Such a Very Little Coffin: 1901

A mourning card for three children.

A mourning card for three children.

“JACKY”

[Pall Mall Gazette.]

“Yes, Miss, I’m glad the Society can send me and Baby to the ‘Ome for a bit; but won’t you walk upstairs?”

So spoke Mrs Hunt, a sad-looking young woman with a quiet voice, to the girl standing beside her, and they began to toil up the many stairs of a model lodging-house. At last Mrs Hunt stopped at one of the doors, but before turning the handle she hesitated a moment and said, “You know I lost my Jacky yesterday. You won’t mind, will you?” And then she led the way into the dingy little top back room.

The girl glanced around almost nervously, for this was one of life’s realities that she had never met before; but there was nothing alarming in the sight of the little coffin resting on two chairs. Yet, somehow it made her feel strange, perhaps because it was such a very little coffin. Mrs. Hunt, however, did not seem to notice the addition to her furniture, for she asked abruptly, “Will they want me to take slippers to the “Ome, for I ‘aven’t got none,” and her voice was quite composed, though a trifle dull and hard. So the girl pulled herself together and a serious discussion followed as to the advisability of buying cheap shoes in the Edgware Road, or of getting a second-hand pair “off a friend.”

But all the while that she was speaking, the girl could not keep her eyes from wandering every now and then towards that other corner of the room, and suddenly she began to realise with astonishment that the coffin, though small, was made of polished oak with silver-plated fittings, and it rested on small black draperies. And then the girl remembered that she had seen a baby downstairs decked out in crape and black ribbons, and she knew that this must be Jacky’s baby sister. How could this mother be so very foolish? For Mrs Hunt was a widow, who supported herself and her little ones by doing mangling. If she worked all day and the greater part of the night she could not hope to earn more than eight or nine shillings a week. And yet she could afford to indulge in high-class funerals.

And as the girl thought on these things her heart hardened, and she deemed it her duty to give the woman a few words of advice on the subject of her extravagance. But the words would not come. For somehow that inconvenient little lump in her throat would return when she thought of this woman’s desire to honour her dead even at the cost of starving. She could almost hear her say, “Has my little boy had so many luxuries that you grudge him a decent burial?” And the girl could not speak.

Now, when she had turned to go, and had even laid her hand on the door, Mrs Hunt said suddenly, almost harshly, “Perhaps you’d like to see ’im.” And before the girl could reply, the lid of the coffin was drawn back.

What! Was that still little form that white face, almost terrible in its loveliness—was that the noisy, dirty imp she had seen not many days before? I seemed incredible. She remembered in wonder that she had tried to bring herself to kiss the face that had been almost repulsive in its filth and ugliness; and had tried and had failed. And now she would fain have knelt and have pressed her lips to the little white hand, humbly, reverently, as to something sacred. She would not dare now to touch the face that she had turned from in disgust; it looked so white, so pure, he would have feared to defile it. “Defile!” Yes, that was the word that kept beating itself on the girl’s brain as she stood there looking down. “Undefiled, undefiled, a little child undefiled.”

And where were now her sapient remarks as to the desirability of cheap funerals for the poor? Gone, utterly gone. She was indeed stricken dumb and stood there silently gazing, her eyes wet with tears. And at last, as many before her have done when the feelings of their littleness is borne home to them, she unconsciously used the words of another: words, old indeed, but true for all time, for all men—

“For of such is the kingdom of Heaven.”

But some one heard her. There was a sudden sob, a sound as of the breaking of an ice of distrust and despair, and the mother turned away, her shoulders heaving, her face buried in her apron; and a cry rang out, an exceedingly bitter cry:

“Oh, I wants ‘im! ‘E weren’t much to nobody but me, but I loved ‘im an’ I wants ‘im!”

And this is how it came to pass that the inquiry officer of a certain society failed in her important duty of advocating thrift and economy among the London poor.

Star, 26 January 1901: p. 1

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: One likely possibility that the young inquiry officer did not consider is that many of London’s poor subscribed to Burial Societies. In the 1840s there were over one hundred Burial Societies in London alone. A small sum paid weekly–from a half-penny to a penny and three half-pence and twopence in 1844–ensured that the all-important decent funeral would be within reach.  The pauper funeral held as much horror for the Victorian poor as the Workhouse and was to be avoided at all cost.

It was found in 1907 that eighty-three per cent of all English decedents carried insurance. The authors of that study added severely, “It would seem that the insurance policy lure prompts to funeral extravagance, and that the pitiless extortions consequently exacted from the poor by a certain class of undertakers aggravates needlessly the anguish of the bereaved, and calls for indignant protest from the public upon whom, in some instances, the victims immediately thereafter become a charge.” Preventable Death in Cotton Manufacturing Industry, Arthur Reed Perry, 1919

For more information on the popular culture of Victorian mourning and death, Mrs Daffodil recommends The Victorian Book of the Dead, by Chris Woodyard, also available for something called a Kindle.  Mrs Daffodil understands the principle of paper-making using wood-pulp, but fails to see where kindling comes into it.

Mrs Daffodil invites you to join her on the curiously named “Face-book,” where you will find a feast of fashion hints, fads and fancies, and historical anecdotes

You may read about a sentimental succubus, a vengeful seamstress’s ghost, Victorian mourning gone horribly wrong, and, of course, Mrs Daffodil’s efficient tidying up after a distasteful decapitation in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales.

 

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7 thoughts on “Such a Very Little Coffin: 1901

  1. Ann

    Thank you for the story and explanation, Mrs Daffodil. Perhaps if health could not be provided to the child, a loving burial could. A one time expenditure to ensure the child was comfortable and well-loved.

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