Analysing the English Collections at the Pitt Rivers Museum

Mourning jewellery

Alison Petch,
Researcher 'The Other Within' project

At the same time as Victorian close relatives of the dead wore deep or half mourning, they also wore special jewellery. This was most often in dark colours, particularly jet from Whitby. In addition, brooches, rings and arm ornaments were made using hair from the deceased relative. The Pitt Rivers Museum contains many such objects.

Mourning ornaments made from jet

1960.7.1 .3 String of twenty nine beads of polished jet

1960.7.1 .3 String of twenty nine beads of polished jet

Jet is a lightweight mineraloid, easy to carve and polish. The Oxford English Dictionary defines it as a 'hard compact black form of 'brown coal' or lignite, capable of receiving a brilliant polish. It is used in making toys, buttons, and personal ornaments; and has the property of attracting light bodies when electrified by rubbing.' Jet is formed from the wood of a tree growing over 135 million years ago. Some of the finest jet in the world was mined or swept onto the coast at Whitby in Yorkshire although it is also found in many other areas of the world. Jet has been worked for thousands of years. It has mostly be used to make jewellery but has also been used to make busts, miniature furniture, chess tables and even small models of buildings.

1960.7.1 .25-.27 The buttons are made of black glass to imitate jet, to be worn during mourning.

1960.7.1 .25-.27 The buttons are made of black glass to imitate jet, to be worn during mourning.

Mourning jewellery made from Whitby jet was highly prized and is now quite rare as supplies have run down. Jet mourning ornaments were considered suitable for deep mourning in Victorian times. At the start of the nineteenth century jet ornaments were carved by hand, but using a lathe speeded up carving and it became a sizeable industry in Whitby. By the 1850s it is said that there were around 50 jet workshops in the town. Samples of jet-working were shown in the Great Exhibition of 1851.

By 1873 fifteen hundred men were said to work in the trade and two hundred men were mining the raw mineral.

Mourning jewellery continued to be worn in the early twentieth century though by 1926 it was obviously under attack:

'If these mortuary jewels were as a whole very ugly, what shall be said of the hideous lumps of crudely manufactured jet which it is still considered by some classes of society to be necessary to wear when "in mourning" or the even more preposterous "half mourning" sets of ear-rings and the like, in which a little silver is introduced to lighten the effect. Whitby, which for centuries has been the seat of the jet industry, still carries on a trade in these ghoulish appendages, impervious alike to enlightenment or ridicule.' [Puckle, 1926: 270-1]

1960.7.1 .123 Black brooch made of bakelite. Made to imitate jet and to be worn during mourning.

1960.7.1 .123 Black brooch made of bakelite. Made to imitate jet and to be worn during mourning.

The Museum has a specimen of jet, donated by a member of the Museum's staff, Beatrice Blackwood, found on the beach in Whitby. She explained that:

'...the jet is ground on a wheel made of lead and some tin, using emory powder. The wheel was worked by a foot-treadle, recently electric power had been installed. Polishing is done with "rotten stone", a soft abrasive of solidified river mud, on a board covered with woollen cloth and finished on a beach covered with walrus hide. ' [Pitt Rivers Museum accession book XVI 43]

1954.11.55 Brooch of jet with metal pin. Flower design.

1954.11.55 Brooch of jet with metal pin. Flower design.

She obtained the jet, some worked pieces , and tools from Joseph Lyth in 1949. [ see Whitby Museum Jet Collection web page where the last image is a model of Whitby Abbey carved by Lyth ]

Anyone interested in jet jewellery is advised to visit Whitby Museum which has many fine examples on display.

The Pitt Rivers Museum has many examples of mourning ornaments, including:

  • a large number of mourning buttons and brooches made from Whitby jet and black glass and other materials [ 1960.7.1 .1-.126] given by Miss J and Miss Patience Watters in 1960.
  • a long mourning necklace made from Whitby jet in flat oval links and joined by black silk made in the mid nineteenth century was given by Mrs J.E. Chaney in 1956. [1956.4.2]
  • Mrs Chaney also gave a mourning necklace made from jet and decorated with acorns and flowers. [1956.4.3] This can be seen on display in the Museum in the Court (ground floor) in Case 21.A 'Introduction to the Pitt Rivers Museum'.
  • Estella Canziani gave a button of jet which was star shaped and set on a metal background [ 1961.2.036],
  • Miss Canziani also gave a mourning brooch of yellow metal with band of black enamel with gold lettering 'In Memory'. Apparently the centre should be glazed and contain hair but is empty. [1961.3.020] and a pendant made of jet with an ammonite in it [1941.8.0129]

A large number of mourning ornaments made from jet are displayed at the bottom of case Case 41.B - Body Arts - Death and Mourning in the Lower Gallery. These include 1956.4.2, 1960.7.1 (strings of jet beads donated by the Misses Watters), 1941.8.0129 and 1961.3.020 donated by Estella Canziani,

Useful links:






http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jet (lignite)

Further Reading:

J.A. Bower 'Whitby Jet and its Manufacture', Journal of the Society of Arts, volume 22, 19 December 1873 pp. 80-7

J.E. Hemingway, 1958, 'The Geology of the Whitby Area', in G.H.J. Daysh A Survey of Whitby and the surrounding area Eton, Windsor: Shakespeare Head Press

J.E. Hemingway and D.H. Rayner (Eds.) The Geology and Mineral Resources of Yorkshire Yorkshire Geological Society. 1974.

H.P. Kendall 1936 The Story of Whitby Jet

M. McMillan 1992 Whitby Jet through the Ages Published privately

Helen Muller, 1994 Jet Jewellery and Ornaments Shire Album No. 52

J.S. Owen, 'Jet Mining in North East Yorkshire' The Cleveland Industrial Archaeologist , No. 3, 1975

C. Parkin 'On Jet Mining' Transactions of the N. England Institute of Mining and Mechanical Engineers . XXXI, 1882 pp. 51-7

Bertram S. Puckle 1926 Funeral Customs: their origin and development London T. Werner Laurie Ltd

[part of this list was taken from the Whitby Museum website]

Mourning ornaments made from a dead person's hair

1940.7.29 Mourning ring with human hair and pearls

1940.7.29 Mourning ring with human hair and pearls

Ornaments made from hair are said to have grown out of the desire to keep a part of a loved one close to the wearer. Hair was woven and knotted to make brooches, bracelets, watchchains, earrings and necklaces. During the nineteenth century it is said that ornaments made from hair were suitable for half-mourning.

A description of how to make hair ornaments is given in on an American site, Ancestry.com - Victorian Death Rituals

'Preparation was important. The hair must be boiled in soda water for 15 minutes. It was then sorted into lengths and divided into strands of 20-30 hairs. Most pieces of jewelry required long hair. For example, a full size bracelet called for hair 20 to 24" long. Sometimes horse hair was used because it was coarser than human hair, and thus easier for a beginner.

Almost all hairwork was made around a mold or firm material. Snake bracelets and brooches, spiral earrings and other fancy hair forms required special molds which were made by local wood turners. The mold was attached to the center hole in the work table. The hair was wound on a series of bobbins, and weights were attached to the braid work to maintain the correct level and to keep the hair straight. When the work was finished and while still around the mold, it was taken off, boiled for 15 minutes, dried and removed from the mold. It was then ready to go to a jewelers for mounting.'

According to Hallam and Hockey:

'[t]he potency of human remains as facilitators of personal memory is evident in the uses of hair jewellery sustained from the seventeenth to the nineteenth century in Northern Europe. Worked into brooches, lockets, rings, and bracelets (often with the use of precious metals and stones) human hair has extended memory connections through the powerful evocation of the person to whom it once belonged. ... Human material that was regarded as 'dead' while the person was living, is thus transformed into a 'living' substance at death in the sense that it is reanimated as a possession capable of sustaining the deceased in close proximity to the bereaved. The physical durability of hair makes this possible as it stands in stark contrast to the instabilities of the fleshy body.' [2001: 136]

Hair was used for a variety of different ornaments, a mourning ring in the Museum's collections, given by Mrs James Blackwood (who was also known as Mrs King and who may have been the mother of Beatrice Blackwood, who worked in the Museum), was made of gold, black enamel and hair inset behind onyx. [ link to Relational Museum section on BB ] The ring is inscribed inside "Robert Ritchie died 3rd May 1871 Aged 75".[1940.7.28] The same donor gave other mourning rings: 1940.7.29, a gold mourning ring with hair encircled with seed pearls; and 1940.7.30 made from hair and twisted wire. These are on display in Case 99 in the Lower Gallery [if I get them moved].

An example of a mourning hair brooch in the Museum's collections is 1927.57.2, a small brooch in the shape of a lyre made from gold with the hair of a relative worked into the design. This ornament was given by Anna Meredith Barrett-Lennard in 1927 but had been owned by an aunt of her husband's, who died in around 1890 aged over 80.

Another set of examples are the four hair ornaments given by Mrs Robert Francis Wilkins in 1928. These were a neck ornament, two hair pins and a brooch 'cleverly mounted' (according to the accession book) with the hair of two children, Bertie and Frankie Wilkins who had died by 1867. The book says that they were made as memorial ornaments after the fashion of the earlier half of the nineteenth century. [1928.15.2] [ Please also link here to http://www.prm.ox.ac.uk/ornaments.htm which is a museum factsheet, preferably to the bit that relates to death ]

Pastorella Shelley in 1949 gave a mourning hair arm ornament, made from plaited and netted grey hair, which had been taken from Mrs Farrer, the donor's maternal great-grandmother in January 1867. [1949.10.41]

Sometimes the hair was not made into an ornament but was stored within it. Estella Canziani gave a silver locket in the shape of a heart, which contained hair and was engraved "August 13th 1889" (presumably the date of death of the person from whom the hair came). [1961.3.019]

A large number of mourning ornaments made from hair, including 1927.57.2, 1928.15.2, 1940.7.28, 1949.10.41 and 1961.3.019 (all mentioned above), are displayed at the bottom of case Case 41.B - Body Arts - Death and Mourning in the Lower Gallery.

Further Reading

Christiane Holm 'Sentimental Cuts: Eighteenth-Century Mourning Jewelry with Hair' Eighteenth-Century Studies , Vol. 38, No. 1, Hair. (Autumn, 2004), pp. 139-143.

 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.