A Deathly Business: Thompson’s Funeral Home, 1874-1929

Last week, you may recall, I took a look at the consumption of alcohol at funerals based on the recent digitisation of records from Thompson’s funeral directors in Waterford. This week, I’ve returned to the same sources, to consider a few more things which emerge from the records, which offer all kinds of insights into the business of undertaking from the late nineteenth century and on into the twentieth.

As well as the many more straightforward entries into the books of the business over the course of almost sixty years, many other entries that form part of the digitised collection stand out.

In that period, before the motor car was common, hearses were typically pulled by horses and the records reveal something to us about these. For instance, entries in the books that run from 1874 to the early 1900s, we see that Thompson’s bought a good number of horses. In April 1892, for instance, the business bought a bay horse from a Mrs. Murphy for £20 even, while in 1893, they bought a brown horse from a Mr. Knox of Bakehouse Lane for the considerably more pricey sum of £30. [1] Horses were a vital part of the business, and had to be kept healthy. Thus in one set of records we find recipes for various ailments afflicting horses, like this one “for soars [sic] or galds on horses also Greece in heels” from 1905:

1 pennyworth of ground Alum

1 pennyworth of Sulphur

1/2 Pint of Vinegar

add a small quantity of warm water and then put in a bottle

Or this one, from the same time on worms in horses:

get some Guilea from the country

and grind it up in the oats

it will kill all the worms

There’s also a rather more involved recipe for treating mange:

6d worth tincture of iodine

3d soft soap

4d Black Sulphur

I dram Arnicker (spirits)

This is just once facet of the day to day running of the business which emerges from the books. Among the most fascinating elements of these records is that it shows that more than simply catering to the needs of individuals who were bereaved and had dead to bury, who went to Thompson’s in  a personal capacity,  Thompson’s were also involved in collecting and burying the dead from a variety of institutions including the District Lunatic Asylum (“A Silum” as it appears in some of the very earliest records), The Little Sisters of the Poor, The Poor Law Union, and Waterford’s Prison. [2]

Going through the records and seeing the many nameless in the books who belonged to institutions like the Little Sisters of the Poor makes for difficult reading, but shows something of the way in which the destitute were treated in Irish society, given over to charity, the only ones who would in death, see they were buried in something approaching respectable circumstances. Over two remarkable pages, at the beginning of the books that cover the period 1910-1918, almost seventy entries of paid funerals come from the Little Sisters of the Poor. [3]

Part of the books which show the number of burials performed on behalf of the Little Sisters of the Poor.
Part of the books which show the number of burials performed on behalf of the Little Sisters of the Poor. Click to enlarge.

Equally distressing when you delve into the books is the number of “small coffins” or “very small coffins” which are required by various families to bury children who did not live long. In no instance was I able to find a case where the child themselves was named, but usually the entries followed the form of “for Mrs. x’s child”. Unlike the burials of adults, there was no extensive list of hearses, broughams, sidecars, or drink. These were quiet, sad, heart-rending affairs which to judge by their frequency in these books, were indeed very common. Indeed, one set of figures looking at mortality rates in Ireland across the twentieth century indicates that around 1 in 13 or 14 children born died soon afterwards in the 1920s and 1930s, when these digitised records end. [4]

Thompson’s business though wasn’t solely undertaking to bury the dead, as in the case of their individual customers, or organisations like the Poor Law Union or the Little Sisters. Their business for instance with the prison service in Waterford was mainly to do with the transport of prisoners. In one of the books now available online, there are terms of an agreement with the prison set out, including the price of fares for different jobs which reads as follows:

Contract for Horsing Vans And Supplying Cars to H.M. Prison Waterford from April 1st 1909 to 31st March 1910.

No. 1) Horsing Van when requires from Prison to Courthouse and Vice Versa at per day 15/-
No. 2 ) Horsing Van when required between Prison Railway Station at per double journey viz. from Prison to Station in the morning & from Station to Prison in the evening 6/-

3) Horsing Van for any one run viz. between Prison & Station or between Station & Prison 4/– 3/-

4)Inside or Outside Cars when required from Prison to Rly. Station or Steamers or vice versa at per journey from and to Prison 1/3

5) Inside or Outside cars when required from Prison to COurthouse, Workhouse or Asylum at per double journey viz. come to the Prison when ordered go to any of the above places and return to Prison 1/9

6) Rate per single journey between Prison & the above mentioned places not returning again to the Prison 1/3

Date this 19th day of March ’09

An image of the above mentioned price list for the use of Thompson's cars for the Prison Service.
An image of the above mentioned price list for the use of Thompson’s cars for the Prison Service. Click to englarge.

Thompson’s contract with the Waterford Poor Law Union about the price of coffins is also present in the records. For the Union, Thompson’s provided three sizes of coffin, as follows in 1907:

Adult coffins 4/3

middle size 2/6

small size 1/6

This small tidbit about their coffin prices for the Poor Law Union are made all the more interesting by the recording of their competitor’s prices, which are given as follows:

Whittle’s prices

4/3

1/9

1/5

Whittle’s offered cheaper on the middle and small coffins, but both businesses offered the same for adults to the Union. Incidentally, both firms appear to have helped each other frequently, charging each other for the use of spare horses, broughams and the like, presumably when one or the other was short of these things but had more than one funeral a day. This is one small glance at the more business oriented side of undertaking, and is invaluable in showing us how such things as the Poor Law, charities, and the prison system operated locally and on a day-to-day scale in either transporting or burying those in their care.

We’ve already seen the highly pragmatic inclusion in these records of a variety of recipes for looking after the horses which were so central to the running of the business, but the books contain recipes relating to human ailment too.  Take for example this entry on “Mugworth” [sic] :

Boil a handful in two qrts of beer

then leave Mistletoe simmer for one

hour strain bottle & Cork.

Dose:- Half a cupfull every

morning. if full dose proves too

difficult to take reduce it to a quarter

cup Morning and Night.

Or this one on Mistletoe:

1/2 lb of Mistletoe boiled in two

quarts of Water. leave simmer

until the liquid is reduced to about

a quart. Mix 1.2 pt. of common black

Treacle with it. liquid to be strained

before Treacle is added.

Dose:- Wineglass full every

morning fasting

“Mugworth is useful in

female irregularities.”

Equal quantities of Pennyroyal

and Southernwood added to it increases

its value.

Mistletoe – Useful in Hysteria, Epilepsy, St Vitus dance

and other nervous complaints, also used

as a tonic especially for the heart:-

These are but a few of the many recipes from the books, more of which I’ll be sure to post in time. For now though, this brief examination of these wonderful records, which are available for anyone to view truly do provide a unique insight into what was and remains one of the most intriguing aspects of social history.


[1] See Thompson’s Funeral Books, 1874-1892

[2] These are scattered throughout all four sets of the funeral books which have been digitised.

[3] See Thompson’s Funeral Books, 1910-1918 under “L”

[4] These figures are based on the following working paper: http://www.ucd.ie/geary/static/publications/workingpapers/gearywp200943.pdf

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