Friday 27 June 2014

Death and the Victorians ...

This week I've been researching a character that I'm trying to create. For now her name is Phillice Anne Swift, but she's known to all and sundry as Philly Swift. Her mother had hoped that folk would use her full name; she reckoned Phillice sounded like a right proper lady's name. However, as is so often the case in life, things didn't quite work out according to plan. By the common consensus of their neighbours, none of whom could be bothered to add that precious extra syllable, Phillice was forever destined to be plain Philly Swift.

Now the point in time at which I am making Philly's acquaintance is in the late summer of 1888. She's a girl of sixteen, living in Chiswick, a middling sized village to the west of London, where her father works as a grave digger in Saint Nicholas' Churchyard on the banks of the Thames.

Philly's given up on school and spends her days helping her mother, who takes in laundry and earns a crust laying out the dead for them that are too grand or too clueless to see to their own when they pass. From time to time they travel into the less salubrious parts of the metropolis to work as street hawkers, selling a foul-smelling unguent of Mrs Swift's own invention, which she swears will cure the clap.

Now all of this has set the scene for a look at how people treated death way back in 1888. For them it was very much a part of life, and was far from being the taboo subject that it is today. The average life expectancy of a city labourer was only 38, and that of a well-heeled member of the middle class in a more convivial, rural setting was still only a relatively youthful 52. Infant mortality in the first year of life ran at 153 deaths per thousand live births. So, whilst Philly has done well to have survived to the age of 16, her chances of living into her 40s are not that great.

Back in Philly's day  one of the many worries that haunted humble folk was the prospect that they might suffer the indignity of a pauper's funeral.

Rattle his bones over the stones;
He’s only a pauper, whom nobody owns

So burial clubs were set up to enable the poor to pay a few pennies each month to defray the cost of their funerals when they passed. Charles Booth, the famous philanthropist, recounted the story of a girl who was a member of one such burial club in east London:

Her friends in the club, who were told that there was no hope of her recovery, joined together before her death to buy a wreath for her coffin; they were exceedingly anxious that she should live long enough to see it ... and by permission of the doctor, they went with it in a body to her room. She was immensely pleased and touched.

Can you imagine turning up at the bedside of an ill friend with a funeral wreath today? My guess is that you'd come out wearing it if their nearest and dearest caught up with you.

Then they worried that the Resurrectionists might seize their remains and take them off for the doctors to practice dissection on. So elaborate precautions were taken to protect the graves of the dead from the body snatchers. Heavy slabs of marble were wedged into place. Railings with pointed ends, on which a grave robber might impale himself, were erected like the outer curtain walls around a medieval castle under siege. 

And, as with everything, there was endemic corruption with the grieving relatives falling prey to unscrupulous undertakers. Dickens in From the Raven in the Happy Family satirises the way in which the concern to keep up appearances led to bereaved families being duped into shelling out way more than they could afford. 

Hearse and four, Sir? says he. 

No, a pair will be sufficient.

I beg your pardon, Sir, but when we buried Mr Grundy at number twenty, there was four on 'em, Sir; I think it right to mention it.

Well, perhaps there had better be four.

Thank you, Sir. Two coaches and Four, Sir shall we say?

No, coaches and pair.

You'll excuse me mentioning it, Sir, but pairs to the coaches, and four to the hearse, would have a singular appearance to the neighbours ... 

The whole business grew so out of hand that sections on funerals and bereavement were added to household encyclopaedias, which were fast growing in popularity.  Cassell's Household Guide (published in 1869) had an extensive section offering advice on the going rate for plots in the new metropolitan cemeteries and for all the funeral accoutrements as well as guidance as to what would be appropriate for each level of person. 

You can access an on-line version of Cassell's work here Cassell's Household Guide. It provides a fascinating window into so many aspects of domestic life in the second half of the nineteenth century. It offers advice on everything from first aid to legal matters, from accepted practice on bereavement to dressmaking, and from child birth (or confinement as they liked to call it) to recipes for the kitchen. 

 Cassell goes into an impressively detailed account on the likely price of everything and the degree to which the various mourning customs ought properly to be observed. The curtains were to be drawn in the deceased's house and only raised again once the coffin had been taken out to the funeral. It was advisable for the remains to be carried out feet first in case the spirit of the deceased might attempt to reach back for consolation from the living. There was a general fear that, left to their own devices, the dead might linger on with a view to persuading the living to join them. The mirrors were to be turned to face the walls, and all the clocks in the house were to be stopped at the exact time of death.

It was all part of an elaborate social ritual in which many of the people involved seemed to have relished the pomp and spectacle of a good send off.  Maybe, at the moment of crisis, it was therapeutic to observe each small detail of established mourning practice, and in being encouraged to display grief publicly.

Whatever the way of it I'm finding Philly's world in 1888 both compelling and just a little bit overwhelming at times.

All the best,

Bonny x


  1. Interesting article on how things used to be with some fine old photos to back up your research.

  2. For all the reasons listed in your excellent post, when I go, I'm being cremated & my ashes scattered across my beloved Sierra mountains with perhaps an informal 'wake' at Lake Tahoe for relatives & friends to celebrate my life and see me off' to whatever awaits me on the 'other side'. No escalated costs for a funeral or burial, no grave robbers to worry about. Simple & serene. :))

    1. That sounds like a really good way to do it. Thanks for stopping by. All the best, Bonny

  3. Very interesting. Good luck with Philly!

  4. Quite fascinating.

    And these days they sell coffins at Costco.

    1. Thank you. Gosh that's amazing. All the best, Bonny