Cremation in England Part 2: Early Coffins and Transport

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

As cremation slowly made the transition from novelty to reasonable disposition option, questions arose about the best container for cremation (woollen envelopes anyone?) and the most cost-effective way to transport bodies to the crematorium.

The first cremations posed a number of challenges to an undertaking industry only familiar with the burial of the dead. How were bodies to be transported to the cremator at Woking? What coffins could be used? How should the cremated remains be treated? These were all areas which had to be addressed. The support of the undertaking industry was essential to the progress of cremation and it was the Marylebone firm of William Garstin that was initially involved in the early cremations.

A coffin being loaded into a hearse van at the London Necropolis private station at 121 Westminster Bridge Road.

A coffin being loaded into a hearse van at the London Necropolis private station at 121 Westminster Bridge Road.

William Garstin & Sons
Born in 1812, William Octavius Garstin established his undertaking business in January 1834 at 4 Welbeck St., Marylebone. In 1907, Garstin's relocated to 49 Wigmore St., where it remained until amalgamation with the equally historic Marylebone firm of William Tookey in 1966 at 51 Marylebone High St. In 1973, J.H. Kenyon acquired the goodwill of both companies.

Following the closure of Tookey's business in the 1970s, Garstin was incorporated into the premises of Kenyon Air Transportation. When this closed in the mid 1990s, the Garstin name was finally consigned to history.

Funeral directors' work largely reflects the social position and aspirations of the area in which they are located. This was certainly the case with Garstin's, who were responsible for the funeral arrangements of Cardinal Wiseman (February 1865) and Napoleon Louis, Prince Imperial of France (February 1879).

William Garstin also had a subsidiary company at 28 New Bridge St., Blackfriars, called The Funeral Co., and it was this organization that was responsible for the first cremation.

March 26, 1885:
The first cremation at Woking

The first person to be cremated at Woking was Jeanette Caroline Pickersgill of St. John's Wood, who died on March 20, 1885; she was cremated six days later. The Times reported:

"Yesterday morning the crematory erected at St. John's Woking Surrey was made use of for the first time, the body reduced to ashes being that of Mrs. Pickersgill of Clarence Gate, London. It had been previously subjected to an autopsy. The deceased was well known in literary and scientific circles, and expressly stipulated in the will that her body should be cremated. With a view to this she had previously become a subscriber to the Cremation Society of England. The cremation, which lasted one hour, is said to have been eminently successful from every point of view." A more detailed account appeared in "The Surrey Advertiser," while ''The Transactions of the Cremation Society of England" stated:

"The form of declaration drawn up by the society had been signed by her [Mrs. Pickersgill], and after the medical certificates had been duly filled up by the registered medical men, and an application from a representative of the deceased, on another form ... the cremation was allowed to proceed. An autopsy had been previously carried out by the medical attendants of the deceased.

"The body was conveyed to the crematory from London in a suitable hearse, and the cremation, which lasted one hour, was attended by two friends of the deceased, who expressed themselves perfectly satisfied with the system employed .... During the time of the cremation no smoke escaped from the chimney-shaft, whilst the ashes were of the purest white and small in volume."

William Garstin was responsible for the arrangements of the second person to be cremated, Charles William Carpenter, who died on October 14, 1885. The firm's register states that he was taken from "30 St. Mary's Road Willesden [in northwest London] to Woking Crematorium on 19th."

The entry also gives other details about the coffin, transport and costs: "A shell covered in cambric with an internal sheet and mattress" was delivered to the house where the deceased was encoffined. On October 19, bearers placed the coffin in the hearse, and drawn by a pair of horses with a "man in charge," the cortège made its way to Woking.

The cremation register indicates that two doctors examined the deceased (without conducting a post-mortem examination) and signed certificates I & II, which became forms B, C and F under the 1902 Cremation Act and are still in use today.

Form B is signed by the medical practitioner in attendance during the last illness; Form C is signed by a medical practitioner independent from the practitioner signing Form B; and Form F is signed by a practitioner employed by the cremation authority to examine all forms and permit cremation.
The cremation took 1.25 hours and the notes in the cremation register also record that the remains were later taken to Golders Green Crematorium East Columbarium following its opening in 1902.

The third and final cremation of the year was of Sarah Gratten of Sunnyside 72 Union Grove Clapham in south London, who died on December 4 and was cremated on December 11. Garstin's did not handle this one, but over the next four years was responsible for a large percentage of cremations, and examination of the firm's registers reveals much about the arrangements.

Coffins for the first cremations
The cremation registers reveal that Jeanette Pickersgill was cremated in a shell, and Garstin provided for Charles Carpenter a "shell covered in cambric with a cashmere sheet mattress and pillow."
(Editor's note: A shell is an inner wooden coffin in which the deceased would have been placed prior to the shell and its contents being placed into an outer, elaborate coffin, i.e. polished, with handles and an engraved nameplate.) Sources reported that Sarah Gratten was cremated in an elm coffin.

In March 1886, the coffin for Inglis Jardine was described in Garstin's records as a "Coffin covered cashmere, lined cambric and mounted with plate handles Brit metal plate (metal work removed)." The time of the removal of the coffin furniture is not indicated, but would probably have been immediately prior to the coffin being inserted into the cremator. Inside the coffin was a "cambric sheet."

An account of this cremation states that, "the remains were placed in an elm coffin with name and age of the deceased upon a silver plate. The process occupied considerably more than the usual time on account of the coffin having been constructed of solid elm, instead of light pine or wickerwork."

Other Garstin cremations in 1886 confirm the use of a coffin. For the cremation of Mrs. Martineau on June 30, a "shell covered grey cashmere, lined cambric, cambric sheet, mattress and pillow" was used, while in October it was an "elm shell covered drab and lined with fine cambric." For George Whiteley in January 1887, a "deal shell covered drab lined cambric; 3 pairs handles, cambric sheet, mattress and pillow" was provided. In April 1888, a "pine shell, lined cambric, covered cashmere, cambric sheet and cover." Some coffins were covered in black cloth.

Writing in 1891 in "Modern Cremation: Its History and Practice," Sir Henry Thompson revealed his ideas about a suitable container for cremation:

"It is strongly recommended to all applicants that no large, heavy, or ornamental coffins should be employed for the purpose, but, on the contrary, only a thin, light, pine shell; as in the former case cremation cannot take place without removing the body, and in the latter there is no necessity to do so, and accordingly the practice is to burn the whole together. But, after a considerable experience of cremation both here and abroad, I do not hesitate to say that I greatly prefer the plan of completely enveloping the body (already habited in the ordinary shroud) in a long narrow sheet, say 10 feet by 5, previously placed lengthways over a simply empty shell.“

''The last act before finally closing the shell should be that of folding the sides of the sheet across the body one overlapping the other, so as to cover it entirely. Thus the folded ends of the sheet will extend some two feet or so, above and below the head and feet of the body respectively. Above each of these points, a piece of stout white tape or white web should be firmly tied round the folded sheet, and in two places round the covered body also, so as to maintain the sheet in its place.”

"These ends are then turned over towards each other into the shell before the lid is adjusted and fastened. Immediately before the act of cremation commences, the shell should be opened, the body be carefully and reverently lifted out of the shell by a bearer at each end of the sheet, a third supporting the centre, and be placed on the frame which enters the crematorium. By this means the ashes of the body are not mixed with those of the shell, which must necessarily be the case if both are burned together, requiring a tedious and somewhat imperfect procedure to separate them. Moreover, the wood hinders and prolongs the work of cremation proper.”

''The sheet may be made of cotton linen, or wool, but the latter is preferable because its constituents are largely dissipated in combustion, whereas the vegetable fibre yields and leaves a large quantity of carbon in the form of ash. In the draught of a powerful furnace, some of this fine matter is no doubt carried away."
The use of wool is practical, but also curious as it has the property of being absorbent but also being capable of not sustaining fire. It would, however, have been relatively inexpensive.

Sir Henry also says in his text "It cannot be too clearly understood that it is most undesirable to encase the body in a heavy or costly coffin; A LIGHT PINE SHELL IS THE BEST RECEPTACLE FOR THE PURPOSE OF CREMATION. There is no reason why, for the funeral service, a simple shell should not suffice, and it may be covered with cloth at very small expense, if preferred. When, however, it is intended to hold a funeral service in public, and with some degree of ceremony, before cremation, a more ornate coffin may be used if desired, but it should contain the shell described, which can be afterwards removed."

Sir Henry's preference for a woollen envelope was supported by the London undertaker and cremation advocate Halford Lupton Mills, who said, "It should be noted that no wood coffin ought to be burned in the same chamber with the body. Experience has proved that no wood is sufficiently consumed by fire to leave the human ashes as clean and pure as desirable, and such wrapping as cotton-wool has a considerable amount of substance which is indestructible by such a heat as entirely consumes animal tissue. So far it has appeared the best way to envelope the body in a woollen wrapper which entirely enshrouds it. Asbestos cloth has been suggested, and might be useful to ensure a pure human ash, or if zinc would be worked so as just to enclose the body, that would be well, because of the low temperature at which it vaporizes."

The cremation register indicates that in 1886 three cremations took place without using a coffin; in 1887 a further seven took place using a shroud only. In 1888, the last year when they were noted, there were 11 "shroud" cremations recorded in the cremation register. Mills continued to advertise his ''woollen envelopes" in the Undertakers' Journal until the late 1890s. Perhaps this could be the source of the folklore that perpetuates today requiring funeral directors to reassure clients that the body is not removed from the coffin prior to cremation.

At approximately 24 miles from central London, Woking was clearly an inconvenient location compared to the newly established places of burial available around the metropolis. A rail link from Waterloo extending to the south coast had been established in the 1840s, and in 1854 the London Necropolis Co. commenced running its exclusive funeral train from the London terminus in York Street and into Brookwood Cemetery. While this service was usually used for burials, accounts of the early cremations indicate that the railway, in addition to horse-drawn transport, was used to reach the crematorium.

Garstin's registers note that for the cremation of Charles Carpenter in October 1885, "A hearse and pair [of horses] to Woking, a driver and a man in charge" were provided. In March 1886, the hearse conveying Inglis Jardine traveled down after a service in church in Kensington with the staff staying overnight as the cremation took place at 10 a.m. the next day. The other cremations arranged by Garstin in June and October 1886 also record use of a horse hearse.

The records of J.H. Kenyon indicate that the first cremation funeral arranged by the firm was of Alfred Allason on April 25, 1890. The hearse left central London at 6:45 a.m. and cremation took place at 1 p.m.

Horse-drawn conveyance to Woking was clearly expensive and time-consuming. It was not long before the most appropriate alternative—the railway—was adopted for funerals starting in London.

Garstin's first cremation using the London and South Western Railway for transport was for William Crellin Pickersgill in October 1887. The hearse travelled to Waterloo in time for the 10:15 train to Woking. The records do not state what happened at Woking; though it is likely a member of the Garstin staff supervised the locally supplied horse-hearse to the crematorium.
The Woking undertaking firm of John woods, working from the stables of The Albion Hotel, could supply hearses and carriages for the 2.5-mile journey from Woking Junction.

Around 1890, the Cremation Society forged a link with the London Necropolis Co. to use its train service from Waterloo; it was a clear attempt to help to minimize the overall cost of cremation while also reducing the time taken to reach the crematorium. Writing in "Modern Cremation," Sir Henry advocated use of the "rail, direct from Waterloo Station to Woking." However, he goes on, "In the event of a body having to be brought from a distance, any of the companies will provide a special carriage on the usual notice being given, and convey direct to Woking, where use of a hearse can be obtained for conveyance to the crematorium." Sir Henry also gave the times of trains and of cremation in 1891:

 Train leaves Waterloo  Hour of cremation
  9:30 a.m.                 11:00 a.m.
11:45 a.m.                  1:30 a.m.
  2:45 p.m.                  4:15 p.m.

The funeral service of Miss Haynes Walton on September 4, 1888, took place at St. George's Hanover Square at 10:30 a.m. The hearse then went to York Street station at Waterloo for the 11:45 train. The same times were recorded for Alexander Kinglake. The hour of cremation is recorded in the cremation registers and examination shows that early afternoon was by far the most preferred time of cremation. From January to July 1891, 37 of the 61 cremations took place at 1 p.m., 1:30 p.m. or 2 p.m. and all but seven were cremated after 1 p.m.

The convenience of the Cremation Society being able to link with an organization that could provide an undertaking service and the railway conveyance to Waking gradually ended William Garstin's domination of the market.

Eventually, the society recommended that all London-based clients contact the London Necropolis Co. to arrange a cremation funeral. This significantly increased the company's profitability, not only from funeral income but through burial of cremated remains within Brookwood Cemetery.

A December 1890 article in ''Trade, Finance and Recreation" titled "Common Sense Burial" summed up the situation:

"Persons going down in the usual way to the crematorium at Woking must travel by ordinary trains, and then drive some two or three miles to the crematory, there to wait the incinerating ceremony, and afterward drive to the cemetery at Brookwood.

"It is obviously more convenient that funeral parties should go by special or funeral train from the Necropolis Co.'s private station direct to the cemetery, and spend an hour or two among its delightful surroundings, while the body is sent over to the crematorium, to be subjected to the fire, when on its return the funeral service may be held, and the burial conducted in the usual way. Or, if time is of importance, the process of cremation may be carried out before the arrival of the funeral party."

As the number of cremations increased in the early years, albeit modestly, more undertakers visited Woking crematorium and became familiar with the procedures and documentation. However, it would be many years before every firm in this country could claim to have arranged a cremation funeral.



A member of my family was cremated yesterday. We were told that the ashes will not be available for at least 3 weeks. Can you please clarify the reason!

Thank you