Thinking about the past couple of years living with the Covid situation and how we remember those we have lost during this time, led me to think about death in the Georgian period and I thought I would take a look at items used at that time as keepsakes and tokens of love.
This of course led me to mourning rings, objects which are rarely purchased today. We often think of such items as morbid, but they’re not, they are tokens of love and something the wearer has right next to them all the time as a permanent reminder of someone close who is no longer with them.
I found myself on the British Museum website looking at some of the mourning rings and have tried to find out a little more about some of them, not necessarily who owned them, rather, whose death had instigated the creation and purchase of them.
Many mourning rings include the person’s name, their age and the date they died, and money was often set aside in wills for the purchase of such items, so here we go with just a few of the many they hold in the collection.
The first ring was in memory of cordwainer, John Bignell/Bignall. John died on 3 August 1782, aged 56 and was buried at St Benet Fink church, London.
His will tells us that he set aside £10 for ‘mourning items’ for his brothers, which could, in all likelihood, have been for mourning ring(s) as well as perhaps items of clothing for the funeral itself. Of course we have no idea which brother this particular ring belonged to. The ring is a gold hoop with a floral design and an enamelled skull engraved on outside; floral design, enamelled, covering whole hoop.
The next ring was to commemorate the life of Judith Sheldrake. Judith died on 26 October 1788 at the age of 44. The British Museum queried whether she was from Hadleigh, Essex, but with a little research it would seem that she was actually from Hadleigh, near Ipswich and was buried at the parish church of Little Wenham, near Ipswich on 1 November 1788.
Judith was born Judith Everett, daughter of Isaac and Mary, but married into the Sheldrake family, her husband being Robert Sheldrake, a grocer and draper of Hadleigh, according to the Ipswich Journal which carried a notice of Judith’s death. The couple had married at Hadleigh in 1775, so relatively speaking their marriage was quite short, but during that time they had at least 5 children, Robert, Thomas, Isaac Everett, Jeremiah and finally, a daughter, also named Judith, who was born in 1786, so she was just under two years old when her mother died. All the children was baptised in the non-conformist church.
Judith and Robert’s place in the family tree was recorded in ‘Notes and Queries on subjects connected with the counties of Suffolk, Cambridge, Essex and Norfolk,’ as Robert’s brother was Thomas Sheldrake, of Wetheringsett Hall, who wrote about the family’s genealogy. Robert remained in Hadleigh until his death in 1818 and there is no record of him having married again, so perhaps the mourning ring was his, as a constant remainder of his beloved Judith.
We move on to Gilbert Allix, who died on 27 June 1767 at the age of 73 and was buried on 3 July 1767 at St Giles, Camberwell. We know little of his life, but we do know that he was a merchant and that he left a brief will in which he named his dearly beloved wife, Jane and his brother, William. His estate went to Jane, and he left twenty guineas for mourning to William, so it’s possible that the ring was purchased by William as a memento of his brother.
Our next ring was in memory of Barbara Davenport who died 4 November 1812 aged 57, according to the ring. Although the ring names her as Mrs Barbara Davenport, this would have been a courtesy title, as she was a spinster.
Barbara was born 28 June 1754, at Astley Abbots, Shropshire, the daughter of Rev Dr William Davenport and his wife, Martha of Lacock Abbey, Wiltshire.
Barbara left a will which tells us that one of her close friends was the MP Charles Bragge Bathurst of Lydney Park, Gloucester, but sadly there is nothing that specifically tells us to whom the ring was a gift to, but this link will take you to a fascinating story about the family and tells you a little more about Barbara.
The final ring was in memory of a John Higgs who died at the age of 53, on 12 May 1782. John’s will tells us that he was a bargemaster of Millbank Street, Westminster.
John was married to Hannah, and they had two sons, William and John and two daughters, Lydia and Mary. His wish was that his two son should continue to run his business after his death, which consisted of 5 barges and a punt.
This ring is a little more unusual and more elaborate than the others and the description from the British Museum tells us that it was
Gold, marquise bezel, urn on pedestal with monogram painted on white ground; above, a weeping willow executed in hair and inscription; inscription on black enamel round hoop
The fact that inscription on the ring says ‘in memory of a dear father’ means that it was purchased by one of the children, so perhaps each child received one and to date this is the one that has survived.
It’s been quite surprising how much information such a small object can tell us about the life of a person.