Today, I invited Twitter follower Sarah Hoile to contribute a post. Sarah has just completed the MA Artefact Studies at the Institute of Archaeology, UCL: her dissertation analysed ‘Coffin Furniture in London c.1700-1850: the establishment of tradition in the material culture of the grave’. Today she’s written about how our Victorian ancestors decked out their dead in their eternal beds…
“Nothing can be more hideous, than the raised metal work, called coffin furniture, that is so generally used at the present time; heathen emblems, posturing angels, trumpets, death’s heads and cross bones, are mingled together in a glorious confusion, and many of them partake of a ludicrous character.” A. Welby Pugin, Glossary of Ecclesiastical Ornament and Costume, 1844.
Having come to this blog via Twitter, I’ve been interested to read about Sheldon and Christina’s explorations of the great Victorian cemeteries, as I’ve spent most of my time recently studying what’s underneath some of them.
I’ve recently completed my Masters dissertation on 18th and early 19th century coffin furniture in London, that is, the metal fittings used to adorn the coffin. The latest material I studied dated to the mid-1850s, by which time the older burial grounds and church vaults were closed and all of the ‘Magnificent Seven’ new cemeteries had been established. I thought it might be interesting to share a brief introduction to what early Victorian coffins were like. The monuments above ground provided a more lasting memorial, but a large amount of resources were also put into making sure the coffin was suitable for a ‘respectable’ funeral.
Coffins in the early 19th century ranged from very cheap, flimsy and undecorated coffins used for pauper burials to the hugely expensive, elaborate and richly embellished coffins of the elite. By this time, technological developments meant that cheap metal fittings were available to a wider range of people than ever before and by the mid-19th century, hundreds of tons of metal were buried each year in the form of coffin furniture.
Coffins could be covered in fabric, often black, although a variety of colours were used, attached with decoratively arranged upholstery pins. A cheaper option was to have a painted coffin. Coffins destined for burial in vaults were triple-shelled, with the middle layer being lead, and these could weigh up to a quarter of a ton. The ‘coffin furniture’, so despised by Pugin and that was the focus of my study, included a range of metal fittings made of tinplate, lead, brass, iron or sometimes other metals.
The engraved breastplate was the most important item and usually the first to be added, if a coffin had any fittings at all. By the 1880s even otherwise plain pauper coffins were described as having plates. These usually included the name, age and date of death of the deceased and could be very large and highly decorated, in contrast with the small, plain name plates found on coffins today. As well as the “glorious confusion” of motifs, these could also be painted for added effect.
Handles (‘grips’ to the funerary trade) with backing plates were often added, up to eight in some cases. More elaborate coffins also included other decorative metal items, usually pressed from thin tinplate: lid motifs, which were large items, often depicting angels and urns with flowers, and escutcheons or ‘drops’, which were smaller. One coffin advertised in 1838 included eight dozen of these. Decorative metal strips known as coffin ‘lace’ could also be added.
Despite the fact that it was buried and hidden from view, coffin furniture can be studied from contemporary descriptions, illustrations and even the trade catalogues of manufacturers. But although these sources indicate what was available, archaeological excavations of burial grounds and church vaults ahead of their clearance for development over the last thirty years have enabled us to examine what was actually used and to think about why.
I studied excavated material from a few sites in London, including the burial ground at St Pancras and the vaults of Christ Church Spitalfields – both interesting, and very different, sites used for burials until the 1850’s. It’s been fascinating to analyse the stylistic development and to consider the meanings it held for the bereaved families and the undertakers who used it. I’m now planning more research on coffin furniture, looking at what it can reveal about commercialisation, changing fashions and expressions of status and emotion.