“Written for Mrs Spencer”

It’s hard to imagine a time when families were unlikely to see all their children grow into adulthood, but it’s estimated that during the 1800s 15% of Manx children did not survive until their first birthday, and 30% died before they reached the age of 15. The Spencers had lost two of their four children before Dr Spencer’s death in 1850, and their eldest son would die in Douglas in his teens. It also seems that a twin boy did not survive birth.

This poem, written for Catherine Rose Spencer in 1849, gives insight into the way that Victorian families processed this grief and loss. It celebrates the characteristics of each child, living and dead, and uses strong religious imagery to offer hope of a brighter future where the family will be reunited in heaven.





A little upstart full of joy/ And mischief, is the first-born boy;/ With busy fingers – busier feet, – / A studied mien, and figure neat/ And if he choose “dear Harry” can,/ Be quite a little gentleman,/ But oh! he needs a powerful arm,/ To guard his youthful life from harm./ Do Thou, blest Saviour (kind Thou art)/ Control, renew, and cleanse his heart;/ That he may find his truest joy,/ To be Thy own, Thy little boy.

Two lovely little girls there were,/ But oh! not all a Mother’s care,/ Nor Father’s fondness could detain,/ Those babes in this sad world of pain,/ The first, a gentle timid child,/ With flaxen hair and eye so mild;/ Like some sweet voilet in its bloom,/ Hides shrinking from the glare of noon,/ “Rosy” was wont to hide her face,/ So full of modesty and grace;/ Alas! the worm was at the root,/ The blossom never brought forth fruit;/ But snatched away before its prime,/ It blooms in Eden’s fairer clime.

And “Fanny”! how can I portray,/ Thee, beauteous creature of a day:-/ Thy cheeks – the blushing tints of even,/ That seem to us, to breathe of heaven./ And then, those bright blue laughing eyes,/ That might have rivall’d azure skies;/ All light and gladsome as the spring,/ Was this sweet, merry, fairy thing;/ Her smile was like a sunbeam’s glow,/ Shedding a light on all below./ And with her locks of curly hair,/ “Oh! she was very very fair!”-/ But one pass’d by with icy breath,/ And laid her low and cold in death./ These babes they lived their Mother’s pride,/ And now they’re sleeping side by side.

Methinks another shell I see;/ Oh surely there can not be three, / Yea! let the great man boast of fame,/ This little babe without a name/ Shall, waking from the dust, arise,/ To wear a crown above the skies./ Thrice happy child! tho’ here in gloom,/ Thy cradle is the silent tomb;/ Tho’ never on thy Mother’s breast/ Did’st thou in peaceful slumber rest;/ Yet – never, never, did’st thou know/ The sorrows of this world below:/ Thy little bosom never heaved,/ For sin and woe, it never grieved,/ And when thy eyes first ope fair boy,/ ‘Twill be to feast on endless joy.

And now, one more – a lovely lily,/ Our own, our darling little Willie-/ As placid as the moonbeam’s glow,/  As pure and white as driven snow:/ With rounded limbs, and forehead high,/ And ah: there’s depth in that blue eye./ Oh! Thou who lov’st the little one,/ Now mark and seal him for Thine own,/ And may this group of lovely flowers/ United be in brighter bowers-/ That so together, hand in hand,/ A happy, happy little band,/ They’ll bow before Thy great white throne,/ And sparkle in thy radiant crown.


Written for Mrs. Spencer, New Year’s Day, 1849

“Harry” in the poem is Henry Haskins Spencer, who was born in 1841. He was eight years old at the time of the poem, but died six years after his father, at the age of fifteen. “Rosie” is Rosina Mary Catherine, who was born in November 1842 and died in February 1844, one month before the birth of her little sister. “Fanny” or Frances Margaret, was born in March 1844 and lived until January 1845.

The verse about the “little babe without a name” seems to refer to a stillborn child. In February 1848, the Manx Sun reported that Dr Spencer’s wife had given birth to twins, but only one child (William Carpenter) is recorded. This is “Willie” in the last verse, the only Spencer child to survive both of his parents and into adulthood.

Childhood death was common in Victorian times, but the Spencer household was visited by more tragedy than most middle-class families, especially with the doctor’s sudden death in 1850. At the time, Douglas was a notoriously unhealthy living environment with little in the way of drainage or sanitation. Athol Street was located near the poor districts and slums, where disease spread quickly and cholera and smallpox were common. Doctor Spencer contracted typhoid after visiting a patient’s house in 1841, which he believed was responsible for recurring bouts of illness every winter afterwards. In addition, sick people would frequently call at the house for treatment. It’s possible that any of these factors could have put the family at greater risk.

The identity of “Lily” is unknown, but the Spencers had a wide circle of acquaintances  in Douglas through their association with the Church, as well as various committees, societies and charities. It’s likely that one of these wrote the poem to offer comfort to Mrs Spencer in her grief.

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