding his wish to have his interment private as possible, the novelty attracted the attendance of about four thousand persons. Few travellers, who are curious, passing that way, emit visiting the place where he lies interred.’ The grave is apparently still standing on Southwell Road though Beach has found no modern photos.

A Curious London funeral occurred when a Mr Bunn, a slum landlord was buried like a prole aristocrat. The metropolitan writer who described the funeral was most amused by Bunn’s pretension and his cohorts of sweeps. ‘The procession began by twelve boys bearing links; after them twelve men with shovels, whips, etc. reversed. After this a favourite horse, which the deceased used frequently to ride on, not as a charger, but decorated with a pair of cloth spatterdashes affixed to a pair of nightman’s poles, and implements of the like nature. This was succeeded with a cart covered with black baize, and drawn by four horses, which contained the body, in a very handsome coffin, and a large plume of white feathers, supported upon tassels, from which the pall descended, which was borne by twelve of the principal brickmakers and dustmen in the neighbourhood, dressed in white flannel jackets, new leather breeches etc. After this followed another cart, ornamented as before, containing several people in black cloaks, supposed to be the friends of the deceased; and another of the same description, totally empty, closed the procession ; though these were followed by a great number of carts filled with female cinder sitters, chimney sweepers, and others of the lowest class. They proceeded down Cock-Lane, and through Bethnal Green to Stepney, the place of his nativity, with the greatest decorum. After the interment, the whole company of mourners were plentifully entertained at the expense of the deceased, at the Star in Kingsland Road.’ Now that would have been a party!

We can also present Mr John Oliver ‘the eccentric miller, of Highdownhill in Sussex, born in 1710, died lately [c. 1795???] at the age of 85 years. His remains were interred near his mill, in a tomb he had caused to be erected there for that purpose near thirty years ago, the ground having been previously consecrated. His coffin, which he had for many years kept under his bed, was painted white ; and the body was borne by eight men clothed in the same colour. A girl about twelve years old read the burial service, and afterwards on the tomb, delivered a sermon on the occasion, from Micah, 7/8-9, before at least two thousand auditors. The great concourse of people present occasioned some rioting, which but ill accorded with the solemn ceremony.’ There is some scandalous chitter chatter that JO was leader of a local smuggling group and that he used, in the years before his death, his empty tomb as a storage place for contraband.

A fourth unusual funeral from our great-great-great parents’ time was that of the legendary William Price [obit 1893], a self proclaimed druid who had himself cremated (pictured): the first legal cremation ever to take place in the British Isles. Price was placed upon two tons of coal – that frankly would burn a tank never mind a human being – and twenty thousand came to see him go up in smoke. Beach has to ask – he asked himself the same thing reading some of the entries above – did they have nothing better to do?

Beachcombing has been able to find relatively little about these individuals – with the exception of the messianic William Price – any obits or details about their graves would be gratefully received. drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com