Monday, 12 March 2012

"In Memoriam" - Victorian & Early 20th Century Mourning

A winged angel holding flowers watches over a tomb
in the Northern Cemetery, Dunedin, New Zealand

"Mourning etiquette" dictated many established social customs during and after the death of a loved one and that these were rigidly adhered to. Many of these customs dated from well before the Victorian era but increased exponentially after the death of Prince Albert in 1861. Queen Victoria then plunged herself - and her country - into an over zealous and elaborate display of mourning. Woe betide anyone who chose to ignore the accepted 'rituals' of mourning! It was only from the Edwardian era that many of these rituals, such as the period one must wear mourning, were slightly relaxed but many elements of mourning are still practised today. The colour black is synonymous with mourning, being used in many ways to demonstrate the grief of the bereaved. This blog highlights a number of the established rituals of "mourning" over the last 192 years drawing mainly on items from my own collections.

"The Globe" newspaper with black borders,
published in London, 15th February 1820

Black bordered memoriam cards, stationery and even envelopes were a mark of respect for a deceased person. The death of the reigning Monarch would additionally be commemorated with black bordered pages in newspapers.

"The Globe" newspaper illustrated above and published in London on the 15th February 1820 displays black borders in mourning for the recent death of His Majesty King George III of the United Kingdom. The newspaper carries a full report of the funeral of the late King.

"The Edinburgh Evening Courant" newspaper with
black borders, published in Edinburgh, 15th July 1830

"The Edinburgh Evening Courant" newspaper published in Edinburgh on the 15th July 1830 and with black borders in mourning for the recent death of His Majesty King George IV of the United Kingdom. The newspaper includes a full account of the late King's life plus a rather explicit account of his post-mortem!

A "Fearful Disaster on the Clyde", SS Daphne, 3 July 1883

Disasters with grievous loss of life such as maritime or railway disasters typically brought forth an outpouring of public grief, often commemorated by specially printed pamphlets containing religious scripts or appropriately sombre but religiously uplifting poetical verses.  

The above pamphlet commemorates the loss of at least 124 men and boys when the S.S. Daphne capsized upon her launching at Govan on the Clyde on the 3rd July 1883. A large crowd witnessed this dreadful event with rescuers only able to save about 70 survivors. One of the outcomes of the subsequent enquiry was the limiting of personnel aboard a vessel being launched to only those necessary for mooring the ship after the launch.

A death at sea on a long voyage would have been particularly tragic as the body had to be 'buried' at sea and as soon as possible. The following diary entry is taken from the voyage of the RMS Ionic From London to New Zealand in 1910 and refers to a  man who had taken the long voyage "for his health" :

"Friday 23rd Dec : The burial of the passenger who died last night took place about 6.30 this morning. Most of the passengers were on deck. The corpse which was sewn up in canvas was laid on deck at the stern of the boat and the Captain and Officers were gathered round it. The service was conducted by a young Minister from the 2nd Class & after it was over the boat slackened speed for a minute or two and the corpse was slipped overboard. He leaves a wife & a family in England to mourn his loss." 

A black bordered letter written by a widower.

The above black-bordered letter is written by a grieving widower, Mr Robert Lawson of "Caledona" Juniper Green, near Edinburgh after the death of his wife Ann at Edinburgh in 1920. This was then posted in a black-bordered envelope, an example used by Queen Victoria being illustrated below.

A black bordered envelope used by Queen Victoria.
[Source : Internet]

Many widows and widowers would continue to use black bordered stationary for the rest of their lives.  Even the then popular "calling card" would become permanently black-bordered for a widow or widower.

A Military Funeral for Private John Watson, Winton, New Zealand,
18th September 1915

The above Military Funeral of Private John Watson at Winton New Zealand on the 18th September 1915 included Territoral Soldiers (leading at front and carrying rifles), Cadets, members of the National Reserve, and also Boy Scouts. The Winton Municipal Band played the Dead March as the funeral cortège made its way from the Army Drill Hall to the [old] Winton Cemetery. Behind the Soldiers and Band is the coffin being carried on a horse drawn cart and most probably draped with a Flag. Had the coffin been carried in a horse drawn hearse it would ordinarily have been decorated with black ostrich plumes.

Following the coffin above are female members of the family in the undertakers covered carriage with male family members and friends following behind. The service at the graveside was concluded with a volley of fire into the air from the firing party. As Private Watson had died [of illness] in military service, his death notice in the newspaper received the additional honour of black borders.

A commemorative medal for the life and service of Private John Watson
who died in military service, 14th September 1915

Those who died in Military Service during "The Great War" of 1914-1918 were honoured in the form of a large commemorative bronze plaque, also known as a "Dead Man's Penny". This was then sent to their next of kin. Designed by Edward Carter Preston, it shows Britannia with a trident and offering a wreath, with the British lion at her feet. The medal, of which over one million were made and personalised with the names of the deceased, was accompanied by a printed letter from His Majesty, King George V.

Mr James Watson of Heddon Bush, New Zealand wearing
a black armband in mourning for his Brother. Taken 1915

For some time after the decease of a parent or close family member mourning etiquette dictated that a black armband must be worn by men. Women would dress in mourning black. Attending social activities such as dances would be curtailed, often for some months, with such 'merriment' being viewed as unseemly and inappropriate. 

(L to R) Mrs Jane Letham (née McGowan), Marion Watson & Mrs Eliza
Watson (née Letham), Taken at Candermains, Stonehouse, Scotland,
Taken circa 1908

The above photo is not only illustrative of changing fashions for the late Edwardian period but also typically illustrates "Widows Weeds". Mrs Letham, a widow pictured at left of the group, is wearing subdued colours lined with black including a black bonnet and ruffled arm bands. Her clothing is also typically late Victorian in style which was not unusual for a person from an older generation. Contrast this with her Granddaughter's attire at rear. While not full mourning which would have included all black and a veil, Victorian mourning etiquette dictated that widows would continue to wear black or subdued colours and avoid bright colours for the remainder of their lives. The requirement to publicly demonstrate mourning was truly unrelenting.    

Larnach Family mausoleum, North Dunedin Cemetery

Mourning could also visibly demonstrate love, as we know with the Taj Mahal. The above impressively large mausoleum was initially built in 1881 to house the remains of Eliza Jane Guise, a French heiress and wife of financier and Member of Parliament, William Larnach. Designed by the noted Architect Robert Lawson, it mimics the style of the iconic gothic styled Presbyterian First Church in Dunedin.

Doorway of the Larnach family mausoleum,
North Dunedin Cemetery

Recently restored and surrounded with electronic security features, this magnificent edifice now also houses the remains of William Larnach himself, his second wife Mary Alleyne (a half sister of his first wife Eliza), his daughter Kate and son Donald. His third wife outlived him. Tragically both William Larnach and his son Donald took their own lives.

The Memorial to Ethel Preston at Lawnswood Cemetery
in Leeds, England. Taken Feb 2012
[Photo Credit : S Carroll]

This memorial is either a story of great love or of remorseful guilt! It is reputed that Mrs Preston of "The Grange" in Beeston England waited at the door every night for her husband and after her death aged 50 in March 1911 her grieving husband had this striking memorial erected to her memory at Lawnswood Cemetery in Leeds, England. Her husband Walter finally joined his wife in 1930.

However an alternative well known story perhaps paints a different picture! A staff member of the Prestons alleged that Mr Preston had been somewhat of a womaniser, abandoning his wife for days.

"The memory of returning to his wife's mournful vigil at the entrance of the Grange haunted him so much he effected it in marble. Ethel's health deteriorated due to her husband's habits and finally led to her death.... allegedly. The memorial is a guilty testimony to this."

Built of Italian marble, a life sized statue holding flowers stands under a classical porch supported by entablature, cornice and a ballustraded parapet. Black marble doors are slightly ajar at rear. The memorial is said to be a replica of the entrance to their now demolished home at "The Grange", Beeston.

Monumental Mason's letterhead

The above Monumental Mason's letterhead, being for "Kingsland & Ferguson" of Invercargill, New Zealand proudly illustrates an example of monumental work. Until cost became a consideration and council bylaws became more restrictive in recent years, many headstones were often exceedingly large and surprisingly elaborate. Sadly damage from weathering, instability of the ground, rusting iron supports and vandalism have taken their toll on many early and detailed headstones. The lack of funding does mean that little general remedial work can be undertaken. In the old Highgate cemetery in London the overgrown and crumbling nature of the tombs and mausoleums does lead a certain charm to the place. Conversely, in the large Ohlsdorf cemetery in Hamburg Germany the headstones are removed after 25 years if a fee is not paid by the family and the plot re-used plus the "occupants" of mausoleums removed. The cemetery is however neat and tidy with beautifully kept gardens.    

Gold mourning ring owned by Mrs Mary Dougal, née Dykes.
 Circa 1840's

One of the most poignant and visible reminders of a loved one were pieces of jewellery containing woven human hair from a deceased relative. Above is a gold ring dating from the 1840's owned by Mrs Mary Dougal (née Dykes) of Lesmahagow Scotland and containing woven human hair visible under a clear "window" and set with pearls.

A ladies fob chain made of woven human hair (Watson estate)

The above ladies fob chain with gold mounts, small wax seal and watch winding key is one of the more unusual examples of this style of remembrance that I have come across.

Broach containing woven human hair owned by Mrs Eliza Watson
(née Letham) of Candermains, Stonehouse, Scotland. Circa 1880's

The above gold broach contains a large piece of woven human hair which may be viewed by many today as a rather macabre display of mourning and remembrance. But such an outward display of mourning has to be kept in the context of the time. Additionally, it would have been commissioned by the holder to wear and would not have appeared out of place in the Victorian world in which the wearer, Mrs Eliza Watson, lived. Keeping a lock of hair from the deceased would often suffice and I do hold such an example which had been placed in a black bordered envelope.

Bibliography :

- Internet sources
- Unless otherwise stated all images are from my own collection or taken by myself and may not be used for any commercial purpose without my express permission. Images may freely be used for personal purposes provided a link is given back to this page.

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