Victorian Mourning

Probably the most obvious image which comes to mind, when we think of the Victorians, is of Queen Victoria herself, in mourning for her beloved husband, Prince Albert who died in 1861.

Queen Victoria and her entourage remained in full mourning for five years and were only allowed to change into 'semi-mourning' because of the effect it was having on the morale of her staff and, indeed, the nation.

Click to see more pictures Pictured left is the Albert Memorial in Hyde Park built in the Prince's honour (opposite the Royal Albert Hall). It was recently completely renovated and is well worth a visit. The memorial is full of symbolism and demands a separate investigation to appreciate it fully. Click here to see more pictures and find out more about it at Bob Speel's website.

Mourning was a serious business for the Victorians and everything had to be carried out in the right way. Clothing (from hats to gloves) and even jewellery, were black, horses drawing the funeral carriage were black, and so were their plumes. Accompanying the funeral cortège were 'mutes' - professional mourners who wore sad expressions and, as the name suggests, did not speak. The whole aim was to create an atmosphere of sadness for the departed loved one.

It may seem odd to say this, as everyone will die one day, but for the Victorians death was a more common experience than it is for us today. In the first five years, the average age of those buried at Highgate was only 32. Many children and mothers died in childbirth, and three out of every twenty babies died before their first birthday. Those who survived childhood often died from illnesses we might not think of as life threatening today. Death cast such a shadow over their lives that, unlike today, death was not a taboo subject for them.

It was quite usual to photograph the deceased and even to send a copy with the funeral notice to distant friends. It was also common for the body to be displayed in an open coffin in the family's house, where visitors might come to pay their respects.

To help them cope with such sorrow in their lives the Victorians channelled their grief into artistic expression. The customs and traditions of mourning helped to control their grief. Mirrors would be covered, curtains drawn, and clocks might be stopped at the time of death. The material used for adding black decoration to clothing was called crÍpe which had no shine to it.

Graves were also decorated with memorials to the deceased which often included something related to their profession. Pictured left is the grave of a coachman - you can see his post-horn and a riding whip in relief at the bottom. Favourite animals such as cats or dogs might also adorn graves, often shown sleeping or pining for their deceased masters and mistresses.

One of the famous graves in Highgate is that of Captain George Wombwell, a menagerist (exhibitor of wild animals). Sleeping across his tomb is a stone lion called Nero. He made a lot of money displaying lions and other animals around the country, but also made them fight as a public spectacle. Sadly he also had Joseph Merrick, the so-called 'Elephant Man', who suffered from Proteus Syndrome, among his exhibits.

Find out more about the lives of George Wombwell and Joseph Merrick at these sites:

Sexton's Tales     Tribute to Joseph Merrick