You have mail – Postscript

Just as a PS should be, this posting is an add-on drawn from the main theme but at a tangent. In this case, it concerns the post-education life of the coachman’s daughter. Whilst we do not know what happened to Mary Simpson after she left the School in 1811, Mary Ann Skudder (because of the more unusual name) is more traceable. She was ‘returned to her mother’ in 1816 – the School parlance for when she left school – and the next record we find for her was her marriage four years later to Garnett Benjamin Francis, an undertaker by profession. They were to have at least five children and we can follow their progress through the 1841, 1851 and 1861 census returns. Interestingly, none of the sons followed their father into the undertaking business, which was often a steady business and frequently lucrative. What we might make of that is open to interpretation.

Surprisingly little is written about the Victorian undertaker despite the fact that Death and Mourning was Big Business at the time. Or perhaps that is the very reason why.

‘Since it was in the best interest of the undertaker to promote the big expensive funeral, these men often became master manipulators, convincing families that they needed to add that extra coach, horse, mute, whatever in order to properly celebrate the death of a loved one.’

To find out more about Victorian undertakers, we are left to draw upon literature and Dickens, in particular, seemed agin undertakers. They are portrayed unsympathetically by him three times: Mr Sowerberry (Oliver Twist), Mr Trabb (Great Expectations) and Mr Mould (Martin Chuzzlewit).

“Pocket-handkerchiefs out, all!” cried Mr Trabb at this point, in a depressed business-like voice. “Pocket-handkerchiefs out! We are ready!” So, we all put our pocket-handkerchiefs to our faces, as if our noses were bleeding, and filed out two and two; Joe and I; Biddy and Pumblechook; Mr and Mrs Hubble. The remains of my poor sister had been brought round by the kitchen door, and, it being a point of Undertaking ceremony that the six bearers must be stifled and blinded under a horrible black velvet housing with a white border, the whole looked like a blind monster with twelve human legs, shuffling and blundering along, under the guidance of two keepers — the postboy and his comrade. (Great Expectations)

Victorian undertaker images

Mr Trabb (left) and (right) a member of a re-enactment society dressed in his Victorian undertaker’s costume.

the whole of Mr. Mould’s establishment were on duty within the house or without; feathers waved, horses snorted, silk and velvets fluttered; in a word, as Mr Mould emphatically said, “Everything that money could do was done.” (Martin Chuzzlewit)

But it wasn’t just Dickens who castigated the greedy undertaker:

Every undertaker thinks it incumbent on himself to outdo every other undertaker in ridiculing the dead. The shops exhibit from the ground to the roof all kinds, sizes and shapes of coffins; beautiful epitaphs for the tomb of the dead; neat positions for “laying out;” and pictures of funerals underwritten thus: – “funerals got up in this style for £10,” or plainer funerals, for less money. W. O’Daniel, Ins and Outs of London, 1859, cited by

At least one Dickensian undertaker is regarded well by Dickens and – coincidentally – it happens to be a Great Yarmouth one! Mr Omer is described as “a fat, short-winded, merry-looking, little old man in black, with rusty little bunches of ribbons at the knees of his breeches, black stockings, and a broad-brimmed hat”.

A mid-century advertisement in The Times offered six classes of funerals ranging in price from £21 for a first-class burial down to £3 5s for the sixth class. The cost could be further reduced ‘by dispensing with the funeral cortege through the streets of London.’

Quite what sort of undertaker Mary Ann’s husband was we have no idea but they lived in an area that later declined. In 1841 and 1851, their address is given as Brick Lane, an area very much influenced by the incomers attracted to it.

‘The cultural mix turned again with the massive Jewish immigration of the late 1800s. Escaping the pogroms of Eastern Europe, they alighted at Wapping and headed for the cheapest part of London, Brick Lane.’

Re-named from Whitechapel Lane (in the days when it crossed fields), Brick Lane was so called because of the brick and tile manufactories that sprang up there.

Brick sign
Brick Lane street sign

Image by James Cridland –, CC BY 2.0,

Interestingly, but probably unknown to the Francis family, Brick Lane has a connection with death. ‘[It] was originally the home of the dead. For centuries it was a Roman burial ground, positioned deliberately outside the walls of the City of London.’ Its position outside the City saved it from destruction in the Great Fire of London which started 350 years ago today, to the day (September 2nd 1666).

Fire and brick
Eastern extremes of fire and Brick Lane’s proximity

Image from

In the 1880s, Brick Lane was in the haunt of Jack the Ripper but this was long after Mary Ann Francis had died.

Charles Booth’s map shows an interesting mixture of middle-class (red colour) butting up against poverty (black).

Bricken booth
Brick Lane from the Booth maps

(Image from the Charles Booth Online Archive )

By 1861, Garnett & Mary Ann had moved to Cavendish Street, defined by Booth as ‘Poor. 18s. to 21s. a week for a moderate family’. Perhaps Garnett was not making his fortune out of death which is why his sons did not follow the profession. This area has since been subject to slum clearance and rebuilt and the modern image below shows no trace of what Charles Booth saw in 1898.

Google Cavendish
Cavendish St from Google Earth street view

Garnett Benjamin Francis died in 1862 and Mary Ann did not long survive him. She was buried at St James, Pancras on 15 November 1867. If Mary Simpson married and when she died is not known but both Maries would probably be surprised to find their stories being told in the 21st century!

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