A Pinch of Salt: Salt Plates in Georgian and Victorian Graves

by Dr Marianne M. Gilchrist

A Pinch of Salt: Salt Plates in Georgian and Victorian Graves

A lot of pottery has been found in 18th-19th century burials in the Minster’s own churchyard and in Holy Trinity Burial Ground in Castle Street. These are not broken pieces from people's rubbish, but whole plates, dishes and cups found in coffins. Some are in beautiful condition, with attractive painted or printed designs. But why are they there?

First of all, they are not unique to Hull. During the Crossrail Project excavations, a late 17th century plate was found face down on the belly of a woman in the New Churchyard at Liverpool Street in London. Other plates and saucers have been found at St James’s in Euston, London, and at Park Street in Birmingham. Some are at the feet of the skeleton, others over the belly or chest. So what we can say for certain is that plates were placed in coffins in many parts of the country, over a long period of time, from at least the 17th century into Victorian times.

In folklore, salt was associated with warding off evil spirits – throwing a pinch of it over your left shoulder at the Devil, if you spilled some. Before the Reformation, keeping vigil over the corpse in its coffin meant burning candles and placing dishes of salt around the coffin. The Lyke-Wake Dirge, a song which survived among Catholics in the North of England into the 17th century, described the soul’s journey after death and the redeeming powers of the Seven Acts of Mercy:

  • To feed the hungry.
  • To give water to the thirsty.
  • To clothe the naked.
  • To shelter the homeless.
  • To visit the sick.
  • To visit the imprisoned, or ransom the captive.
  • To bury the dead.

to help its passage through Purgatory:

This ae nighte, this ae nighte,
Every nighte and alle,

Fire and fleet and candle-lighte,
And Christe receive thy saule.

“Fleet” may be a transcription error (f for long s) for “sleet” or “selt”.

Most people died at home and were washed, dressed and laid out by their own family. The coffin was made by a joiner or furniture-maker, for whom undertaking was a sideline. It stayed in the heart of the home – on the kitchen or dinner table – until the funeral. There were no funeral parlours with cold-storage, and embalming was a luxury for the rich, especially those who died far from home.

What people feared about having a coffin in the house was decomposition, especially in summer. Salt was used to preserve food, so it was believed that placing a plate of coarse salt on the belly or chest of the corpse would prevent it swelling or even bursting (which, according to Orderic Vitalis, happened to William the Conqueror in 1087!) The plate was usually taken out before the coffin was closed, but sometimes people forgot, or perhaps chose to leave it as a preservative (The Gentleman’s Magazine, Aug 1785, vol. 55, no. 2, p. 603; October 1785, vol. 55, no. 4, p. 760). John Brand, in his Observations of the Popular Antiquities of Great Britain (1795, revised and expanded by Sir Henry Ellis, 1849) talks of a Northumberland custom of setting a pewter plate with a little salt, and sometimes a candle, on the body (vol. 2, p. 234).

So salt plates may be about protecting the soul from evil – but they were also about protecting the living from the smells and unpleasantness of bodily decay.

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