26 March 1885: Britain’s first legal cremation

On this day in 1885, Janet Pickersgill became the first person to be officially cremated in Britain, at Woking Crematorium in Surrey.

Cremating the dead is nothing particularly new. It's been going on since the Stone Age. But in Britain, we've not been too keen on it since we became a nation of God-fearing Christians. Burning was something reserved for heretics. Often, we didn't even wait until they were dead.

But after a few hundred years of sticking the dead in the ground, along came the Victorians, with their (often entirely reasonable) fear of germs, dirt and disease. Sir Henry Thompson, physician to the Queen, was a champion of cremation, and in 1874 he formed the Cremation Society to push for the legalisation of the practice as a “necessary sanitation precaution against the propagation of disease”.

In 1878, the society bought a plot of land next to Brookwood Cemetery in Woking, Surrey – the famous 'Necropolis'. The following year they built a crematorium, but it would be a while before they could use it. In 1884, however, a case came before the courts that would pave the way for legal cremations.

Dr William Price, a rather eccentric Welsh doctor and druid, had attempted to cremate the body of his infant son (who he had named Iesu Grist – Welsh for Jesus Christ) on top of a pyre. He was arrested and tried. But the judge ruled that, while there was nothing to say what he had done was legal, nor was there anything to say it was illegal.

The Cremation Society took that to mean they could go ahead. And so, on this day in 1885, the poet Janet Pickersgill became the first person to be officially cremated in Britain.

That year, Woking carried out three cremations. In 1886, it carried out ten. Today, with cemeteries running out of space, and the cost of a cremation at around a third that of a burial, over 70% of all funerals in Britain involve cremation.

Recommended

The charts that matter: more pain for goldbugs
Economy

The charts that matter: more pain for goldbugs

Gold investors saw more disappointment this week as the yellow metal took a tumble. Here’s what’s happened to the charts that matter most to the globa…
18 Sep 2021
The new social-care levy: an unfair tax that protects the “assetocracy”
National Insurance

The new social-care levy: an unfair tax that protects the “assetocracy”

The government’s regressive social-care levy will make Britain’s tax system even more complex. Root-and-branch reform is long overdue.
18 Sep 2021
Kieran Heinemann: the history of shareholder capitalism
Investment strategy

Kieran Heinemann: the history of shareholder capitalism

Merryn talks to Kieran Heinemann, author of Playing the Market: Retail Investment and Speculation in Twentieth-Century Britain, about the history of t…
17 Sep 2021
Cryptocurrency roundup: litecoin blunder, cardano update and bitcoin mining in Laos
Bitcoin & crypto

Cryptocurrency roundup: litecoin blunder, cardano update and bitcoin mining in Laos

Saloni Sardana looks at the week’s biggest stories in the world of cryptocurrencies.
17 Sep 2021

Most Popular

The times may be changing, but don’t change how you invest
Small cap stocks

The times may be changing, but don’t change how you invest

We are living in strange times. But the basics of investing remain the same: buy fairly-priced stocks that can provide an income. And there are few be…
13 Sep 2021
Two shipping funds to buy for steady income
Investment trusts

Two shipping funds to buy for steady income

Returns from owning ships are volatile, but these two investment trusts are trying to make the sector less risky.
7 Sep 2021
Should investors be worried about stagflation?
US Economy

Should investors be worried about stagflation?

The latest US employment data has raised the ugly spectre of “stagflation” – weak growth and high inflation. John Stepek looks at what’s going on and …
6 Sep 2021