Mourning rings fascinate me as they provide an insight into how the Georgians and the Victorians dealt with the death of family and friends. When I first started to buy mourning rings, I hadn’t realised the sort of information each type of mourning ring could tell me, apart from the inscriptions some had. I have discovered that some rings were sort of mass produced and others were very personal and individual. Some have had a lot of wear while others looked almost unused. Some have hair inside a compartment of some sort, others do not, and some have gemstones while, again, others were plain bands with perhaps some enamelling. And, finally, some were hallmarked, but some were not. In this post, I wanted to consider one of these differences, namely, why some mourning rings look so pristine while others have clearly been worn a lot.
Samuel Pepys, the famous diarist who died in 1703, left a list of people who were to be given mourning rings and mourning cloth when he died. Mourning cloth, to be used to make mourning clothing, armbands and hatbands, was given to relatives, servants and dependents. As well, 123 mourning rings were given to relatives, godchildren, servants and friends, plus former work colleagues from the Admiralty and the Navy Office and representatives from Cambridge and Oxford universities. The mourning rings fell into three price ranges – 20 shillings, 15 shillings and ten shillings. Some people received more than one ring. These rings had to have been bought en masse from a jeweller as there were too many to have been specially produced and sized.
Mourning rings could be specially produced before a person died and handed out to close family or friends at the deathbed. They would have had a lock of hair incorporated and would have been inscribed with the dying person’s name, with the data of death to be added. Or, as would have been the case with Samuel Pepys, it would be the executor of a person’s will who purchased the rings to be given out. Rings given out at the funeral were often just a simple poesy ring, with perhaps words like ‘In memory of’ inscribed around the band. Some might have the person’s name and date of death.
Some people ended up with jars full of mourning rings which they never wore. This is why many Georgian and Victorian mourning rings look to be in pristine condition as they were, in fact, never worn. In many cases, they were viewed like we view an order of service from a funeral, which we save and put in a drawer to remember the person who died. The ring pictured at the top of the post has an inscription ‘in memory of’, but no name of the deceased person or his or her date of death. It is quite ornately decorated but it has looks as if it was never worn. The Georgian ring above also shows little wear and was probably handed out to a mourner at the funeral.
But the ring pictured above is quite different It is Georgian and t has clearly been worn by more than one person. It is a family ring. The inscription tells the story:
‘R O’Neall, obt 16 July 1792 at 42 years; Harry O’Neall, obt 18 July 1801 aged 59; Geo O’Neall, 18 July 1808 aged 25.’ (note that ‘ob’ or ‘obt’ is an abbreviation for the Latin word ‘obiit’, meaning ‘(he) died’.)
This is not a ring handed out to mourners at a funeral; this is a ring that recorded a family’s deaths over a 16 year period and was obviously worn by surviving family members after that.
Some people prefer to buy the unworn mourning rings; other prefer to buy those that tell a story of death and mourning. I am happy to collect both. I appreciate the untouched beauty of the former and I appreciate the emotion of the latter. Next post, I will talk about mourning rings and hallmarking.