The first cremation in the UK at Woking Crematorium

The first cremation in the UK at Woking Crematorium

The first cremation in the UK took place in 1885. Nowadays, cremation is the norm, with around 80 percent of people choosing it over burial. However, it has only been in Britain for less than 150 years.
Both the Old and the New Testaments of the bible mention cremation. But, as Christianity, and the belief in resurrection spread, the practice declined. In the 5th century, cremation was no longer occurring in Britain.

Who was the first person cremated legally in the UK?

Mrs Jeannette Caroline Pickersgill was a well-known painter and writer. She was born on November 30th, 1813 in Amsterdam. Miss Grover married the English artist Henry Hall Pickersgill on July 20th, 1837. In 1827, she published a volume of her poetry under the title, Tales of the Harem. Additionally, between 1848 and 1863 she exhibited various works of art in the Royal Academy. She died on March 20th, 1885 when living in London, and her cremation took place six days later in the new Woking crematorium in Surrey.   On her death, The Times describes her as "a well-known figure in literary and scientific circles".

Victorian reaction to the first cremation in the UK

The main concern of the people at the time was that the person might not actually be dead. The shocking thought of burning alive led to the requirement that two doctors should certify the death before a cremation can occur. This law still stands in place today. 

The first cremation took one hour and fifteen minutes. 

History of Woking Crematorium

In 1878, Sir Henry Thompson bought an acre of land, near  St. John's Village. It was a secluded site with a train service from London and so a strategic place to build the first crematorium. Sir Henry was a Physician to Queen Victoria and a surgeon, and he founded the Cremation Society of Great Britain in 1874.

An Italian professor, Paolo Gorini constructed the actual cremator. Initially this was not set within a building but stood outside in the grounds. The body of a horse was incinerated on March 17th, 1879 to test the cremator. This caused an uproar among local residents who voiced their objection to the Home Secretary.

However, cremation in the UK finally became legal in Febuary 1884.

Increase in cremations

The acceptance of cremation was slow. By the end of 1885, only two further cremations, after Mrs Pickersgill, had taken place.  In 1886, Woking Crematorium incinerated just ten bodies and in 1888, twenty-eight cremations took place there.  During this year the Duke of Bedford donated money to build a chapel and a waiting room along with other amenities. The chapel was first used in 1891 and all of the buildings had a thirteenth-century Gothic churchlike appearance,  aimed to reassure a doubting public.

In 1892, 104 cremations took place in Woking, and and urns containing the ashes were stored in the columbarium. By 1911, the site extended over ten acres and included a Garden of Remembrance.