Mary Gibbon - buried in Linen

Mary Gibbon is well-known in Hartlip as the benefactrix of the village school. Her bequests established the school in 1678. What might be less well-known about Mary Gibbon is that she was buried in a linen shroud. The nature of one's burial shroud was, at one point in English history, of importance.

Historically, people were usually buried in shrouds rather than normal clothes. Clothes were expensive and using a shroud meant that the clothes would not be lost to the family of the deceased.

The "Burial in Woollen" Acts of 1666 to 1680 were Acts of the Parliament that required the dead, with the exception of plague victims, to be buried in pure English woollen shrouds. The first Act of 1666 was largely ignored and so a later Act introduced a fine of £5 for non-compliance. This Act stated:

For the encouragement of the woollen manufactures of this kingdom and prevention of the exportation of the monies thereof, for the buying and importation of linen.

Be it enacted by the King's most excellent Majesty and with the consent of the Lords Spiritual and Temporal, and Commons in this present Parliament assembled, and by the authority thereof, that from and after the five and twentieth day of March in the year of our Lord, one thousand six hundred seventy seven, no person or persons whatever shall be buried in any shirt, shift or sheet made of or mingled with flax, hemp, silk, hair, gold or silver, or other than what shall be made of Wool only, or be put into any coffin lined or faced with anything made of or mingled with flax, hemp, silk or hair; upon pain of the forfeiture of the sum of five pounds, to be employed to the use of the poor of the parish where such person shall be buried, for or towards providing a stock or work house for the setting them to work, to be levied by the churchwardens and overseers of the poor of such parish or one of them by warrant from any Justice of the Peace, or Mayor, Alderman or Head Officer of such city, town or place-corporate respectively within their several limits by distress and sale of goods of any that had a hand in putting such person into such shift, shirt, sheet or coffin, contrary to this Act, or did order or dispose the doing thereof, to be levied and employed as above said.

Provided, that no penalty appointed by this Act, shall be incurred for or by the reason of any person that shall die of the plague, though such person be buried in linen."

It was a requirement of this later Act that an affidavit had to be sworn in front of a Justice of the Peace (usually by a relative of the deceased or some other credible person) confirming that the deceased had been buried in wool. This legislation was in force until 1814, but was generally ignored after 1770.

Those who could afford to, sometimes made provision in their wills for the £5 to be paid, so that they would not suffer the perceived ignominy of being buried in wool. One-half of this went to the informer, the other half to poor of the parish where the body was buried.

This Act was obviously unpopular with many people as they wanted to buried in their finery as opposed to a cheaper garment or shroud in an off-white colour and of very thin material. Many were prepared to pay the £5, and a member of a family would become an informer so that in effect only half of the fine would be paid.

This disgust at being buried in wool can be found ridiculed in literature. For example, Alexander Pope's Moral Essays contains the following.

"Odious! in woollen! 'twould a saint provoke!
(Were the last words that poor Narcissa spoke).
'No! let a charming chintz and Brussels lace
Wrap my cold limbs, and shade my lifeless face"

The image below is taken from the Parish Records held at Sittingbourne library. It is one page in the Burials Book for Hartlip. In those days, the details of burials, marriages and baptisms were written by hand by the vicar, so sometimes they are readable, sometimes they are not. The page is headed,

“Buryed according to yeact of Parliamt for burying in Woollen &c. also an acct of those buried contrary to that act.”

Page from Hartlip Burial Book

The section in the red box is Mary Gibbon’s burial record. It states:

“Mrs Mary Gibbin Widd was buryed in Linnen Oct. 25 1678 for whye forfeiture apptd by law is payd.”

So far, research has failed to unearth any such documents relating to the affidavit that should have been sworn in Mary Gibbon’s case. None of Mary Gibbon’s relatives, who were presumably of similar social status, seem to have been buried in linen.

An examination of the burial records for Hartlip, Newington, Upchurch and Stockbury shows that, in the period 1678 to 1726 a total of five people were “buried in Linen” and three people failed to furnish an affidavit. The breakdown was:


Two people buried in linen – both on the same page. The first entry in the page above shows Thomas Roader was buried in linen, and lower down is the entry for Mary Gibbon were buried in linen. After 1726 no mention of wool or linen in made.


The vicar fails to record the material for any burial during the period.


Two burials in linen are recorded, one in 1683 and one in 1685. Entries from 1706 are barely legible.


One person was buried in linen in 1689. Newington is the only parish to mention affidavits explicitly. Three burials have no affidavit so may have been burials in linen. After 1704 there is little mention of affidavits, wool or linen.

The fact that so few people were buried in linen indicates the social status of Mary Gibbon (or at least her idea of her own social status).