Burning the Possessions of the Late Duke of Bedford: 1891

The late Duke of Bedford is now about six pints of beautiful white ashes. Cremation is the leveler of all ranks. Boston [MA] Herald 8 February 1891: p. 21 


The great holocaust or pyre which burned at Woburn Abbey for the purpose of consuming the personal effects of the late Duke of Bedford, was a strange and uncomely function enough. A week ago two loads of faggots were arranged after the fashion of the inquisition in the middle ages in a lonely spot near the abbey. When the pyre was complete several boxes and packages closely wrapped up in cere cloths were brought and cast on the pile of faggots. The bystanders were wildly excited and leaped

“Around, around, around, around,”

“About, about, about, about,”

like the “Macbeth” witches round the magic caldron. The boxes would not burn. Mysterious rumors were breathed from mouth to mouth and the more superstitious hinted that the manner of the duke’s death had something to say to the incombustibility of his boxes. They would not burn any more than a witch’s cat would drown. However, at last, with fear and trembling, the boxes were broken open, and all the wardrobe, from boot to bonnet, of the deceased magnet [sic] littered the ground. One of the canes was a portentous affair, presented to the late duke by some foreign potentate. A the sight of this wonderful staff Lord Hildebrand [Herbrand] Russell started and grew pale, then, with an excited and nimble leap, he snatched it from the flames and brandished it in triumph. [A Herbrand snatched from the burning?]

The cause of this incineration was a codicil to the duke’s will, which commanded that all his belongings be burnt with him, after the fashion of the King of Dahomey. Had there been a duchess she would doubtless have been made the heroine of a grand “suttee,” but in default the boots and breeches were made to take the place of honor. The late nobleman was determined to have a full kit of clothes to stand up in at the great uprising. After the sacrifice the people felt relieved and went away with chastened exultation. Evening Star [Washington, DC] 14 February 1891: p. 12 

A published report states that in addition to the destruction of his personal effects the will of the Duke of Bedford calls for the destruction of his carriages and the shooting of his horses. San Francisco [CA] Bulletin 16 February 1891: p. 1

 Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire:

A strange story about a strange gentleman: Francis Charles Hastings Russell, 9th Duke of Bedford. His Grace was dead and ash (cremated at Woking) for days before it was revealed that he had committed suicide. The coroner ruled that he shot himself through the heart, while temporarily insane and ill with pneumonia. The incident and the secrecy surrounding it caused a sensation in Society and the press. 

The Duke was an advocate of cremation, which was viewed by his contemporaries as a proof of his eccentricity. Lord Herbrand, who is mentioned in the article, succeeded his elder brother George William Francis Sackville Russell, 10th Duke of Bedford, to the title. As 11th Duke of Bedford, Herbrand Arthur Russell (1858-1940) was a patron of the Cremation Society of Great Britain. Like father, like son.  I can find no further mention of the Duke’s horses and carriages being destroyed, so possibly they survived the post-mortem holocaust.

Oddly enough, there is a moving picture from British Pathe of another huge pyre at Woburn Abbey lit under the auspices of John Ian Robert Russell, 13th Duke of Bedford: the 1966 Guy Fawkes bonfire. If one has any interest in antiques, one will recoil at the fine old furniture being cast upon the pile for burning.

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