Mrs. Pickersgill’s Cremation

The London Letter of the Sheffield Daily Telegraph of Friday 27th March 1885 states that: ‘I am able to state that at the crematory erected near Woking by the Cremation Society of England, the body of a lady was on Wednesday reduced to ashes, in the presence of the representatives of the deceased. The cremation lasted one hour only, and was pronounced most satisfactory. This is, I believe, the first instance of cremation being publically performed in England.’

Page 5 of 8 in the Worcester Journal of Saturday 28 March 1885 carries a slightly larger version of the story – all-be-it briefly – about something taking place in Woking some 130 miles away that, in many ways, was of minor interest then but, with the benefit of hindsight, was something that now we take as quite normal. It stated: ‘Yesterday Morning the crematory which was erected at St John’s Woking Surrey, was made use of for the first time for a human cremation and the body reduces to ashes was that of Mrs Pickersgill, of Clarence-gate, London. It had been previously subjected to an autopsy. The deceased lady was well known in literary and scientific circles, and expressly stipulated in her will that her body should be cremated after death. With a view to this she had previously become a subscriber to the Cremation Society of England, in whose crematory the last rite was performed.’

Dundee Evening Telegraph of this same date recorded on page 2 of 4 adds that: ‘The operation, which lasted one hour, is said to have been eminently successful from every point of view.’

So who was Mrs Pickersgill? She was the wife of Henry William Pickersgill RA an English painter specialising in portraits. He was a Royal Academician for almost fifty years, and painted many of the most notable figures of his time. He had been born in London and had been adopted in his youth by a Mr Hall, a silk manufacturer in Spitalfields who financed his schooling and then took him into the family business. When war caused difficult trading conditions, Henry opted to develop his talent for painting into a career, and was a pupil of landscape artist and enter the Royal Academy Schools as a student in November 1805. He was one of the pre-eminent portrait painters of his day with many notable people of the time sitting for him. He famously painted author James Silk Buckingham and his wife Elizabeth in Arab costume in 1816, reflecting Buckingham’s own travels in the East as well as the fashion of the times for the Orient. Henry’s wife Jeanette, published a volume of poetry in 1827 entitled Tales of the Harem.

In 1874 the Cremation Society, a secular organisation, had been formed in London to campaign for cremation, mainly on the grounds of hygiene and cost. The appalling conditions in many of the overcrowded burial grounds of Britain’s major cities, together with the mounting costs of the pomp and ceremony of Victorian funerals, attracted people to a cheaper and cleaner alternative. Cremations in closed furnaces had already taken place in Germany but a number of bishops in Britain attacked what they called “a heathen practice.”

Despite the opposition, the Cremation Society bought land near Woking in Surrey where it built its first crematorium in 1878, successfully testing the furnace on the body of a horse. It was to be the last cremation for some time. Local inhabitants protested to the home secretary, who banned the use of the new building on the grounds that cremation could be used to destroy evidence of murder before a body could be properly examined.

The breakthrough for the pro-cremation lobby came through the unlikely figure of a druid who was also a strict vegetarian, anti-vivisectionist and advocate of free love. At the age of 83 Dr William Price, who practised medicine in Glamorgan, fathered a child from his housekeeper, naming the boy Jesus Christ Price. The child lived just five days and, in true druidical custom, Dr Price constructed a pyre at the rear of his house, donned his robes and burned the body. The act horrified the good chapel-going population of his village and Dr Price was arrested and subsequently tried at Cardiff Assizes before Sir James Stephen. The judgement, that cremation was not illegal provided that no nuisance was caused, opened the way for cremation to become enshrined in law although there was still much opposition to overcome. A Parliamentary Bill to put the practice into law was thrown out in 1884 amid government fears it would upset voters. Despite this the first cremation – that at Woking of Jeannette Pickersgill, went ahead in March 1885.

It was not until 1902 that a new Act of Parliament finally gave the home secretary power to regulate the practice of cremation and, after 28 years campaigning, cremation was finally on the statute books. By this time a number of crematoria had opened including Manchester, Glasgow, Hull and Liverpool and, in the same year the Act was passed, Golders Green crematorium opened in North London.


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