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Chapel Next The Green – Into Print

Chapel Next the Green cover

Chapel Next the Green cover

As described last time, I started with the idea of a simple update to a 25-year-old church history  and ended up doing much more. Reading church minute books led to investigating denominational records, the site history, local newspapers and much else. Now it was time to turn my copious notes into a book we could afford to print and which people would find interesting. Having unpicked the story of the dissolution of the church in 1879 and its re-formation in 1882, I suggested a Centenary weekend whose highlight would be the release of my finished history. Now I had a deadline to work to.

In 1979 I was one of the first people to get a home computer, a Commodore PET. I bought a word processing program, name long forgotten, written in BASIC, so customisable. It allowed text to be edited, saved to and retrieved from cassette tape. Output was limited to a monospace font with full space justification. Very limited – the superscript references to footnotes were written in by hand using a Rotring pen – but what a step change from repeatedly retyping manuscripts. Over many weeks I typed up my notes creating the first rough draft.

Centre spread pictures of ministers

Centre spread pictures of ministers

I approached a printer near my office, Emberbrook Print, and explained what I had in mind – a saddle-stitched (stapled) A5 book. Just their sort of job. The church agreed to underwrite the print cost on the basis that selling the print run would return this. This all led to settling on a 72-page book (including covers). The extra cost of the four-page centre photo section was met by a former member. After allowing for prelims, pictures and footnotes, each section would, on average, be limited to around two pages, 800 words. Impossible given the extent of my notes!

For several years my best friends Brian and Margaret Pearce had made me welcome for coffee on Sunday evenings. Now these turned into editorial meetings. Brian, when not working as a college librarian was a writer and poet, and Margaret acted as a fearless editor of his work. Just what I needed! I took the decision to divide my account up by pastorate. A few people criticised this, as placing too much emphasis on the part ministers play in the life of a church, but I hope that my text has the balance right. Over several months, each Sunday morning I handed over a dot-matrix printout of the latest section, vastly over-long yet containing nothing that could be left out (or so I thought). The same evening over coffee I was presented with my edited text, English and punctuation corrected as necessary by Brian, large chunks marked for deletion in red by Margaret. A healthy discussion followed! With some sections this process was repeated several times.

Finally the text was complete but eight lines over length! On a beautifully edited text finding any content that could be removed was hard work, but we managed it. In the meantime a friend’s father, Edmund Heller, took professional photographs of the inside and outside of the church building and my good friend Arthur Burgess organised copies of the obit pictures of former ministers originally printed in Congregation Yearbooks.

Sample of body text

Body text (note the handwritten superscripts!)

Now to the final stage. To keep the price down, the book was to be offset printed from camera-ready copy. This was produced on a Qume daisywheel printer, hired at vast expense from a firm in Old Street, carbon ribbon onto coated paper. I took a week off to produce the page masters. The body text was relatively straightforward, but each page took about ten minutes to print – I watched patiently as the WP program fathomed out each line’s justification. The double column appendices were harder work: the sheet was loaded into the printer and its position carefully marked with a process blue (invisible to a litho camera) pencil before printing the left-hand column. Then it was a question of reloading the paper, lining up the marks and printing the right-hand column. Any previously-missed  error on the output meant another ten minute wait but eventually I had a set of page masters.

The front cover uses an enlarged extract from the 1863 OS map. The cover text was supplied by Emberbrook in the form of Letraset-style strips (one per line) which removed the need to manually space letters.

Page masters delivered, I waited with a mixture of expectancy and apprehension. I need not have worried: I was (and still am) very pleased with the result, though of course it reflects the technology available to me at the time. For the centenary weekend we invited back all those former members we had contact with and it was a great occasion, with Rev Richard Hall, URC Thames North Moderator preaching at our Sunday morning service. I was touched that with the book being just hours old, he quoted from it in his sermon.

Will a future church history ever be published in book form? 2035 will mark the 200th anniversary of the formation of the church. But the reality is that it’s much easier to assemble a body of knowledge as a series of web pages which can be updated as new information becomes available and which are readily searchable.

Twickenham United Reformed Church website history pages

Chapel Next The Green – Research

Chapel Next the Green cover

Chapel Next the Green cover

Forty years ago my history of the Twickenham Congregational Church (Twickenham United Reformed Church from 1972), Chapel Next the Green was published. This post and the one that will follow are about the researching and production of the history respectively, not the history itself. For this refer to the book itself or the church website.

I always had an interest in local history and having grown up in the church I had heard all sorts of stories of its past. Back in 1951 the then church secretary, Reg Peirce, had put together a history to mark what was though to be the church’s triple jubilee (150 years).

Some time in the 1970s I thought that it was time for an updated history and the church meeting agreed to me producing this. I had no background in historical research – at the time I was a council building inspector – and my original plan was to do a relatively quick update to Reg’s history. But I’d started on a journey which would last a good few years.

My starting point was with the church archives, such as they were. These included copies of leaflets, reports and other items of interest (including a programme for the 1902 Centenary Bazaar) and, most importantly, Church Meeting and Deacons Meeting minute books starting with the re-formation of the church in 1882 after a very testing few years. I soon realised I would need to read through these minutes twice: on the first read you get the facts, but because you don’t know what will happen next it’s hard to tell what is or isn’t significant. Needless to say, all this reading and note taking took an extended period.

By now I had a picture of church life from 1882. My next step was to visit the United Reformed Church History Society’s library. Congregation Yearbooks furnished obituaries of the church’s ministers back to the 1850s and sundry other information.

But now I had a problem. Reg’s history (probably based on Andrew Mearns’ 1889 London Congregational Church Directory: “1800 Church formed by B.H.Kluht assisted by Lady Shaw and Dr Leifchild“) left me puzzled. Debrett’s Peerage had failed to provide a suitable Lady Shaw. There was no Rev Kluht active at that time – only one who wasn’t born until 1816. And I’d also found that First Cross Road where the church stands was a result of the 1818 Enclosure Award; before this it was part of Twickenham Common.

Lady Shaw's School registered as a place of public worship

Lady Shaw’s School registered as a place of public worship

And then the penny dropped. What if Reg’s history was wrong? Yearbooks from 1862-1884 stated that the church was founded in 1838. All fell into place: Lady Shaw became such on her 1834 marriage to Sir Robert Shaw at Twickenham Parish Church. Benjamin Kluht came to the church as its first minister in 1840. During his seven year pastorate the first chapel was built on land at the rear of Sir Robert and Lady Shaw’s garden.

Then as I widened my research I found the December 1835 certificate of registration of Lady Shaw’s school room as a place of worship which can be taken as the birth date of the church. Now it all made sense.

My research took me to the Greater London Record Office, the Congregational Library at Caroone House, Dr Williams Library, the Guildhall Library, the Public Record Office and British and Foreign School Society Archive. And I made a visit to the elderly Rev Harold Bickley who had become the church’s minister in 1916. The more I knew the more there was to discover. But given that the aim was to publish an updated history, I had to stop somewhere. The decision was made to have a special weekend marking the centenary of the re-formation of the church on 27th April 1882 and so work switched to assembling all my research into a coherent account. Next month I’ll try and recall how this was done.

More:

 

Adelaide 2022

Overland loco NR111

Adelaide bound!

Slowly things are getting back to normal. For myself I’m not making any overseas trips this year. It’s a sign of the times that even deciding to take a short trip to Adelaide seemed almost adventurous. I’ve been there several times, firstly in 2009,  then in 2012 and 2013, in 2018 spending a few nights there at the end of a two night cruise from Melbourne, returning on the Overland train and in 2020 – my last pre-Covid interstate trip – spending the day there as part of a cruise.

This time I decided to take the Overland in both directions – for me the train rides would be as much part of the break as the stay in Adelaide. The service now only runs twice a week, Mondays and Fridays from Melbourne, Sundays and Thursdays from Adelaide. Being busy, I decided to go out on the Monday and return on the Thursday, giving me three nights, two full days there.

Mount Elephant from the Overland

Mount Elephant from the Overland

Monday dawned – an 0805 departure from Southern Cross station, just ten minutes walk from home, made for a relaxed start. Comfortably seated, we set off through the industrialised western suburbs. Breakfast served, lunch order (Malaysian curry for me) taken, and then I sat back to enjoy the ride. Past Geelong, having read Marcus Wong’s blog I looked out for Mount Elephant. And unhurriedly the day passed, the last bit of the journey through the Adelaide Hills, like the first but for different reasons, being the most interesting. After sitting for eleven hours I was happy to take a forty minute walk from the Keswick rail terminal into the CBD where the Holiday Inn Express was to be my base.

On the Tuesday, following a walk round the CBD, I went (surprise, not!) back to the National Railway Museum. I wrote about this in 2018 so won’t say much here other than to say that every time I see something new. Then back to the city for a tram ride to Glenelg beach for dinner.

National Motor Museum building, Birdwood SA

National Motor Museum building, Birdwood SA

Wednesday’s plan also involved visiting a museum – the National Motor Museum at Birdwood, about an hour’s drive from Adelaide. During my first four years in Melbourne I didn’t own a car, joining the Flexicar car share scheme instead. When I got my own car I decided to keep my Flexicar membership as an insurance policy. I was pleasantly surprised to find that they now operate in Adelaide, so a paperwork-free Corolla Hybrid was mine for the day.

The first Holden, a 1948 48-215

The first Holden, a 1948 48-215

The museum, Australia’s biggest motoring collection with a claimed 400 vehicles on display, didn’t disappoint. As well as cars, there were lots of motorcycles, commercial vehicles and all sorts of motoring-related ephemera.

Given that the museum is in South Australia, a bias towards Holdens wasn’t too surprising. Amongst those on display was the first Australia Holden, a 1948 48-215 and the one millionth Holden, a 1962 EJ.

The millionth Holden - a 1962 EJ

The millionth Holden – a 1962 EJ

It’s extraordinary to look at the displays and see how Holden grew to dominate the Australian car market, from producing its first car in 1948 to holding a 50% market share in 1958, only to see this progressively fall, with Toyota becoming Australia’s leading marque in 2003 and Holden producing their last car in Australia in 2017. The Holden name was used for imported GM cars until 2021, then dropped. All, sadly, a bit reminiscent of BMC’s one-time dominance turning to dust.

Several hours later I’d seen everything – well most things – so went across the road for lunch, then drove down to Hanhdorf, a town in the Adelaide Hills established by German emigrants in 1838.

The German Inn, Hahndorf

The German Inn, Hahndorf, originally Sonneman’s Bakery (1863)

I went there in my first visit to Adelaide in 2009, so a revisit was in order. The German heritage is still evident: in particular there’s a shop that sells cuckoo clocks and Christmas decorations.

Then back to Adelaide for dinner and an early night – up at 0530 Thursday for the 0655 train back to Melbourne. Another relaxed day being well looked after by the Overland crew, then back to reality!

100 years of the K

Last weekend, the Labour Day long weekend here in Victoria, was for those of us interested in railways a special weekend, Steamrail’s open weekend. Thousands of visitors made the journey to Newport to see Steamrail’s operational steam locos in steam (and much else beside).

Steamrail's loco K153 dressed as K100

Steamrail’s loco K153 dressed as K100

Between 1902 and 1919 Victorian Railways took delivery of 261 Dd locomotives, but something a little more powerful yet able to run on light lines was needed.

Alfred Smith, VR Chief Mechanical Engineer from 1919, oversaw the design of a new 2-8-0 locomotive, designated the K class. During 1922-23 ten were built, making this year the K’s centenary. None of this batch survive but Steamrail’s 2022 ‘surprise’ was displaying K153 as ‘K100’ without smoke deflectors and with an oil lamp instead of electric.

Following the 1921 Royal Commission on the matter of uniform railway gauge the policy was set that all new locomotives should be capable of being converted from broad/Irish gauge (5’3”, 1600mm) to standard gauge (4’8½”, 1435mm). The K’s firebox, set between the frames, made gauge conversion impossible. The solution was to use the K as the basis for a new locomotive, the 2-8-2 N class, its grate above the frames being supported by a trailing truck. 30 were built between 1925 and 1931, more later bringing the total to 83. And that might have left the K as a small and forgotten class.

But no. The N-class had one serious drawback. The trailing truck made it too long to turn the loco+tender on the small 53 foot diameter turntables found on many rural lines (the loco and tender would each need to be turned separately, something crews did not enjoy).

K165 steam locomotive

K165 (1941) at Newport Railway Museum

The K’s might have been few in number but they were liked by their crews. During the mid-1930s they were equipped with VR’s ‘Modified Front End’ giving improved performance but necessitating the addition of smoke deflectors. The provision of a steam powered generator and electric headlamp was another welcome improvement.

By the end of the 1930s more motive power was necessary. The gauge conversion requirement was put to one side. 43 more K’s were built between 1940 and 1946.

Withdrawal
During the 1950s K class locos were progressively withdrawn, T class diesels replacing them. Many were sold to local councils for display in parks. The lower weight of the K made it a popular choice as VR offered locomotives for the price of their scrap value plus freight. Happy carefree days when children could scramble all over them with no thought of health and safety!

Preservation
Just one N class loco survives, N 432, the last steam locomotive built by VR’s Newport Workshops, now in the Newport Railway Museum. In contrast 21 of the original 53 K class survive, four in operational condition. Want to ride behind one? Check out Steamrail’s tours.

By way of background: In 1853 an Act was passed making it compulsory for all railways in New South Wales to be of 5 ft 3 in track gauge. The Governors of Victoria and South Australia accepted this as the standard gauge for Australia. The following year the Sydney-Parramatta railway company revised the proposed gauge and succeeded in having the 1852 Act repealed and a new Act passed setting the gauge for New South Wales at 4 ft 8½ in. This step was taken without reference to either South Australia or Victoria where various private companies had placed large orders for 5 ft 3 in gauge rolling stock. Both these Colonies decided to adhere to the 5ft 3 in gauge. Unfortunately!^

 

War :(

For two years our news and lives have been dominated by Covid. Not so in the last week or so. Firstly the question was “Will he, won’t he?” as the Russian troop numbers on Ukraine’s border grew. We got the answer, followed by first reports of buildings being destroyed, civilians killed and injured and now huge numbers of women and children trying to escape across Ukraine’s western borders. What next? Who knows?

Today’s UK Daily Telegraph reports Boris Johnson saying that the War in Ukraine ‘is not going Vladimir Putin’s way’. The Ukrainians are certainly putting up a fight. Meanwhile, also quoting the DT, the war in Ukraine is “not going to be over quickly,” Foreign Secretary Liz Truss has said. …. She added that “this could be a number of years, because what we do know is Russia has strong forces,” and said that “we need to be prepared for a very long haul“.

For the sake of all Ukrainians let us hope that an end to this conflict is found sooner rather than later. The alternative, history teaches us, is not one we want.

 

1960s Sunday School memories

Although they weren’t churchgoers, my parents – like many others at that time – wanted me to go to Sunday School. A fellow school-gate mum told my mum that the Twickenham Congregational (now United Reformed) church had a good Sunday School. So late in 1959, aged six, I was enrolled. At that time well over 100 children attended each week, most like me having been sent rather than brought.

Each Sunday morning we met in the hall and paraded into church where we sat in our designated pews. Following two hymns and the children’s talk, we adjourned to our classes. After nine months in the primary class I moved up to the junior department which met in the main hall. Demountable screens split the hall into classrooms, each class having around eight children – boys’ classes one side of the hall, girls’ the other. In due course we graduated to the young people’s class, where boys and girls were allowed to mix!

The Sunday School had its own calendar which superimposed the following special events on the regular Sunday morning classes. Roughly speaking it looked like this:

  • Early in the year those of us who wanted to, participated in the National Sunday School Union’s Scripture exam. For six weeks we would study the year’s exam theme and had to learn a memory passage. Then on a Friday evening we all turned up to sit the exam paper. Later a district awards presentation, preceded by a tea, was held at Twickenham Baptist Church. A member of the Baptist church was an amateur printer and produced beautiful Twickenham & District-specific certificates – sadly none of mine survive but here’s an example from Norwich (ack Leo Reynolds)
  • One highlight of the year was the Sunday School festival marked by a fully costumed and staged play. Maurice Stockdale, then Sunday School superintendent, took great pride in producing this. Parts were found for every child who wanted to take place with, by tradition, teachers taking the parts in the last act. We went to rehearsals on six Monday evenings, followed by a Sunday afternoon dress rehearsal (then the obligatory tea!), the performance itself in front of church members and proud parents being on the Monday evening. I just remember playing Elisha’s servant in the play ‘So Small a Thing’ – the healing of Naaman.
  • To June and the Sunday School outing. Back in the early 1960s most people still didn’t have cars so, annual holiday apart, rarely went far, making the outing a great event. Our outing destinations were Oxshott Heath with its enormous sandpit, Frensham Ponds, Box Hill, and for seaside trips, Lancing or Wittering. An elderly near-blind member of the congregation, James Rennie, would give Maurice some money to be shared out towards the end of the outing so that each child could buy some seaside rock or sweets. He would be amazed to know that his simple kindness towards children he didn’t know is still remembered fifty years after his death.
  • Holidays over, September saw promotion Sunday. Everyone who was eligible moved up on the same date, and getting a new teacher was an exciting thing. Even more so, joining the mixed young people’s group!
  • This one I can’t date, but like many children across the world in linked churches we were given collecting boxes to collect donations in support of the London Missionary Society’s John Williams missionary ship which served scattered communities in the southern Pacific. When the John Williams VII ship was commissioned at Tower Pier in 1962 our Sunday School ran an outing to visit her but my parents wouldn’t let me go, scared that I might fall in the Thames!
  • And so to year end. The Christmas family service would invariably include a short nativity play of some sort. Then we’d have a Sunday afternoon Christmas party with games and tea. Aged about nine I can remember my teacher telling me “as it’s the party you can call me Christine instead of Miss Kerslake”! How things have changed!

Within five or so years the practice of non-church parents sending children to Sunday School was no more and numbers sadly collapsed. I’m so grateful to have been part of the preceding generation. So many happy memories of my teachers – Margaret Day, Christine Kerslake, Pat Sparks, John Cragg and Maurice Stockdale. Thanks for all you gave me as a small child.

To Gippsland

After thirteen years I’ve still to visit much of Victoria but with travel to other states, let alone overseas, being fraught with risk, now is a good time to check out some new places nearer home.

Lakes Entrance in Gippsland, about 320km/200 miles SE of Melbourne is somewhere I’ve always wanted to visit. When I mentioned this at a Men’s Shed meeting, one of the members suggested that I went to nearby Paynesville which he thought the better place. I followed his advice and wasn’t disappointed, spending two comfortable nights at the Mariners Cove motel.

To complete my travels on V/Line tracks I could have got a train to Bairnsdale and then a bus to Paynesville but decided to drive so that I wasn’t tied to one place – I wanted to take a look at Lakes Entrance (which I did) even if not staying there. After driving nowhere of consequence all year, it was a long drive, not helped by my GPS’s bizarre choice of route.

Raymond Island ferry

Raymond Island ferry

Paynesville is a pleasant small town, population about 3,500, with water on three sides. Best of all though, Raymond Island is just 200m away, reached by a free (to pedestrians) ferry that operates more frequently than some Melbourne trains.

The ferry service dates back to 1889. The current ferry came into service in 1997 and has a capacity of up to 21 vehicles and 150 foot passengers. It’s a chain ferry, driven by two diesel engines. Refuelling? – a tanker drives aboard and discharges its load. Past proposals to replace the ferry with a bridge have been strongly resisted by many islanders who feel that bridge access would change their way of life.

Raymond Island koala

Raymond Island koala

As for the island itself, named for W.O. Raymond, an early Gippsland grazier, it’s around 6km x 2km at its widest points. Several hundred people now live there (thus the need for such a substantial ferry) but mostly nature still prevails and it’s a haven for wildlife. I made four trips to the island and each time saw koalas In their natural setting – a consignment of 32 koalas was sent from Phillip Island to Raymond Island on 25 September 1953 and they’ve since thrived to an extent that there are now more koalas than food. An after-dark visit gave me a chance to see the kangaroos close up.

Day three arrived all too quickly. A good breakfast and one more ferry trip and short walk round the koala trail and it was time for the long drive home. A welcome break: next time I’ll probably travel by train and bus to Paynesville and just enjoy extended visits to the island.

https://goo.gl/maps/dw8hsZJGkLUzeJMJ7

On Funerals 3: Good news!

On moving into the UK, SCI’s President, Bill Heiligbrodt had declared, “we are here now for the rest of time.” No so: in 2002, failing to increase UK prices as hoped and under financial pressure back home, the Americans threw in the towel and sold their UK interests back to local management^, now trading as Dignity plc. A similar thing happened here in Australia with SCI Australia becoming Invocare.

Extract from Which?

Extract from Which?

When Which? Magazine reported on funerals in March 2002 it noted “Overall we found the quality of service bore no relation to whether the funeral director was part of a chain or was an independent. There were good and bad advisers everywhere. However funeral directors owned by Dignity were clearly the most expensive and independents the cheapest.

In most business sectors, the small man finds it impossible to compete with the larger multiples. No so with funerals. A good few staff who had worked for firms that were taken over and who now found themselves unhappy working in a corporate environment saw that they could set up on their own and undercut their former employers. Unlike the corporates they had nothing to fear from being open about their pricing and increasingly customers were starting to use the internet to investigate funeral options.
In 1997 I wrote that Age UK should be identifying those independent funeral directors who provide a high quality service at a reasonable price but they’d rather make money selling Dignity’s funeral plans. Thankfully in 2008 the Good Funeral Guide started up and maintains a register of inspected and recommended firms.

In July 2018 Dignity reported “The number of consumers starting their purchasing journey online has increased from 2% in 2012 to 45% in 2018.”, noting that “the number of deaths in the UK fell by 5.4% between 1995 and 2017. At the same time research has found that there was an 83% increase in the number of Funeral Directors between 1989 and 2017.” This is a key reason why funerals are so expensive: if (as is typical) a branch undertakes two funerals a week or less, you end paying half a week’s rent, arranger’s salary and other fixed costs. Not that the staff earn a fortune: Funeral Partners are [Jan 2022] advertising for casual funeral service operatives – duties include collecting the deceased, mortuary work, polishing hearses, acting as pallbearer etc – the princely sum of £8.91 per hour.

Dignity’s 2020 annual report and accounts for 2020 is available on the Companies House website. In his report Executive Chairman Clive Whiley (ousted May 2021) makes the following extraordinary admission:

The Transformation Plan, launched with great fanfare and at considerable expense in 2018, in my opinion introduced too narrow a focus upon one element of the Group, without considering the capacity to grow the business organically across its full bandwidth. In short, that was tantamount to admitting defeat as a Group that had elected for many years to utilise the majority of its capital investment buying its way out of deteriorating funeral market share (2001: 491 funeral locations and 11.8 per cent funeral market share: 2019: 820* funeral locations and 11.7 per cent funeral market share). At best that consolidated the heritage of strong family businesses and staff that perform well to this day, at worst business integration ceased at legal completion: leading to Dignity essentially becoming the industry retirement plan for independent funeral directors.” (*80,300 funerals, an average of 98 per branch per year)

Meanwhile government had got interested. In 2020 the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) completed its in-depth market investigation into the funerals sector which was followed up by an order requiring that, from 16 September 2021, all funeral directors must display a Standardised Price List at their premises and on their website. This list must include:

  • The headline price of a funeral.
  • The price of the individual items comprising the funeral.
  • The price of certain additional products and services.

In addition, from 17 June 2021, funeral directors may not make payments to incentivise hospitals, palliative care services, hospices, care homes or similar institutions to refer customers to a particular funeral director or solicit for business through coroner and police contracts.

https://www.gov.uk/government/news/cma-requires-clearer-prices-and-information-from-funeral-providers

It’s taken 30 years but at last the funeral customer is in a good place. Hopefully you won’t find yourself having to arrange a funeral for a long long time, but when you do make good use of the resources now available to you. Giving someone you loved a fitting send off is important and the right funeral director or celebrant can help you do this.

On funerals 2: The Americans

I finished part 1 with the American SCI moving in on the UK funeral industry. Corporate acquisition of funeral businesses had three key aims:

1. Where possible acquire businesses that would complement ones already owned with the aim of stripping out duplicated back office facilities and maximising the use of vehicles. So when the Richmond-based T.H.Sanders was acquired, its hub at Preston Place, Richmond, was sold, its functions being transferred to F.W.Paine’s Kingston hub. To a degree efficiency is a good thing but … My father died on a Sunday and his funeral was the following Friday. Now, even pre-Covid, a delay of two weeks or even more was not unusual. Of course, this might be what the family wanted. I do wonder though if it’s a question of a local branch trying to back-to-back several funerals whilst the vehicles are with them?

2. Acquired businesses would keep their existing names, with no corporate identification (now not the case). In Kingston the once deadly rivals Farebrother and Paine faced one another off across London Road for many years, likewise in my native Twickenham, Sanders & Higgs and Wake & Paine ‘compete’ with each other 25+ years after falling under the same ownership.

3. Aim to increase prices. The claim at the time was that people were being offered a wider choice. When I arranged my father’s funeral in 1988 I went to Sanders & Higgs^, then family-owned. In response to my enquiry about price the duty manager replied “we’ve got various options but rest assured you will receive the same quality of service regardless of what you choose and you’re not to feel under any pressure to spend any more than you want”. Not long after they were taken over by Great Southern, then SCI. A TV documentary sent an undercover reporter to another Sanders branch. The arranger denied any knowledge of cheapest option – one which he knew existed.

In the mid-1990s the corporate ownership of funeral homes came under increasing scrutiny from the media. The one thing that I took from these exposes was that decent caring people at the sharp end were being pushed into a place they didn’t want to be. Stories came out of funeral arrangers being placed on a sales league table with those failing to sell up being humiliated. They were told to offer sweeteners in the form of a laying out payment to old people’s homes: one arranger interviewed on TV said that she felt so bad the first time she made the offer, she never did it again. A home owner said that it was something they always did as a last service to their client and this was an insult.

This coverage culminated in SCI placing full-page ads in the mainstream press apologising for past misdeeds and promising to do better in the future, which by all accounts they have done. Perhaps on reflection SCI UK’s then bosses were being leant on by their American masters to maximise sales at any cost and were as much victims as villains?

While all this was going on Age Concern continued to sell SCI funeral plans, with not a word about the misdeeds being reported elsewhere. In 1997 I sent them an open letter ““… Chosen Heritage [SCI’s then branding for its prepaid funerals] (and to a lesser extent, some other schemes) represents a threat to independent undertakers, many of whom provide a high quality service at a reasonable price. Within each local area Age Concern should be working to identify and support such firms …. Instead Age Concern/Age UK has worked hard to weaken such firms by ensuring that at a time of death they will not be engaged no matter how good they are”.

It wasn’t all bad news. Several London independents – John Nodes, Gillman and Albin – were the subject of fly-on-the-wall TV documentary series, each firm coming across in a very positive light. The first two are now owned by Funeral Partners. Gillman was one of the first firms to put funeral prices on their website; on being taken over the price list disappeared but thanks to the wayback machine we know that in 2002 they charged £1,085+coffin+disbursements for a traditional funeral = £1,810 in 2021 pounds. Their current charge for a similar funeral is £3,425, nearly double.

Next: Customer power at work

On funerals 1: The past

It might seem weird, but the funeral industry has always been of interest to me. This interest dates back to my teenage days: one year our English teacher had to take extended leave and in his place we had a young supply teacher who made no secret of his anti-American views – in fairness, this was at the height of the Vietnam war. The class readers he provided included Jessica Mitford’s ‘The American Way of Death’ and Evelyn Waugh’s satire, ‘The Loved One

Several decades ago I read a book (title forgotten) which observed, “no one loves undertakers, except, we hope, their wives and children. But when we need them, we’re glad they’re there.” Indeed, and a shout-out to all the good decent caring people in the funeral industry who provide the guidance and reassurance needed when called on. As part of the same church community for 49 years I attended dozens of funerals as older members passed away and saw what ‘good’ funerals can be like.

Funeral directing has changed significantly over time. Pre-Covid I went to a talk by a local FD who said he defined his job as being an event manager. 100+ years ago it was all about making coffins, and particularly in smaller communities the local carpenter or builder would also be the local undertaker. A local woman, very often the midwife, would do the laying out and the hearse and carriages, where required, would be hired from a carriage master (they still exist), with suitably attired labourers seconded for ‘lifting in’ and as pallbearers. Robert Tressell’s Edwardian novel ‘The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists‘ gives us this picture: “Crass took a lively interest in the undertaking department of Rushton & Co.’s business. He always had the job of polishing or varnishing the coffin and assisting to take it home and to ‘lift in’ the corpse, besides acting as one of the bearers at the funeral. This work was more highly paid for than painting.

In larger communities undertaking became a standalone business. Many firms operated from one or two sites, others grew their businesses to a significant size.  In SW London and Surrey Frederick Paine took over the family business at 24 and by the time he died aged 75 his Kingston HQ serviced 14 branches. Jessica Mitford’s book is generally seen as an attack on the funeral industry, but her early 1960s visit to Mr Ashton whose family firm operated in South London left her with a very positive picture of UK funeral practice. When she visited him their typical funeral cost £50, about £1,100 at 2021 prices – today’s actual price is £1,995. Later the firm fell into corporate ownership.

From the second half of the 20C the funeral industry began to consolidate. The Great Southern Group took over numerous firms, Paine included. Then there was ‘yuppie undertaker’ Howard Hodgson. In 1988 the Spectator reported^: “In 1976 Howard Hodgson, aged 26, bought his father’s funeral business for £14,000. It was undertaking 400 funerals a year …  Since then Hodgson’s has acquired over 40 other funeral directors… [and] now undertakes 35,000 funerals a year … The company is now worth £70 million“. After more consolidation it became the PFG Hodgson Kenyon group – J.H.Kenyon had been the royal undertakers, an appointment they lost once no longer independent. Then in 1994 the American Service Corporation International swept in, taking over both groups. Their strategy was clear: they would continue the policy of acquired businesses trading under their old names, whilst looking to jack up prices substantially. You might go to ‘Josiah Smith and Sons’ because you’d used them ten years earlier and not be aware that everything behind the shopfront had changed. It was licence to print money. What could go wrong?


For a detailed account of UK funeral industry practice check out Brian Parsons’ excellent books.