Unlike the Victorians, when it came to holding a funeral, our earlier ancestors thought less about the pleasantries than getting their deceased relatives sent off quickly, cheaply and efficiently.
Britain had been besmirched with war, plague, cholera and, in general, a very short life expectancy. The 17th and 18th century funerals had few frills and flounces – just one or two pagan rituals such as the strewing of flowers and memorabilia over the grave; a practice which was soon banned. Not just because it was considered heathen but it interfered with the rights of ministers to graze their sheep or cattle in the graveyards. Instead of scattering flowers it became a practice to incorporate flowers and strong smelling herbs into the shroud, which helped improve the smell of the rotting corpse.
The Georgian funeral
The arrangements were simple – the body was washed and wrapped in a shroud. The clergy would be informed and a grave digger employed. The male relatives, hats bound with long black ribbons, would walk in procession to the church, carrying the corpse on a bier covered with a pall. Females took part from a distance so that the ceremony was not ruined by their crying and fainting.
The pall and bier were usually hired: for a wealthy individual the more expensive pall would be used. This was made of black or purple velvet and was often elaborately embroidered. A very poor family might sometimes have been allowed to use the bier and a plain pall for free. The bodies, rich or poor, would simply be tipped or slid into the grave. The Bier and pall went on to be used again and again. Some churches owned a re-usable coffin, with a hinged bottom, from which the body was evacuated into the grave… very eco friendly!
The ceremony of sprinkling three handfuls of earth onto the body was introduced in 1542 as an official part of the funeral service and has continued, excuse the pun, religiously. A law, which has not always been taken too seriously through the ages, was made on the 30th December 1563. It stated that a body should be buried six feet under – a good and hygienic practice, particularly in times when contagious diseases had no cure.
But by the 18th century, and into early 19th centuary, the “six foot under” law was being flouted. Despite a high mortality rate, especially among children, the population had been increasing dramatically. The graveyards were filling up!
Children were not seen as a problem; their small corpses were usually placed into a grave of an adult that was being buried on the same day. The question which kept rearing its ugly head was, where to put all the potential extra corpses?
The first answer had been to build more churches with bigger graveyards. This worked in less densely populated areas but in cities, particularly London, by the time the Georgian period was in full swing, graveyards were seriously overcrowded. Some literally piled high – bodies on top of more bodies… packed side by side like sardines. Walls were built to retain the extra soil as the level of some graveyards began to reach the church windows. Bodies were being uncovered by dogs and eaten, and a constant smell of putrid flesh caused people to avoid going too close!
This seems to be no exaggeration. Tales of bodies rising from the grave might not have been far from the truth. If you look again at the first picture, “A Georgian Funeral”, the graveyard reaches the top of the walls and tombstones are clearly visible over the top.
During the reign of King William, in 1831, a cholera epidemic killed 52,000 people. The situation was now desperate and privately funded cemeteries began to spring up across England. It was a profitable business as the graves were costly to buy; the poor were still given a cheap and undignified burial, far away from their rich cousins.
The Victorians arrived, and decided that their relatives would be allowed to rest in style… at least the wealthier ones. With their growing fascination for death came superstition, new traditions, foolish and ghostly tales, and a desire to have a funeral to impress and make your neighbours jealous.
Superstition and traditions.
At the moment of a death, the curtains would be drawn: this let people know there’d been a death in the house. They would be kept shut until after the funeral. The eyes were closed and a coin placed on each lid. This was to stop the corpse staring back at you – the staring eyes were actually caused by rigor mortis.
Mirrors were covered: our reflection in a mirror is said to be the reflection of our soul – if the soul of the dead person should see itself it might not leave… or perhaps take another soul with it!
Dead family members were said to appear at the dying person’s bedside before death.
At the moment of death, pictures sometimes fall off walls. It’s unlucky if a clock stops at the time of death. Perhaps a raven might land on the roof, then there would certainly be a death. Some people said, if you see a white dove land on the roof of a house… a death would soon occur within. If you shiver suddenly… someone is walking over your grave – so beware.
The thing the Victorians feared most about death was not being dead. There were several things that might be carried out to prevent premature burial. One was to put a handbell in the coffin, another was to employ someone to stab you through the heart to ensure death. Wasn’t that what happened to Dracula? Another more popular way was to have a wake. This meant that relatives would stay awake and watch the corpse for several days and look for any movement. It also became a mark of respect.
More than anything, the puritanical Victorians wanted a “good death”. They harboured images of a dying person surrounded by their family, sobbing into their perfumed handkerchiefs, telling each other what good and righteous lives they’d had and how much they’d loved each other. They also needed to repent their sins as, according to the church, there were only two places to go after death… Heaven or Hell. There would be no pain at death, it had been completely removed by such substances as arsenic, strychnine, mercury, opium, cocaine, morphine, quinine and chloroform – as long as you could afford it!
Locks of hair were taken from the corpse and woven into pictures or put into lockets. Photographs were taken of dead children, often propped up to look alive and, even more ghoulish… with their live brothers and sisters. Death masks were sometimes made to display in the house.
Mourning was an expensive business: black clothes, more than one outfit as formal mourning might last for up to a year. After black, purple or grey would maintain decorum. Mourning jewellery would be worn and black picture frames bought to show images of your departed loved-one. A man would need black ribbon for his hat and arm bands. This lack of male adornment is probably explained by the fact he was paying for it all.
It is still quite legal to bury a corpse without a coffin, as long as you show no flesh near a public highway. It is also legal to bury your relative in your back garden or on common land as long as you have a certificate to prove that the corpse had no infectious disease such as the Black Death or Ebola.
Hammersmith was first known as Hamersmyth, perhaps due to the words ‘ham’ meaning village and ‘hythe’ meaning by the harbour; but it could have been more literally derived from hammer and smithy, relating to a place where metal work was done. Artefacts have been found in the area from Neolithic and Roman settlers. My favourite is the literal version.
Hammersmith began it’s life gently as a small hamlet, a “side” to the larger town of Fulham. Situated on the northern edge of the meandering River Thames, Hammersmith was once a marshy place, inclined to flooding, but where reed beds provided a living of basket making to its residents. Fishing, rearing pigs and keeping cows provided the early residents with food. The little hamlet grew blissfully slowly for a couple of centuries, but with fertile soil the residents of Hammersmith were able to successfully cultivate fruit and vegetables and went on to sell them in the City of London to the east, which was fast expanding.
By the 1600’s, Hammersmith, with its idyllic and romantic rural views along a wide bend of the river and beyond to the hills south of the Thames, had become a popular place for the aristocracy and wealthy persons of quality to build their country retreats and palaces.
In 1624, the Hammersmith residents, with help from the Earl of Mulgrave and Sir Nicholas Crispe a brick maker and slave trader, petitioned the Bishop of London for a Chapel of Ease to be built. The arduous walk from Hammersmith to All Saints Church in Fulham, sometimes impassable in bad weather, had become too much to tolerate. With residents money, and their promise to pay for the upkeep, St Paul’s Church was built in Queen Street, now Queen Caroline Street, and consecrated in 1631.
Market gardening was now becoming firmly established: maps show just how many market gardens surrounded the early network of streets, lanes and roads – some recognisable to this day. Coaching Inns were springing up in abundance along the main routes for changing tired horses, making coach repairs and providing travellers with food and board.
A main link going from the Broadway down to the river and various wharfs, brought and sent goods by barge up, down and south of the river. The streets were already dotted with houses and employment was plentiful.
With its good links, yet still with a very rural and charming aspect, Hammersmith flourished. Despite all this, Hammersmith didn’t become an independent parish until 1834.
At some time during the mid 1700’s my Ancestor, Thomas Randell, moved to Hammersmith, and his first son, also Thomas, was Christened in St Paul’s Church in 1781. Young Thomas, my 4 times great grandfather, became a timber dealer. He lived in Waterloo Road and, according to Booths Poverty Maps, had a fairly middle class living. Waterloo Road no longer exists but it was near the Thames and not far from a timber warehouse by St Peter’s Wharf. He had 8 children – most of whom were christened and Married at St Paul’s.
This began an over 200 year love affair between Hammersmith and its Church and the fast increasing number of Randell’s, their children, spouses, grandchildren and beyond. My daughter was born in Queen Charlotte’s Hospital, near to where my Grandmother lived until her death in 1975.
St. Paul’s records are heavy with my relatives names and its walls have echoed the sounds of their voices. During many wonderful concerts of the Hammersmith and Fulham Choir, for several years up until 2010, my daughter’s voice mingled happily with the ghosts of her relatives.
I hope they were listening!
I sometimes sit outside the Blue Anchor pub, convivially situated by the River Thames, on the Lower Mall, in Hammersmith. Pint in hand, I watch the Thames ebb gently under Hammersmith Bridge on its way to the clamour of Central London. As I sink my pint, and consider getting another, I begin to wonder what it would have been like when the “Blew Anchor” was first licensed on June 9th 1722 and John Savery was the landlord.
George 1 was on the throne – the monarchy was beginning to loose some of its absolute power and Robert Walpole was Prime Minister. Early Georgian Fashion was, for the wealthy, based on romantic fantasy, using beautifully embroidered silks. Long frock coats, wigs and large, ornately decorated hats were worn by men. Women wore tight, corseted bodices, full skirts with a draped mantua. Hair was worn close to their heads with a pretty lace cap. The poorer working classes would have been wearing a much plainer and probably second hand version.
The Blue Anchor is situated within the original boundary of the Hamlet of “Hamersmyth”, which spread out along the river, right and left from the main street, now known as Queen Caroline Street, and up to the Broadway. There would have been a village atmosphere with small houses and worker’s cottages with a range of shops providing essential goods.
I try to imagine myself there, a resident of Hammersmith, sitting outside the Blue Anchor in 1722. John Savory’s wife has just brought me a tankard of ale. As I look to my right I see a few impressive, brick built, mansions, rounding the river’s bend towards the Chiswick Eyot; Rivercourt House, Hyde Lodge and Upper Mall House in particular. But none of these houses belongs to me and my family or I’d not be seated here enjoying my ale. I would more likely be employed in one of the mansions as a servant, like my doomed relative, Mary Goodfellow, working insane hours, scrubbing floors, polishing silver, washing clothes and emptying smelly night pots.
Or perhaps I’m a labourer, quenching my thirst after a long and thankless day toiling in the nearby market gardens. The fields stretch out like jewelled patchwork, as far as the eye can see. From behind the Blue Anchor up to Paddingwick Green, beyond the London to Windsor coaching route and around into Fulham. The once boggy and wooded land that surrounded Hammersmith has long been tamed and silt from the flooding river has, over the centuries, made the land around Hammersmith extremely fertile. There are a scattering of farmsteads, and adjacent rows of poorly-built worker’s cottages – one of which I’ll return home to later.
I can imagine oak trees and chimney pots, silhouetted against a pink evening sky. There’s a man with his son and two horse-drawn carts loaded with produce, setting out on their trek to the early morning markets of London City. I mustn’t leave the Blue Anchor too late – once it gets dark I’ll never be able to find my way home in the pitch black of a moonless night; and if a moon did light the way I might fall pray to thieves or perhaps be propositioned by a gentleman who thinks his money will buy him anything he wants.
I look behind me and the bell tower of St Paul’s Church rises up in front of Butterwick House. To my left, the river’s span is interrupted by a flotilla of barges, with lightermen taking their tarpaulin covered cargoes to the wharfs to be unloaded. A waterman in his rowing boat comes into view, carrying two well-dressed gentlemen to a meeting down river. I suddenly realise that something is missing – there’s no bridge!
Hammersmith Bridge didn’t exist in 1722 and I am struck with a slight panic. I will have to rely on the Fulham ferry to get me and the Master’s coach and horses across the Thames when he wants to visit his family in Surrey. The Ferry leaves from the draw dock by the Swan Inn and arrives in Putney at a slope at the end of Brewhouse Lane. There have been reports that the crossing can be quite perilous in bad weather and the country roads from here to Fulham are full of stones and hidden ditches.
There is only one answer to this dilemma; we shall have to wait until 1729 when a wooden bridge will be in place at Fulham. The coach and horses can go by ferry and the Master and us servants can walk safely across the bridge.
As I sit quietly, draining my second pint and very much back in 2014, I become mesmerised by the sound of the River Thames as it laps up on the embankment. I remember my ancestors, and look over towards Castlenau, in Barnes. In 1824, Major Charles Boileau built Castelnau Villas, designed by the architect William Laxton. He then went on to build three rows of cottages called Castelnau Row, Castelnau Place and Gothic Cottages.
If I could really transport myself in time I would go back to 1841, when my 4 times great grandfather, Thomas Randell, and his wife, Hannah, lived just five minutes from the Blue Anchor, in Waterloo Street. I would join them for a jug of ale and a pie then we’d go for a stroll over the first Hammersmith Bridge.
Although I’d spent the early part of my life living in South East London, I had been very familiar with Hammersmith and Shepherds Bush due to our monthly visits to my Grandma in Westville Road. I enjoyed visiting her – she was different – there was a twinkle in her eye and I romanticised that she’d “seen life”.
My Mother had always been unwilling to talk about her family but many years later, as she approached her nineties, she began to reveal to me one or two facts about her ancestors who had lived in Hammersmith – in particular, the Randells’, but I had to be quite cunning to get enough information before a story began to emerge.
I went to West London and looked at where my relatives had all lived. I walked the streets where they’d walked; Hammersmith, Fulham, Mortlake and Wandsworth. Unfortunately, bombing and the building of the Hammersmith flyover had destroyed some of those places. I studied old maps and read as much as I could about the history of the area and the lives of people at that time. I began to feel like I was getting to know my relatives – I even had a sense of how they dressed and how they might have looked.
This started an obsessive on-line search with www.Ancestry.co.uk which, in time, led me to write a novel based on the true facts of my findings. I couldn’t have invented a better love story or twist of fate that had unravelled itself on my computer screen, bringing tears to my eyes and evoking intrigue and even laughter.
But it didn’t stop there – I had become hooked on the history of our Capital City – its sights and sounds; how it has changed over the centuries and how the people in it have changed. In my blogs I would like to share some of the fascinating things I have discovered or read about, and I would love to have feed-back from other enthusiasts.
I have recently moved my sights to Kensington, Paddington, Chelsea and Holland Park – where my grandmother was born and brought up; her first job as a kitchen maid and her association with the undertaking business. There is much to explore: school days, friends, discipline, manners, what they ate, where they went to church – it’s endless and I can’t wait.