A national newspaper described the unusual introduction of new coffins made entirely from wool. Produced by a firm in Leeds from pure new wool, they cost about £600 and different styles can be seen on the firm’s website on the Internet. They are described as being biodegradable, eco-friendly, and should definitely enhance one’s “green credentials” even after death!
Unusual they may be, but “new” they are definitely not, for an Act of Parliament passed over three hundred years ago required everyone to be buried in this way. The woollen industry was always vital to the country’s economy and new measures to protect the industry and increase the consumption of English wool were always under consideration. It was to this end that in 1667, in the reign of King Charles II, the Burial in Woollen Act was passed. Subsequent to this Act all bodies of the deceased were to be buried in wool only, the one exception allowed was if the deceased had died of plague, when a more substantial coffin would be required. Failure to comply with this law carried a penalty of a fine of £5, a considerable sum in those days. In order to ensure that the new law was being observed it was necessary for a magistrate to give a Certificate, or affidavit, based on the testimony of witnesses of the burial that the body was so covered. The receipt of this certificate within eight days of the burial, with the issuing magistrate’s name included, then had to be recorded by the vicar or curate in a special register reserved for this purpose.
The best records of such burials being performed locally in accordance with the act, are contained in the Fordingbridge Parish Registers of the time. It was intended that this Buried in Woollen register should be maintained alongside the existing parish register and thus, in Fordingbridge, we have an entry in the old register for 12th October 1678 “Buried ye Widow Ann Perry of ye Town” and on the same date there is entered in the new Woollen register “Buried ye Widow Ann Perry of ye Town, according to the Act, Certificate under the hand of Mr Henry Squibb.”
The vicar of Fordingbridge at the time was the Reverend John Hall, and although at first he did make the two separate entries, it is recorded by a later vicar, who inserted comments on fly-leaves at the end of the register, that “After May 1679 he became careless and only entered them on paper in the Woollen Register. About this time Clifford Hall, the new curate arrived and they were again entered properly in the Parish Register on parchment.”
Although the Act was only officially repealed in 1814, it had ceased to be observed in many churches well before that. Unfortunately, in quite a few instances the Woollen registers were later lost, and consequently, where the vicar in a parish had ceased to maintain the old register as well, such as at Fordingbridge, some records of burials were lost completely.
The Act was never popular and obviously resulted in much more work for the local magistrates, although this was improved somewhat by an amendment passed in 1687 which allowed the certificate for a burial in one parish to be also issued by the minister of a neighbouring parish. Nonetheless, the extra effort involved was out of all proportion to the small increase in wool consumption it could have produced, and one could almost imagine some harassed magistrate at the time, struggling with all his extra paperwork, muttering under his breath those words repeated so often these days – “Bureaucracy gone mad”!