John Killer’s Cabinet Dolls’ House

This week I’m going to look at how dolls’ houses reflect society and their home owners’ social aspirations.

According to the Museum of Childhood in Bethnal Green, dolls’ houses weren’t originally made for children but for the education of young ladies. They were both instructional – the servants you will have and this is what they should be doing – and aspirational – your duty is to help your husband go up in the world and, for that, you need the right sort of home with the right sort of things in it.


Killer Cabinet House: photo courtesy of the V & A’s Museum of Childhood

Take the Killer Cabinet House from the 1830s, now in the Museum of Childhood in Bethnal Green, part of the V & A Museum. It was made by Stockbridge surgeon, John Egerton Killer, for his wife and daughters in the early 1830s when he had four daughters living at home: Jane, Mary, Frances Leigh and Ellen, aged 8 to 14 years old.

The beautifully made cabinet shows four main rooms: top left, the drawing room, top right, the bedroom; bottom left, the parlour and bottom right, the kitchen. Everything is up to date and fit for a well-do-do family of the best class. The neat fingers of his wife and daughters made many of the furnishings.

Back in 1783, as a young lad of 16, John Killer started his apprenticeship as an apothecary and, as those of you who have read my post on The 1822 Herb Garret, St Thomas’s Hospital, 5th April, 2020 (category Natural World) will know, it was a long, arduous and intensive training. A hard-working and properly–trained apothecary could rise in the world, as John Killer obviously did; he became a well-respected member of the Royal College of Surgeons, and helped to establish the Stockport Dispensary for the Poor, and the Stockport infirmary which provided hospital beds for workers injured in the cotton mills.

The kitchen. Photo courtesy of  V & A’s Museum of Childhood

Killer’s kitchen proudly shows that it has a Rumford stove, the very latest in cooking technology and hygiene. The Rumford stove was innovative in that it did not produce heat until it was wanted, and in just the right amount; it was also insulated so that the heat was used before it could be lost. It was a huge saving in coal and much cleaner.

Count Rumford, originally Benjamin Thompson (1753-1814), was an Anglo-American. In his interesting and varied life in America, England and Bavaria, ‘he inaugurated many social reforms, in London, and made a number of mechanical inventions with a view to ameliorating domestic life.’ He was made Count von Rumford and knighted, Sir Benjamin Thompson.

The public knew Rumford as ‘the apostle of fireside comfort’, and a poem was even written to celebrate his achievements:

Note of melodious cadence on the ear

Loud echoes Rumford here and Rumford there.

Lo! Every parlour, drawing room, I see,

Boasts of thy stoves and talks of naught but thee.

We can see that the plain grey painted walls in Killer’s kitchen would be much easier to keep clean than flaky whitewash walls covered in grease from years of cooking on open fires. And, although we can see a cat by the kitchen table, this does not look like a room which would harbour vermin. There is a wealth of clean, shiny kitchen utensils hanging on the walls, and a spice box for cloves, nutmeg and mace on the kitchen table. And note the ‘hastener’, a roasting screen which stopped fat from spitting out from a joint cooking on a spit, in the left hand corner of the room.

Stockbridge was a smoky, industrial town and John Killer may also have been instructing his wife and daughters in the importance of cleanliness, something which, as surgeon, he must have known about.

The Parlour: photo by Elizabeth Hawksley

Next door to the kitchen on the ground floor is the Parlour, a room for both adults (women) and children. There is a tiny book of sketches and poems to interest the children, and a doll sitting on the carpet. The information board tells us that the handmade sofas are made of card, and covered in patterned velvet and with matching tasselled cushions. The round easy chairs on the left are hand-embroidered in brightly-coloured silks – all made by his wife and the children of the house.

The bedroom

Upstairs on the right is the bedroom with a magnificent richly-gilded four poster bed, said to be a copy of one belonging to the Earl of Leicester. I love the details of the clothes horse, the baby’s wickerwork bassinette with the hood, and the information board assures us that there are some tiny knitted slippers, but I confess they are so small I can’t see them. Again, the daughters of the house have been busy sewing tiny clothes to go in the laundry basket.

The Drawing-room: photo by Elizabeth Hawksley

The drawing-room is, surely, an aspirational room, with its classy white and gold wallpaper and gilded furniture, for example. I found myself wondering if the gold ferns on the walls were stencilled on. The people in the room look as if they are there formally; the ladies’ dresses are more gauzy and have more delicate trimmings than we see in the other rooms; and the gentlemen, politely standing, seem slightly ill at ease. Are they paying a formal call?

The information board gives us a useful cleaning tip: the only way to clean expensive wallpaper is by rubbing it gently with bread. I wonder if they still do that in National Trust stately homes?

In creating this beautifully made cabinet of a desirable home, John Killer, surely, also wants a home which will show off his status, where the right sort of visitors will be impressed by the elegant furniture, the piano, and the top of the range wallpapers. His daughters are growing up – this is what they should be looking for: a well-to-do husband who can support them in the manner to which they are accustomed.

Elizabeth Hawksley


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6 thoughts on “John Killer’s Cabinet Dolls’ House”

  1. How delightful! I am intrigued especially by the clothes. The women look like they are wearing 18th century dress, but the two men in the parlour have “trousers”, which I understood did not come in until the 19th century. Unless they are sailors perhaps? The little boy on the left is in breeches. It’s interesting because the ladies of the house sewed them so they must have been doing what was familiar or in use. A lovely doll’s house though. And I also didn’t know that they were for training purposes rather than playing – learning while you play?

    1. Thank you for your interesting comment, Elizabeth. The dolls’ house stayed in the family until the 1920s and was played with by three generations of children, so I think the costumes are probably more generic rather than belonging to a rigidly specific date.

      The idea that dolls’ houses were first created to instruct young ladies in what they should expect in the way of servants and what sort of furniture and lifestyle they should look to have was suggested by the information board at the beginning of the dolls’ houses section in the museum. I did know that beautifully made porcelain dolls of the 17th and 18th centuries were created as fashion models rather than toys, so I suppose this is a natural progression from that.

  2. Wonderful, Rachel, thank you for sharing this. My godfather made my dolls’ house for my tenth birthday plus some furniture. He was an amateur cabinet maker and often showed us the small pieces he made before embarking on the real thing (a few of them ended in my dolls’ house, too!)

    This really brought back memories for me, as well as being a very interesting piece from an historical point of view. As to Elizabeth’s point – by 1830s the fashions were moving away from the Empire lines and back to fuller skirts, so perhaps that explains the ladies’ dress?

    1. Thank you for your comment, Sarah. Lucky you, having such godfather who made you such a lovely present! Personally, I think that the fashions are basically from the mid-1830s when, as you say, the waistline had fallen and the sleeves were swelling out! Think more Bronte than Jane Austen! But, as three generations of little girls played with the dolls, possibly some got re-clothed.

  3. Very interesting.

    I lament that most people no longer use the words Parlour and Drawin Room any more.

    I wonder if life in a house like this wouldn’t have been terribly dull. Every seems a quite stiff and rigid somehow.

    1. That’s a very perceptive remark, Huon. I think everyday life probably was much more rigid, especially for women, when there were so many things ladies couldn’t do – like going out without a chaperone! A decent education for girls was almost non-existent, too; and a lady wasn’t expected to have to earn a living – unless she was a governess. I’d hate it!

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