Preston Manor in Mourning

Having recently attended A Victorian House in Mourning at Preston Manor, I am fully aware that death in Victorian times was a grand affair.

The visit included both a thought-provoking talk, and a dramatic re-enactment of the aftermath of a death. The illustrated talk was given by Sarah Tobias whom I know from her popular well-known Art Deco course at the old Connaught Centre in Hove.

When diseases such as cholera and measles could kill so easily, it is not surprising that if a child survived to one then survival was considered just a possibility. But the horror of an infant dying was countered by the splendour of the customs before, during and after the funeral. It sounds ghastly today but it was not uncommon for a photograph of a dead child in a state of serenity to be kept as a memento by parents. It seems strange to say it but I have to admit that the photograph that I was shown was beautiful – though equally gruesome.

Nobody better embodied or, indeed, influenced the role of a Victorian mourner better than Queen Victoria herself. After Prince Albert’s death in 1861, her strict observance of mourning traditions included the avoidance of public appearances and the adornment of black clothes for the rest of her life. This extreme interpretation of established customs changed the way that normal people embraced the ritual of grievance. Victorian standard practices included the draping of furniture with black, the covering of mirrors, the stopping of clocks, and the shutting of blinds.

My tour of the set-piece dramatisation in Preston Manor started with a conversation with a dressmaker called Miss Hartington who had turned up at the house following the death of a guest in the hope of securing an order for mourning clothing. It all takes place following the marriage of Eleanor Stanford to Captain Macdonald. Rather fittingly, letters of the period suggest that bad feeling existed due to Eleanor not mourning for long enough after the death of William Stanford, her first husband.

Like in a game of Cluedo, responsibility for the guest’s death is denied. The cook blames the maid (“It was the cocoa.”) and vice versa (“It was them eggs.”). To decide for yourself, visit on Saturday 26th November at either 11:30am or 2:30pm. If death in the house is not enough, there is always the pet cemetery behind.

See www.brighton-hove-museums.org.uk for details.