Killed By A Coffin

It’s an image that does the rounds on social media from time to time.

I’m not the first to share it and it’s one of the initial images I found when I began my immersion into cemetery history. Kensal Green was the second cemetery I visited for this blog and its not an event you’d typically depict – or frankly want – to associate with a place of rest.

Image

The drawing graced the  front page of the Illustrated London News on Saturday 2nd November 1872, a few days after the tragic event occurred. Henry Taylor is shown on the ground with a huge coffin crushing him. The grieving widow of the man whose funeral this is is overcome with hysterics in the background: his pall-bearing colleagues are shocked and doing all they can to get out of harms way: a gravedigger watches on in horror.

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Kensal Green Cemetery © Nick Richards 2020.

We look at the image today and think ‘Sheesh!’, stifle a snort of bemusement and then move on. The more I thought about the image however, the more I thought ‘hang on. This is actually pretty awful. What a way to go. Was this all he was known for?’

It didn’t seem right. If there should be a corner of the internet that actually clarifies who he was and what happened, let this be it.

1. The Accident

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The image it originally appeared in 1872. © British Newspaper Archive 2020.

The story itself has barely 10-15 lines as a small article on the second page and it relays a basic description of what happened:

“The church service having been finished, the coffin and mourners proceeded in coaches towards the pace of burial.. when orders were given to turn, so that the coffin, which was known in the trade as a 4lb leaden one, should go head first. It is supposed that deceased caught his foot against a sidestone and stumbled: the other bearers let the coffin go and it fell with great force on the deceased, fracturing his jaw and ribs.’

Poor Henry was taken to University College Hospital where despite the efforts of the doctors, his injuries proved too great to recover from and he died on the 24th October, at the age of sixty-six.

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The Old University College London Hospital on Gower Street. This building was eventually knocked down and replaced with the gothic red-bricked wonder designed by Alfred Waterhouse. Credit: Wellcome CollectionAttribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0).

An inquest which took place two days after his death with a verdict recorded by a Dr. Lancaster of ‘accidental death’.[1] Placing some straps around the coffin would prevent further accidents: that would be that.

2. So who was he? 

How rubbish that this man’s life is chiefly remembered for such an odd and horrible incident. Pictures and drawings can only tell one part of a story: here we have imagery from his own life’s end. What about beforehand? 

Utilising my Ancestry membership, I started scouring probate records – a good starting point to work back from as this can give an address and next of kin. It took a while, but I managed to seek him out: Henry Taylor, of 64 Spratt Street but latterly of 86 Camden Street, Camden with his named executor being Charlotte, his wife. From here on in any census record with her listed would confirm that this was the guy I was looking for and sure enough in the census record for the year before there he is, with his wife and three of his children.

All Saints, Camden Town, in 1828 by Thomas Shepherd. Public domain. Henry would have lived in the houses just behind the church here.

The census of 1871 states his occupation as verger, although in the 1861 version he is both verger and undertaker of the Camden Chapel: living walking distance from his last address with his much larger brood of eight children.

The chapel (now the Greek Orthodox Cathedral of All Saints) was designed by the same father and son team who had built St Pancras New Church: its distinctive tower echoing the previous church they’d designed by using a Greek monument as inspiration. As a verger, he certainly had his work cut out for him. Reports from 1854 have Sunday morning congregation numbers at the church totalling 1650 people! Both the living and the dead would have kept him busy as he maintained the church and tended to the local dead. The duality of this role would have made him locally important.

With this in mind, being taken from Kensal Green to UCL Hospital for medical attention sounds like a hell of a journey – were there no closer hospitals? Perhaps being on his home turf was what was seen as important. Perhaps it was also one of the few medically equipped places which would have been able to help him.

3. What Happened Next?

Deceased Online is usually my first port of call to see where people are buried and from wat I could see, no one seems to have checked where the poor sod may have ended up – by some cruel happenstance wouldn’t it be terrible if he was buried in the same cemetery where his accident happened? Thankfully, this was not to be the case. He was buried in Highgate Cemetery on the eastern side, not far from the likes of Karl Marx, Malcolm McClaren and Mr. Facts Not Opinions in square 137, grave 19039.

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© Nick Richards 2020.
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© Nick Richards 2020.

My thoughts however turn to Henry’s wife. How did she manage in an age where the death of a husband could often plunge families into poverty and despair? Charlotte, as it turns out, seemed to survive – the 1881 census has her listed as an annuitant: she was to pass away two years later and join her husband in the grave they share in Highgate East, where the tragedy of 1872 has long since been forgotten.

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My thanks to Dr. Ian Dungavell who clarifies where exactly Henry and Charlotte ended up in Highgate East. Featuring Sacha Coward! 

4. Addendum

It’s also interesting to know that a friend of his for over three decades (and more importantly, fellow pall-bearer) felt compelled to set the story straight in the Evening Standard as to how the accident happened, after its initial publication. According to ‘G.A.N’, Henry was carrying the feet-end of the coffin but was asked to take the head: as he changed position he tripped over his colleague’s feet and this caused an imbalance which led to the coffin’s dropping. They did not simply leave the coffin and allow him to be crushed. ‘Not allow[ing] it to go forth that we were totally and callously unmindful of the life of a fellow creature‘ he would very firmly write, G.A.N sought to limit the unpleasantness such sensationalist writing would inflict on Henry’s family.[2]

Hopefully Henry won’t mind me putting the story straight on his behalf.


References & Source Material

[1] ”Killed by a coffin’, Grantham Journal, 2nd November 1872, p.7, Available from the British Newspaper Archive, (accessed 1st March 2019).

[2] ‘Killed by a coffin’, London Evening Standard, 31st October 1872, p.5. Available from the British Newspaper Archive, (accessed 1st March 2019).

 

 

 

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