‘The Very Plain Elm Case’ might sound like the title of a mystery in an old detective novel, but it is actually a real-life (and death) story relating to William Jones, who was born in 1755 at Abergavenny in Wales. In 1781, he became the curate of the parish of Broxbourne, then a small village just north of London.
Sick to death of London
Although he wrote copious notebooks and journals, only his diary has survived, which was published in 1929 as The Diary of the Revd. William Jones, edited by his great-grandson, Octavius Francis Christie. It starts in 1777 and continues to 1821, when William died. We used a few quotes from his diary in Eavesdropping on Jane Austen’s England, because he gives revealing and amusing comments on finances, tithes, housing for the clergy and the poor, taking in lodgers, taxes on wine, marriage, snuff, writing materials and the gruesome murder at Hoddesdon in 1807. He also loathed London, as seen in one diary entry for November 1803:
‘Returned from Town last night, where I had been since Wedny., & I never came home with more pleasure. Nothing, I think, could tempt me to live in London; indeed, its bustle, & dissipation, (without taking its fog & variety of stench into account), would soon destroy me.’
There is one long gap in the diary from 1809 to 1814 when he was ill, and later on his newspaper obituaries related that he ordered a coffin then:
‘Died, at Broxbourn, Herts … the Rev. Wm. Jones, curate and vicar of that parish for the last forty years.––Twelve years ago, being very ill, he had his coffin made, but not dying so soon as he expected, he had shelves fixed in it, and converting it into a bookcase, placed it in his study.’
In an era before refrigeration, most funerals had to take place soon after death, and William obviously wanted to make the process less stressful for his family. A few years later, in 1816, he wrote in his diary that Cheffins the undertaker told everyone about the coffin. It sounds as if it was planned as a bookcase from the outset:
‘As soon as I had bespoken an article of useful furniture for my Cell [his study], in the form of a coffin, a “hue and cry” was instantly raised, & very rude & impertinent remarks were made. Cheffins buzzed the matter about, long before he brought home the very plain elm case; & I suppose that he felt somewhat alarmed, lest I might hurt his “craft” as an undertaker, by my lectures in favour of plain inexpensive funerals.’
Elm timber was valued for floorboards, furniture and – as here – coffins. Before iron pipes, it was also used for water pipes by boring out the centre of elm branches and trunks, because elm is resistant to rot when permanently wet. Elm trees were an intrinsic part of the British landscape, growing mostly in hedgerows, and they were often depicted in landscape paintings, most notably by Constable. All that has gone. From the 1920s, elms were affected by Dutch elm disease, a fungus that is spread by elm bark beetles, and in the 1970s a more aggressive epidemic led to the loss of over 60 million elms.
A felled diseased elm tree in the 1980s
Close to death
All the carpenters shared in the manufacture of William’s coffin, and he adds the acerbic comment that many of them looked closer to death than himself:
‘Old Farrington told me, yesterday, that he & all Cheffin’s journeymen “had a hand” in the job, that they might have it to say that they had had that “honour”! I could not help observing that he & many of his shop-mates might, perhaps, occupy a case [coffin] of that description, before I should take corporeal possession of mine.’
Octavius Christie, the diary’s editor, commented in 1929 that ‘the coffin stood upright, was fitted with shelves, & used as a cupboard. Not so many years ago there were still old folk in the parish, who remembered having been refreshed from its contents.’ He presumably meant that wine and brandy were stored in it, alongside the books. Twelve years after it was made, William knew he was about to die, as one newspaper related:
‘A most Eccentric Character.–– Two days before he died, he desired a young man, who stood by his bedside, to take out the books and shelves and get the coffin ready, as he should soon want it, which was done; he further desired the church-bell might not toll, and that he might be buried as soon as possible after he was dead.’
All his planning then went awry, because the coffin was not big enough:
‘when they came to deposit his remains in the ready-made coffin, it was found too small, it was therefore given to a carpenter to enlarge, which being done, this singular man was buried on Monday last, in the plain boards, without plate, name, date or nails, the Rev. W. Tomlin performing the funeral service.’
William Jones died on 12th October 1821 and was buried ten days later, with the simplest of elm coffins and ceremonies – the sort of burial that is least helpful to archaeologists, because no evidence survives apart from the skeleton.