Analysing the English Collections at the Pitt Rivers Museum

Mourning accessories

Alison Petch,
Researcher 'The Other Within' project

1944.9.129 Black-edged mourning envelopes, used by Sir Arthur Evans after the death of his wife.

1944.9.129 Black-edged mourning envelopes, used by Sir Arthur Evans after the death of his wife.

In Victorian times, a death in the family affected many areas of normal daily life. The museum contains an example of this; samples of writing paper and envelopes with thick black borders used by relatives for all correspondence during the mourning period. The width of the border was said to be determined by the depth and time duration of the mourning and mourning etiquette. [Richardson, 1989: 106] The first set of paper, in two sizes and envelopes were donated by Mrs James Blackwood in 1941. The paper and envelopes dated from the late nineteenth or early twentieth century. You can see this object in the drawer C.122.B in the Court of the Museum. The second set of mourning envelopes were given by Kate and Joseph Grafton Milne in 1944 and had been used by Arthur John Evans (1851-1941), the erstwhile Director of the Ashmolean Museum after the death of his wife, Margaret in 1893. [1944.9.129].

Further Reading

Ruth Richardson 1989 'Why was death so big in Victorian Britain' in Ralph Houlbrooke [ed] Death, Ritual and Bereavement Routledge, London

 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.