Realities of Victorian Life and Death: 1880


It is little wonder that we can sometimes view Victorian culture as being inclined to melancholy and mourning.  Death and dangerous illness were always nearby, and no class of society was exempt from their touch.  In the first few months of 1880, when Thomas had been a widower for less than a year, tragedy struck the Robertson family and the staff of Palé.

First, Alexander Sherriff, the husband of Mr. and Mrs. Robertson’s second daughter Annie, died at the family’s London house; they had been married less than eight years.  She had become a widow at 25.

February 8th Sunday   Mr. Sherriff died at Lancaster Gate London aged 32. This has cast quite a gloom over us all, but especially Mrs. Sherriff and Mrs. Robertson. Mr. Sherriff to my knowledge was most honourable and straightforward, free from all mischief making, and deservedly popular. He used to come to see my collection, and was always amiable and humble in manners.

Within ten days Mrs. Robertson’s brother John Dean fell ill:

Feb. 18th, Wednesday   Mr. Dean took Scarlet fever, which has cast another gloom over Palé.   Feb 25th  Mr. Dean in a most critical condition.

A member of Palé staff was the next victim, but fortunately Joh Dean survived.

March 8th Monday Miss Jarvis the head housemaid died of the fever after 4 days’ illness. She was a quiet, good and industrious servant, whose untimely death all deplore.

Mr. Dean, I am thankful to say is past danger, he came out of doors today for the first time March 19th.

Thomas’ family escaped the illnesses on the estate that winter, and so Little Mary Emily began her education, just nine months after the death of her own mother.

March 23rd Mary Emily’s first day at school.

These are mournful journal entries, the only ones until May of that year, but they bring sharply into focus he realities of life and death in the nineteenth century.  The rest of the year becomes more cheerful!

1879 Carrying on with life

A train on the Bala - Ffestiniog railway
A train on the Bala – Ffestiniog railway.      Photo J.S. Gilks from

The journal entries after the death of Thomas’ wife Mary in June 1879 almost all concern geology and walking expeditions.  Reading more closely, it is clear that his friends and acquaintances accompanied him on days out, perhaps sensing that his lifelong love of the natural world and geological studies in particular would be the means of his coping with bereavement.  It is also clear that he must have been confident in the care of his young children during his absences, either by the maid living in at the Garden House or with staff at Palé.

The family at Palé and a local friend were the first to encourage Thomas to go on an expedition.  John Dean was brother of Mrs. Robertson, and a frequent companion to Thomas over the years.  I have not identified Mr. Brandt.  Inevitably, the day involved geological and botanical exploration. See here for Cwm Prysor:

July 2nd  I went with Mr. Dean and Mr. Brandt from Bala to Cwm Prysor [SH757368] on the Bala and Festiniog line. …… During the day I examined with great interest the ash and slate rocks of the Llandeilo and Lingula beds. I got no fossils, but I brought specimens of rocks and minerals. I only got salix repens and galium boreale in the plant way. 

Later in July two friends from the Chester Society of Natural Science took him on an expedition.

July 23rd  I had a day at Hafod-y-Calch near Corwen with my friends Messrs Shrubsole and Palin of Chester. We were very successful in getting fossils and enjoyed ourselves very much. Both these friends were very kind to me.

By August, Thomas was in sufficiently good spirits to lead an expedition of a local Scientific Society:

August 25th Monday I went to Bala and acted as guide to the members of the Wrexham Society of Natural Science. I took them up pat Wenalt to Cornelan. Here we lunched, and I then showed them the first ash bed with the Orthis alternate zone. We next examined the beds of Brynbedwog, where we got plenty of fossils. I next took them down the side of Afon Cymmerig to Gelli Grin. Here we found fossils. We got into Bala by 4.30 pm, and had a most substantial meat tea at the Plas Coch Hotel. I was very highly honoured by the whole party, had lamb to carve. I sat by the side of my old and valued friend Mr. Bennion Acton of Wrexham.

As we read between the lines, it is touching to see Thomas’ friends rallying round him in bereavement, recognising that his dedication to geology and natural history would be the best means of helping him through the difficult summer months of 1879.

Read the full account of his expeditions and entries for the rest of the year here.


1879 A Widower at 37

Mary Ruddy nee Blackhall 1841 -1879
Mary Ruddy nee Blackhall 1841 -1879

By 1879 Thomas had established himself for ten years as Head Gardener at Palé.  His new wife Mary had accompanied him from Derbyshire to his post at Llandderfel, and their children Thomas Alexander aged 10, William Pamplin aged 7 and Mary Emily aged 6 were growing up at the Garden House on the Palé estate.  Then, in the spring and early summer of 1879 a tragedy struck.

1879  Up till April I have nothing particular to relate, except that my dear wife has been very ill, which causes me a great deal of anxiety. I have geologised a little and fished some to pass the time.

June 9th, Monday 11o’clock. My beloved wife died at a little after 11 am. This has been to me the most distressing thing it has ever been my lot to bear; for two months I have slept but little. I never seemed to be asleep, for I could hear the least movement during the night. Her illness was rapid consumption, so that she suffered no pain, but dropt off calmly to a better world. Mrs. Robertson was most kind and anxious about her. Mrs Pryce of Bronwylfa brought her a preparation of her own make, Mrs Richards of Fronheulog was also most kind, and all my neighbours showed the most sympathy and kindness to me during her illness.

June 12th My dear wife was buried; the neighbours showed their sympathy by coming from all parts, and by carrying the bier all the way. The village people had drawn their blinds and the shops their shutters, all of which was so kind of them, especially for a stranger. I have lost a kind and feeling mother of children, a wife but seldom equalled, a quiet living, good natured and reserved companion, but beloved by those who knew her.   Mrs. Robertson in writing to me said that I little knew how much she and her family respected her, and how deeply they felt her loss. Her old and respected friend Mrs. Owen was with her in her last moments, and showed her all respect and kindness. [Probably Elizabeth Owen, Housekeeper of Palé, originally from Devon, and aged 61 in 1879 – ed.]

Thomas and Mary outside the Garden House, Palé
Thomas and Mary outside the Garden House, Palé


Mary’s death left Thomas with three young children of 10 and under. He does not comment in the diary about how he managed to look after them, do his work in the gardens, and continue with his geological and botanical excursions. In the Wales census of 1881 a servant, Jane Richards aged 21 was living in the house. Mrs. Robertson of Palé Hall probably ensured that there was enough support for the children. Thomas gives no clue in the diary about the children’s reactions to their loss of a mother at an early age – a relatively common experience among Victorian children.