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Laid to rest at last

A Bristol funeral firm has carried out an unusual funeral with historical period details for a young man convicted of murder and hanged 190 years ago.

E.C.Alderwick and Son Ltd Funeral Directors in Hanham, Bristol, were asked by the family of John Horwood to lay him to rest, after they discovered his remains had been kept in a university cupboard.

His skeleton was buried after a ceremony at Christ Church, Hanham, after the University of Bristol agreed to hand it over to Mary Halliwell, his great-great-great-great niece. The University would only fund a cremation, so the family turned to Alderwick & Son for assistance and they paid for and organised the burial.

“We wanted to help because we realised that this event was a massive part of Hanham’s history and, as the only funeral director here, we saw it as an opportunity to give back to the community we serve,” said funeral director Austin Williams. “It also helped us to reinforce our standing as a family firm.”

The ceremony was conducted in a similar manner to that of the 1820s, after Austin consulted the FSJ for advice. We turned to Dr Julian Litten, funeral historian, who told us that a funeral for a hanged criminal in those days would have been exceptionally simple: “A ‘pauper’s’coffin, the cheapest of shrouds and the shortest possible service at the graveside in the prison compound.”

However, Dr Litten also provided details relevant to the period – a smooth elm coffin, with boards of no more than half an inch thick, painted matt black and lined with white cotton sheeting, two pairs of iron ring handles and a thin, rectangular lead inscription plate inscribed with, in this case, John’s name, date of death and age.

Transport, Dr Litten advised: “should be kept to an absolute minimum, certainly not much more than a ‘walking funeral’, comprising a hand-held bier.” He said motorised transport should not be used and horses were “out of the question”. Palls, he added, were occasionally used at pauper funerals, but they were rarely more than a sheet of black baize. Mourners always followed on behind, on foot.

As Horwood had been convicted of humankind’s most heinous crime, the graveside service had to be kept to a minumum, with merely the words of committal from the 1662 Book of Common Prayer.

“It does all sound somewhat minimal and terse,” added Dr Litten “But then that was the price Horwood would have paid for his crime.”

Austin said the family’s main objective had been to have a funeral in a Christian burial spot. “They also wanted some form of recognition that, although John Horwood undoubtedly did wrong, he had been greatly punished – far more than he would have been today – and the funeral we arranged gave them that.”

John Horwood was convicted at the age of 18 of the murder of Eliza Balsum, an older girl, with whom he was said to have become infatuated, by throwing a stone at her as she crossed a stream. He had previously threatened to kill her.

He was the first person to be publicly hanged in the new Bristol Gaol in 1821 and was executed just three days after his 18th birthday. After his hanging, Horwood’s body was dissected in front of an audience of 80 students. The surgeon treated Horwood’s skin and used it to bind a book – now called ‘the book of skin’, which contains all the details of his crime and punishment.

The skeleton was also treated and kept in a cabinet, still with the noose around his neck to show he was a felon. All this work was carried out by a Dr. Richard Smith, who kept everything in his home address. After Dr Smith died, his estate was distributed to the Bristol Royal Infirmary and the skeleton was transferred to Bristol University.

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