A Theatrical Undertaker: Theophilus Dunkley

A patient who is being treated with many drugs receiving a visit from an undertaker.  Image by James Morison.  Credit: Wellcome Collection  CC BY

Theophilus Dunkley was described by those who knew him as convivial, clubbable, charitable and very fond of the music hall, not qualities one immediately associates with the Victorian undertaker—perhaps unfairly.  Theo lived on and around Westminster Bridge Road all his life, and now rests in Lambeth Cemetery in Tooting among the many variety performers who were both his friends and clients.

Founded in 1814 the Dunkley undertaking dynasty began with Theo’s grandfather, Thomas, a chair-maker with a sideline in coffin making.  The family lived in the aptly named Joiners Place on the south side of Westminster Bridge Road, where William Dunkley was born in August 1808.  The family then moved a few streets to the north to 66 Tower Street.

Undertakers were not greatly liked, as can be seen in this extract from a poem by “R.F.”, which was printed in the New Monthly Magazine in 1830:


Surely Dame Nature tried to cry,
The morning when she made the die
For mouldering undertakers;
With sallow-visag’d, scarecrow forms
Brought into life in clouds and storms,
With hands to knead their fellow-worms
And take them to the bakers …

There is more—quite a lot more, in fact—in the same vein.

Even so, in December 1842 Rosey Cox née Cline, the widowed mother of nine young children, liked William well enough to marry him.  Within four years the family had expanded with the births of Theophilus in 1844 and Virginia in 1846.  In the 1851 Post Office Directory William is listed as a furnishing undertaker.  In the hierarchy of funeral operatives this was the top level, as is made clear in the 1869 edition of Cassell’s Household Guide:

Besides the persons who make the coffin, there are the coffin-furniture manufacturers, the funeral robe, sheet, and ruffle makers, the funeral-carriage masters, and funeral feather-men.  All these supply at first-hand the furnishing undertaker, who, in his turn, supplies the trade and the public.

Mother and son mourning together.  Image in Cassell’s Illustrated Readings volume 1 (1875) page 21.

William died in July 1864, leaving Rosey as his executrix, and effects of under one hundred pounds.  Theo, now the head of the family at barely twenty, took over the business.

Rosey died in January 1873, and barely two months later Theo married Elizabeth Mary Ann Smith, the daughter of a Fleet Street fishmonger.  They soon had three children—William Robert, Florence Elizabeth and Archibald—the last of whom sadly died while still a baby.  At the same time Theo was doing well, employing four to five men in the undertaking business and a general servant and nursemaid to work in the house.  Theo joined the Masonic Jordan Lodge in 1876.  He rose to Worshipful Master in 1887, the year of the Queen’s jubilee.

The music halls and popular theatre appear to be the centre of Theo’s social life, which is not surprising, as he lived surrounded by places of popular entertainment.  Astley’s Amphitheatre was just up the road next to Westminster Bridge, and Gatti’s Theatre and the various versions of the Canterbury Music Hall were on Westminster Bridge Road.  A brisk ten minute walk could take you to the Surrey and the Elephant and Castle Theatres, and around the corner on Waterloo and York Roads were the offices of the theatrical agents.

Theo’s obituary in the stage newspaper The Era claimed that he was

present on the occasion of the opening of the Canterbury and Paragon.

These openings were no doubt those that marked the rebuilding of the Canterbury in 1876 and the inauguration of the Paragon Theatre on Mile End Road by his great friends Charles Crowder and George Adney Payne in 1885.

Although stars could earn good money, most performers found it hard to make ends meet when they were unemployed or ill or old.  Then, as now, there was a great esprit de corps amongst theatrical folk, and several benevolent societies were set up to help those in need.  One such, of which Theo was a member, was the Grand Order of Water Rats, a society that still exists today.  Many of the burials he organised were probably paid for by the GOWR, which had its own plot in the Lambeth Cemetery, and by the Music Hall Artists and Railway Rates Benevolent Society.

A funeral procession.  Image in George Somes Layard The Life and Letters of Charles Samuel Keene (1892) between pages 142 and 143.

Theo also arranged the funerals of some of the music hall greats: Bessie Bellwood  at St Patrick’s Catholic Cemetery in Leytonstone, Jenny ‘The Vital Spark’ Hill at Nunhead Cemetery, and the amazing Dan Leno down in Lambeth Cemetery.

In 1883 Theo had to oversee a funeral closer to home when Elizabeth died at the age of thirty-six.  He began making more changes: the business and family moved to 88 Westminster Bridge Road, next door to the now defunct St Thomas’ Church, and not far from the terminus of the Necropolis Railway, which whizzed bodies down to Brookwood Cemetery.

Then on the 1st of April 1885 he married a young divorcee called Elizabeth Keddle (née Cameron).  Bessie, as she was known, had been married to the vocalist and comedian Harry Starr in 1878, and divorced five years later.  Perhaps she too was on the stage?

Dunkley grave in Lambeth Cemetery.  © Karen Ellis-Rees 2018

Theo died on Tuesday the 23rd of March 1909—he had been ill with bronchitis for two weeks—and was buried with all the pomp and ceremony one would expect for someone in the trade.  At midday on Tuesday the 30th of March the funeral cortège left 88 Westminster Bridge Road, watched by a large crowd.  The hearse, pulled by six black horses, carried a fine oak coffin decorated with brass fittings and masonic symbols.  Behind it was a landau full of floral tributes, and after it came eight coaches, each pulled by four horses.  It took one and a half hours to travel the six and a half miles to Tooting.  As with all the “best” funerals, no women were present.  The interment was attended by male family members, employers, friends, and representatives of the theatrical benevolent societies—The Grand Order of the Water Rats, the Terriers Association and the Music Hall Artists and Railway Rates Benevolent Society.  Amongst those attending were members of Theo’s Lodge, who, it was noted, threw sprigs of acacia—the Masonic symbol of immortality—into the grave.

The monument can still be seen today, topped by a rather charming and well-preserved angel.  The dedication reads:


Theo left £9,795 in his will, and his son William Robert carried on the business until the 1920s.  But what became of Elizabeth—Bessie—I have not yet been able to find out.

© london-overlooked 2019


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