‘Dead man’ walking in Preston coffin caper and fake funeral march

Why was a coffin on parade in 1872?
Why was a coffin on parade in 1872?
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Local historian Keith Johnson looks at the case of an undertaker taking unusual steps to get money owed to him by a customer...

In mid-November 1872 at the fortnightly Preston County Court, held at the Court House alongside the House of Correction, the chairman W.A. Halton and the magistrates had a peculiar case to consider.

The plaintiff Richard Brierley, a joiner of Hoghton Lane, sued the defendant Hugh Chester, the landlord of the Grey Horse, Hoghton Lane, for the sum of £2 and 15 shillings for a coffin ordered by him for a man named Ralph Pearson.

It was stated that early in October Chester, Pearson and another man had come into his joiner’s shop and asked for a coffin making for Pearson. When asked who would pay for it Chester had replied that he would. The joiner before he began to make it double checked with the client who insisted he measure Pearson up and he stretched out full length whilst the joiner took his measurements.

The chairman then asked Brierley if he was in the habit of making coffins for persons before they were dead. The plaintiff replying in the negative, but remarking that if ten people walked in his shop asking to be fitted for a coffin and promised to pay for them he would happily oblige.

Brierley then stated that on the following Friday night Pearson had visited his workshop, examined the coffin and said it was a good one, with his name engraved on a brass plate on the lid and space for the date of his death. A remark that brought laughter into court.

Chester claimed that a couple of days later he had called on the plaintiff, telling him it was just a lark and to stop making the coffin. Brierley telling him it was too late and that he would be delivering it the next day.

Having to go away on business for a couple of days Chester instructed his wife to fasten all the doors and refuse to accept the coffin.

The following morning Brierley who had hired a band of musicians made his way to the Chester’s home at Samlesbury. Pall bearers carried the coffin, mournful music was played and a band of cotton operatives walked solemnly behind. Although the doors were bolted and the windows shuttered and the bell ringing of the mob received no response, they resolved to burst the stable door open and lay the coffin inside.

The court heard that since that time the coffin had been returned to the plaintiff, having been discovered next day on a nearby country lane with a burning candle upon it.

Brierley remarked that nonetheless he could not afford such practical jokes made at his expense as he had a family to keep.

The chairman after retiring and consulting with the other magistrates returned to say he did not find anything to deny Brierley’s evidence, although it was a disgraceful thing to occupy the court’s time on such matters.

He then found in favour of the plaintiff and ordered the disgruntled Chester to pay the sum requested forthwith (equal to £300 in today’s money). Brierley was then informed that his application for costs was refused. A few weeks later a sketch of the peculiar event appeared in the Illustrated Police News.