Analysing the English Collections at the Pitt Rivers Museum

Memorial items

Alison Petch,
Researcher 'The Other Within' project

Objects related to memory of the dead or associated with the mourning process are represented in the museum. Gibson comments that 'the transitional nature of human corporeal existence is both compensated for and replaced by representation and objects.' [Gibson, 2004, 291] She refers to the concept of 'melancholic objects, ... objects that have been central to grieving, and particularly, the memory of grieving.'[Gibson, 2004: 286] As well as personal grief, memorial items can display more remote public grief or commemoration. It is easy to understand the reasoning behind memorials, they 'evoke a sense of closeness to the dead person'. [Jalland, 1989: 182] During the Victorian period memorials and memorabilia of the dead were important.

Further Reading

Pat Jalland 1989 'Death, grief and mourning' in Ralph Houlbrooke [ed] Death, Ritual and Bereavement Routledge, London

Memorial medallions

The Museum has three medallions created to commemorate the death of someone. Such medallions were struck sometimes for the death of a national figure but at others for a personal connection. The first is described as

Brass medallion - Obverse, portrait head & legend 'Caroline, Queen Consort of George IV' - reverse, a mortuary urn under a weeping willow & legend 'Born May 17, 1768. Married April 8, 1795. Died Aug. 7 1821 aged 53'. [1946.8.57]

The second:
Copper medallion - Obverse, man's head & legend as border ' We ne'er shall look upon his like again' - Reverse, 2 actors masks, pierced by dagger & trumpet through the eyes, surmounted by thistle and crown. Legend 'Sims Russell Court' - No date [1946.8.58]

The third:
London - Copper medallion - Obverse, man's head & shoulders, & legend 'Ironmonger, Bishopsgate, London' - Reverse, ascending balloon, 'Sparrow' & legend 'Ascended at Oxford June 23 1823' [1946.8.59]

All of them were donated by Basil Charles Allchin (1878-?) in 1946. Allchin was the Assistant Organist at Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford, Registrar of the Royal College of Music and music teacher.

Memorial medallions are still produced today, though most examples found on the internet appear to be American. For example a devoted fan could buy a Ronald Reagan Bronze memorial medallion described on the site as:

'The Official Coin of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, this medallion is three inches in diameter with a finely detailed antique finish and warm lustrous highlights. Displayed in a leatherette case with wood display base. The text on the back reads, "Whatever else history may say about me when I'm gone, I hope it will record that I appealed to your best hopes, not your worst fears; to your confidence rather than your doubts. My dream is that you will travel the road ahead with liberty's lamp guiding your steps and opportunity's arm steadying your way".'

At the time of writing the medallion costs 50 US dollars. [https://www.reaganfoundation.org/store/products.asp?subcat_id=72]

Memorial food: Biddenden Maids

1902.60.4 Biddenden Maids biscuit.

1902.60.4 Biddenden Maids biscuit.

1902.60.4 Biddenden Maids biscuit (back view)

1902.60.4 Biddenden Maids biscuit (back view)

The next items do not at first glance appear to be Victorian, but they were obtained during Victorian times (or shortly afterwards), and seem likely to have reflected the taste of the time.

Biddenden is near Ashford in southern Kent. It lies on the Weald, and was a centre for the iron industry and clothmaking. Mary and Eliza [or Elisa] Chulkhurst came from the town and are supposed to be one of the earliest known sets of conjoined twins. Bondeson states:

'According to tradition, the Biddenden Maids ... were born to fairly wealthy parents in the year 1100. Their bodies were joined at the hips and shoulders. They were naturally very close friends, although they sometimes disagreed in minor matter, and had 'frequent quarrels, which sometimes terminated in blows. In 1134, when the Maids had lived joined together for 34 years, Mary was suddenly taken ill and died. It was proposed that Eliza should be separated from her sister's corpse by means of a surgical operation, but she refused with the words 'As we came together we will also go together', and herself died 6 hours later.'[1882: 217]

Traditionally they are said to have left their estate to the church, to provide a dole of food and drink to the poor. Although they are often treated as if they were real, historical, figures, some critics believe that the women did not exist, or that they did not live in the twelfth century. Early accounts of the Maids in the eighteenth century do not mention their birth dates, it was not until 1808 that they were said to have been born then, in a broadsheet distributed with the charity. [Bondeson, 1992: 218]

Even today, every Easter Monday morning, food and tea is give to the widows and pensioners of the village, while the Biddenden bicuits, baked of flour and water, are sold to the crowd of tourists and spectators. The cakes bear the effigy of the Biddenden Maids, and are apparently very hard and almost uneatable. Historical accounts of this dole are many [see Bondeson, 1992] for example:

'In 1681, the Rector of Biddenden, Giles Hinton, reported to the Archbishop of Canterbury that the distribution was made inside the church 'with much disorder and indecency', and he suggested that the custome needed 'a regulation by His Grace's Authority. The charity remained, however, although the distribution was removed to the church porch. In 1770 ... a good deal of bread, cheese and beer was distributed in church after the afternoon service. Those who did not gain an entrance into the crowded church had to be content with the hard Biddenden cakes with the Maids' effigy, which were thrown out among the populace from the church roof.' [Bondeson, 1992: 217]

The fame of Biddenden Maids dole spread and it became more difficult to control the large number of visitors in church. The distribution of the charity was therefore moved to Biddenden poorhouse.

We have three Biddenden cakes, 1884.56.100, given by Augustus Henry Lane Fox Pitt Rivers in 1884 and obtained in 1875, 1902.60.4 donated by Henry Balfour, and 1917.53.684 given by Anna Tylor, owned previously by her husband Edward Burnett Tylor who was given the object by Mrs Elton. We also have a printed account, 1884.56.100 .2, given by Pitt Rivers, which sounds similar to the sheets mentioned by Bondeson:

'A broadsheet on the Biddenden Maids was printed in 1808 and sold outside the church during Easter. ... In the 1820s, a 'new and enlarged' account of the Maids was printed ...' [Bondeson, 1992: 217]

Clinch in 1900 discussed the moulds that were used to make the cakes during the nineteenth century. There are illustrations in Bondeson, 1992: 219 and 220 of the eighteenth and nineteenth century moulds, from which it appears that new moulds were made quite frequently and that they generally reflected the prejudices and tastes of the time they were made. A similar mould is still used today. The earliest moulds had no names or dates at all on them and the shape of the heads were a little different.

Although the Biddenden Maids story and cakes are not Victorian, our examples were obtained within the Victorian period or just after. They are therefore likely to reflect the dole as it was at that time.

Further Reading and useful links






J. Bondeson 1992 'The Biddenden Maids: a curious chapter in the history of conjoined twins.' Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine , 85 (4), 217-221. [ NB there are images of the twins here which you could link to ]

G. Clinch 1900 'The Biddenden Maids' The Reliquary and Illustrated Archaeologist NS 1900: 6: 42-6

[Many thanks to Mrs Prue Stokes of Biddenden for her comments on this webpage]

 Death Objects  

The Pitt Rivers Museum has many objects in it's collections that are related to the subject of death from all over the world, including England. Some of these are discussed in tthe following articles.


Birth and death are the only certainties for all humans, and every culture has had customs and practices associated with burials and with the mourning of family and friends. Many of the English items in the Pitt Rivers Museum in this category come from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries when there was a very strong interest in the customs associated with death and mourning. It is said that this interest was fostered by Queen Victoria's response to the death of her husband, Albert, in 1861. She wore mourning for the rest of her long life. Victorian society, at least from the 21st century perspective, appears to have been excessively governed by formal rules of etiquette. This was as true for matters relating to death as with all other areas of social life.

Attitudes to death in England have changed considerably since Victorian times. Where once it was commonplace and acceptable to wear ornaments made from the enduring parts of relatives' corpses (that is, hair) it has come to seem unsavoury. We have now generally become more squeamish about death, we are much less likely to view the bodies of even close relatives once they are dead. At one time, it would have been expected that neighbours and friends, as well as relatives, would have visited the corpse before interment.

All cultural values are relative and shift over time and space, but in relation to death some of these values have changed greatly over relatively small periods of time, or short distances. Even today, for example, the relationship the English have with the dead is different from that experienced in Scotland or Ireland. The following web pages examine only those practices and artefacts relating to death in and from England.