Paying the Sexton

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February 20, 2015 by auntkatefirmin

I happened to be reviewing the records related to Harriet Blackford Hall. For the moment, I will continue to assume that she is the woman buried in St Giles Cripplegate in 1847.

St GIles Cripplegate and churchyard in 1830.

St GIles Cripplegate and churchyard in 1830.

I had forgotten there were two ledgers that contained burial information for her. One is from a standard pre-printed parish register for recording burials that provided her age (51) and her abode (Pauls Alley). The second entry is from a pre-printed accounting ledger. The headings also includes disease, undertaker and payments to the parish, for the bells and to the vicar, clerk & sexton, and the varied payment details engaged my curiosity. (None of the entries for disease are completed in the ledger.)

Harriet seems to have been an average individual, in terms of her burial expenses, for the place and time. We know she was survived by her husband Thomas, her children Emily, Dorothy & Harriet and possibly her son William and daughter Ann. Of her ten siblings, only Jane Blackford Newsham could have attended any memorial in London as the other siblings are known or thought to be dead by 1847, with the exception of Henry who lived in Australia. As1847 was only ten years into the reign of Queen Victoria (and before the death of Albert) I imagine the funeral practices were close enough to what is described in this this post, The Regency Way of Death, for us to get a sense of the events surrounding a death and burial. Who might have sat vigil? Who was present as the procession made its way to St Giles?

Funeral scene: filling in the grave; a group of mourners gathered round including a woman with a handkerchief to her face, a sexton at right with a shovel, a man looking on and a boy with a hoop at left

A turn of the century funeral scene sketched by Paul Sandby.
© The Trustees of the British Museum

So what can we infer about Harriet’s services from the costs? Looking at the July & August burials (16 total) it looks like there are fairly set sums charged ranging from a total charge of 1/10/8 (3 burials) to -/11/0 (1 burial). Harriet’s family paid -/15/4 as did six other families; in other words 7 of the 16 burials were at this rate. For most of 1847 the number of burials in the parish in any month ranges from 7 to 14, with the exception of December in which there were twenty-five. I have not looked at mortality records for 1847 to see if this winter spike is representative of the city as a whole or any particular epidemic.

The most striking difference in the breakdown of the payments comes from the charge for the bells. Eleven of the 16 families paid -/1/10 for the bells to be rung. Almost all I know of bell ringing comes from Dorothy Sayers’ novels so I don’t really know the practice of the time in London. I’m guessing the most basic option was a single bell-ringing event while those who paid -/3/8 or -7/6 had the bells rung on more than one occasion. Those who appear to have had two services (or two events with the vicar) also seem to have paid -/3/8, in essence they paid for more bell-ringing but I’m not clear why the price is more than doubled. Two of the 16 burials had a charge of -/7/6 for the bells; one of the two had a single service judging by the vicar’s charge, but rather curiously the second burial records charges only for the bells and the sexton implying that there was not an actual burial or service but just a memorial bell-ringing.

Harriet was laid to rest somewhere in the churchyard of St Giles Cripplegate but there’s no information that indicates there was a stone to mark the spot. If the undertaker’s records had survived no doubt there would be information about a marker. The undertaker entry for Harriet says simply, “Stone,” and I have not attempted to research the firm.

London wall, drawing of a bastion in the churchyard of St. Giles in Cripplegate. 1841 Watercolour

Remnants of the London wall in the churchyard of St Giles Cripplegate. 1841 watercolor by John Wykeham Archer.
© The Trustees of the British Museum

“Brickbats and tiles” say the bells of St. Giles, according to the nursery rhyme. In 1847 St Giles had twelve bells dating mostly from 1772. The church and tower were gutted in 1940 and the bells mostly destroyed so both the building (which has been restored based largely on plans from 1545) and the sounds are different than those in Harriet’s day. The church also had a “chime machine,” considered to be one of the best in London, which played seven tunes. Interestingly, the altar and the organ from St Luke’s Old Street were moved to St. Giles when the parishes amalgamated in 1959. For then & now comparison views of the church check out this post from the British Library.

I’m not certain about all the other miscellaneous payments. Until I discover otherwise I’ll assume that the payment of -/4/9 to the parish related to a gravesite, and that higher (-/9/6) or lower -/3/9) payments related to more or less desirable locations. That leaves the payment of -/5/2 to the vicar, which must have related to conducting a service as some paid -/10/4 which I presume covered conducting two services or attending two events. The clerk received either -/1/5 or -/2/10 and it looks like that payment was also tied to the number of events. The basic charge for the sexton appears to be -/2/2 and it seems also to relate closely (but not exactly) to the charge for the bells.

Most of the information on the web relates more to various social customs such as funeral and mourning attire rather than the nuts & bolts of the burial arrangements – with one exception. A few years after Harriet was buried the issue of the number of deaths in London with relation to the burial space in London’s church came to a head. In the past coffins had been buried one over the other or older remains were moved to make space for newer burials.  As early as 1833 new alternative burial grounds such as Kensal Green had opened, first of the “magnificent seven,” catering to the more affluent. In 1850 John Firmin was buried in Nunhead, one of the seven.

But in the 1840’s water pollution from cemeteries was a real problem although the contemporary focus was actually on “miasma.” The health-related theories of the day proposed that malaria, cholera and other infectious diseases were carried by “bad air,” which could be identified because it smelled bad. As it turned out, the direct risks from graveyard gasses were primarily to undertakers, gravediggers and the like – although the foul smells were still, in a word, foul, and needed to be addressed and the solution was to move all burials outside the urban areas after 1852.

It’s interesting that Harriet Blackford Hall (died 1847) & her contemporary John Firmin (died 1850) span the change in London burial practices from the traditional churchyard burial for Harriet to the more upscale garden cemetery burial for John

llustration to "Fable XVI. The Ravens, the Sexton and the Earth-Worm" in Gay's "Fables", Vol. 2 (London, 1793); a wooded, urban graveyard, with a church; a funeral going on in the background l; in the foreground right a sexton with a spade, two ravens and an earth-worm; boots propped upside-down under a tree on the right. 1793 Engraving and etching

Illustration from 1793 by William Blake of a sexton, with a funeral in the background.
© The Trustees of the British Museum

Now off to order the death certificate to see what else we can add to the picture of Harriet’s final days.

Further reading:

An interesting article on Victorian burials by Lee Jackson.

A book that looks interesting : Crypts of London

This e-book about the church of St Giles p 197 has the burial rates for 1644.


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