Hasina Zaman explains the history behind the horse-drawn funeral procession

I recently met Gary Conway, head of marketing at The Stage – a new residential, office and retail complex being built on the site of Shakespeare’s Curtain Theatre in Shoreditch.

In East London, a Victorian horse-drawn funeral is an impressive and iconic sight.

Grief-stricken Queen Victoria set the precedent in 1861 on the death of Prince Albert. She arranged an ostentatious funeral that set the standard for public grief.

 Such was the demand for mourning wear that there was a shortage of black crêpe. It was used in such vast quantities in the 1890s that Courtauld’s built a textile empire on the sales of crêpe alone.

It was a dull silk gauze – a crimped and stiff textured material and mostly dyed the deepest of blacks. White crêpe was used for the widow’s cap.

Funerals would often consist of a glass carriage with two or four black or white horses dressed with plumes of ostrich feathers. White horses were used for unmarried women and children, and black for men.

Queen Victoria’s influence was immense and it was common practice for families to save large amounts of money for their funerals.

 The number of plumes would indicate the amount spent on the funeral and, for the affluent families, paid mutes would sometimes be seen processing with the cortège.

 The cortège travelled from the family home to the church and then to the cemetery. This enabled people to stop and pay their respects as the procession passed.

They would stop and face the hearse, bowing their heads until it passed. Men would take their hats off.

This style of funeral is still carried out today, but unfortunately many people are unaware of the tradition, as we regularly see cars trying to overtake the slow-moving carriages.