Guest Post: Professional life in miniature – The Killer Cabinet Dolls’ House at the V&A Museum of Childhood

This beautiful cabinet exhibited at the V&A Museum of Childhood is named after the Killer family who created it in the 1830s. Ann Killer lived in Stockport with her husband, surgeon John Egerton Killer, and their children. Carefully looked after and treasured as a family heirloom, it passed to her granddaughter Rose Ellen Losh, who left it to the V&A Museum when she died in 1936.

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Killer Cabinet

© V&A Museum of Childhood

The furnishings of the Killer Cabinet combine the finest craftsmanship with personal touches and home-made knick-knacks. Traces of the family can be found in every room, giving a sense of their interests, personalities and talents.

Downstairs, the parlour is cosy. The children are looking at a book of tiny sketches and poems, and an alphabet board (known as a battledore) with minute drawings representing each letter… D is for doll. The handmade sofas in this room are made of card, covered in patterned velvet with matching tasselled cushions. The round easy chairs are hand embroidered with brightly coloured silks – even the piano has been personalised with a cross-stitched panel.

 


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Easy chairs, footman and newspaper from the Killer Cabinet

© V&A Museum of Childhood

In the drawing room, guests sit on an elegant couch, said to be ordered especially from London by John Egerton Killer. On the table sits a copy of ‘Goody Two Shoes’ dated 1836, and a small round wooden box, with a wax portrait inside of a moustachioed man. The only clue to his identity are the initials ‘HW’ on the lid. The gaudy gold table in the corner came from Evans & Cartwright, a mass-producer of tin dolls’ house furniture, but this one has been up-cycled with gilding.

The gold continues into the bedroom next door. This bedstead is said to be a copy of one belonging to the Earl of Leicester. The daughters of the family probably sewed the tiny clothes in the basket, and somebody with good eyes and lots of patience knitted minute slippers.

 

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Killer Cabinet Kitchen

© V&A Museum of Childhood

Back downstairs, a wealth of utensils hang on the plain grey walls of the kitchen. The ‘hastener’ is a roasting screen which stood in front of a fire as a joint turned and cooked. On the table, a spice box for cloves, nutmeg and mace sits next to a newspaper article from September 1853.

John Killer Portrait

John Egerton Killer, Surgeon (1768-1854)

© Chetham Library

John was a well-respected surgeon; thirty years before he had been instrumental in establishing the Stockport Dispensary for the Poor, and was a member of the Royal College of Surgeons. Back when 16-year-old John started his apprenticeship in 1783, he undertook “to be instructed in the Art, Profession, Mystery and Business of an Apothecary”. Five decades on, the Industrial Revolution had transformed the cities of the North, and the medical profession. In 1830, the Stockport infirmary was created to provide hospital beds for workers injured in the mills.

The same year in the Killer household there were four children still at home: Jane, Mary, Frances Leigh, and Ellen, aged 8 to 14. Older siblings Sarah and John Jnr had both moved out, and three other daughters had died during childhood. The four remaining girls were old enough to complete elaborate and skilful needlework, as examples in the Cabinet demonstrate.

In 1832 John Egerton Killer retired aged 65, and moved from Stockport to Derby, where Ann’s family lived. Perhaps the Cabinet was made for this new house, as a permanent home for the dolls’ house furniture.

Over the next twenty years, John and Ann watched their daughters grow up, marry and move out. Jane and Mary had a joint wedding on 16 April 1839, both marrying solicitors. On 13 October 1847 Frances Leigh married a surgeon, William Henry Bellot, and actually moved back to Millgate Hall in Stockport. Ellen married a vicar and moved to Somerset with him in 1851. Between them, these four women had 24 children.

Frances Leigh and William Henry Bellot, or Fanny and Henry as they were known in the family, inherited the Cabinet after John Egerton Killer’s death in 1854. Henry Bellot worked as a surgeon in Stockport, but he was also a skilled painter.

Fanny had four daughters, Rose, Agnes, Amy and Sophia, and a son named Hugh. The family were wealthy, and spent their money furnishing their home in lavish Victorian style, with a mixture of treasured heirlooms and designer pieces. The Cabinet was important enough to be included in both their wills.

Henry Bellot wrote in his:

“The old oak peg fanguard belonged to the Bellot family to be bequeathed to my son… small water colour portrait by late Sister Jane also to my children Amy and Blanche. To make clear though I may repeat I state that under furniture I include the Cabinet or Dolls house to be left to Amy and Blanche”.

By the time Henry died in 1895, Amy and Blanche were in their 40s, and living together in a house in Leamington Spa. Their mother Fanny died eight years after her husband and her will is an inventory of a lifetime of collecting precious objects. This is the account of the objects left to Rose Ellen Hale Leigh Losh, her eldest daughter. It shows how sentimental and monetary value were intertwined. The precious jewellery, with sapphires and topaz stones, also evoke the language of the lapidary, which attributed a special meaning to every jewel.

“my sapphire and diamond ring, turquoise and pearl ring, gold and blue enamelled ring miniature of Mr Thyer, hair bracelet made from my Mother’s hair, gold bracelet with aqua marine stone, Mosaic brooch, Topaz brooch, small coral brooch, Canton Crape shawl, small chest of drawers formerly my father’s, brooch in memory of my father, Dresden basket, two very small Dresden cups and saucers and tea pot ornamented with forget-me-not, two Coalport cups and figure of Napoleon, two Chinese vases given to me by Miss Garrett, six cups and saucers and tea pot formerly her aunt Jane Bellot’s, my largest Chinese bowl and Dolls cabinet given to me by my husband.”

It isn’t clear whether the Cabinet went first to Amy and Blanche, or straight to Rose, but in the end Rose outlived her sisters and it was she who, in 1932, offered to leave the Cabinet in her will to the V&A Museum. When she died three years later, Rose’s husband James Severne Losh wrote to the Museum, in his heavy black handwriting, to carry out his beloved wife’s wishes:

“Can you send someone down here to see it and pack it, the person you send should see it before it is packed or it would not be known where each beautiful thing should go in each of the four rooms… I should think a woman would pack it best and to get a man to make a case for it.”

Once the Cabinet had been packed “beautifully” and dispatched, the Museum sent Mr Losh some photographs of the house set up in the Central court of the V&A. He was delighted:

“How my dear wife would have liked them [the photos]. She loved that dolls’ house and to show it to people. I shall value them much.”

Collections relating to the Killer family can be found at: John Rylands Library, University of Manchester; Chetham’s Library, Manchester; Manchester City Galleries; and Manchester Grammar School.

Exhibition details: http://www.vam.ac.uk/moc/exhibitions/small-stories-at-home-in-a-dolls-house/ 

by Alice Sage, Curator

V&A Museum of Childhood

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