Cremation was not legal in Great Britain until 1885, but interest in this form of disposing of human remains emerged during the second half of the 19th century from ideas that reached the country from Italy. In 1869 the idea was presented to the Medical International Congress of Florence by Professors Coletti and Castiglioni "in the name of public health and civilization". In 1873, Professor Paolo Gorini of Lodi and Professor Ludovico Brunetti of Padua published reports of practical work they had conducted. A model of Brunetti's cremating apparatus, together with the resulting ashes, was exhibited at the Vienna Exposition in 1873 and attracted great attention, including that of Sir Henry Thompson, 1st Baronet, a surgeon and Physician to the Queen Victoria, who returned home to become the first and chief promoter of cremation in England.
Sir Henry Thompson's main reason for supporting cremation was that "it was becoming a necessary sanitary precaution against the propagation of disease among a population daily growing larger in relation to the area it occupied". In addition, he believed, cremation would prevent premature burial, reduce the expense of funerals, spare mourners the necessity of standing exposed to the weather during interment, and urns would be safe from vandalism. On 13 January 1874, some advocates of cremation held a meeting at Thompson's house in London and formally founded the "Cremation Society of Great Britain" which was "organised expressly for the purpose of obtaining and disseminating information on the subject and for adopting the best method of performing the process, as soon as this could be determined, provided that the act was not contrary to Law".
The first duty of the Cremation Society was to ascertain whether cremation could be legally performed in the country, and then to construct a first crematorium. In 1878, a piece of land in Woking on which the crematorium was to be established was bought by Sir Henry Thompson. The acre of land was purchased with the aid of subscriptions (at £200 each) from the London Necropolis Company. Professor Gorini was invited to visit Woking and supervise the erection of his cremation apparatus there. It was first tested on 17 March 1879, when the body of a horse was cremated. The inhabitants of Woking showed strong antipathy to the crematorium and appealed to the Home Secretary, Sir Richard Cross, to prohibit the use of the building. Only after cremation had been declared legal in February 1884 during Dr. William Price's trial, the Woking facility could begin to operate.
On 26 March 1885, the first official cremation in the UK took place in Woking. The deceased was Mrs Jeannette C. Pickersgill, whom The Times described as "a well-known figure in literary and scientific circles". By the end of the year, the Cremation Society of Great Britain had overseen two more cremations, a total of 3 out of 597,357 deaths in the UK that year.
In 1886 ten bodies were cremated at Woking Crematorium. During 1888, in which 28 cremations took place, the Cremation Society planned to provide a chapel, waiting rooms and other amenities there. The subscription list was headed by the dukes of Bedford and Westminster. The 9th Duke of Bedford later donated further money to complete the buildings and to purchase further ground adjacent to the property.
In 1892, 104 cremations were carried out at Woking. The same year, the first provincial crematorium was opened in Manchester. Four years later similar action was taken in Liverpool where the fourth crematorium in Great Britain was established.
1900 saw the opening of the first municipal crematorium at Hull and in 1902 Golders Green Crematorium became the first crematorium in London. Since November 1902 more than 300,000 cremations have taken place at Golders Green, far more than any other British crematorium.
In 1905 the famous actor Sir Henry Irving was cremated and his ashes buried in Westminster Abbey, thereby becoming the first person ever to be cremated prior to interment at the Abbey. This marked a milestone as after the death of the famous botanist Sir Joseph Hooker in December 1911, the Dean and Chapter of Westminster Abbey chose to offer Hooker a grave near Charles Darwin's in the nave but also insisted that he be cremated before. His widow however declined and so Hooker's body was buried in the churchyard of St. Anne's Church, Kew.
Until the beginning of the First World War, the number of cremations carried out at the crematoria in Britain (by then thirteen) grew steadily. In 1911, the annual figures reached 1,000 for the first time, and of this number, 542 were now cremated at Golders Green. By the end of 1914 the national figure was 1,279. Cremation began to receive further public attention when it was used for the funerals of a number of celebrities in the UK. In 1917 Princess Louise, Duchess of Connaught became the first member of the British Royal Family to be cremated. The procedure of burying ashes in an urn was still unfamiliar at the time, and her urn was transported in an ordinary coffin during the funeral ceremonies. Other important public figures cremated then were Admiral of the Fleet John Fisher, 1st Baron Fisher in 1920 and Field Marshal John French, 1st Earl of Ypres in 1925.
In the inter-war period, cremation received further prominence through the funerals of Prime Ministers Bonar Law, Ramsay MacDonald and Neville Chamberlain. The first Welsh crematorium (Glyn Taff) was built at Pontypridd in 1923. In 1932 the Cremation Society ceased to be a cremation authority when ownership of Woking Crematorium was transferred to the London Cremation Company, which was the authority controlling Golders Green Crematorium. Until 1933 there had been a total of 16,312 cremations in the UK, and in 1934 alone there were 8,337. As it became a common practice to bury national figures only after they had been cremated, this had an immense effect on public opinion.
Between 1936 and 1939, new crematoria opened in Blackpool, Dundee, Charing in Kent, Streatham, Harrogate, Norwich, Islington, Birmingham, Croydon, St. Marylebone, Cheltenham, Bournemouth, Aberdeen, Wandsworth, Leeds, Rochdale, Enfield, Paisley, Cambridge, Mortlake, Leith, Oxford, Weymouth, Kensal Green and Northampton.
In 1944 the body of Dr. William Temple, the Archbishop of Canterbury was cremated at Charing Crematorium in Kent. He was the first Primate of All England to be cremated, followed by the cremation of his predecessor Cosmo Gordon Lang in 1945. These two funerals marked how this practice had by now become accepted within the Church of England.
Until 1946 there had been some 50,000 cremations in the UK, also at this time 58 crematoria were in operation and even this number was insufficient to meet the growing demand. Between 1951 and 1954 new crematoria were opened at Birmingham, Kingston upon Thames, Skipton, Middleton, Gloucester, Southend on Sea, Dukinfield, Oldham, Cardiff, East London, Wolverhampton, Grimsby, Bolton and South West Middlesex. On 14 January 1957, the 100th crematorium in the UK was opened at Agecroft Cemetery, Salford. Further crematoria followed in the same year at Colwyn Bay, Birtley, New Southgate, South Essex, Craigton, Colchester, Nuneaton and Ruislip, and twelve more were added in 1958. The steady rate of growth quickened into a period of rapid expansion from 1960 onwards. 30 new crematoria were opened during 1960 and 1961 alone. In the succeeding years 11 were added in 1962, five in 1963, five in 1964, two in 1965, 12 in 1966, two in 1967 and four in 1968, including the 200th at Worthing.
By the end of the 20th century, over 240 crematoria were in use in the United Kingdom. In 2000, over 70% of the deceased were cremated (437,609 out of 611,960 deaths), making this one of the highest percentages of cremations in the European Union.1874–1904 Sir Henry Thompson, 1st Baronet (1820–1904)
1904–1921 Sir Charles Cameron, 1st Baronet (1841–1924)
1921–1940 Herbrand Russell, 11th Duke of Bedford (1858–1940)
1940–1955 Thomas Horder, 1st Baron Horder (1871–1955)
1955–1960 James Grimston, 5th Earl of Verulam (1910–1960)
1960–1968 Sir John Cameron, 2nd Baronet (1903–1968)
1970–1982 Anthony Greenwood, Baron Greenwood of Rossendale (1911–1982)
1982–1990 Frank Shaw Marshall, Baron Marshall of Leeds (1915–1990)
1992–2013 Richard Grey, 6th Earl Grey (1939–2013)