Funeral cards are a familiar feature in many people’s family history. Designed as a keepsake after the death of a loved one, they could be as simple or as elaborate as your bank account would allow.
I have a long-held fascination with mourning and funeral cards, accumulating stacks of cards and letters, expressing grief and love for those who are total strangers today. Many cards are advertised on collectors’ markets, sold on the beauty of their design alone. While a pierced-paper angel may be a stunning display piece, the people and stories behind the cards are a much-neglected resource.
Over time, I hope to bring you many hidden stories behind collection pieces and expand our appreciation for sentimental ephemera. I also want to explore and reiterate – to myself, and others – that such collections hold so much more than a ‘creepy’ faded photograph, pretty pattern or quirk, ideal for a ‘morbid’ photo album.
Thanks to the help of family genealogist Claire Connell, the life of Agnes Sturgeon has expanded beyond her small, folded memorial.
(Beloved Wife of Wm. Mitchell),
Who Died on Monday 8thMay 1911,
In her 63rdyear.
Interred in Woodside Cemetery.
29 Williamsburgh, Paisley.
“ Jesus while our hearts are bleeding
O’er the spoils that Death has won,
Though cast down we’re not forsaken,
Though afflicted not alone;
Thou didst give and Thou hast taken:
Blessed Lord, ‘Thy will be done.’”
“Until the day break and the shadows flee away.”
Agnes came to me in an auction lot of funeral cards a few years ago. Her card was very different to the rest, being a folded, black ‘envelope’ style piece, rather than a standard white rectangle. Her card is particularly unusual in that it featured a printed photograph; quite a luxury for the time.
Agnes Sturgeon was born in Paisley, Scotland in 1848 and like many local women, became a thread mill worker.
Paisley’s textile industry dates back to the medieval era, but it truly began to thrive during the 18thcentury when the Bargarran Thread Company was established by Christian Shaw. Her company produced particularly fine linen thread and the company grew quickly, helping to establish a growing textile industry in the city.
According to the Paisley Thread Mill museum,
‘By the 1730’s Christian could be found in Edinburgh advising the Board of Trade and Manufacturing on how to improve thread manufacturing. Within 2 years she was appointed as the first Edinburgh Spinning School Mistress on a salary of £50 per year – the Spinning Schools would appear to have been Christian’s idea.’
Curiously, Shaw was instrumental in the Barragan Witch Trials of 1697. Aged 11, she gave evidence against 8 women, accusing them all of witchcraft. Seven were hanged and one died in his cell. While she remains a celebrated industrialist, she ultimately had a hand in the deaths of nearly 30 people, all before her 12thbirthday.
However, in Agnes’ time, the Paisley thread industry was at its height with J&P Coats and Clark & Co being the two largest competing businesses. A silk decree of 1806 had stopped the importation of silk into Britain, so the invention of smooth cotton yarn became integral to the UK’s textile industry. Into the 20thcentury, the thread industry employed around 10,000 people who worked in enormous mill complexes at Ferguslie and Seedhill. The thread industry in Paisley employed primarily women with families working in the same companies for generations.
Agnes went on to marry William Mitchell on 29th December 1871 when she was 23 and he was 22. At this point, both of Williams parents were dead, as was Agnes’ father. At the wedding. Agnes’ mother was present at the Church of Scotland wedding, acting as a witness.
Agnes’ new husband was an Iron miner, another enormous industry in Paisley at the time. In Renfrewshire, five oil works operated between 1855 and 1868, producing crude oil from cannel coal and operating closely with ironworks. Between coal and ironstone mining, much of the male population were employed in this area.
Together, they had ten children, who were all born in Paisley:
William Mitchell b. 1873
Ann Tait Mitchell b.1874
John Sturgeon Mitchell b.1877
Mary Wilson Mitchell b.1879
Agnes Sturgeon Mitchell b.1881
George Mitchell b. 1886
Elizabeth Mitchell b. 1888
David S. Mitchell b. 1890
Adam Sturgeon Mitchell b. 1891
The family lived in Williamsburgh, which was a village, now swallowed into Paisley itself. The Williamsburgh of Agnes’ day is long gone, but it remains filled with tenement buildings, many of which many are now held by the housing association.
On the 8thMay 1911, at 2.30pm, Agnes died at the age of 63. Her cause of death is recorded as ‘Diabetes Mellitus, Pulmonary Phthisis and Exhaustion.’
Agnes had type 1 diabetes at a time when there were no available treatments and barely any understanding of the disease, especially not for the working classes. Although Diabetes Mellitus is given of the cause of death, Agnes’ age suggests that is more likely type 2 Diabetes. Experiments into dietary control had been conducted throughout the 19thcentury, but no effective treatment was used nationwide. However, a familiar plight across classes country-wise was Pulmonary Phthisis, namely, Tuberculosis. As Agnes worked in a densely-packed working environment and invariably cramped living quarters, both were hotbeds for TB infections.
Tuberculosis is an infectious disease, transmitted by water droplets – i.e. by coughing. TB is a pulmonary lung infection that destroys the patient’s lung tissue, causing a fever, a chronic cough – containing bloody mucus – and extreme weight loss. The latter symptom was the reason for TB’s colloquial name, ‘consumption’. While some would be fortunate enough to recover, thousands died from the disease. It was not a quick death for most, but a period of protracted suffering and one of the bleaker realities of the pre-vaccine era. In 1913, there were a recorded 117,000 cases of TB in the UK alone.
In the 19thcentury, it was a disease seen as romantic by many; the affliction of poets and artists. Lord Byron once famously said “I should like to die from consumption”, which rather cemented the disease’s reputation. It was also believed that the protracted suffering from the disease allowed the sufferer to plan their death and set their affairs in order, achieving the ultimate ‘good death’.
In cities and cramped working conditions, the likes of which were experienced by Agnes, councillors and officials often blamed the poor themselves for the rising death rate. However, the public wereguilty of ignoring several public health campaigns intended to curtail spitting, protect the young and infirm and quarantining the infected person from the rest of their family.
Agnes died at home and was buried at Woodside Cemetery in Paisley, three days after her death. The plot was bought by her husband William, who remains the named plot holder in the cemetery. Agnes shares her grave with her husband and several other family members, including two of her children.
Sharing the plot are:
George Mitchell, their son. He died on 22ndFebruary 1885 aged only 16 months. His cause of death was recorded as ‘Inflammation of Lungs’ – a general term for pneumonia.
Elizabeth S. Mitchell, their daughter who died aged 2 weeks on the 9thMay 1888. Her death was caused by bronchitis, another respiratory condition.
David S. Mitchell, another son who died aged 5 months on the 11th January 1890. The cause of his death is curiously recorded as ‘Teething’. This isn’t a recognised disease or cause of death but says that the child died while they were teething; the exact cause is unclear.
“Teething used to be considered (wrongly) a cause of death, as many children died in the first years of life, at the same time as teething occurs. “The tendency in the past to attribute serious disease to teething was so prevalent that in 1842 teething was the registered cause of death in 4.8% of all infants who died in London under the age of 1 year and 7.3% of those between the ages of 1 to 3 years according to the Registrar General’s report.”
Margaret Mitchell – exact relationship unclear – a mill worker who died aged 30. She passed away on the 22ndJune 1909 of the ever-familiar Tuberculosis.
Finally, William joined his family on the 10thFebruary 1921 when he passed away aged 72. He was the last in the grave and was still recorded as being a working miner. At this time, he was living in a tenement building in Johnston Street, which still exists today.
His cause of death was recorded as ‘Senile Decay’, which was a rather ‘catch all’ term for diseases such as dementia and Alzheimer’s. It was a term often used with ‘old age’ when no other clear reason for death was available.
While Agnes and her family are strangers in the past, I feel as though I have come to know a little of her life and feel very privileged in doing so. While I am just a custodian of Agnes’ card, I hope to one day take it on a trip to Paisley where I hope to pay my respects at her family grave.
What a lovely tribute to someone who like so many would otherwise be lost amongst so many of her own folk. She must have been a sore loss to her family to have had such expense made on beautiful cards
My own paternal grandmother was commemorated in a simple card, as she died following the birth of my aunt enlarged my dad was just a toddler. TB was a factor in her loss too