Friday, February 8, 2013

Death in the Eighteenth Century

by Mike Rendell

I recently came across the bill submitted to my ancestor Richard Hall by the Funeral Director on the occasion of the death of his first wife Eleanor in 1780. The undertakers (that is to say, the company which undertook the arrangements….) were John Cooper & Co. Here is the bill:
I have included it because it gives some idea of what was involved in a funeral in the Georgian Era in the latter part of the 18th Century. Eleanor Hall had died in her 47th year – she got up and had breakfast as normal on 11th January 1780 at her home at One London Bridge, had a splitting headache at midday, and was dead by six in the evening. In all probability she suffered a brain haemorrhage.  It must have been a terrible shock for Richard, who had married Eleanor nearly 27 years earlier, and for their three grown-up children, who all lived at the property.

Richard records her death in his diary “Oh the affliction of this Day. My Dear and Affectionate Wife was suddenly seiz’d with a pain in her head after Twelve at Noon, which issued in a Fit; no Prescription of Physician Avail’d.”

Richard was devastated and made a beautiful cut-out in paper as a memorial. The memento is only just over one inch across and is extraordinarily delicate.

He would have employed the firm of John Cooper & Co to make all the arrangements for the actual funeral, which was to take place at Bunhill Burial Grounds (where many Dissenters were buried). Richard and Eleanor were both Baptists and as an additional incentive to choose Bunhill, it was where both her parents had been buried back in 1754. The expenses even included opening up the family vault and constructing a tent over it so as to keep prying eyes at bay.

The invoice starts by showing the actual funeral as taking place on January 18th, exactly one week after Eleanor’s death.
To start with, the actual coffin and furniture:
An inside Elm Coffin lined and ruffled with fine Crape and a mattress (£1/11/6)
A Superfine Sheet, Shroud and Pillow (£1/15/00)
An outside lead coffin with plate of Inscription (£4/10/00)
An Elm case covered with fine Black Cloth, finish’d in the best Manner with black nails and drape, Lead Plate Cherubim handles, lead plate and wrought Gripes (that is to say, grips) (£5/10/00)
Then there were the extras
4 Men going in with Lead Coffin and Case (10/-)
7 Tickets and Delivering   - 7 shillings (these would have been official invitations to attend the funeral service, sent out to close friends and often in the form of Memento Mori like this one, shown courtesy of the University of Missouri


Hanging the Shop and Stair-case in Mourning (in other words draping black cloth over the entire ground floor and stairs of One London Bridge, from where the funeral procession started its sad and solemn journey)
Use  of 16 double silver’s sconces and Wax Lights for ditto
2 Porters with Gowns and Staves with Silk cover & hats & gloves
The best Pall.

There then follow a few items which are hard to decipher. What looks like:
A coffin lid of black feathers and man in hatband and gloves
Crape hatbands
Silk ditto
Rich three quarter Armageen  ( a type of material)scarves for a Minister
12 Pairs of Men’s laced kid gloves
2 Pairs of Women’s ditto
6 Pairs of Men’s and Women’s plain and one pair Mitts
Use of 11 Gent Cloaks
A Hearse and 4 coaches with Setts of horses
Velvet Coverings and black feathers for hearse and six
10 Hearse pages with truncheons , 6 of ye bearers
10 Pairs of gloves and favours for ditto
Eight coach pages with Hatbands and gloves
Use of 5 Coachmans cloaks
10 pairs of gloves for ditto and Postillion
Paid at Bunhill for opening the Vault  and for Tent
Fetch and carrying Company
Turnpike and drink for the Men
A total of £51/8/6 which you would need to multiply by perhaps seventy to give a modern-day equivalent i.e £3500 or $5250. On the other hand a farm worker might have had to scrape by on half that amount for a whole year, so it is fair to assume that the funeral was something of a statement: the Hall family have arrived, and we can afford to put on a good show.

It must have made a sombre and imposing sight as the funeral cortege wended its way north of the Hall household on its one mile journey to the graveside. As Richard noted in his diary that night, it had been “a very damp day, some part Foggy, not very Cold” You can almost see the black horses with their black plumes, attended by  page boys dressed from tip to toe in black, the heavy coats of the pall bearers, the coffin lined with black velvet....
Mike published a book entitled Journal of a Georgian Gentleman which is now available in paperback, either direct from him at or on Amazon. It is also available on Kindle and other electronic formats.Mike does a regular blog on all things Georgian here.


  1. Fabulous post! I've got a London undertaker's account for 1811 (Page of High Holbourn)& the cost & details are very similar, although my one is not as elaborate - only 2 coffin shells, for example.Creates a fantastic image - thanks for sharing!

  2. Many thanks for this absolutely fascinating post. I did want to comment on the cost question -- the excellent Measuring Worth site enables cost comparisons using several measures; using the Retail Price Index, £51 8s 6d comes indeed to around £5,320, close to your figure -- but if you measure it by average earnings, the equivalent sum today would be £69,000 ! So while, in retail terms, this would be less expensive than a typical funeral today, in terms of the average earnings of the average person, it was an enormous outlay!

  3. So interesting. Just not something I ever thought about as I write my books!

  4. This is great that you have such detail. One thing to remember is that women did not attend funerals.

  5. Thanks for the comments. The post seems to keep altering and I am sorry if the images sometimes disappear! Yes, the cost was huge and was clearly an attempt by my forbear to let the world know that the family "had arrived". Ironically despite his (genuine) sense of devastation Richard re-married within a few months, to the horror of his children. A big bust-up followed and he never spoke to them ever again, or at least not until his dying day twenty years later. That's families for you!


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