Colonel Edward Marcus Despard’s Funeral

Colonel Edward Marcus Despard’s was arrested in 1803 for treason in what became known as the Despard Plot. His trial began on 7 February, and the public was so enthralled that newspapers could hardly provide enough coverage. Ultimately, Despard and his co-conspirators were found guilty and sentenced to death on 21 February. A crowd of 20,000 came to watch the execution, and it was one of the largest attended spectacles until the funeral of the famous naval hero, Admiral Horatio Nelson.

Colonel Despard. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

After Despard’s death, preparations for his funeral began, and his body was released to his friends. Almost immediately, the famous wax modeler, Madame Tussaud, contacted Despard’s friends. She wanted to make arrangements to make a death mask of him while his body was at the undertaker. This would be her first death mask in England since her arrival in 1802. She expected that by obtaining Despard’s death mask, the popularity of her exhibition, known as “Curtius’s Grand Cabinet of Curiosities,” would be greatly increased.

Madame Tussaud. Drawing attributed to Francis Tussaud. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

One newspaper reported on Madame Tussaud’s modelling but apparently did not understand exactly what was happening with the mask.

“It is said, an impression in Plaister of Paris of Colonel Despard’s countenance has been taken, that busts may be cast from it. We have heard of treason wearing a mask; but those who preserve Despard’s bust, will wear no mask at all. Such a circumstance may, on a future occasion, throw light on a man’s guilt or innocence.”[1]

While Madame Tussaud was busy scheduling and making Despard’s death mask, publicity about his funeral was being discussed in newspapers. Additionally, prior to his burial, his co-conspirators were buried together in one grave on Sunday, 27 February. Their burials occurred in an area located in Southwark known as St. George’s Field. One newspaper noted:

“Each coffin had from six to twenty mourners following it, dressed in cloaks. The coffins were of the best materials. About a thousand spectators attended from curiosity. … Sunday is chosen for the internment of the six poor labouring men, because, on that day, poor men like themselves, are most at leisure, and might be drawn by curiosity, to swell the ranks of the procession.”[2]

Despard’s funeral was held a couple of days later, on Tuesday, 1 March. Around 10am, a hearse, accompanied by three mourning coaches, arrived at Mount-row to take his body. Mount-row was where he and his wife Catharine had been living, but she had not stayed at Mount-row since his execution.

A crowd of about 500 people had already assembled at the house waiting for the hearse. Also, near the house, coaches were parked waiting. About the same time as the hearse arrived and parked in front, a mourning coach that contained Catharine and two of her friends arrived. She was a young black woman whom Despard had married while living in Honduras. Newspapers reported that she had come to take a last look at her husband.

“The wonted firmness of M. Despard forsook her on this trying occasion. On approaching the house in which the body of her husband lay, she became exceedingly dejected, and being conveyed into the apartment, to take a last sad view of the corpse, she nearly fainted away in the arms of her companions.”[3]

Around 11am about twelve of Despard’s friends arrived. The police had also sent a group of officers to the scene to ensure that order was maintained. At 11:30am Despard’s body was brought from the house in a coffin that was claimed to be made from the best materials. The coffin was placed inside the hearse, and then the procession of mourners began to move in the following order:

“Two Mutes – Man supporting the feathers – Hearse – Three mourning coaches, with four persons in each.”[4]

St. Paul’s Cathedral from across the River Thames, 1850. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

The hearse went up Great Charlotte Street to Great Surrey Street and then over Blackfriars bridge. As it lumbered along, it gathered more mourners. One newspaper reported that “we are happy to say, the only expression to be heard among [the crowd] was, that his sentence was just.”[5] Rumors had claimed that Despard wanted to be buried at St. Pancras but that was not true. Instead, the hearse turned up Ludgate Hill and continued until it reached the Anglican cathedral of St. Paul, where it stopped at the north door. Near the door, on the left side, a 15-foot deep grave had been prepared.* The size of the crowd swelled, and, it was claimed that as far as the eye could see, the avenues were filled with people: 

“[T]he railing on the side of the cathedral was occupied … [but] the greatest orders was still observed, and not the least tendency to disturbance was discoverable throughout the whole ceremony.”[6]

Close up detail from St. Paul’s Cathedral. IMG-12de. © C.L. Weber.

When the hearse arrived, the coffin could not be immediately removed because a certificate needed to be completed. When that was done the coffin was removed and swiftly carried to the grave with twelve of Despard’s friends following behind. About half past twelve the burial service commenced.

Services were conducted by a Reverend Parney, and by one o’clock, they were over and Despard’s unmarked grave was covered. His friends then left and the crowd also dispersed. After the funeral, one newspaper reported that his funeral had been designed to draw a crowd, and they claimed it was an insult to the public and stated:

“The time, the place, and every circumstance, were chosen to collect a crowd, and give an éclat to the proceeding. … The manner in which his burial has been planned bears all the marks of cunning and calculation of the Corresponding Society. It felt that a public funeral would be such an outrage as would not be suffered. All the advantages of a public funeral and triumphal procession were, however, sought to be obtained. The very centre of the metropolis was chosen for the internment, at the foot of the steps of the grandest Cathedral in this country; the spot close to the most public thoroughfare in London; the time, noonday.”[7]

*Another report states that Despard was interred in the churchyard of the parish of St. Faith, at the south end of St. Paul’s Cathedral.


  • [1] “London,” in Morning Post, 2 March 1803, pg. 2.
  • [2] Ibid.
  • [3] Cobb, James, The Monthly Mirror, 1803, p. 211.
  • [4] “Colonel Despard’s Funeral,” in Morning Chronicle, 2 March 1803 p. 3.
  • [5] “London,” p. 2. 
  • [6] “Colonel Despard’s Funeral,” p. 3.
  • [7] “London,” p. 2.

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