During the time of the ancient Roman and Greek civilizations cremation had been generally adopted as a method of disposing of the dead. With the advent and spread of Christianity, however, and its concomitant belief in the resurrection of the dead, cremation fell into disfavour and by the fifth century the practice had become almost completely obsolete. In Britain, up until the mid-nineteenth century the most likely place of burial was the parish churchyard; after 1853 burial could take place in a cemetery following an act of Parliament enabling local authorities or private companies to purchase and use land for the purpose of burial. Until 1885, cremation in Britain was illegal.
The modern cremation movement began about 1873, as Paduan professor Brunetti presented a cremation chamber at the Vienna Exposition. Sir Henry Thompson, surgeon to Queen Victoria, showed interest and together with colleagues founded the Cremation Society of England in 1874. The Society advocated cremation as ‘a precaution against the spread of disease among a population rapidly increasing, and daily growing larger in relation to the area it occupies’ (Sir H Thompson, Modern Cremation. Its History and Practice (London 1889)) but this solution was strongly opposed by many who considered it anti-Christian.
Thompson, with the aid of subscriptions at £200 each, purchased from the London Necropolis Company (who had established the nearby Brookwood Cemetery) an acre of land close to St John’s Village, and by 1879 a crematory containing a coke-fired cremation furnace designed by Gorini was erected. Construction had been halted initially because its use was opposed both locally and by the Home Office and it was only after two test cases, one in 1882 in Dorset and a favourable judgement in the famous Price case brought to trial in Wales in 1884, that the legality of the procedure was firmly established. Locally, the Rev Oliphant, vicar of St John’s, Woking, vehemently denounced the crematorium and claimed that house and land prices would fall and people would be deterred from moving to Woking as a result.
On 26th March 1885, the first official cremation in England took place at Woking. The deceased was a Mrs Jeannette C. Pickersgill, a well-known figure in literary and scientific circles. By year’s end, only 3 cremations took place out of 597,357 deaths in the UK and in 1888 only 28. In 1899, cremations were still not a daily occurrence with only 240 in that year, bringing the average over a six-day week to just over one a day, both through unpopularity and the speed of the crematory (the regular cooling and reheating speeded up the deterioration of the cremator lining and increased expense). In May 1899, the London Necropolis railway brochure advertised a complete cremation service from coffin to burial of ashes for £15 15s (Parsons, p.210).
The method was slow to attain popularity, with only 1,824 cremations countrywide by 1900, 1340 of them performed at Woking. Those cremated included aristocrats, such as the Marquis of Queensbury, but also included the artist Sir Edward Burne-Jones, the author Grant Allen, and the socialists Frederick Engels and Eleanor Marx (daughter of Karl Marx). In 1902, an Act of Parliament formally recognised human cremation as a legitimate means of disposal of the dead and by the end of 1904 there were eight other crematoria in operation: Manchester (1892), Glasgow (1895), Liverpool (1896), Hull (1901), Darlington (1893), Leicester (1902), Golders Green (1902) and Birmingham (1903), although over half of all cremations at this time were carried out at Woking. However, by the end of 2000 over 240 crematoria were in use and over 70% of the deceased were cremated (437,609 out of 611,960 deaths).
In 1889, the original plain and utilitarian crematorium at Woking was rebuilt in a more elaborate red brick style. By 1911, the original one acre site was extended to 10 acres and the country’s first Book of Remembrance, dating back to 1940, is still held there. Famous people cremated there have included Thomas Hardy, Dr Barnardo and Alan Turing.
Click here to find out about the First World War memorial at Woking Crematorium.
- Woking Borough Council website for Woking Crematorium http://www.woking.gov.uk/woking/heritage/crematoriumandcemetery
- Records of Woking Crematorium are held at The Crematorium Office, Hermitage Road, St Johns, Woking, GU21 8TJ. Tel: 01483 472197.
- Alan Crosby, A History of Woking (Phillimore, 2003), pps 100-101
- Durham University, ‘Rites of Passage’ A brief history of cremation in the UK https://community.dur.ac.uk/4schools.resources/Ritesofpassage/moreinfo.htm
- Brian Parsons, Committed to the Cleansing Flame: the development of Cremation in C19th England (Spire, 2005)
- Surrey History Centre, introduction to Brookwood Hospital records, SHC ref 6852
Surrey History Centre holds the following records relating to Woking Crematorium:
Papers of the Rev Oliphant concerning opposition to the building of Woking Crematorium, including case and opinion for and against, newscuttings and copy letter, 1879-1884 (SHC ref WOKJ/15/1-12)
Print, ‘The Cremation building at St John’s, Knaphill, Woking’, 1879 (possibly from Illustrated London News, SHC ref PX/160/48)
‘Woking Crematorium’, series of stereoscopic photographs of exterior and interior, c.1880, including reverse end of fire and incinerating chamber, trolleys onto which the coffin is drawn through the hatch (SHC ref PH/160/172-179)
Reprint of the Sanitary Record of 24 Jan 1879, describing the new crematorium – cremation was a little understood process and careful explanation of its technical detail was needed (SHC ref PX/160/56)
A Francis Frith postcard of Woking Crematorium, 1901 (plus other coloured postcards of the crematorium, c.1905, SHC ref. PC/160/ALB2/52/1)