Death Mementos: Victorian hair jewellery touching souvenirs of dead

To me, Victorian mourning jewellery containing locks of human hair are some of the most endearing and emotive personal mementos found amongst the collection. This sentimental jewellery was associated directly with the Victoria era: named after Queen Victoria who ascended the English throne in 1837 and reigned for 64 years. In 1861 Victoria’s husband, Prince Albert, died from typhoid fever and so great was her grief that for the next forty years she lived a life of mourning. Her emotive state influenced a whole nation, which evolved a mourning fashion, particularly aimed at women, that included societal etiquette, clothing and jewellery.

From the 1850s onwards, Victorians were also influenced by archaeological discoveries of Etruscan, Greek and Egyptian artifacts: designers began making jewellery larger and bolder. Along with gutta-percha, pinchbeak and gold, the material most associated with mourning was jet, a type of fossilized coal. It could be easily carved, was highly polished and light to wear. With mourning, hair art became very popular: by cutting a lock of hair from a loved one after death and weaving it into designs for brooches, rings, watch fobs, bracelets and necklaces, the bereaved were able to keep that person close to their heart.

The archive holds one very moving example of hair that was never incorporated into mourning jewellery: a lock of yellowing white hair, dry and brittle to the touch, dulled with the passing of time and the removal of all natural oils. This lock belonged to William Colenso, tenderly removed after his death on 10 February 1899. Estranged from his wife Elizabeth and daughter Frances, there was no female relative to claim this very personal object and have it fashioned into jewellery to be worn close to the heart. Henry Hill, Inspector of Schools and close friend remarked on this fact when writing about William Colenso’s funeral: “The scene…was sad, and withal, beautiful.  An old man full of years and honours was borne to his last resting place. Yet no wife, no child, no relative was there to mourn his passing…”

Next time you visit the Museum, take a look in the Victorian stairwell case. Nestled amongst the many objects is a very fine example of mourning jewellery: a cameo set in a cord of plaited hair.

Not all hair was intended for mourning jewellery. While searching for items to use in a future exhibition about the Webb family from Ormondville, I came across three small packages of baby hair carefully enclosed in tissue paper. Unwrapping each is a very moving experience because I was aware that this hair, each lock different in colour, texture and curl, was once part of a vibrant human being. On the outside of each package is written the name of the child and age: Louisa, John and William Kerr, all direct descendants of the Webb family from England. So treasured were these children by the Webb family, that these small mementos were carried to the other side of the world in remembrance: poignantly this hair is the only physical thing that remains of their existence.

When Queen Victoria died in 1901, tastes and styles changed radically. The stages and periods of mourning became less defined and mourning jewellery incorporating hair was viewed with repugnance: this style of jewellery has never been revived.

  • Children’s Day at MTG. Drop in Zone featuring various craft activities, and the popular Museum Search. Sunday 4th March, 9:30am to 5:00pm. Free for all.
  • Anderson & Roe Piano Duo. Exploding genre boundaries, Anderson and Roe are as much at home with Mozart as they are with Daft Punk. Thursday 15 March, 7:30pm. Tickets available through Ticketek

Mourning Jewellery_3rd March

Gail Pope – Curator Social History, MTG

Published in the Hawke’s Bay Today, 3rd March 2018

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