What were Victorian burial societies and why were they formed?
For the poorest people in Victorian society, struggling to provide for food and housing, the best hope of paying for funeral arrangements was to join a burial society. But, as Jonny Wilkes investigates, this supposedly charitable insurance system was open to abuses and grotesque exploitation
As 19th-century Britain entered the Victorian age with a fast-growing population and densely packed cities, the threats to life caused by the dangers and health effects of the Industrial Revolution intensified. The result was a staggering death rate, especially among children and the working class. Life was cheap and the importance – or lack thereof – of funeral rites came into question.
The poorest in society could rarely afford a proper burial, meaning that after they died they would receive only a pauper’s funeral provided by the grossly insufficient resources of the Poor Law. A person might not have their own grave, let alone a personalised headstone; other bodies, meanwhile, could even be sold off to medical schools to be studied and dissected without the permission of the deceased’s family.
According to many, this was hardly a fitting way to lay someone to rest, so well-meaning organisations or benefactors started forming burial societies. People would pay a regular membership fee to cover the funeral expenses when the time came, either for themselves or for loved ones. The costs were still a burden or downright restrictive; there are plenty of examples of the poorest going without in their life to ensure that they would be provided in their afterlife.
Burial society rates varied depending on a host of criteria, from the age of the member to the funeral requirements. The more horses pulling the hearse, for example – and just how decorated with feathers they were – the more a person had to pay. There could also be restrictions on who could be a member: many societies did not allow for the groups where mortality was highest, such as the elderly and those already in poor health.
Although established to help those in the greatest need, the system had major flaws. A burial society’s management and fee collection could be abused to squeeze more money out of members, and rules could be arbitrarily changed so that a person making a claim could suddenly be told that the society would not pay out.
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On the other side, the societies themselves were open to exploitation from members. There are accounts of people being caught paying into multiple burial societies on behalf of family members and then, upon a death, making claims at all of them and pocketing the extra money. With no need to provide proof of a death, members could even claim on someone still alive; there are records of one Elizabeth Wilson doing just this with her own daughter in 1839.
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Most disturbingly, reports emerged of parental neglect and murder in order to collect. In 1846, a man from York named John Rhodda was hanged for killing his infant child by pouring acid down their throat, just so he could receive two pounds and 10 shillings. The so-called ‘black widows of Liverpool’, Catherine Flannagan and Margaret Higgins, essentially built a murder industry using arsenic so they could collect numerous payouts. Both women were hanged in 1884.
Eventually, the rules changed so that no child under six could be enrolled in a burial society, and the Births and Death Registration Act of 1874 ensured that a medical cause of death was required before a death certification could be issued, making fake deaths and murders much easier to spot.
Jonny Wilkes is a former staff writer for BBC History Revealed, and he continues to write for both the magazine and HistoryExtra. He has BA in History from the University of York.
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