Among the most treasured research tools we employed to write The Cowkeeper’s Wish are the photographs, letters, postcards and documents passed down through the generations. Holding something so old in your hands, you inch just a bit closer to the history you’re seeking, even if the object doesn’t tell you much more than you already knew. Likely, though, it does offer more than you first think.
The 1877 card above, for instance, comes from an offshoot in our family tree, and is typical of mourning cards of this period: three by four-and-a-half inches, made of thick paper with a striking black-and-white design, embossed with symbolic, funereal images. For something made of paper, it feels heavy in the hand, and looks elegant and important. In Victorian times, mourning cards were just one small part of the strict rituals around death, put in place by the upper crust but closely observed by the poor as well. They were sent out after the funeral had happened, and meant to be kept as a memento of the person who’d died.
This card for Queen Victoria’s beloved husband Albert was made in 1861, and unlike our family example, was created for the wider public as a way for them to participate in mourning the prince. According to the Victoria & Albert Museum, “Death was highly visible in Victorian culture. It was a time for communal feeling, studied response and ritual. People were encouraged to give public expression to their grief, and an industry of mourning dress and mementoes provided visible reminders of the dead. The death of Prince Albert in 1861 contributed to the cult of mourning that lasted for much of the 19th century. Part of the ritual was to send out beautifully embossed mourning cards in memory of the deceased. This card for Prince Albert … was mounted in a cheap frame for display in a modest room.”
Though the images are similar, the woman remembered in our family example — Mary Ann Bedford nee Bright — was of much humbler means. Married to a shoemaker, she worked at different times as a boot binder and a seamstress, and had 10 children. She lived with her family in Mile End, London, where her husband engaged the services of a local undertaker when she died. The name on the mourning card, Moses John Hickman, first appears in newspapers in 1845, under the heading “Apology.”
I, the undersigned, having exhibited several libellous Placards concerning Mr. Moses John Hickman, … Undertaker, respecting a disputed account between us, and which reflected on his character and credit as a tradesman, and he having commenced an action for libel against me, has consented to withdraw it upon my making this public apology, and paying his law costs. Geo. Henry Kelly, Printer, 1, New Road, St. George’s, East.
The notice doesn’t reveal what the dispute was about, but Hickman seems to have been conscious of maintaining a solid reputation thereafter, for the many advertisements that appear over the next decades promise “economy and respectability in funerals,” with “good black horses and proper fittings always used.” Just days after Mary Ann Bedford’s death, in January 1878, Hickman took out a longer ad, guaranteeing that “obsequies [would be] performed with respectability and decorum.”
CAUTION. — I beg to inform the Public that some Undertakers and others have issued a facsimile of my Prospectus, thereby deceiving them, by relying on Extras to make up their bills, instead of keeping to the sum specified in their advertisements. I have no connexion with any other establishment, and am only surprised that, in the present enlightenment—although a sense of duty might not restrain—Education does not make men abashed at the thought of being guilty of so mean an action as to rely on the merits of my productions to gain public favour.
Following the caution, he laid out the specific costs he charged for different types of funerals. A “walking funeral” for a grown person was £1/10; a carriage funeral, “with coffin and all requirements,” was £2; if you wanted to add a separate hearse and mourning coach, the cost went up to £3; add pairs of horses and the charge was £4; and up it went until you got to £17 for a more lavish display with “leaden coffin, stout elm shell and case covered with fine cloth, hearse, … two mourning coaches (pairs), ostrich plumes and velvets, lid of feathers, mutes, pages, &c.” These seem like tiny amounts to us now, but they were large sums for the working class at the time.
None of this, of course, tells us much about Mary Ann Bedford herself — or even about Moses Hickman. Maybe he did engage in shoddy business practices, despite his indignant statements. Or maybe was as upright as he sounds; after all, his career endured for decades. But the little clues uncovered here support the notion that funerals were big business, and that people were taken advantage of in their time of grief, not only due to the rigid customs of the times, but due to dishonesty and greed. Was Mary Ann Bedford’s family swindled? Or were they happy with the services performed to say goodbye to this 47-year-old wife and mother? These peripheral clues give some context as to the environment she lived and died in, and the concerns her family might have had regarding her funeral and burial.
Another clue lies in the very existence of the card, so many years after the death. Mary Ann Bedford’s daughter, Martha, was about 12 years old when her mother died. She never married or had children of her own, but when a dear friend (also Mary Ann!) died in 1917 when she was in her mid-forties, Martha took in the woman’s 10-year-old daughter and raised her as her own.
That girl, Doris Deverill, was our grandmother — an orphan like Martha — and it was she who kept the mourning card after Martha died, so that it continued to pass down through our own family, though we have no blood link to the Bedford line. That Martha Bedford and Doris Deverill both lost their mothers at a similar age was likely part of the special bond between them.
“Apology.” Morning Advertiser, 3 November, 1845.
“Respectable Funerals.” East London Observer, 5 January, 1878.
Memorial Card for Albert, Victoria & Albert Museum, 1861.