Cremation in England Part 1: The early years (1874-1885)

Date Published: 
January, 2006
Original Author: 
Brian Parsons
Funeral Service Journal
Original Publication: 
ICFM Magazine, January 2006

Though cremation is the preferred method of disposition today in England, it got off to a slow—and extremely controversial—start, as recounted in part 1 of this series on cremation in the United Kingdom.

Last year marked a significant anniversary—the 120th anniversary of the first cremation in England. With over two-thirds of deaths in the United Kingdom now followed by cremation, it is a mode of disposal almost taken for granted by funeral directors. In 2004, 424,956 cremations took place at the 245 crematoria in operation.

However, the domination of cremation is comparatively recent; it was 1967 before the number of cremations exceeded the number of burials. In 1885, only three cremations took place; by 1900 a total of 444 cremations took place at the four crematoria in operation—Woking, Manchester, Glasgow and Liverpool.

In 1930, cremation was chosen in only 0.87 percent of all deaths, and by the outbreak of war nine years later, there were 56 crematoria, used in 3.85 percent of all deaths. Today, England's cremation rate of around 72 percent is among the highest in the world.

The development of cremation in this country reveals a fascinating struggle against religious prejudice, legal obstacles and entrenched social attitudes. However, its advocates were a determined group of reformers committed to introducing an alternative to earth burial.

This series of three article traces the events leading up to and immediately following the first cremation at Woking in March 1885. The first focuses on the period 1874-1885 and describes the founding of the Cremation Society and the opening of the first crematorium in England and events which assisted in clarifying the legal position; the second examines the arrangements for the first cremations; and the third discusses the disposal of the cremated remains in the early years.

Sir Henry Thompson and the Cremation Society
Although the history of cremation in this country can be traced back to the Romans, it was not until the 19th century that the idea of an alternative to burial was encouraged. Despite the development of large cemeteries outside cities, such as Kensal Green, Highgate, Nunhead and Norwood, along with others outside London, questions were raised about long term viability, maintenance and costs involved in burial.

In 1873, surgeon and polymath Sir Henry Thompson visited the Great Exhibition in Vienna, Austria, where Professor Brunetti (professor of pathological anatomy at the University of Padua) had exhibited a model of a furnace he had used to perform an incineration.

Thompson was sufficiently impressed that he wrote a seminal article on cremation in the January 1874 Contemporary Review placing the subject before the public. Titled "The treatment of the body after death," the opening phrases of the l0-page article were arrestingly romantic:

"After Death! The last faint breath had been noted, and another watched for so long, but in vain. The body lies there; pale and motionless, except only that the jaw sinks slowly but perceptibly. The pallor increases, becomes more leaden in hue, and the profound tranquil sleep of Death reigns where just now were life and movement. Here, then, begins the eternal rest. Rest! no, not for an instant."

After detailing the somewhat gruesome post-mortem changes occurring to the body and the cycle of returning elements to the earth to contribute to the creation process, Thompson then mentioned "grave-yard pollution of air and water" before discussing methods of disposal of the dead and then focusing on the solution offered by cremation.

Most controversially, Sir Henry suggested the use of bones as fertilizer, and regretted that burial wasted half a million pounds of precious bone and earth each year.  He closed by suggesting that, "no great change can be expected at present in the public opinions current ... on the subject of burial."

On January 13, 1874, a meeting of cremation supporters was held at Sir Henry's home at 35 Wimpole Street, Marylebone. Shirley Brooks proposed, seconded by the Rev. Hugh Haweis, that a declaration be prepared. It read as follows:

"We disapprove of the present custom of burying the dead, and desire to substitute some mode which shall rapidly resolve the body into its component elements by a process which cannot offend the living, and shall render the remains absolutely innocuous. Until some better method is devised, we desire to adopt that (method) usually known as cremation."

It was signed by those present. Four months later, the Cremation Society of England was founded. Among the society's council members were novelist Anthony Trollope; artist John Everett Millais; George du Maurier, novelist and grandfather of Daphne du Maurier; surgeon Thomas Spencer Wells; John Tenniel, political cartoonist of Punch and illustrator of Alice in Wonderland; Charles Voysey, dissenting cleric and founder of the Theistic Church; Shirley Brooks, onetime editor of Punch; Ernest Hart, editor of the British Medical Journal; Rose Mary Crawshay, anti-vivisectionist and women's rights campaigner; and businessman Frederick Lehmann. The annual subscription was set at one guinea; payment of a few guineas brought a life membership in the society. William Eassie became the honorary secretary, and Frederick Lehmann was appointed as honorary treasurer.

At the meeting on January 14, 1875, the council members agreed to investigate suitable cremation furnaces and their adaptability for the needs of the Cremation Society. They also established a fund to build a crematorium and to appoint trustees to take responsibility for the land.

At the same time, they were anxious to ascertain whether cremation was legal. The Transactions of the Cremation Society (1877, pp. 45-47) gives an account of the progress:

"Dr. Tristram and Mr. Meadows White were invited to consider the question ..... They were, moreover, on the whole, favorable to the view of those who advocate cremation, and such as to warrant the council in concluding that the performance of the process was perfectly legal, provided that it involved no consequence which would be construed by anyone as a nuisance."

In 1875, the directors of the Great Northern Cemetery at New Southgate in north London offered land and the use of chapels and other accommodation for a crematorium.  However, the bishop of Rochester, within whose jurisdiction the cemetery was located, forbade the building of a crematorium on consecrated land.

The society, forced to look elsewhere, turned to Woking, the location of the London Necropolis Co.'s vast cemetery at Brookwood. In May 1878, the society members purchased a one-acre piece of land off Hermitage Road, and by December, they had commissioned an Italian professor, Paulo Gorini, to oversee the building of a cremator he designed.

Much controversy followed, as the local residents, led by the vicar of St. John's, Woking, in whose parish the crematorium was located, mounted a campaign to prevent cremations from taking place. Following a deputation by the residents to the Home Secretary, the society was forced to pledge not to cremate any bodies until the legal status of cremation had been clarified.
Sir Henry Thompson and the society were disappointed, and six years would elapse before the cremator was finally used. During this time, four events would prove crucial to the society being able to use the cremator.

The wait: 1879-1885
The first event occurred in August 1880, when council member Sir Thomas Spencer Wells gave a paper titled "Remarks on Cremation or Burial" during the section on public health at the annual meeting of the British Medical Association at Cambridge. Spencer Wells concluded his paper by presenting association members with a statement to sign if they supported cremation.

In part a transcript of the Cremation Society Declaration signed in January 1874; the statement included a key addition in calling for a strict system of documentation to ensure that the cause of death would be ascertained before a body could be cremated. Spencer Wells obtained many signatures while at Cambridge and passed them on to Home Secretary Sir William Harcourt.

The second event was the cremations at Manston in Dorset in 1882 and 1883.

Capt. Thomas Hanham's wife, who died in 1876, and his mother, Lady Hanham, who died in 1877, both had expressed the desire to be cremated, and Capt. Hanham was determined to carry out their requests. He had their bodies encased in strong elm coffins with lead linings and then placed in a mausoleum erected at Manston House.

Capt. Hanham had contacted the Cremation Society with a view to having both cremated at Woking, but the society was still awaiting a legal determination. Therefore, Capt. Hanham had his own cremator constructed in a brick building at the rear of Manston House. Lady Hanham was cremated on October 8, 1882, and his wife, the following evening. Following the captain's death in November 1883, a full Masonic funeral ritual was held prior to his cremation at Manston. Significantly, the Home Office took no action in all three cases.

The third event had no connection to the Cremation Society. Its outcome, however, would have great impact as the Cremation Society sought to clarify cremation's legal status.

William Price was a Welsh doctor born in 1800 who embraced Druidic traditions. He wore a white tunic and green trousers, braided his long hair and wore a fox-skin headdress-the emblem of a healer. Price had a reputation for somewhat unorthodox practices. He considered surgery a last resort and believed that doctors should be paid according to the well-being of their patients.

In 1884, Price's 5-month-old son, Jesu Grist, died. Price was against earth burial, so he took the body, wrapped in white linen, to the top of the nearby Caerlan Fields (Llantrisant), placed it in half a barrel of paraffin oil and set it alight.

L.M. Martin takes up the story in "A Welsh Heretic" (Historical Bulletin 12, 1947, p. 12): "People returning from chapel were astonished to see the fire and rushed to the spot. The partly consumed body was snatched from the burning pile and the crowd threatened to mob Price. The arrival of the police prevented this, and Price was placed under arrest. In due course an inquest was held and the jury found that the death had been due to natural causes, not foul play as rumored. The police applied to the coroner for permission to bury the child, but Price strongly objected."

Price was tried at the Cardiff assizes on February 12, 1884, before Sir James Fitzjames Stephen. Martin writes that Price was indicted "for attempting to burn the body of his child, instead of burying it; and a second indictment charged him with attempting to burn the body with intent to prevent the holding of an inquest upon it." Mr. Justice Stephen concluded:

"After full consideration, I am of opinion that a person who burns instead of burying a dead body does not commit a criminal act, unless he does it in such a manner as to amount to a public nuisance at common law. ... A common nuisance is an act which obstructs or causes inconvenience or damages to the public in the exercise of rights common to all Her Majesty's subjects.

''To burn a dead body in such a place and such a manner as to annoy persons passing along public roads or other places where they have a right to go is beyond all doubt a nuisance, as nothing more offensive both to sight and to smell can be imagined.

''The depositions in this case do not state very distinctly the nature and situation of the place where this act was done, but if you think upon inquiry that there is evidence of its having been done in such a situation and manner as to be offensive to any considerable number of persons, you should find a true bill."

In March, Price finally succeeded in cremating his son's body. Though the cremation took place at 7 a.m., a vast crowd at Llantrisant witnessed the act. After his death in 1893, William Price was cremated at Caerlan Fields on January 31.

The final important event occurred in April 1884, when Dr. Charles Cameron, the member of Parliament for Glasgow City, introduced a bill in parliament to legalize the cremation. The debate was made before Home Secretary Sir William Harcourt, who was known to oppose cremation.

On the afternoon of April 30, Charles Cameron rose in the House of Commons to read for the second time the Disposal of the Dead (Regulations) Bill. He outlined the need for an alternative mode of disposal, discussed the decision in the Price case and addressed the issue of the concealment of crime via cremation. Dr. Farquharson and Sir Lyon Playfair supported the motion. During the proceedings, a unique event occurred in the House, as the April 1884 Hansard reported: "Here the hon. Member [Dr. Farquharson] produced, and held up for the inspection of the House, a small bottle filled with a white powder, which, he explained, were the ashes ... of a cow cremated some time before." The reaction of the House is not recorded.

The Home Secretary's opinion was clearly influential; the vote was 149-79 against the bill.

Undeterred by the lack of a law addressing the cremation issue and encouraged by the decision in the Price case, the Cremation Society decided to go ahead and offer cremation. In January 1885, The Times carried the following announcement:

"CREMATION.-Arrangements are now completed for the use of the CREMATORIUM of the CREMATION SOCIETY of ENGLAND. Particulars can be obtained from Wm. Eassie, Esq., C.E. the Hon. Secretary, 11, Argyle -Street, London. W."

By the end of March 1885, the Cremation Society had conducted its first cremation at Woking.