Grandmas Gleanings from Newton's Woolsthorpe
Recollections from a Lincolnshire Hamlet By Margaret Anne Winn Published in 1994 Copyright M. A. Winn 1994
This is a collection of stories and facts, recording the childhood of the Robinson children and their way of life growing up in Woolsthorpe in the early 1900's.
Chapter 9 Funerals
When anyone died in Woolsthorpe Lizzie was most probably with them. She would walk to Colsterworth to fetch the Doctor to issue the certificate, then wash and lay out the dead person. She would most likely then go back to Colsterworth to see the Parson and arrange the funeral. Funeral services were sometimes held in the person's own home in those days with the dead body remaining in the house, in the open coffin, often on the table. It was usual for neighbours, friends and relatives to call to see the dead person in their coffin. After the funeral service the bearers carried the coffin to the cemetery with the mourners walking behind. A lady who lived in a cottage at the bottom of Post Lane used to put out two large kitchen chairs in the middle of the road when the funeral procession was expected. The bearers rested the coffin on the chairs and changed shoulders before carrying the coffin up the hill to Woolsthorpe cemetery.
All the bearers and the Undertaker wore black top hats. Lizzie walked in front of the procession with the Undertaker and at the cemetery gates collected the top hats which she held until after the burial. This gave rise to a local saying to describe anyone who was a trifle slow, 'oh, he's too slow to carry hats at a funeral'. On the route that the coffin passed all the curtains were closed and the villagers would stand to watch the procession and pay their last respects to the dead person. In the house where the death occurred the curtains were closed and the mirrors draped in black crepe and all members of the family would wear black. It was considered bad luck to leave the house empty, so usually a couple of neighbourly women stayed behind and prepared the funeral tea for when the mourners returned from the cemetery. The word Funeral comes from the Latin Funis meaning A Torch as it was usual in ancient times for funerals to be held at night, led by a torch lit procession. Of course in earlier times coffins were a privilege of the rich.
The poor would be carried in the Parish coffin, then taken out and buried wrapped in a shroud. The coffin was returned to be used again. In 1666 an Act was passed by Parliament which said all shrouds had to be made of wool this was to promote the wool industry and would have been popular with sheep farmers such as the Newtons of Woolsthorpe manor. The rich on the other hand preferred to be buried in linen or silk, so the Act was often not observed; interestingly it was only finally repealed in 1814. The Woolsthorpe cemetery has a row of yew trees on either side of the path. Yew trees have long been associated with burial places, as their close growth protects from wind and storms. Pagans performed their rites within yew tree groves, believing that they were symbols of immortality. Visiting old burial grounds and reading gravestone inscriptions is fascinating; many of them remind the reader to beware and to be ready, warning:- All you that cometh to my grave to see, As I am now so you must be. Prepare in time, make no delay, Death in my prime call'd me away Once when Lizzie was laying out an old man who had died she had quite a shock although I would not think she was easily frightened, being a very practical woman.
All his life the old man had suffered with a bent knee joint. Lizzie straightened the limbs before they set and was washing the corpse when suddenly the crippled knee bent again, kicking out the foot and upsetting her bowl of water. Poor Lizzie, always at someone's beck and call. Whenever anyone was ill in Woolsthorpe they fetched Mrs Robinson. In later life Lizzie has a series of strokes very hard for her to bear I guess. I remember after her first stroke, when I was about 6 years old, I was allowed to brush her hair as she sat up in bed. It was long and silvery white. When she was taken ill we had just had a new Doctor join the Colsterworth practice Doctor Stafford who visited her and kindly told her to rest and perhaps she'd had a bad dream. When he had gone she said very indignantly that he couldn't fool her, she knew exactly what had happened to her as she had seen it too many times in others. Anyway what does a boy like that know about it?? she said. He must have been in his late twenties at the time! I remember Lizzie mostly as an older lady, sitting by the fire and warming my hands when we visited her on cold days.She would put her hands out to the fire, warm them, then clasp my hands in hers and rub them until they were warm and glowing. One of my first pieces of knitting was a six inch square, bright red on one side and bright yellow on the other. Stitched together they made a holder for lifting the kettle off the hob and she could easily see the bright colours, although her sight was fading. When she died I was 9 years old and was taken to see her corpse and told to touch her and not be afraid, but as I touched the body the stomach rumbled and I hated the experience. I distinctly remember the very strange sickly-sweet smell of death. Her funeral was at home, us standing in a circle around the coffin in the living room. My Grandad said later he had looked across at me singing the hymns and thought, 'if the bairn can sing then so can I', although he was finding it all rather difficult.
Everyone expected Fred to give up when Lizzie died as he had relied on her so much, but actually the opposite happened. He seemed to take on a new lease of life started cooking for himself and washing up, remarkable as previously he never lifted a pot off the table! My Mother did his washing and after a while Fred was persuaded to have a Home Help to clean for him. She also made his bed, but only once she told him she'd given it a good shake up, being feathers that meant it was all lumped up in the middle of the bed and when Fred tried to climb in he rolled out again! Mum or I were the only ones he allowed to make his bed after that. Fred wrote letters for the first time wonderful epistles full of interesting things but no punctuation marks! He did well to write at all seeing as he had little or no schooling Annie always said had he been educated he could have become Prime Minister! Another of Lizzie's usual morning jobs was to get Fred's motor-bike out, kick start it, get him and his dinner bag onto it and off to work!