On death and Daimlers: Memories of a family business

This on-going Projects series aims to give a “behind the scenes” look at my work with people, communities and museums. Check out the Projects page or the Archives for more. Feel free to leave a comment, or drop me a line, via the Contact page.

The Multi-Sensory Memories project was to collect memories to help tell the story of Coventry Transport Museum’s commercial (work vehicles) collection. That included: post vans, tractors, buses… and a 1960s Daimler hearse. As you can imagine, that was going to be a difficult and sensitive subject. How could I go about asking people for their memories of something so personal?

My colleague Stacey found the answer. Or, should I say, she found Irene.

IreneIrene had married into a well-known funeral directors’ family in Coventry, and had plenty of memories and stories to tell about the family business. She was proud of the family’s history and didn’t mind sharing a little about their lives. As she said,

No one ever asks me about this!

The notes below are from my interviews with Irene:

The Business
The funeral directing business went back over 2 generations and had originally begun as a carpentry business, making boxes during the First World War. These boxes would later become coffins, as Irene explained. As the business grew, the owner and his sons bought a horse and cart to carry the coffins to the funerals. However, they soon discovered that the horse wasn’t reliable and would stop at every pub along the route, refusing to move until someone had gone into the pub and come out again. The vicar would have to get down and go inside each time. Realising that this would be an on-going problem, the funeral directors tried unsuccessfully to give the horse back to the previous owner.

The Daimlers
After the Second World War, came the Daimlers. As the only family funeral directors who owned Daimler cars, they were the pride of the family. At the height of the business, they owned 6 in total. The Daimlers were polished relentlessly and would be displayed outside the premises, even if there were no funerals scheduled that day. Irene remembers the cars always being referred to by name – “Is the Daimler alright?”, “The Daimler’s outside” (rather than “the car is outside”).

1965 Daimler Hearse (in storage)
Coventry Transport Museum’s 1965 Daimler Hearse (pictured in storage)

The Times
“It was common at that time to cover the house mirrors in black cloth, and this was continued with the mirrors in the Daimlers. It was believed that death should not be reflected to the living,” Irene remembered. Everyone stood with head bowed to greet the car during funeral processions, and wore black, including black hankies. Irene also explained that a funeral was “the only time men took off their hats” and “it was customary for people to wear black jewellery for two years after a bereavement”.

Weddings and Other Uses for the Daimlers
The Daimlers also served as wedding cars, and this was common practice at the time. Sometimes they would be used for both funerals and weddings on the same day, although Irene notes that they were cleaned in between each service. The family took these changes in their stride. For weddings, white ribbons were attached to the front of the car, the door handles and the bumper. The flowers in the front were also changed, depending on the occasion. The staff uniform was all-black with a white flower, for both weddings and funerals.

As there were no funerals on Sundays, the family would go to church, and then take the Daimlers out into the countryside. The windows would be opened one-quarter inch to get some air, but no more, so as not to get too much dust inside the Daimlers. The family would also have a flask of tea, but would never get out of the car while out in the country. Irene thought this was a strange idea – to go out to the country, but not leave the car. She did enjoy the trips though, and smiled,

You could go fast in a Daimler, without disturbing your hair.

A huge thank you to Irene for sharing her memories. The Daimler hearse is now on display at Coventry Transport Museum.

The Multi-Sensory Memories project was supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund, European Regional Development Fund, and Arts Council England, as part of Coventry Transport Museum‘s £9.5m makeover. Please see the CTM website for more information.


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