The Sexton's Books - an account of 18th Century burials

by Dr Marianne Gilchrist and Jane Owen

The Sextons’ Books cover the management of Holy Trinity Churchyard from 1774 and (from 1785 when it was consecrated) Castle Street Burial Ground to 1796. Consecrated ground is any land that has been declared holy by the Christian church, and can therefore be used for religious burials.

What is a Sexton?

A Sexton was an officer of the church with the job of looking after the church grounds and graveyards. They kept records of income and fees that were charged to people for burials. Our Sexton’s Book tells us about who was buried, what they paid, and what services they used. There are some discoveries which would surprise us today.

In each book, there are separate columns for old and new burial grounds: Holy Trinity Graveyard or Trinity Burial Ground.

From 1783 until 1794, people had to pay stamp duty tax to government to be buried. This was 3d and was collected by the Sextons on behalf of the government; the tax was used to pay for the wars in North America. Paupers did not have to pay this tax so a lot more people claimed to be poor to avoid the tax.

Symbols for fees

There are some quirky symbols annotated in the margins of our record book. The 5s and 8s in the burial registers refer to the bells. There were different rates for ringing different bells.

  • The Great Bell
  • The 7th or Lady Bell
  • The 6th or 8 O’Clock Bell
  • The 5th or 5 O’Clock Bell

The 8s and 5s in the register refer to the 8 O’Clock and 5 O’Clock Bells, the most commonly used ones for ordinary people: they appear in a column headed “Bells”. The Great Bell was mainly used for very important people, such as former Mayors.

"Toll'd out of Town" meant that if someone had died in Hull but was to be buried out in a neighbouring parish, the bells would be rung until the funeral procession left the boundary of the city. This usually applied to wealthy people who might have a country house in a nearby village, and want to be buried there; or who wanted to be buried with family members in their home village.

Other abbreviations include

  • Br = charge for Bier which is a stand for the coffin to rest on. These often had wheels, like a trolley, so helped get the coffin from the church to the grave.
  • F = Fine. (“The Corps must be at the Ground before three O’Clock strict or forfeit 6/8”)
  • T = Tolled
  • D = Dues
  • Vr = Vicar's Dues
  • Mort = Mortuary fee, a death duty paid to the parish from a dead person's estate
  • V = Vault
  • Pr = Pauper or Poor
  • C.H. or Ch. H. = Charity Hall, the old Poorhouse on Whitefriargate (the block where HMV now stands).

The Fine for late burials (after 3 pm) became a status symbol. Because night was associated with sleep and rest, evening burials were favoured by the wealthy. Having a late burial – and being able to pay the fine for it – was a way of showing off. One of the last night-time burials, by torchlight, was that of Robert Carlile Broadley, in the Broadley vault on 3 August 1812.

Non-parishioners were charged double the amount to be buried than parishioners. Vicar’s family members didn’t have to pay (as in the case of Mrs Sarah Milner, mother of Rev Joseph Milner).

The Sexton's Account Book of 1819-1835 includes pay rates for various duties, including “dog whipper” (chasing dogs out of churchyard/church), for biscuits, candles, laundry of church textiles.

The Parish coffin

Not everyone being buried could afford their own coffin. Those who could not were carried to the graveyard in the parish coffin, which had a little door at the end. A the time of burial, the trap door would be opened and the body would be tipped into the open grave.

How people died

Occasionally, the Sextons record odd information about the dead. Here are some that we found.

  • 17 Aug 1792: Samuel Sellers “killed by a Small Fish”. (?!?!) 
  • 5 Feb 1794: Charles Darley, mariner, one of the press-gang – “Shott”. 
  • 28 July 1796: George Heron, “kill’d at the Races”. 
  • 31 July 1796: Robert Thompson, baker, "kill’d”.

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