It’s Spring 1888. Queen Victoria is celebrating her 50th year on the throne and the PM is Robert Gascoyne-Cecil (Conservative). Rudyard Kipling, Thomas Hardy and Oscar Wilde are the country’s most read authors and The Financial Times launched it’s first issue. Later in July, snow will fall across the UK, Belfast will be granted city status and a patent will be awarded to a game called “Tiddely-Winks”.
A young craftsman and cabinet maker called William Purves from Duns, a small Scottish Borders town, embarks on a trip to New Zealand. The first leg of this Antipodean grand tour takes him to the Scottish capital a few months before the Flying Scotsman train breaks records reaching Edinburgh from London in only 6 hours and 19 minutes.
And it’s here our story starts.
Young William was enjoying Edinburgh so much, he set up shop as a “joiner, upholsterer, and cabinet maker” operating from a garden shed in Roseneath Terrace, a suburb of Marchmont. 1888 was a time of real growth across industry, transport, science and development. In response, the city’s population expanded rapidly. At their time of need, families would approach cabinet maker/joiners like William Purves to buy wooden coffins. Back in the day, these were simple boxes and the clientele would be from families within walking distance of his shop. Funerals were exclusively burials in the many cemeteries and churchyards of South Edinburgh and transport to these would have been by horse and carriage. Any viewings beforehand would have typically been done in homes. In Marchmont, this could frequently mean a fifth floor tenement.
Second generation – 1900s
Following his father’s retiral sometime at the turn of the Century, Willie becomes the second generation to carry on the family business. He opens a funeral office on Roseneath Street – a location that would remain Purves property for over 100 years. Like many of his generation, Willie fought in WW1. He was given leave to come home for a brief visit as his mother was ill. The timing was most fortunate as on Willie’s return to The Front, he learned his regiment, The Scots Greys Cavalry, had been killed. During Willie’s tenure, Warriston Crematorium opened it’s doors in 1929 followed by Seafield Crematorium almost a decade later in 1938.
Third generation – 1950s
Willie’s son John (or Jack as he was known) joins the family business as the third generation Purves. Jack was a time-served joiner who, for many years, worked alongside his father Willie. A year after his father’s death in 1962, Jack retires the 75-year long joinery legacy of William Purves. His focus is now on the funeral offering. He invests in a new funeral office offering rest rooms, a service chapel and the first company hearse – an Austin 3 litre and Daimler funeral cars. A few years later, Mortonhall Crematorium has it’s first service in 1967.
Fourth generation – 1970s
Jack’s son John is now the fourth generation of the Purves family to join the business, taking over in 1972. A few years later, in 1975, Jack passes away. In 1976, John is joined by his brother in law Graeme Brown and the company opens offices in Dalkeith in 1983, then Morningside in 1984. During the late 1980s, William Purves broke new ground by arranging more than 1000 funerals in a year.
In 1995, almost a century of William Purves in Roseneath Street comes to an end with the ambitious purchase of Oakvale on Whitehouse Loan as a full-scale funeral home with service room, space for arranging and viewing and a mortuary. John’s son Tim joins the team having spent most of his school summer holidays working in different areas of the business. The turn of the century is celebrated by the first acquisition of Wood & Hay Funeral Directors in Haddington, coupled by the appointment of Roger Pagan and James Morris as directors.
Fifth generation – 21st Century
William Purves entered a period of acquisitions; mainly family owned businesses seeking a company whose values would protect their legacy for future generations. William Purves branches in Goldenacre and Leith are opened in 2002 along with an acquisition of Elgin based Smith & Catto. In 2004, they purchase David Hardie & Son in Galashiels.
South of the border, in Northumberland, the company acquired Alistair Turner in Alnwick in 2005, and two years later opened branches in Amble and Rothbury. Morpeth and Guide Post based Jacob Conroy & Sons is bought in 2007 with Peter Grenfell’s Bedlington and Ashington businesses in 2008. In 2009, Graeme retires and in the same year Hawick based John Beattie & Sons and John Beattie Memorials are added to the group. Later that year, a William Purves branch is opened in Penicuik, followed by Chesser in 2010, Craigmillar and Craigentinny in 2011.
To consolidate their Borders presence, a William Purves branch is launched in Peebles and Jedburgh based Oliver & Sons is added in 2013. A further purchase in England is Blyth based Tom Woodhouse 2014. William Purves in Currie is opened in 2015 and later that year, the company purchased it’s first Tayside branches: Robert Samson in Broughty Ferry and James L Wallace in Dundee.
In 2014, John hands the reins to his son Tim, who along with Graeme’s children and three cousins, represent the fifth generation of our story. Tim was appointed Chairman of William Purves, and with directors James Morris, Roger Pagan, Colin Brown and Andrew Purves, continues to grow the business. Eric P Massie in Inverurie is purchased in 2016. Two years later the company acquires Gary Staker in Monkseaton and Shiremoor, and also in 2018 open a William Purves branch in St Andrews. 2022 saw the retiral of director Roger Pagan along with Graeme’s children Paul Brown and Sharon Hook and a further Borders acquisition: CR Low of Selkirk. In 2023 the company plans to open a William Purves branch in North Berwick.
Today, William Purves operates 25 branches throughout Scotland and North East England, with a 100 strong full-time workforce. The company has invested in crematoria, stonemasons and today, runs a fleet of 15 hearses and 17 limousines. It is one of the largest groups of independent funeral directors in the UK and continues to thrive. Most recently, our company highlights include the successful operation of a full service throughout the global pandemic of 2020 and the Scottish state funeral of HM Queen Elizabeth II in 2022.
The William Purves Promise
Having started in the 19th Century, grown in the 20th Century, our 21st Century business today honours the founding values of compassion, dedication, integrity and respect that William Purves made as his promise. Our commitment to providing the highest standards of care, from a skilled and qualified team, to families in the communities we serve, is as strong today as it was five generations ago.
Serving families in all the areas we have a presence – and earning their trust – drives us. What’s missing from this timeline, are the 100,000-plus families we have supported – many more when you add the legacy businesses. We’ve been, and continue to be, privileged to help every single one of our families, wherever they are, when they need us the most.
Our story, 135 years on; to be continued….