John Frost - a pauper's funeral

A sad tale of society's expectations

Alone, cold and friendless

The sad end of John Frost in 1866, a pauper, ignited allegations of “a great and cruel scandal” in the pages of the Daily Southern Cross newspaper.

John Frost, an unemployed cooper (barrel-maker), estimated to be between 70 and 80 years old, died alone in an outhouse of the bank of New Zealand in Queen Street. It was raining heavily outside.

A man named James Goodacre had come upon John Frost. At an inquest, Goodacre said “ I observed that he looked very ill and asked if I should fetch a policeman to see him taken care of. He wished me particularly not to do so, and said that he felt stronger, and that he meant to get up.”

A “piece of bread and a pannikin of tea” was brought to him.

A Constable Bond was summoned at about 10 am on Saturday morning, and “found deceased lying dead on some straw, in a corner of the out-house…He lay on his back, with his hands bent across the body, outside the rug. I did not see any marks of violence on the body, nor any appearance of blood. His death seemed to have been quite natural.”

Goodacre added: “It is my impression that his death was caused by destitution. I have seen him frequently during the last few weeks, and he appeared to me to have been in want of the necessaries of life, in addition to which he was very old and infirm.

“He seemed to me at that time to be very feeble, and in great poverty. I have never seen him intoxicated. I have never known him to be in the lock-up; I do not think that he has ever applied for relief to the police. I believe he was not receiving rations lately. When I saw him on Wednesday I recommended him to go into the Provincial Hospital, as he was in a filthy state, and he promised to do so next week. I have this morning seen his dead body in an out-house off Queen Street.”

Police testimonies

The newspaper also quoted, at length, the testimonies of two policemen.

Constable McGlone said: “Between two and three that evening I went to the Rev. Mr Bree’s, and told a lady that there was to be a man buried in the Church of England burial-ground that evening at 4 o’clock. The lady took in the message, and returned and said that it was not Mr Bree’s week — that it was Dr Maunsell's week to see after the burying, of the dead. She told me Dr Maunsell lived in Parnell. I was sent over to inform Constable Cosgrove that he was to go direct to Dr Maunsell’s and tell him, about the funeral. He did so. I waited till he returned at ten minutes to four.

Constable Cosgrove said: “At half-past three on Saturday I spoke to Dr Maunsell, and told him that he was required at the burying-ground at four, as a corpse was to be buried by the Government. He asked me who it was, and I said I believed it was a poor man, who was found dead in the town that day. So he looked at his watch, and said that it was half-past three, and he could not go. He then went to an inner room, and brought out the printed form, and he read out of it to me that he should have a written notice the day previous to the burial, or not later than nine o’clock that morning. I asked him if he was going to say “Not”, as a constable was waiting in my place to take his answer to town and he said, “Yes”, so I walked away. It was raining very heavily.”

Inquest verdict

The inquest was held by Dr Philson, who is also buried in this cemetery.

The jury of the inquest returned this verdict: “That John Frost, on the 31st March instant, died in an out-house off Queen Street, through the inclemency of the weather and the want of the common necessaries of life, and by no violent ways or means whatsoever, to the knowledge of the said jurors. The jury call the attention of the authorities to the inadequacy of the means at present existing in Auckland for the relief of distressed persons whose infirmities or misfortunes render them unable to obtain a livelihood by their own exertion”.

The newspaper's view

On 3 April, the Daily Southern Cross reported:

“Yesterday, we directed the attention of the public to the death-bed of a pauper; today we invite them to attend his funeral. The cold neglect that prematurely froze up the life-blood in the shrivelled veins of John Frost, in the wretched shed at the rear of the site for the Bank of New Zealand, on Friday night last, seems to have followed his corpse to its final resting-place. As was his death so was his burial. Homeless, friendless, cold and hungry, he perished in the midst of this city, without a hand to help him, or the consolation of religion to strengthen him in the closing hours of his life, and his remains were interred or rather were not interred, by virtue of a police order, without an approach even to outward decency, or respect for the usages of Christian men. We shall tell the story as it has been told to us, for it appeals more powerfully to the consciences of right-minded men in its naked simplicity.”

It transpired that “a gentleman, whose name we withhold, was in the Church of England cemetery, and saw the gravedigger’s son hollowing out a grave. He inquired for whom the grave was being dug but the coffin, by the edge of the pit, answered his question. “John Frost” was the inscription on the coffin lid; and John Frost, so to speak, answered for himself.

“The gravedigger was asked why he had brought the corpse without inviting a clergyman to read the burial service over it and he was told in reply, that it was not his “duty” to invite a his “duty” was to dig the grave, and the responsibility of securing the attendance of a clergyman rested on those who ordered the funeral.”

Apparently, a priest had been summoned, but without the required notice (before 9am the same day) – so it seemed that John Frost would have to lowered into the grave by the gravedigger alone, and without the a proper burial service being read. The earliest a preist could come would be on Monday afternoon.

Of the gentleman bystander, the Daily Southern Cross said: “But our friend was determined that a public scandal should not be condoned by him; and on Sunday evening, the Rev. Mr Dudley having visited St. Sepulchre’s, was requested to read the burial service, and at once assented. The thing was not done according to rule, it is true but it was done nevertheless, and the open grave was closed, and all that remained of John Frost was at last concealed from the sight of men.”

The newspaper then opined that “We have, stated facts and facts that ought to make one blush that they are true. In one sense, the neglect that led to the death of John Frost was a greater scandal than the mode of his burial but both are scandalous in the extreme.

“It would appear, however, that those having the management of pauper burials in Auckland, take no trouble about these things. And why should they? It is not their “duty” and who ever heard of anyone in modern times exceeding his duty to befriend a starving wretch, much less to give the lifeless body of such, a one a decent burial? Again we say, a radical change of system is required to prevent the repetition of such neglect and scandal as we have brought to light. John Frost passed away from amongst his fellow men in misery, and contempt followed him even to the grave but we doubt not that with him the day of his death was better than the day of his birth. If the circumstances attending his death and burial lead to such radical reforms in the dispensation of the public charities, as to render their occurrence, hereafter unlikely, John Frost will not have lived or died in vain.”

A defensive response

A reverend Edward Nugent Bee replied in a long letter to the paper on 5 April, defending among other things the Church’s rules about paupers’ burials: “Now, sir, separated from the pathos and sentimentality of your descriptive powers, what is there in this case to authorise so severe an attack on the Episcopalian clergy? A man dies suddenly, and being homeless his body is taken possession of by the police. By virtue of their office they stand responsible for the proper and decent interment of the body. There are rules to which all other inhabitants of Auckland, , who belong to our church, and cheerfully subject. Why did not the police conform to those rules? Why was the body hurried out of sight half a dozen hours after death as though it had been plague-stricken? And why is it attempted to bring into contempt and disrepute the Episcopal clergy of Auckland, and to affix upon them the odium of inhumanity and indolence, when there is not the slightest possible justice in the charge?”

The editor responded the next day: “We have no motive in renewing the very unpleasant subject of John Frost’s death and burial, beyond that of bringing public opinion to bear upon the system, or want of system, now in operation for the relief of the sick and destitute. That was the scope and intent of our first article the second was penned because we felt that the burial scene was a public scandal, a repetition of which ought to be prevented if possible.”

Public debate

Over the next few days, other people wrote to the newspaper. One signed off with, “I am myself I am myself personally interested in the question, and have as little love of any real clerical nonsense as anyone but, at the same time, I do not like to witness what I consider to be a notable breach of ‘Fair Play’”.

Another correspondent, who chose to describe himself as ‘Englishman’, offered a pratcical observation: “It seems to me that, so long as the clergy are so few in number in Auckland, and have so much to do, there must inevitably be sometimes such delays as took place in the case of poor John Frost ... Surely to prevent such indecent haste, and for a hundred other reasons, a mortuary chapel is wanted, or a church with a crypt beneath it, in which bodies might be laid as soon after death as convenient, there to rest until a sufficient time had elapsed to prove life to be extinct, when the last rites might be reverently performed.

“I am willing to pledge myself to give the same sum as any other forty persons may be willing individually to give or collect towards this object.”

The editor of the Daily Southern Cross had the last word in the tragic affair: “We trust the members of the Episcopal Church in Auckland will act on the very practical suggestion made by our esteemed correspondent. If a mortuary chapel had existed, the scandal which John Frost’s burial gave rise to could not have occurred. Moreover, it must be apparent to any one conversant with the subject that the present church accommodation is not sufficient for the wants of the community.”