William Chickall Jay opened the London General Mourning Warehouse at 217 Regent Street in London's West End in 1841. The business was essentially a department store that sold everything that could possibly be necessary for mourning. Mourning attire made from the finest black silks was on offer as well as a range of items such as mourning jewelery, ribbons, hats, shoes, flowers, black sealing wax and black-bordered envelopes and paper.
Victorian funerals were big business. People desired a good funeral as a sign of their social status. Even the very poor would subscribe to funeral funds, to have the comfort of knowing that they would have a respectable send-off and not a shameful pauper's funeral. There was a widespread belief that a brand new mourning dress should be purchased for each death. The rules of mourning were strictly observed in society. Briefly, a widow was expected to wear mourning for two years; the mother of a dead child, twelve months. A dead sibling required six months of mourning. But the etiquette and society magazines argued obsessively about the minor details of even these matters.
W. C. Jay's store supplied fashionable mourning attire for the well-to-do Victorian society. Mourners, despite their grief, still had to keep up with the latest fashion and could certainly not be seen in last year's model. Jay was also careful to offer goods in a wide price range so as to attract the lower classes. The firm's buyers traveled every year to the silk marts of Europe to buy black silk at the most reasonable prices.
The Jays were later involved in another store in Regent Street. In 1882 the International Fur Store was established at 163-165 Regent Street under the management of a certain T. S. Jay, a probable descendant of William Chickall Jay. Advertisements of the time claimed that the store produced “the finest furs in the world” as well as sealskin coats and jackets and articles made from sable, sea otter and silver fox skins. The International Fur Store traded until at least the 1930s.
by Mark Matlach