This English carte de visite (CDV) is one of the most popular in my collection, if Flickr views and Pinterest re-pins equate to evidence, that is. It shows a young British widow—identifiable as such by the white ruching on her black bonnet—squatting in the background, having just propelled her black-clad daughter toward the photographer. The widow stares forward forlornly, her hand over her mouth, indicating without words her shock and concern for their future. It is a candid, painfully honest pose, and one rarely seen in types of images. She is no “Hidden Mother,” but a vital element of a tableau meant to convey the message, “This is his orphan.”
The reverse stamp on the CDV reads “T. Bennett, Photographer, 46 Foregate Street and Church Street, Malvern.” According to research conducted by the creator of Photographers of Great Britain and Ireland, 1840-1940, Thomas Bennett “opened his first studio in Worcester in 1856. At different times, he operated at five studios in Worcester and three in Malvern under his own name and the business continued under the name of Bennett & Son and Bennett & Sons until at least 1916.”
“The 1861 census records the [Bennett] family living at his shop at 46 Foregate, Worcester, where he is described as a Lay Clerk (of the church) and photographer. His firm Thomas Bennett and Son is thought to have been established about 1856. His branch in Great Malvern was possibly the second photographic studio” in that town—this information gleaned from the Malvern Records Office. Bennett threw open the doors of his Malvern studio in 1868 and the CDV of mother and daughter could not have been taken long afterward.
Helpful Flickr historians pellethepoet and EastMarple1 spotted one of Thomas Bennett’s studios in the foreground the CDV below. The building at bottom righthand corner, with the word “photos” just visible above the door, was almost certainly where this Worcestershire widow brought her daughter to mark their terrible loss in a fixed image that could never be denied.
My CDV appears on many Pinterest pages, and in particular, one where in the comments it is suggested that this little girl is dead, held up by props, or suspended with wires.
This is not a deceased child. In the photo, her eyes were caught while tracking the photographer, and she supported herself to a degree through her hand, wrist, and arm. One of her feet was slightly lifted as she prepared to take a step.
Bodies were not embalmed at the time this image was taken. That preservation process came into practice during the American Civil War as a way of returning bodies of dead Union soldiers to their families. It was not widely used in the United States or Great Britain for another 40 to 50 years.
Dead bodies that are not embalmed do not stand on their own, even during rigor mortis, without some sort of brace or rigging. There is no evidence in the historic record that these types of devices were used during regular postmortem photography. Sometimes unidentified bodies or murder victims such as Katherine Eddows, a victim of Jack the Ripper, were propped up to be forensically photographed.
Further, it should be asked why a mother would chose to allow the corpse of her dead daughter to be held up by wires or clamped in some sort of brace when she herself could have cradled the body—as is seen in so many other postmortem images?
The props that photographers did use were to keep people still, not to hold them up, as is clearly seen in the photograph below. Ω
In Britain in the 1800s, the widow’s grief of Queen Victoria helped spur the creation of mourning jewelry, but in the 1600s, the impetus was the judicial murder of an anointed king.
Charles Stuart, later King Charles I, was born in Fife, Scotland, 19 November, 1600, to then King James VI of Scotland, later James I of a unified Britain, and his wife Queen Anne of Denmark. He was a second son, never meant to rule. Yet, Charles had the role of heir foisted on him at the death of his beloved, handsome, and accomplished older brother, Henry, Prince of Wales, who died unexpectedly in 1612.
Charles was small, sickly, and had a stammer. He was also intellectual, loved and patronized the arts, favored elaborate high Anglican worship in the age of the Puritans, and married a Roman Catholic—the delicate and beautiful Princess Henrietta Maria of France, known as Queen Mary, after whom the U.S. state of Maryland is named. Charles also believed profoundly in the Divine Right of Kings, was willful and stubborn, and refused to make the compromises that could have prevented a civil war, the destruction of the monarchy, and his own death.
As had the life his similarly-natured paternal grandmother, Mary, Queen of Scots, his own earthly days ended in execution by beheading on 30 January, 1649. His final words were “I go from a corruptible to an uncorruptible crown, where no disturbance can be.”
After his death, loyal adherents of King Charles ordered a small number of memorial rings made incorporating various Stuart motifs, portraits, and locks of the dead king’s hair. Antique jewelry expert JJ Kent, in Jewelry Guide, Volume I, wrote that a ring, “said to be one of the seven given after the King’s death, was possessed by Horace Walpole and sold with the Strawberry Hill collection. It has the King’s head in miniature and behind, a skull; while between the letters C. R. is this motto: ‘Prepared be to follow me.’”
Another of the rings was in the hands of a gentleman who wrote to Notes and Queries in June 1862, more than 200 years after Charles’s death: “I possess one of the rings alluded to [in a previous issue]. The family tradition is that it was given to a maternal ancestor, one of the Finnes family, by King Charles on the eve of his martyrdom. The portrait, in enamel, is set between two small diamonds.”
During the Commonwealth and the Restoration, Royalists created hundreds of additional rings, pendants, and other jewelry items memorializing the king. Multiple examples exist today in museums and private collections. Remarkably, new memorial jewelry for Charles was created in 1813, when his body was discovered in the burial vault of Henry VIII and Queen Jane Seymour at Windsor. The coffin was opened in the presence of George, the Prince Regent (later King George IV), and his private physician, Sir Henry Halford, who later wrote a detailed account of what transpired.
“[There was] an internal wooden coffin, very much decayed, and the Body, carefully wrapped up in cerecloth, into the folds of which a quantity of unctuous or greasy matter, mixed with resin, as it seemed, had been melted, so as to exclude, as effectively as possible, the external air. The coffin was full [and] great difficulty was experienced in detaching [the cloth] from the parts which it enveloped….
“On removing the pall, a plain leaden coffin… bearing an inscription ‘King Charles, 1648,’ in large legible characters, on a scroll of lead encircling it, immediately presented itself to the view. A square opening was then made in the upper part of the lid, of such dimensions as to admit a clear insight into its contents. [The head] was found to be loose, and, without any difficulty, was taken up and held to view…. The back part of the scalp was entirely perfect, and had a remarkably fresh appearance; the pores of the skin being more distinct… and the tendons and ligaments of the neck were of considerable substance and firmness….
“…On holding up the head, to examine the place of separation from the body… the fourth cervical vertebra was found to be cut through its substance, transversely, leaving the surfaces of the divided portions perfectly smooth and even, and appearance which could have been produced only by a heavy blow, inflicted with a very sharp instrument, and which furnished the last proof wanting to identify King Charles the First.”
Halford noted that the King’s hair appeared black, but “a portion of it, which has since been cleaned and dried, is of a beautiful dark brown colour. That of the beard was a redder brown.” More hair was then snipped for the new mourning jewelry.
JJ Kent wrote in the Jewelry Guide, “The hair at the back of the head appeared close cut; whereas, at the time of the decollation, the executioner twice adjusted the King’s hair under his cap. No doubt the piety of friends had severed the hair after death, in order to furnish rings and other memorials of the unhappy monarch.” The head was then replaced, the coffin closed and resoldered, and the vault left by all and sealed up. In 1888, it was opened again at the order of another heir to the throne, Prince Bertie, later King Edward VII, to return relics, including a piece of one of Charles’s vertebra and a tooth, which had been removed by Halford 75 years earlier. Ω
“Warm the palette by placing it on the hob, or before the fire for a few minutes, and you will soon find that the curl becomes loose and may be lifted off with the edge of a knife.”
I purchased this mourning brooch in Edinburgh, Scotland, in 1993. It was the foundation of my collection and, at the time, was actually was my second choice—the first being a smaller, plainer piece with a simply coiled blond lock, probably dating from the 1820s or 1830s. The brooch looked more “human” to me, but the shop owner enticed me toward a different brooch, assuring me it was unusual. It dates from the late 1840s to early 1850s.
The body is 14-karat gold or higher with a tube hinge, C-clasp, and a pin that is longer than the length of the brooch—all evidence that an item that was indeed crafted in the 18th or 19th centuries. The hair memento compartment is set amidst a tempestuous lovers’ knot untamed by the somber black enamel embellishment. Inside the glass-capped compartment is a piece of black cloth on which palette-worked gray hair has been affixed. The design is known as Prince of Wales feathers and is decorated with a pearl band, as well as a stalk of barley and ribbon made from gold wire thread.
The Prince of Wales feathers for the Edinburgh brooch were carefully crafted by a professional hairworker. For an exploration of how it was made, one can turn to no better source than the Collector’s Encyclopedia of Hairwork Jewelry: Identification and Values by C. Jeanenne Bell, which contains a full reprint of Alexanna Speight’s 1877 booklet, A Lock of Hair. The booklet contains instructions for palette work that were aimed at the Victorian lady who aspired to a new and noble handwork. Taking up the hobby, as Bell notes, would not only give her “the satisfaction of working with the hair of her loved ones, but it also assured her that the precious locks would not be substituted for, or augmented with, another’s”—an ignoble deed undertaken by unscrupulous memorial jewelry makers and feared to occur with regularity.
Speight instructed her readers to first dissolve one small piece of borax and one of soda in a half a teacup of hot water, and to soak the lock of hair for several minutes to remove “oil and impurities” before the hair could “take its place among the fine arts.” The cleaned hair was spread on a palette and scraped with a knife then the cleaning process was repeated with fresh borax and warm water. The hair was then spread on the palette again and the ragged ends chopped off.
Next, a curling iron heated by a candle flame or spirit lamp was used to shape lengths of hair into feather shapes, with Speight coaching her aspiring artists to hold the irons in position until the hair began to steam then allow it to cool before removal. The twist of the curl and the ends were then affixed with gum and these were then left under a small weight for an hour. Afterward, the curls were slightly moistened with water to touch up the shape, if needed, then remoistened with gum and left to dry. The process was repeated for a second and usually third curl.
To remove a curl from the palette, writes Speight, “warm the palette by placing it on the hob, or before the fire for a few minutes, and you will soon find that the curl becomes loose and may be lifted off with the edge of a knife.” The curls were then arranged on an ivory, bone, or milk glass, cloth, or even a paper tablet. Speight goes on to teach her readers how to make the delicate gold-wire band and ribbons by twisting the wire around a needle, and the barley stalk by cutting the wire and using gum applied with a camel-hair brush to cement the shape. Similarly, the decorative band was constructed, using gummed paper as a ground, by carefully arranging the gold-wire band and split seed pearls. Finally, the decorative elements were carefully arranged amidst the curls. After drying, any extra gum was removed using spirits of wine.
The design thus assembled, the tablet would be inserted into the selected brooch setting by the jeweler. The final step, in some cases, was the engraving of a memorial or other inscription. Sometimes the entire process was handled by a single skilled artisan—such as the one who placed this advert in the London Illustrated News: “Hair jewellery, Artist in Hair. Dewdney begs to inform Ladies or Gentlemen that he beautifully makes, and elegantly mounts in gold, Hair Bracelets, Chains, Brooches, Rings, Pins, Studs, etc., and forwards the same, at about one-half the usual charge. A beautiful collection of specimens handsomely mounted kept for inspection. An illustrated book sent free. Dewdney, 172 Fenchurch St., London.” Ω
Long before the London Eye there was the Earls Court Gigantic Wheel, which gave passengers a bird’s eye view of the capital city and beyond.
This British postcard was mailed to Mr. W. Roberts, 3302 Lindell Avenue, St. Louis, Missouri on 22 January, 1904. The unknown sender posted it from what is today an upscale area of South Kensington, London. The message reads, “34 Brechin Place. Received yours today the 22nd. Thanks so much, am delighted with them. This is a little of Earls Court exhibition. Will write.”
The wheel at Earls Court, London, was built by Maudslay, Sons, and Field, for the Empire of India Exhibition, and opened to the public 17 July, 1895. The project’s engineer was H. Cecil Booth, who recalled, “One morning in 1894, W. B. Bassett, a retired naval officer, one of the managing directors of the firm, entered the drawing office and called out ‘Is there anyone here who can design a great wheel?’ There was dead silence, whereupon I put up my hand and replied, ‘Yes, I can, sir.’ Basset’s answer was ‘Very well, get on with it at once. It is a very urgent matter!’” (Ferris Wheels: An Illustrated History by Norman D. Anderson.)
The design and build process resulted in a 440-ton wheel that reached a height of 220 feet. It had 40 cars, each of which carried up to 40 passengers. On a clear day, from the apex, riders could see out across London and as far as Windsor Castle. At night, the wheel was a sight in itself, with a spotlight affixed to it and the entire structure and passenger cars decorated with incandescent lamps.
“Those who make the ‘circular tour’ will be able to enjoy most of the advantages of being up in a balloon without any of the risks attendant upon aerial navigation,” assured the 2 February, 1894, Westminster Budget, before the public opening. Anderson reveals in his book Ferris Wheels that the first passengers were probably George, Duke of York (later King George V), and his wife, the duchess (later Queen Mary). Bassett was one of the Duke’s old shipmates and arranged the clandestine ride.
The Earls Court Wheel was based on the magnificent Ferris Wheel built for the 1893 Chicago Columbian Exhibition by the eponymous George Washington Gale Ferris, Jr. (1859-1896). There had been smaller “pleasure wheels” in the past, but the Ferris Wheel overshadowed them at approximately 26 stories tall. Although the wheel was a singular success, carrying an estimated 38,000 passengers daily who each paid 50 cents per 20-minute ride, Ferris was cheated of his percentage of the take and was in litigation up until the time of his death, which occurred not long after the Earls Court Wheel opened.
The 23 November, 1896, issue of the New York Times reported, “George W. G. Ferris, the inventor and builder of the Ferris wheel, died to-day at Mercy Hospital, where he had been treated for typhoid fever for a week. The disease is said to have been brought on through worry over numerous business matters. He leaves a wife in this city, and friends in mechanical and building circles all over the country.”
The Earls Court Wheel was equally moneymaking. A 19 December, 1896, Guardian newspaper article discussed its use and profitability, “From the opening of the wheel in May till [sic] it closed in October, [it] carried nearly 400,000 people, and earned from rides on the wheel alone £20,237. The bank holidays were one of the principle sources of revenue. At the August Bank Holiday last year they took over £621. This was largely composed of first-class traffic at 2s. each.”
During its years of operation, the wheel experienced only one incident of note: On the evening of 28 May, 1896, the drive mechanism broke, stranding those in the cars. “Everything possible was done to calm the trapped passengers. Seamen climbed the wheel’s framework, carrying food and drinks. When the wheel still was not repaired by midnight, Grenadier guards gathered around the wheels base and played music to entertain those who were spending the night in a way not expected. Although mechanics worked throughout the night, the wheel did not start turning again until 7 o’clock the next morning. As the weary passengers disembarked, each received a five-pound note as a benevolent gesture on the part of the management,” wrote Anderson in Ferris Wheels.
A more humorous view of the event was published in the 2 June, 1896, issue of The Journal: “At first the people in the wheel went into a panic. The crowd below knew that they were stuck, yet they could not resist confirming this impression by throwing out of the windows frantic notes and statements of their helplessness. The rapid American communicated with the crowd by putting a note in his silver cigarette case and tossing it down to become a highly prized souvenir in the pocket of a street arab. The cook used bad language, the married woman out for an innocent lark wept copiously, the mother of five bestowed her children as only a mother of five can do, and went tranquilly asleep, while her husband paced the aisle of the car and kept informing an old and aged maiden lady that he would give a sovereign for a cigarette. The servants of the Great Wheel Company scaled the outer skeleton of the frame and put ropes in the hands of those who were suffering for food, telling them they could draw up whatever they wanted. As far as I can make out from the newspaper reports, starving people in London, having an opportunity to gratify their appetites, are given to demanding beer and whiskey; for it was beer and whiskey that went up in the greatest quantities.”
Always envisioned as a temporary attraction, the Earls Court Wheel closed in October 1906 and was slowly demolished during the following year. In its lifetime, it carried an estimated 2.5 million riders. Ω
William Parry Rees was a man who died too young, but lived long enough to view an American tragedy.
This wonderful funeral cabinet card includes a photograph of the deceased William P. Rees, as well as date of his death (4 March, 1891) and his age (“23 years and 4 months”). It also features the interesting inscription “A.O. of K.M.C and K. of G.E.” The first denotes the deceased’s membership in the fraternal society Ancient Order of Knights of the Mystic Chain. The second refers to his membership in the Knights of the Golden Eagle, a fraternal organization founded in Baltimore, Maryland, in 1872. The orders’ original objectives were to help its members find employment and aid them while unemployed. Membership was open to white males over 18, without physical or mental handicaps, who were able to write and to support themselves, were law-abiding of sound moral character, and of the Christian faith. There was a female auxiliary called the Ladies of the Golden Eagle.
A splinter group of the Knights of Pythias, the AO of KMC was founded in Reading, Pennsylvania, in 1870. According to a website about the order, “Though it seems to have been quite popular in PA, it doesn’t seem to have made much headway outside of that state—it is not listed among the top forty fraternal orders in the world almanac of 1896 and probably had no more than 10,000-15,000 members at its peak. Like most small orders, it did not survive the Great Depression of the 1930s.”
Another site about the AO of KMC states that “This group was founded in 1871 in the traditions of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. Amongst the founders were freemasons and Knights of Pythias. Some of the characteristics of this order can be traced to these two groups. The Knights of the Mystic Chain has three degrees: Knighthood, Mystery and Chivalry…. There was also a separate paramilitary uniform-rank and a degree for women: Naomi or the Daughters of Ruth. In 1889, the order started to work in insurance, however it never grew larger. At its top it had around 40,000 members. It disappeared in the first half of the 20th century.”
William Parry Rees, the deceased young man who belonged to both of these groups and from whom these flowers—and possibly funeral expenses—presumably came, was born in Cefn Bychan, Denbighshire, Wales, in about 1866. He was the son of Baptist minister Llewellyn Rees (b. October 1835, Glyntawe, Breconshire, Wales) and his wife Elizabeth Edwards (b. 7 June 1839, Ystradgunlais, Breconshire, Wales, daughter of Edward Edwards and Elizabeth Parry), who wed in 1861. His elder brother Henry E. had been born in August 1863 in Carmarthenshire; his younger sister, Kate W., was born in Cefn Bychan in 1869.
The 1871 Wales Census places Elizabeth Rees alone at the address 1 Cefn Bychan, with her young children. The enumerator names her as head of household, but also notes in a scribble that the missing Reverent Rees “is abroad.” Cefn Bychan (“Little Ridge” in Welsh) is part of the larger community of Cefn within the County Borough of Wrexham. The area was heavy with iron, coal, and sandstone—therefore quite industrialized, with mining, blast furnaces, forges, and stone cutting aplenty.
The Rees family had crossed the Atlantic to the United States by the early 1870s. This is made clear by the 1880 census of Millville, Cambria County, Pennsylvania, which recorded the birth another son, Llewellyn, Jr., in Texas about seven years before. Further evidence in the 1900 census narrows the emigration year to 1871, probably just after the Welsh census indicated the Reverend Rees was abroad. Chances are that he was already in America and that his wife and children followed when the way had been prepared.
Sadly, the Rees’s daughter, Kate was not to long enjoy her new life in America. Eleven-year-old Kate and her seven-year-old brother Llewellyn both died 11 November, 1880, certainly from infectious disease, and were buried in Johnstown’s Grandview Cemetery on 13 November. It must have been a terrible blow to Elizabeth and Reverend Rees. Like many grieving parents, they tried to replace the beloveds they had lost. The following year, 42-year-old Elizabeth gave birth to a daughter they named Edith. Elizabeth fell pregnant again in 1882, but the child died at birth. Grandview cemetery recorded the burial of a “Son of Elizabeth Rees” in the same plot as other Rees family members. Mysteriously, that interment did not take place until 1890, although the death had occurred eight years earlier, suggesting the infant was first laid to rest in another location.
Both Reverend Rees, his eldest son Henry, and second son William (whose professions were listed as railroad engineers), appeared in an 1887 city directory for Johnstown, living in Elk Street, Morrellville, a borough just outside of the town. They and the rest of the Rees clan were shortly to witness one of the most horrific disasters in U.S. history—the apocalyptic flood that devastated Johnstown on 31 May, 1889. The catastrophe resulted from the failure of the South Fork Dam of the Little Conemaugh River, 14 miles upstream from the town, killing 2,209 people.
“The South Fork dam held back Lake Conemaugh, the pleasure lake of the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club, a prestigious club which included such famed entrepreneurs as Andrew Carnegie and Henry Clay Frick on its membership rolls. Officials there feared the dam would fail…. The lake was a little over two miles long, a little over a mile wide at its widest spot, and 60 feet deep at the dam itself,” wrote Edwin Hutcheson in Floods of Johnstown.
The flood was described by Hutcheson as “a body of water which engineers at the time estimated moved into the valley with the force of Niagara Falls. [It] rolled into Johnstown with 14 miles of accumulated debris, which included houses, barns, animals and people, dead and alive.”
There are a number individuals surnamed Rees who died in the Johnstown flood, but none of these were definitively related to the Reverend Llewellyn Rees family. In fact, the 1889 Johnstown directory denoted men killed by crosses typeset beside their names. Reverend Rees is included in that directory—sans cross—as the pastor of the Baptist church in Morrellville. The same directory includes a lengthy news account of the flood and notes that “Morrellville…escaped with slight comparative loss, and the same is true of all towns farther down the river, but the people of these had the exciting and heart-rending experience of rescuing many that had floated down from Johnstown, and of seeing others go by without being able to assist them.” The reverend and his sons would almost certainly have been amongst the rescuers who tried to save people during the flood and who searched for survivors and victims in the aftermath.
On 4 March, 1891, less than two years after his town was decimated, railroad engineer William Rees died of as yet undiscovered causes—as young has he was, infectious disease or accident are surely to blame. He was buried several days later in the Grandview Cemetery Rees family plot.
In 1893, the Johnstown directory listed Reverend Rees at 234 Fairfield Avenue. His eldest son Henry, also resided in the house. The reverend and Henry were listed at the same address in 1899. With them was Elizabeth Rees and Edith, still a student.
The 1900 census of Johnstown placed the Reverend Rees and his wife alone in their home. Eldest son Henry was in Johnstown, but had a new home with his wife Esther Cole, whom he had married in 1896. Esther had been born in Wales in December 1871 and had come to America in 1897. If the marriage date of 1896 is correct, it implies that Henry had returned to Wales and there found a bride. Also living with the couple was Esther’s niece, Mary Cole (b. January. 1888, Wales), who had emigrated in 1898 or 1899. In 1901, the couple had a son whom they named Ralph E. Rees. Esther Cole Rees died 27 February, 1908.
The Reverend Rees died 15 March, 1911, and is buried at Grandview. Daughter Edith Rees, became a school teacher at the Bheam School just down the street from the family home, remained with her mother, Elizabeth, until at least 1920, when both women are recorded together on the census. Elizabeth Rees died of a cerebral hemorrhage 3 September, 1922, and was buried at Grandview three days later.
Henry Rees appears on the 1910 census of Wilkensburg, Allegheny County, Pennsylvania, as a 47-year-old widower and a laborer at the Westinghouse Air Brake Company. His wife’s niece, Mary, also dwelt with Henry, probably caring for his son, and may have doing so since his birth. Ralph would eventually go west to Billings, Montana, appearing on censuses there after 1930. He married a woman named Beatrice and had at least one son and two daughters.
Daughter Edith also went west to Kirby, Big Horn County, Montana, where she married William H. Furman (24 Nov., 1874-22 May, 1955). Edith died 5 January, 1971. Ω
“For to him above all was life was good,
Above all he commanded, her abundance full-handed.”—Rudyard Kipling, 1910
In 1910, Dr. William L. Bates of Sioux City, Iowa, took the boat The Florida on a meandering holiday. One of his stops was Windsor, Ontario, Canada. While there, he photographed the Windsor Post Office, located at Ouellette Avenue and Pitt Street. Bates found the public building draped in mourning after the death of British King Edward VII, who had passed away 6 May. A ladder was propped against one side of the building indicating that the mourning swags were in of the process of being raised, so likely this image was captured within a day or so of the king’s demise.
King Edward VII was born Prince Albert Edward, Prince of Wales, second child and eldest son of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, on the morning of 9 November, 1841. “Our little boy is a wonderfully strong and large child, with very large dark blue eyes, a finely formed but somewhat large nose, and a pretty little mouth,” wrote Victoria to her uncle, Leopold, King of the Belgians, on 29 November. “I hope and pray he may be like his dearest Papa.”
Sadly, “Bertie,” as he was known amongst his family, was little like his erudite, brilliant, moral father or his paragon elder sister, Princess Vicky. Bertie strove to please his parents, who had devised a strict educational program for the heir to the throne, but the boy could never rise to the tonnage of their expectation. Once the grown prince matriculated to Oxford and Cambridge, however, he performed well as a student, giving the lie to his family’s belief that he was somewhat mentally deficient.
Bertie was personable, genial, and inclined to a military life that his mother flatly vetoed. He did not protest his parents’ wish that he marry the beautiful and fashionable Princess Alexandra of Denmark, but he chose to lose his virginity in Ireland to actress Nelly Clifden, earning a scalding rebuke by his ailing father, “To thrust yourself into the hands of one of the most abject of the human species, to be by her initiated into the sacred mysteries of creation, which ought to be shrouded in holy awe until touched by pure & undefiled hands!”
Prince Albert died only a fortnight later and the devastated Queen blamed her son for godlike Albert’s ultimate mortality. She wrote of Bertie to her daughter Vicky, “I never can, or shall, look at him without a shudder.”
The Prince of Wales married his Danish bride in 1863, and the affection between them resulted in the birth of six children. However, Bertie was incapable of fidelity and took a series of mistresses whom his wife appeared to accept—possibly because Alexandra’s health was badly compromised by childbirth. A post-natal case of rheumatoid fever left her with a limp and hereditary deafness increasingly set in. This did not stop her, however, from undertaking royal appearances for her mother-in-law and being adored by the British people.
Edward traveled extensively as Prince of Wales, greatly enjoying his good will missions and state visits and generally winning hearts. The conasseur of good times put on weight as he aged and by his mother’s death, 22 January, 1901, Bertie had become a portly, dapper, silver-bearded gentleman with his own grandchildren around him. In an early act as king, he donated his childhood home, Victoria and Albert’s Osbourne on the Isle of Wight, to the British people—almost certainly because the place revived unpleasant memories—and chose to reign as Edward VII rather than Albert Edward I, as his mother had desired.
Bertie and his wife were crowned King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra 9 August, 1902. His reign lasted just nine years and a few months, but the time came to be defined by his name—the Edwardian era. It is today recalled fondly as a golden age before two world wars radically reshaped both the map and the souls of humanity.
By 1907, decades of smoking had ruined the King’s lungs and he had developed cancer on his nose that was treated with radium. In May 1910, he had one or more heart attacks and died at the approach of midnight on the 6th, aged 69. Two weeks later, his funeral was the last great gathering of European royalty, many of whom would not survive the coming decade with their kingdoms intact. Bertie was buried in St. George’s Chapel, Windsor, and there lies today with Alexandra at his side.
As the king reposed in state at Westminster, a poem by Henry Scott-Holland was read for the first time during a sermon at St. Paul’s, encapsulating the affable man to those he loved:
“Death is nothing at all.
It does not count.
I have only slipped away into the next room.
Nothing has happened.
“Everything remains exactly as it was.
I am I, and you are you,
and the old life that we lived so fondly together is untouched, unchanged.
Whatever we were to each other, that we are still.
“Call me by the old familiar name.
Speak of me in the easy way which you always used.
Put no difference into your tone.
Wear no forced air of solemnity or sorrow.
“Laugh as we always laughed at the little jokes that we enjoyed together.
Play, smile, think of me, pray for me.
Let my name be ever the household word that it always was.
Let it be spoken without an effort, without the ghost of a shadow upon it.”Ω