Edwin Burnell was a monumental mason who started up in business in 1860. He had a yard in East Street, Bedminster, the site of the firm to this day. A highly religious man, he helped to design and build the East Street Baptist Church; the first bible classes were held above what are now the company's premises. He worked as a mason until 1914, when Albert Tovey, who had travelled from Liverpool to Bristol, married Edwin's daughter, joined the business and started doing funerals.
Their very first funeral was for a Mrs. Spratt at the outbreak of World War One. They provided 'a polished elm coffin, brassed fittings, brocade padded sides, flannel robe, inscription, plate and bearer, one no. 3 car and one no.2 carriage' - all for £7.2s 0d, and the bill was never paid! 'Well', said Albert philosophically to his son Reginald, 'that was the Spratt to catch a mackerel'. Apart from the developing war, this was a delightful time with horse-drawn carriages and Bristol a far cry from the busy, crowded city it is today.
The austerity during and after the Second World War put an end to the extravagant funeral with mutes, velvet pall, cloaks and child attendants. Mourners gave up wearing black for months and writing on black-edged writing paper and carrying black-edged handkerchiefs. The only vestiges of long-term mourning that are retained are the black tie and armband, a relic of the crepe bands that Victorian Bristolians wore on their hats. Even in their passing, Bristol's famous traders liked to have everything ship-shape and in a Bristol fashion.
The fifth Burnell-Tovey, as the company became styled, is Richard, who reckons he is the best qualified funeral director in the land, with a B.Sc., M.Sc., and Dip F.D. - and he says he never intended to go into the business.
In the late 1970s, while waiting for replies to his many applications for jobs, Richard helped in the office answering the phone and holding the fort generally while his father, Grayston, was out conducting funerals. He was 23 when his father, who had 30 years’ experience, described him as being a born funeral director in the way he dealt with people and understood their needs. He asked Richard whether e would consider joining him in the business. So Richard said he would give it a go.
Richard is proud of the company where he has worked for 27 years and speaks glowingly of his father, Grayston, who he believes was one of the first people to be awarded the MBIE. 'He taught me all I know and when I started he made sure I worked through every age doing removals, lining coffins, preparing bodies and learning about interviewing techniques. Then having accomplished that, he asked whether I would be prepared to do the diploma course in funeral directing - and was subsequently delighted when I got top marks in the country in October 1978 and won the Scales Award'.
There is still a strong religious involvement in the business. Richard's father and grandfather were Christian Scientists. Having been involved with this movement for about fifty years and recognising their needs and special requirements, the company is well known in the Bristol and Bath areas for conducting their funerals.
The decor in the premises is still traditional throughout - very much in keeping with the building, which is now around 150 years. Richard has been responsible for modernising and refurbishing the funeral home, particularly the mortuary and cold room. There is an attractive entrance and foyer, two private chapels of rest, a large workshop and coffin storage area, a mortuary/preparation room and a room for engraving. The transport, which is a black Daimler fleet of a hearse and two limousines, is garaged elsewhere the area.
Richard arranges and conducts all the funerals himself in this very busy company. Fortunately Judith, his partner, works with him full time and his supportive team of drivers and bearers, who work part time, are always on call.