(Funeral Procession by Thomas Rowlandson, circa 1810 )

The great Mrs. Churchill was no more…

Mrs. Churchill, after being disliked at least twenty-five years, was now spoken of with compassionate allowances. In one point she was fully justified. She had never been admitted before to be seriously ill. The event acquitted her of all the fancifulness, and all the selfishness of imaginary complaints…

Short letters from Frank were received at Randalls, communicating all that was immediately important of their state and plans. Mr. Churchill was better than could be expected; and their first removal, on the departure of the funeral for Yorkshire, was to be to the house of a very old friend in Windsor, to whom Mr. Churchill had been promising a visit the last ten years..

Emma, Chapter 45

So, poor Mrs Churchill who ruled her family with an iron fist, died in Richmond, in Surrey,  after apparently really having been ill all the time. It always makes me smile that as soon as his domineering wife is dead, Mr Churchill suddenly appears free enough to be able to visit an old friend, whom he had been promising to visit for ten years! How wickedly funny Jane Austen is in those passages from Chapter 45….

On to more serious matters…..The funeral was to be in Yorkshire at the great Enscombe estate. And really we would have expected nothing else…I can imagine Mrs Churchill  resting forever in some great mausoleum like the one at Castle Howard ( also in Yorkshire)

But could a corpse be transported a journey of at least 200 miles? Let’s see shall we?

In “The English Way of Death” by Julian Litten, there are some descriptions of 18th century funerals, rather in the grand manner, where the dead body was to be transported some distance for burial.  The story of Edward Colston is a very interesting one.

Edward Colston died at his home in Mortlake in Surrey, near London in 1771. His funeral instruction were to the effect that his dead body was to be taken to Bristol and after having been paraded through the streets of the town he was to be buried in All Saints Church.

The journey in 1771 would have taken 6 days, involving five overnight stays at inns( and while on the road luncheons and breakfasts) for 16 attendants who attended the corpse. Together with stabling for 20 horses, shelter for the funeral car and the three mourning coaches which followed it. An extra room was taken at each inn for the corpse to lie alone, in state each night.

But before the body could embark on this journey, the Archbishop of Canterbury had first to be applied to, in order for him to give permission for the corpse to be  transported from the parish in which Colston died- in the Surrey diocese -to the parish in Bristol in which he was to be buried.

As this was before the time of life insurance or a proper funeral insurance plan, the whole funeral cost £513… an enormous sum. It was also not unknown for coffins to be transported by river and canal was well as by road.

By the time Jane Austen was writing Emma, funerals for the gentry and middles classes of people were, in the main, organised by professional firms of undertakers. They were suspected of insisting on elaborate mourning rituals to increase their profits sometimes ignoring the wishes of the deceased, a situation that reached its peak in the Victorian era.

The cost and details of one funeral of a person known to Jane Austen has been transcribed by Deirdre Le Faye and published in Volume VII of Bath History (1998) and this, indeed, reflects the conflict between a desire for a simple funeral and the reality of  unnecessary ritual and cost. The account of the costs of the funeral of Mrs Lillingston, a friend of the Jane Austen’s aunt and uncle, the Leigh Perrots in Bath, who left Jane Austen a legacy of £50 in 1806 (which said sum which was enough to pay all her living expenses for one whole year) makes for interesting reading.

The Bath undertakers, Ballans and Bradley of Bond Street, presented their detailed account of 8th February 1806 for her funeral costs, and though it was  supposed to be done in the plainest manner according to Mrs Lillingston’s wishes, it still entailed providing expensive mourning for all Mrs lillingston’s old servants, and four horses  to pull the hearse and the following mourning coach,which was thought  to be essential by the undertakers. In her will Mrs Lillington had asked for only two horses to be used. The final bill  for this “simple”  funeral amounted to £115 and 12 shillings.

So though it was undoubtedly expensive, Mrs Churchill’s corpse could most certainly be transported back to her Enscombe estate, at least 200 miles along the Great North Road from London, provided that expense could be met (and I’m sure it could) and the Archbishop of Canterbury  provided his  permission.

On a slightly different tack…I think it might now be appropriate to mention that funeral arrangements and customs were slightly different in northern England  and Yorkshire, where Enscombe is situated,  than in other parts of the country.

A really quite quaint and interesting habit of distributing special funeral biscuits and hot red wine to the mourners existed in the North of England throughout the 17th, 18th and into the 19th centuries.

The biscuits served at northern funerals came in a variety of shapes and sizes and textures. In the  18th century/early 19th century the most fashionable type resembled  Naples or Savoy biscuits, which were  similar to the crisp sponge finger type biscuits -manufactured under the commercial term Boudoir or LadyBiscuits– which can be brought from  confectioners shops  and supermarkets today and are usually used to make the spongebase of puddings like tiramisu or trifle.

Do look at the following extract from The Gentleman’s Magazine (1802) Volume I, p 105:

At the funeral of the richer sort…they had burnt wine and Savoy biscuits, and a paper with two Naples biscuits sealed up to carry home to their families. The paper in which these biscuits were sealed ( always with black sealing wax-JFW) was printed on one side with a coffin, cross bone, skulls, hacks, spades, hour-glasses etc…

Many confectioners specialised in producing them and here are some illustrations of the wrappers which have been preserved in various museum collections in the north,and are included in Laura Mason’s book, Food and the Rites of Passage, published by the fabulous Prospect Books:

(Do note you can enlarge all these illustrations in order to see the detail, merely by clicking on them)

Sometimes mourners  were met at the deceased’s house by servants prior to the funeral procession leaving for the church and were then presented with the biscuits and wine. In Lincolnshire  port or sherry was the preferred drink. Sometimes the wrapped packs of biscuits were simply left on a table in the house, so that mourners could carry them to the church, each taking a package as they left with the funeral procession.

A recipe for the biscuits was published in Chesterfield, Derbyshire in 1816 in S. W. Stanley’s book The New Whole Art of Confectionery:

Funeral Biscuits

Take twenty-four eggs, three pounds of flour, and three pounds of lump sugar , which will make forty eight finger biscuits for a funeral.

As Mrs. Churchill was most definitely  “of the richer sort” I feel sure the mourners at her funeral would have gone away clutching some funeral biscuits in a fancy wrapper, together with appropriate sentiments, and sealed with black sealing wax, obtained from the swankiest confectioner  in Yorkshire.