Memento Mori - October 14th 1:30pm

Come and hear about all of the weird stuff surrounding death that the Victorians invented or made extremely popular. They really were obsessed with the macabre, but maybe they’d think our obsession with denying our own mortality is weird!

Here’s a little teaser of the first in our October lectures. Sunday October 14th at 1:30pm, we’ll make the coffee.


by Vanessa Warne

Executed criminals; famous authors and artists; celebrated political leaders; beloved children: though made for different reasons, the death masks of a very wide range of people were created by Victorians who used plaster to preserve the faces of the recently dead. The morning after Charles Dickens died, a sketch was made of him on his death bed and, soon after, his face was covered with plaster that captured what his daughter Katey described in a letter as “the beauty and pathos of his dear face as it lay on that little bed in the dining-room.” The death masks that Victorians made and valued might be understood as morbid objects, but there were treasured objects and were often placed on display in homes, copies sometimes being produced and shared with absent relatives. This talk explores the making of death masks and asks how a pure white plaster cast of a deceased person’s face, cold to the touch, could comfort Victorians and retain the power to fascinate us a century after its creation.

William Wordsworth’s death mask

William Wordsworth’s death mask

Popular Victorian Baby Names

baby victorian image.jpg

Popular Victorian Baby Names

by Emily Gartner

Having a baby? Wondering what names you could pick that would bring a little Victoriana into their little life? Then look no further than the names of the Macdonald family! The MacDonald’s lived at Dalnavert from 1895-1929 and had four family members, each of who had some of the most popular and classic in English speaking world, many which are still common today. Will you be having a little boy named Hugh? Or perhaps nicknaming you daughter Daisy, like a lovely

According to, when naming girls, Victorian parents often chose multiple first names, such as Mary Anna or Ellen May, as well as having names that reflected traits and characteristics that they wished for their daughters to emulate, such as Patience or Prudence. When it came to naming boys most names were kept traditional and simple, with classic names like Walter and Henry. They also commonly chose names shared with biblical figures, like Ruth and Joseph. Names shared with royalty were also normal, although funnily enough, in British society in the 1870’s-1900’s Victoria was incredibly popular in Britain. Literature and mythology also played a role, as people chose names based on their favourite characters in popular Victorian novels, plays, and tales.

The Macdonald family tended to follow these popular trends when naming their members. They often also chose family names, just like many people do today, so they have names that reflect their Scottish ancestry.


Alas, 'tis a lass, but not an illustration of a Macdonald family member.

Alas, 'tis a lass, but not an illustration of a Macdonald family member.

Before Hugh John Macdonald was born in 1850, his parents Sir John A. and Isabella Macdonald had a son that died in infancy who that had named John Alexander after his father. John and Isabella had loved their first child dearly, so when Hugh was born they considered using his late brother’s names, but eventually the outcry of their relatives and Isabella’s apprehension led to them changing it, as many thought that it was inappropriate and unlucky to name Hugh for a dead sibling. They chose John A.’s father’s name Hugh and then added John as his second name, so he could also be named for his father and brother. Hugh was a relatively popular name at the time and means “mind” or “intellect” according to, which fit the young Macdonald well, as he was an excellent student from a young age according to his father’s letters. Hugh’s second name, John, was later inherited by his son was born in 1885 to Hugh and his wife, Agnes Gertrude. Unlike his father, John Alexander “Jack” Macdonald was able to take his grandfather, Sir John A.’s, name. John was the top name for boys in the US, while in Britain it came in second only to William. says that the name John means “God is gracious” in Hebrew and is the name of many significant Christian figures. It has been popular for centuries and is the root name for other popular monikers, such as Ian, Sean, and Evan, as well as Jack, which was the nickname that John Macdonald often went by. John’s second name Alexander was also in the top 100 names in the 1880’s and comes from Greek, meaning “defending men”. It was a popular name in Scottish families, like the Macdonald’s, as it had been common among Scottish royalty for many centuries.

Jack was not the only child in his family, nor the first to inherit a family moniker; in 1877 Hugh and his first wife, Jean, welcomed their daughter Isabella Mary, who they named after Hugh’s mother, Lady Isabella Macdonald. In the 1880’s the name Isabella was the 33rd most popular girls name in Britain according to British Baby Meanwhile, her second name, Mary, was the most popular girls’ name both in Britain and the US all the way until the 1900’s. According to the name Isabella is Italian/Spanish and is a version of the Hebrew name Elizabeth, which means “pledged to God”. Mary is also Hebrew and means “bitter”. Isabella Macdonald, however, was not generally known to friends and family as Isabella, with most calling her by her nickname Daisy. The nickname was supposedly given to her by a family friend who noticed that when she was playing in a meadow filled with daisies, her long blonde hair made her look like one of the flowers. The name Daisy was also a common legal first name for Victorian girls. The daisy flower is also symbolic of innocence and simplicity in the Victorian language of the flowers, which would have made the nickname great for a young girl.

There is nothing written about how Agnes Gertrude Macdonald got her names. However, we do know that Agnes means “pure” or “virginal” in Greek and was later latinised to being associated with “lamb” and holy purity. It was ranked 51st most popular in the 1880’s while Gertrude was more popular at 27th most common. Gertrude is Germanic and means “strength of a spear”. Both were fairly popular throughout Victorian times, but today aren’t still in the top 100 in the US or UK.

The history of surnames tends to centre more on things like a person’s occupation or family of the people who live in an area, particularly in England and Scotland. According to SurnamesDB, many Scottish surnames refer to the clan that the people who have them come from. The surname Macdonald is particularly popular as the Macdonald Clan was the biggest clan in Scotland and has had many notable members over the years, including the Macdonald family of Dalnavert. The name translates to “Son of Donald”, which indicates a chief of the clan from centuries ago. The name Donald itself means “Great Chieftain” in Gaelic according to and in the 1880’s it was 122nd most popular in the UK too.

To learn more about Victorian names and to see just how popular your own name was one hundred and thirty years ago, go check out the American social security administration and British Baby You can also use and SurnameDB to learn what the history behind your name is and where it came from. Every name has a story to it, but it’s meaning is what you give it. To learn about the people that carried the Macdonald family name and the stories that their names told, drop by Dalnavert today.

A wee bairn and cat in a cradle.

A wee bairn and cat in a cradle.

Exploring Victorians Lecture Series 2018/19

It's back! check out our course load this 2018/19 season for topics you are interested in.

Christmas At Dalnavert!

It's the most wonderful time of the year at Dalnavert! We deck the house in Victorian tinsel and give it that seasonal flair. Visit us in December during one of our events and you'll get more than a warm and fuzzy feeling:

The return of A Dickens Christmas Carol marks the 2nd annual performance series since we re-opened in April 2015 (but long standing tradition here since way back.) This year, Ian Ross, Ron Robinson, and Charlene Van Buekenhout will each perform. read, interpret this classic tale throughout December. We will add some seasonal music by the Sparkle Sisters and more, and you might also get some early Christmas treats. Check out the Christmas event page for details, dates, and times.


This year, we have a new, exclusively for Children, Christmas program. A Victorian Child's Christmas Story is available for 3 Sundays in December. Children's stories such as Clement Clark Moore's 'Twas The Night Before Christmas, and Charles Dickens' A Cricket on The Hearth will be told beside the Christmas Tree in the parlour of Dalnavert. Check out the Christmas event page for details.