Monday, January 6, 2014

Cremation of a Marquis 1889: Macabre Details


The 4th Marquis of Ely 'had specially provided in his will that his remains should be disposed of in this way', i.e. by cremation or 'fire burial'.

That the London event was of international interest is shown by this and other reports appearing in American newspapers, this brief column being published in the Las Vegas Daily Optic of 10 May 1889. 

A more detailed account appeared in The Northern Indicator, Iowa: 'Four Pounds of White Ashes All that is Left of Princess Beatrice's Lover - The Event may make Cremation Fashionable - Other Peers to be Burned.' ... 'The urn contained about four  pounds of snow white ashes, similar in appearance to a sample of the best brand of Minneapolis flour, and two or three small pieces of beautiful, silver-like, frosted bone.'  These were 'the mortal remains of the Right Honourable and Most Noble John, fourth Marquis of Ely, the rich, handsome young noble who, fifteen years previously had been within an ace of becoming the husband of a  princess of the royal house of England.' 

Cremation became legal in Great Britain in 1885. There had been increasing interest in this form of disposal of human remains during the second half of the 19th c, influenced by ideas from Italy. 
A surgeon and physician to Queen Victoria, Sir Henry Thompson, became the promoter of cremation in England because he believed:
‘it was becoming a necessary sanitary precaution against the propagation of disease among a population daily growing larger in relation to the area it occupied’. 

In addition, he believed, cremation would prevent premature burial, reduce the expense of funerals, spare mourners the necessity of standing exposed to the weather during interment, and urns would be safe from vandalism.

In 1878 an acre of land in Woking was purchased for the establishment of a crematorium. The resulting apparatus was first tested in March 1879 when the body of a horse was cremated. The inhabitants of Woking protested vigorously against the use of the facility. Cremation was eventually declared legal in February 1884, the first official cremation in the UK taking place in Woking on 26 March 1885.

At the date of the 4th Marquis of Ely’s cremation, April 1889, only three years later, anything concerning the cremation topic was still hot news, though perhaps the Northern Indicator's report pushed the boundaries of good taste.


It's not certain whether the same newspaper’s remarks on the 4th Marquis of Ely having been a suitor for the hand of Queen Victoria’s 5th daughter and youngest child, Princess Beatrice, were based in fact. The Queen was against Beatrice marrying, preferring to keep her daughter at her side as companion and unofficial secretary, an arrangement to which Beatrice apparently consented. 

Louis Napoleon, the Prince Imperial
Various suitable matches were nevertheless put forward. Among the contenders was Louis Napoleon, the Prince Imperial of France, to whom Beatrice was attracted, but her hopes were blighted when the Prince was killed during the Anglo-Zulu War of 1879. Interestingly, the 4th Marquis of Ely’s mother, Jane, was a friend of the Prince Imperial’s mother, Empress Eugenie.

Princess Beatrice eventually married Prince Henry of Battenburg in July 1885. Ten years later Prince Henry died of malaria contracted during service in the Asante War, and Beatrice remained with her mother until the latter’s death in 1901. It was Beatrice who undertook the thirty-year long task of editing Queen Victoria’s journals for publication, deleting much private material: the resulting journals are only a third as long as the originals (which were destroyed as the editing progressed). 

Tom Sheldon

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