Mourning Gems: Hester Ann Barfield

Mourning jewellery is as much about sentimentality and love as it is about grief. Elaborate jewellery was indeed a display of wealth, but also a permanent wearable memento of a lost loved one. Over time, these beloved Victorian trinkets have fallen through the cracks of family collections; forgotten about, thrown away or sold on to dealers and collectors. The memory and life of the memorialised individual is all but forgotten, substituted for a price tag and a comment on quality.

When collection mourning jewellery, it’s easy to separate yourself from the very human aspect of the piece. Losses become generic; a curl of hair behind glass and enamel. Of course, such pieces are respected for what they represent, but the important history and personal connection is lost.

However, between the anonymous brooches and illegible letters of condolence are engraved or printed names and dates, ages and symbols of a very real, human sense of loss.

Last year, an auction listing for a brooch caught my eye and, after some tense bidding, immediately came home with me.

‘A stunning example of a mourning brooch made from 9ct yellow gold (not hallmarked, acid tests as 9ct).

Brooch features a central oval panel with hairwork on the inner. The central piece is held securely in place but can be removed. The border is swirling in design and has foliate engraving to it. To the reverse details are engraved with name and dates of Hester Ann Barfield. Born Aug. 1853. Died Feb, 1856.

36.5mm x 24mm.’

All that I have seen of Hester, all that is tangible, are a few small blonde curls, held gently beneath glass. While we may never know what Hester looked like, censuses and travel records fill in a few gaps in the tale of Hester’s short, tragic life.

Hester was born to Thomas and Esther Barfield (nee Cleares) on the 25thAugust, 1853 in the small market town of Thetford, Norfolk. Hester was the couple’s first child and was born when her parents were both 30, which is relatively old for the time. The couple spent a few years in Norfolk, where Thomas worked as a tailor, adding to their family with the arrival of Josiah Barfield in 1855. Curiously, Josiah was born in London, suggesting the family had moved southward to prepare for their journey across the Atlantic.

The family’s arrival in New York

In the same year, the family left England behind and took the long and arduous journey to America, hoping to make a better life for their family. They joined Esther’s sisters who had both settled in Winfield DuPage, Illinois. The young family arrived in New York on Christmas Eve, 1855.

The family settled in Turner, Illinois in 1856 where Thomas continued his work as a tailor and the family became involved in the local Methodist church. However, after being in Illinois for a matter of weeks, young Hester died at the age of 2. She was buried in Oakwood Cemetery, West Chicago and would tragically be joined by another sibling a few years later.

Sarah Barfield was born to the couple in 1858 and died aged 3, joining her sister in the same plot.

Images taken by  DESchuett via

Esther Barfield died aged 40 in 1863 and was buried beside her children in Oakwood cemetery. Thomas would go on to remarry the widow Lydia Dennis (Fuller) Cropley three years later, and the two remained married until Thomas’ death aged 63 in 1887. 

“Thomas Barfield at the age of 64. His residence in Turner goes back to 1856. He was born in England in 1823 and resided there until manhood, where he was united in marriage to Esther Cleary [sic, recte Cleares], a sister of Mrs. John Norris and Mrs. William Buckle. From this union four were born: Hester O., dying in 1856, and Sarah M. in 1860, Josiah Barfield, cashier of the First National Bank of Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, and Esther Barfield. His wife died in 1863, a few years later he married his second wife, Mrs. Copley [sic, recte Cropley] of Richmond, Illinois, who survives him. Mr. Barfield for many years has been a valued member of the Methodist church.

[Obituary Published in The Wheaton (IL) Illinoian, Friday, February 25, 1887]”

Thomas Barfield was buried in the same plot as Esther and the girls, with a simple slab bearing his name. Lydia would live to be 90 and was buried alongside her first husband Edward, commemorated in a far grander memorial.

Lydia’s grave alongside her first husband. Image by KatAlg via

But what of Thomas and Esther’s son Josiah? He would survive into adulthood and become the cashier of the First National Bank of Lake Geneva, Wisconsin. This position was lauded in Thomas’ obituary, as proof of his children’s successes. However, a deeper search into newspaper archives suggests otherwise.

On the 15thFebruary, 1922, Josiah made front page news in Wisconsin. The Janesville Daily Gazette’s headline read:



Josiah would stand trial for embezzlement of more than $14,000, belonging to his cousin, Mary. The newspaper recounts that he was ‘alleged to have sold bank stock of the Van Teszels; having power of attorney, and, instead of investing them in farm mortgages, to have used them for his own financial gain, investing the money in worthless stocks.’

He appears to have been charged for his deception and his cousin Mary testified against him in court. As of time of posting, I’m unsure if Joseph was imprisoned, but from the court reports, it didn’t look good.

Josiah married Nellie M Barfield and lived a comfortable middle class life with their son Allan and servants. Following Nellie’s death, he married Genevieve M. Schute on 20thSeptember 1911 when he was 56 and she was 40.

He would die of a perforated stomach on the 17thJuly 1935 aged 80, in Miami, Florida. His body was cremated at the Carey Hand Funeral Home, which still has several locations across Florida to this day.

He appears to be the only one of Hester’s siblings to leave Illinois.

The Barfields in Illinois never appeared in censuses with servants, or in grand houses outside of the city. They don’t appear to be a wealthy family, nor wealthy enough to commission elaborate brooches. However, Hester’s little curls made it back to England.

Judging by the quality of the hair work and the setting itself, the creation of Hester’s memorial piece was not a cheap affair and would have cost her family a large amount to construct. Most likely, the originator of the brooch was an older family member, who remained in England, and arranged the hair work and setting far away from the grieving family. 

Hester’s brooch remains in perfect condition without a scratch to the glass or tarnish to the gold. Although the previous owner left a mark with an acid gold test (I will eventually have this mark removed), the back is as crisp and clean as the day it was engraved. 

Sources/Further Reading:

Various resources via

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