In the 1881 Census there is a record of Frederick Death and his wife Harriet Death who lived at 50 Vernon Road in Bow, East London. The unusual profession associated with Frederick Death was that he was a Mourning Jeweller – an unexpected aptronym discovered whilst researching another family’s history.
Mourning Jewellery, in the form of rings, brooches, and pendants, were created for people to wear as they remembered individuals who were deceased or still alive but gone away from them; the pieces were worn to show the value and importance of the person being remembered. The Victorians had somber natures and their rituals of mourning used the symbolism of anchors, pearls and crosses as signs for tears and enduring faith.
Victorian mourning jewellery was made to primarily focus on the loss of an individual loved one, and also as a token of affection, whereas the earlier Georgian mourning jewellery focused more on the concept of memento mori – ‘remember that you have to die’: the Georgian mourning jewellery traditionally depicts symbols of death like skulls, coffins, worms, coffins and skeletons.
The Victorian mourning jewellery was constructed of muted colours and incorporated a more subtle symbolism along with inscriptions with phrases like “lost but not forgotten”, and “in memory of”; this latter mourning jewellery was frequently fashioned to include the hair of the lost individual. This was a way of, literally, keeping the newly departed individual close by. Another feature of the sentimental Victorian mourning jewellery was that the inclusion of the elaborately woven hair was usually set in glass, or hidden in metal clasps and additionally adorned with gemstones or gold.
When Prince Albert died in 1861, the design of mourning jewellery expanded to include sombre materials such as black onyx, jet and petrified bog oak. The combination of Victorian industrialisation and craft skills meant that jewellers, especially those based in Birmingham, could supply large quantities of varied pieces that were affordable alongside the production of high quality pieces for the middle classes.
In 1881the census records show that over 20,000 people were employed in the jewellery trade in Birmingham which made it joint biggest employer in the region alongside the brass and copper trades. The National Association of Jewellers (for the UK) is still based in Birmingham. The close links between the Birmingham jewellers and the London based jewellers still exists in the 21st century.
Frederick Death, who lived in Bow in 1881, was relatively close to Hatton Garden which later became known as the centre of the Jewellery Quarter in East London. Like his fellow jewellers in Birmingham, it was usual for Victorian craftsmen and professionals to live and work near the location of their occupation.