Bringing Sextons Back: Stepney’s Buriers, Bearers and Searchers of the Dead

In my last post, I introduced the maritime hamlets of early modern Stepney and explored some of the ways in which the parish’s middling sort used admin and officeholding to establish themselves as part of a local elite. Returning to the vestry minutes book as a starting point, this post will examine some of Stepney’s less desirable parochial offices before attempting to place these stations within the maritime parish’s complicated civic and social hierarchies. 

Noisome Graves and Troublesome Sextons

Plague had an acoustic, and that acoustic was the ringing of bells[1]

Adam Smyth, Autobiography in Early Modern England

Stepney’s sexton played a crucial role in the daily management of the parish. Responsible for both the ringing of the parish church’s bells and the digging of graves in the churchyard, the sextons employed at St Dunstan’s, Stepney, found no shortage of work during the first half of the seventeenth century. As the parish’s population swelled and outbreaks of plague tore through the riverside hamlets, the St Dunstan’s churchyard quickly became overburdened. The vestry minutes record that in 1625 ‘the spedy purchasing of one parcell of ground’ for new burials was ordered, as well the earthing over of the present churchyard, owing to the ‘noysome sents’ that emanated from ‘the ground there so opened by reason of so many bodies formerlie enterred there’.[2]

Unfortunately, the Stepney vestry found itself repeatedly troubled by ‘very uncivil and disorderly’ sextons.[3] In 1601, sexton Francis Whitacres was ‘put out of his place’ and ‘utterly dismissed’ from the parish for a series of transgressions, which included neglecting and breaking the church bells to ‘the great chardg’ of the parishioners; attempting to persuade the parish clerk to embezzle funds so that they did not ‘dye beggers’; breaking his bonds and promises with the vestrymen; and bidding a churchwarden to ‘shake his eares emonng dogges’. A later sexton, William Culham, was similarly declared ‘unfitt for any further imployement’ after making himself known to be a ‘contemner & scoffer of them that are godly’ and refusing to ‘suppress a victualing house’ that he leased and ‘furnish[ed] … w[i]th beere’.[4] The early modern sexton perhaps best lives on today in the shape of Shakespeare’s proud ‘sexton here, man and boy, thirty years’, the Gravedigger from Hamlet.[5] The Gravedigger’s oaths, flippancy, morbid wit, and request for a ‘stoup [jug] of liquor’ suggest that unruly sextons were not only found in Stepney but throughout the nation, working their knavish grave-making characters into the broader early modern imagination. 

However, the position also provided perks and financial security. Along with the respected and necessarily literate clerk and curate, the sexton was provided a room above the vestry house and was also guaranteed a steady income owing to the constant need for bellringing and burials.[6] Furthermore, as demonstrated by Culham’s position as both sexton and landlord of the victualing house ‘the Rose’, Stepney’s sextons were able to pursue other economic ventures alongside their paid parochial responsibilities. 

A sexton at work in Humphrey Crouch’s Londons Vacation, and the Countries Tearme (London: Richard Harper, 1637)

Bearers and Searchers of the Dead

During the plague of 1625, ‘certaine [individuals] dwelling about Stepney’ took it upon themselves to become ‘common bearers of such as die of the pestilence and other diseases’.[7] In an attempt to suppress the extortionate ‘summes of mony as are no ways sufferable’ that were charged by these bearers, Stepney’s vestry decided to formalise the trade, setting fixed rates for the bearers of between four and twelve pence depending on where the body was carried from and its method of burial. The vestry further ordered that the bearers must travel ‘w[i]thout cloakes and cary red wands in theire hands that euery one may take notice of them’. It was decreed that the production and delivery of the wands to the bearers would be the responsibility of the sexton. 

Another office created in response to disease – this time an initiative of the vestry, rather than the regulation of an existing practice – was advertised for in 1617, although it was not filled until the outbreak of plague in 1625. It was ordered by the vestry that, in order to prevent the spread of infection, ‘there shalbe chosen in euerie hamlet two fit aged women to search and vew the bodies of euerie one decease[ed]’, with the women being paid ‘four pence a peece by the householder for the said vew and serch’ or the same amount by ‘the Churchwardens or Collectors for the poore’.[8] In 1625, Mary Oswell and Elizabeth Scott of Ratcliff were ‘chosen to be searchers […] in case & feare of Contagion of sicknes now suspected’.[9] Unsurprisingly, given the wealth disparity within the hamlet of Ratcliff, the St Dunstan’s parish registers reveal that both Mary Oswell and Elizabeth Scott resided in the hamlet’s poorer western side, in Shadwell near to Wapping Wall. 

Elizabeth Scott of Shadwell, ‘widow & pentioner’, is entered into the parish’s burial register on 8 May 1626, one year after her appointment as a searcher of the dead.[10] Mary, ‘wife of William Oswell of Shadwell[,] mariner’, followed just under a year later on 6 March 1627.[11] By tracing Mary and William Oswell through the parish registers of Stepney, Wapping, and St Katherine by the Tower, it becomes clear that Mary lost a three-year-old son a month after becoming a searcher, and left an eight-year-old daughter and two-month-old son behind after her death.[12] William, perhaps owing to his need for childcare and an imminent return to sea, remarried just three months later.[13]

The above example illustrates that although women’s names are almost entirely absent from Stepney’s vestry minutes, women did indeed perform civic office and play vital roles in the management of their communities, as has been explored in fantastic detail by the Women’s Work in Rural England, 1500-1700 project. However, in this instance, it is possible that Elizabeth Scott and Mary Oswell did not have much choice in the matter. In The Launching of the Mary by Walter Mountfort, a drama composed by the middle-ranking East India Company merchant during his 1632 return to Stepney from Persia, the hardships of mariners’ wives are extensively portrayed. The characters Mary Sparke and Isabel Nutt testify that the ‘two months paye a year’ provided by the East India Company is not ‘able to keep’ them whilst their husbands are at sea, and the character Dorotea conveys the need to ‘sitt at shopworke’ to ‘gett a liuinge by hard hand-labour’ during the ‘discontinuance of theyr husbands’.[14] Bearing in mind William Oswell’s profession, and the age of their children, it is possible that Mary Oswell found herself in a similar position. 

Civic Benefaction

So far I have argued that while the office of sexton might not have been the most desirable or respected occupation, it was nonetheless a necessary job that provided a secure position and reasonable economic stability – as long as you behaved and did as the vestry asked. While the reputation gained from performing the role of sexton might not be transferrable to another parish, and there is no evidence in Stepney of individuals advancing from sexton to a higher parochial office, the parish’s sextons seem to consistently hold positions somewhere between securely middling and of the lower-middling sort.

Stepney’s bearers and searchers of the dead also performed acts of civic benefaction that were necessary to the continued function and wellbeing of the parish community. The performance of deeds that benefitted the broader civic community was a key way in which individuals could gain public reputation for being a valuable member of the parish. The bearers’ and searchers’ acts of civic duty took the form of the dangerous handling of the parish’s diseased bodies, and these acts were carried out in public view and were recorded in important records kept in the parish chest. However, while this might sound like the ideal circumstances for achieving social advancement, for the bearers and searchers of the dead the reward was not favourable reputation but the monetary incentive that directly replaced – or at least supplemented – the poor relief they would otherwise receive. The wages of these workers were provided directly from affording households or from the already established overseers of the poor. Although these ‘offices’ received parochial recognition – and in the case of the bearers were even provided with uniform – just like in the case of Shadwell in my previous post, these individuals were brought into the public eye and recorded within parish documents so that they could be identified, shaped, and regulated by the parish’s central governing body.

Stepney’s parish records are full of complex narratives. These may partly be pieced together through retrospective historical study, but, far from being superimposed by scholarship, they were consciously written into these texts by early modern individuals whose representations have remained inscribed upon them ever since. 

The office of sexton is proving a particularly fascinating position to explore in the investigation of Stepney’s middling sort as, although the officeholders seem to have consistently occupied places amongst the parish’s lower-middling sort, unlike others in their social and economic position they held a secure role that was assigned to them for the length of their ‘naterall lyffe’.[15] Was it the guarantee of work and social position, but lack of hope for advancement from their office, that gave Stepney’s sextons the confidence to repeatedly act out against the vestry?  As Hamlet notes to Horatio beside the Danish sexton, ‘The hand of little employment hath the daintier sense’.[16]

By Michael Powell-Davies
(PhD Candidate, University of Kent, School of English and Centre for Medieval and Early Modern Studies)


[1] Adam Smyth, Autobiography in Early Modern England (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), p. 177.

[2] London Metropolitan Archives, P93/DUN/327, ff. 71v, 73r.

[3] London Metropolitan Archives, P93/DUN/327, f. 106r.

[4] London Metropolitan Archives, P93/DUN/327, ff. 106r, 113v.

[5] William Shakespeare, Hamlet, ed. by Ann Thompson and Neil Taylor (London: Methuen Drama, 2006), p. 420. 

[6] London Metropolitan Archives, P93/DUN/327, ff. 40r, 71v.

[7] London Metropolitan Archives, P93/DUN/327, f. 70r.

[8] London Metropolitan Archives, P93/DUN/327, ff. 57v, 69r. 

[9] London Metropolitan Archives, P93/DUN/327, f. 69r.

[10] London Metropolitan Archives, P93/DUN/277.

[11] London Metropolitan Archives, P93/DUN/277.

[12] London Metropolitan Archives, P93/DUN/256; P93/DUN/265; P93/DUN/277.

[13] London Metropolitan Archives, P93/DUN/265.

[14] Walter Mountfort, The Launching of the Mary, ed. by John Henry Walter (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1932).

[15] London Metropolitan Archives, P93/DUN/327, f. 10v.

[16] William Shakespeare, Hamlet, ed. by Ann Thompson and Neil Taylor (London: Methuen Drama, 2006), p. 414.

Noisome Graves and Troublesome Sextons

Plague had an acoustic, and that acoustic was the ringing of bells[1]

Stepney’s sexton played a crucial role in the daily management of the parish. Responsible for both the ringing of the parish church’s bells and the digging of graves in the churchyard, the sextons employed at St Dunstan’s, Stepney, found no shortage of work during the first half of the seventeenth century. As the parish’s population swelled and outbreaks of plague tore through the riverside hamlets, the St Dunstan’s churchyard quickly became overburdened. The vestry minutes record that in 1625 ‘the spedy purchasing of one parcell of ground’ for new burials was ordered, as well the earthing over of the present churchyard, owing to the ‘noysome sents’ that emanated from ‘the ground there so opened by reason of so many bodies formerlie enterred there’.[2]

Unfortunately, the Stepney vestry found itself repeatedly troubled by ‘very uncivil and disorderly’ sextons.[3] In 1601, sexton Francis Whitacres was ‘put out of his place’ and ‘utterly dismissed’ from the parish for a series of transgressions, which included neglecting and breaking the church bells to ‘the great chardg’ of the parishioners; attempting to persuade the parish clerk to embezzle funds so that they did not ‘dye beggers’; breaking his bonds and promises with the vestrymen; and bidding a churchwarden to ‘shake his eares emonng dogges’. A later sexton, William Culham, was similarly declared ‘unfitt for any further imployement’ after making himself known to be a ‘contemner & scoffer of them that are godly’ and refusing to ‘suppress a victualing house’ that he leased and ‘furnish[ed] … w[i]th beere’.[4] The early modern sexton perhaps best lives on today in the shape of Shakespeare’s proud ‘sexton here, man and boy, thirty years’, the Gravedigger from Hamlet.[5] The Gravedigger’s oaths, flippancy, morbid wit, and request for a ‘stoup [jug] of liquor’ suggest that unruly sextons were not only found in Stepney but throughout the nation, working their knavish grave-making characters into the broader early modern imagination. 

However, the position also provided perks and financial security. Along with the respected and necessarily literate clerk and curate, the sexton was provided a room above the vestry house and was also guaranteed a steady income owing to the constant need for bellringing and burials.[6] Furthermore, as demonstrated by Culham’s position as both sexton and landlord of the victualing house ‘the Rose’, Stepney’s sextons were able to pursue other economic ventures alongside their paid parochial responsibilities. 

A close up of a book

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A sexton at work in Humphrey Crouch’s Londons Vacation, and the Countries Tearme (London: Richard Harper, 1637)

Bearers and Searchers of the Dead

During the plague of 1625, ‘certaine [individuals] dwelling about Stepney’ took it upon themselves to become ‘common bearers of such as die of the pestilence and other diseases’.[7] In an attempt to suppress the extortionate ‘summes of mony as are no ways sufferable’ that were charged by these bearers, Stepney’s vestry decided to formalise the trade, setting fixed rates for the bearers of between four and twelve pence depending on where the body was carried from and its method of burial. The vestry further ordered that the bearers must travel ‘w[i]thout cloakes and cary red wands in theire hands that euery one may take notice of them’. It was decreed that the production and delivery of the wands to the bearers would be the responsibility of the sexton. 

Another office created in response to disease – this time an initiative of the vestry, rather than the regulation of an existing practice – was advertised for in 1617, although it was not filled until the outbreak of plague in 1625. It was ordered by the vestry that, in order to prevent the spread of infection, ‘there shalbe chosen in euerie hamlet two fit aged women to search and vew the bodies of euerie one decease[ed]’, with the women being paid ‘four pence a peece by the householder for the said vew and serch’ or the same amount by ‘the Churchwardens or Collectors for the poore’.[8] In 1625, Mary Oswell and Elizabeth Scott of Ratcliff were ‘chosen to be searchers […] in case & feare of Contagion of sicknes now suspected’.[9] Unsurprisingly, given the wealth disparity within the hamlet of Ratcliff, the St Dunstan’s parish registers reveal that both Mary Oswell and Elizabeth Scott resided in the hamlet’s poorer western side, in Shadwell near to Wapping Wall. 

Elizabeth Scott of Shadwell, ‘widow & pentioner’, is entered into the parish’s burial register on 8 May 1626, one year after her appointment as a searcher of the dead.[10] Mary, ‘wife of William Oswell of Shadwell[,] mariner’, followed just under a year later on 6 March 1627.[11] By tracing Mary and William Oswell through the parish registers of Stepney, Wapping, and St Katherine by the Tower, it becomes clear that Mary lost a three-year-old son a month after becoming a searcher, and left an eight-year-old daughter and two-month-old son behind after her death.[12] William, perhaps owing to his need for childcare and an imminent return to sea, remarried just three months later.[13]

The above example illustrates that although women’s names are almost entirely absent from Stepney’s vestry minutes, women did indeed perform civic office and play vital roles in the management of their communities, as has been explored in fantastic detail by the Women’s Work in Rural England, 1500-1700 project. However, in this instance, it is possible that Elizabeth Scott and Mary Oswell did not have much choice in the matter. In The Launching of the Mary by Walter Mountfort, a drama composed by the middle-ranking East India Company merchant during his 1632 return to Stepney from Persia, the hardships of mariners’ wives are extensively portrayed. The characters Mary Sparke and Isabel Nutt testify that the ‘two months paye a year’ provided by the East India Company is not ‘able to keep’ them whilst their husbands are at sea, and the character Dorotea conveys the need to ‘sitt at shopworke’ to ‘gett a liuinge by hard hand-labour’ during the ‘discontinuance of theyr husbands’.[14] Bearing in mind William Oswell’s profession, and the age of their children, it is possible that Mary Oswell found herself in a similar position. 

Civic Benefaction

So far I have argued that while the office of sexton might not have been the most desirable or respected occupation, it was nonetheless a necessary job that provided a secure position and reasonable economic stability – as long as you behaved and did as the vestry asked. While the reputation gained from performing the role of sexton might not be transferrable to another parish, and there is no evidence in Stepney of individuals advancing from sexton to a higher parochial office, the parish’s sextons seem to consistently hold positions somewhere between securely middling and of the lower-middling sort.

Stepney’s bearers and searchers of the dead also performed acts of civic benefaction that were necessary to the continued function and wellbeing of the parish community. The performance of deeds that benefitted the broader civic community was a key way in which individuals could gain public reputation for being a valuable member of the parish. The bearers and searchers acts of civic benefaction took the form of the dangerous handling of the parish’s diseased bodies, and these acts were carried out in public view and were recorded in important records kept in the parish chest. However, while this might sound like the ideal circumstances for achieving social advancement, for the bearers and searchers of the dead the reward was not favourable reputation but the monetary incentive that directly replaced – or at least supplemented – the poor relief they would otherwise receive. The wages of these workers were provided directly from affording households or from the already established overseers of the poor. Although these ‘offices’ received parochial recognition – and in the case of the bearers were even provided with uniform – just like in the case of Shadwell in my previous post, these individuals were brought into the public eye and recorded within parish documents so that they could be identified, shaped, and regulated by the parish’s central governing body.

Stepney’s parish records are full of complex narratives. These may partly be pieced together through retrospective historical study, but, far from being superimposed by scholarship, they were consciously written into these texts by early modern individuals whose representations have remained inscribed upon them ever since. 

The office of sexton is proving a particularly fascinating position to explore in the investigation of Stepney’s middling sort as, although the officeholders seem to have consistently occupied places amongst the parish’s lower-middling sort, unlike others in their social and economic position they held a secure role that was assigned to them for the length of their ‘naterall lyffe’.[15] Was it the guarantee of work and social position, but lack of hope for advancement from their office, that gave Stepney’s sextons the confidence to repeatedly act out against the vestry?  As Hamlet notes to Horatio beside the Danish sexton, ‘The hand of little employment hath the daintier sense’.[16]


[1] Adam Smyth, Autobiography in Early Modern England (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), p. 177.

[2] London Metropolitan Archives, P93/DUN/327, ff. 71v, 73r.

[3] London Metropolitan Archives, P93/DUN/327, f. 106r.

[4] London Metropolitan Archives, P93/DUN/327, ff. 106r, 113v.

[5] William Shakespeare, Hamlet, ed. by Ann Thompson and Neil Taylor (London: Methuen Drama, 2006), p. 420. 

[6] London Metropolitan Archives, P93/DUN/327, ff. 40r, 71v.

[7] London Metropolitan Archives, P93/DUN/327, f. 70r.

[8] London Metropolitan Archives, P93/DUN/327, ff. 57v, 69r. 

[9] London Metropolitan Archives, P93/DUN/327, f. 69r.

[10] London Metropolitan Archives, P93/DUN/277.

[11] London Metropolitan Archives, P93/DUN/277.

[12] London Metropolitan Archives, P93/DUN/256; P93/DUN/265; P93/DUN/277.

[13] London Metropolitan Archives, P93/DUN/265.

[14] Walter Mountfort, The Launching of the Mary, ed. by John Henry Walter (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1932).

[15] London Metropolitan Archives, P93/DUN/327, f. 10v.

[16] William Shakespeare, Hamlet, ed. by Ann Thompson and Neil Taylor (London: Methuen Drama, 2006), p. 414.