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Emma Shaw (1816-1840)

The first person to be buried in Brompton Cemetery.

Emma’s plain gravestone is easy to miss amongst the monuments to the great and the good. She was the first of many thousands of ordinary Londoners to be buried at Brompton Cemetery.

Emma Shaw grave Emma’s grave (centre) (Credit: Greywolf)

We don’t know much about Emma herself, but her father James Hardy was described in the census as a ‘gentleman’. When Emma was 21, she married Charles Boyle Shaw, an artist ten years her senior. He was the son of a roguish British army major, who had briefly been to prison for challenging two men to a dual.

Emma and Charles shared a terraced house in genteel Portland Place in Fulham with his mother, another family and a single lady. This suggests the couple were comfortable rather than wealthy. The family was able to afford a private plot in the new garden cemetery when Emma died, but only a simple stone to mark it.

Addison Bridge Place Emma lived at Portland Place in Fulham, now called Addison Bridge Place. A blue plaque records that the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge lived at Number 7 when he first came to London in 1810. (Credit: Spudgun67 / Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA))

Emma died during or soon after the birth of her baby, but we don’t know what happened to the child. It seems likely that it died too, as there were no children living with widower Charles and his mother in the census the following year.

Many Victorian women like Emma died in childbirth, and one in every three children perished before their 5th birthday. Lives were regularly cut short, especially in cities, by poor living conditions, medical problems, accidents, illness and disease. Outbreaks of cholera and typhus could wipe out hundreds of people in a few days.

Poor woman in childbirth Victorian mothers and babies were at high risk of complications during and after the birth. (Credit: Wellcome Collection (CC BY))

Death was so commonplace that people tried to prepare for it. There were many rules and superstitions to obey, and mourning rituals were particularly strict. People would have expected Emma’s husband Charles to wear mourning clothes – a black suit, black gloves, black tie and a broad black band around his hat – for at least a year after her death.

Cartoon of man and hatter in a hat shop The type of mourning clothing, and the length of time required to wear it, depended on how close you were to the person who died. Losing a spouse, parent or child demanded the deepest mourning. (Credit: Jantoo)

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