Queen Victoria’s bun in Jamaica

jamaica and the uk obverse

jamaica and uk reverse

I’ve previously written about the heads used on Queen Victoria’s coins, and how there had been an abortive attempt to introduce a common currency throughout the British Empire.

One place where it didn’t work was Jamaica, where the local Afro Caribbean population didn’t like bronze pennies or half pennies. One explanation, which may be apocryphal, is that people did not like to be seen putting bronze coins in the offering plate at church services, bronze coins being associated with poverty and slavery.

To counteract this, the colonial government minted pennies and half pennies of the same size and weight as the British originals, but in cupro nickel rather than bronze, and with quite a different design.

If you look at the side by side images above you can see that apart from being the same size and weight, the coins differ markedly in design. In fact the only common element seems to be the use of the Leonard Wyon bun head – and that’s only because the coin is worn. In fact they used a different head by Wyon  in which Queen Victoria compliments her bun head hairstyle with a diadem. The same design turns up on Channel Island coins as well as other places.

jamaica half penny

I’m afraid that the example in my collection is pretty worn, making it difficult to spot the diadem.

jamaica diadem head

The diadem is rather clearer in this 1871 example from ebay.

Note also that Victoria is simply styled Victoria Queen, just as she was on pre 1877 Indian coinage before Disraeli created her Empress of India.

I’m guessing that the logic was that the coins were for use in Jamaica and other associated Caribbean islands and as Victoria was Queen of Jamaica. (Equally, British coins did not acquire IND.IMP until the introduction of the veiled head coins in the late 1890’s.)

Later coins such as those of Edward VII and George V used the robustly imperial title King and Emperor, while of course British coins stuck with IND.IMP until 1947 …

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Balaclava Road

A few days ago I was on the number 16 tram in Melbourne rattling up Balaclava Road, and half day dreaming while looking out the window.

When the tram got as far as the intersection of Balaclava and Orrong roads I noticed a tram shelter that looked rather different from the usual functional nineties shelters.


I thought it might be a survivor from the end of the nineteenth century, but when I checked the Victoria Heritage Database, it turns out to date from 1916 or 17, which turns out to be a bit later than I thought. Anyway, I thought it was worth a further look so I did exactly that, hopping off the tram on my return journey …

Architecturally, it’s reminiscent of school wet weather shelters, or more accurately the old nineteenth century ones I remember from the early sixties


with the cast iron columns doubling as down pipes


But that’s not all, round the corner is a fairly standard colony of Victoria Postal receiving pillar of the same basic design as the Mellish St postbox


except that this one has obviously only been recently abandoned by Australia Post, and despite being sealed still has a current collection time sticker.

Further down the street street is another nineteenth century gem, one of the obelisk style post boxes that preceded the receiving pillar design, but taller than usual, making it look, in style, a little like a Victorian gravestone


The reason for the extra height is because it has two mail slots, the upper for newspapers, that went at the (reduced) printed papers rate, and the lower for normal letters.

This one has not been abandoned by Australia post and the lower slot is still in use as a posting box. I didn’t examine the newspaper slot closely but it didn’t look as if it was sealed – what would happen if you posted something in it might be a bit uncertain though ….

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The Mellish St postbox

Yesterday, as well as being the last day of the year was a beautiful cool summer Sunday morning and ideal for a walk before it got too hot.

For a change we decided to walk up to the old Lunatic Asylum, the initial design of which was originally based on the Colney Hatch Lunatic Asylum (later renamed the Friern Hospital) in London.

As it was our Sunday walk we took a circuitous route via the old train station and up Mellish Street to double back towards the hospital.

Near the top of Mellish Street I spied an old colonial era post box or more properly, receiving pillar, in among the shrubbery on the nature strip.


it had been decommissioned and was now officially a monument


and like many similar pillars had a clenched fist on the handle


something that seems to be a feature of Victorian colonial postboxes – certainly the old square model in Chiltern has one

chiltern victorian mailbox  chiltern hand as handle to mailbox

as does this rather neglected example in Balaclava just down from the train station

old and new postboxes balaclava

The real question was when did the box date from?

Well, there are a number of houses from the late 1850’s and the 1860’s at the top end of Mellish St, and the asylum started service in 1867, suggesting that there were a reasonable number of people living in the area by the 1870’s, and that they might merit the provision of a post box, given that they were a couple of kilometres from the main post office in town.

And there I stopped, but that phrase receiving pillar nagged at me. It seemed a little old fashioned, even for  the latter half of the Victorian era, so I did what anyone else would do and turned to Google.

Well, it turns out that receiving pillar was what the colonial postal service in Victoria called them. Other administrations may have also used the term but based on a Google search, Victoria seems to be the only postal administration to have used the term extensively.

What’s more a search of the Collections Victoria website brought up two examples, both in Warnambool one restored in 2014, the other in 1980. Both are the same 1885 full length door design, so we can guess that the Mellish Street box dates from 1885 or later. I didn’t think to look for a manufacturer’s plate or anything that could be used to date the box more securely, but I know what I’m doing next time I pass by …

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And how affordable was the penny post?

The answer is, of course, it depends.

Clearly it was very affordable for the middle classes but possibly less so for the poorer elements of society. Most writers suggest that it was the equivalent of something between fifty cents and a dollar, in fact around what it would cost to post a letter today.

But consider Emile L’Angelier, Madeleine Smith’s lover.

In the mid 1850’s in Glasgow he was earning around sixty pounds a year as a seedsman’s clerk. To keep things simple let’s say that he earns sixty pounds a year or five pounds a month, giving him around one pound three shillings a week, which, remembering my predecimal maths would be 276 pennies.

Now, someone working in a similar job today could arguably be getting $60,000 a year (possibly a bit more) which comes out at around $1115 a week.

If we say that a letter costs 1/276th of a weekly income to post, we come to something a little over four dollars.

Now one crucial difference is that Emile didn’t pay tax or a medicare levy. Assuming a marginal rate of 30%, our imaginary seedsman’s clerk would be paying $334 a week in tax, giving him a disposable income of $780 a week.

Using the 1/276th test, that has a letter costing $2.82 to post, not counting the cost of the paper or the envelope, which, in the 1850’s was not insubstantial given that the only paper commonly available was rag paper (Cheap wood pulp paper didn’t arrive until the 1860’s).

In other words, writing and posting letters was a substantial cost. We see a hint of this in some of Madeleine’s letters which are cross written ie the letter is written first top down and then continues at 90 degrees to the original text, like in this other nineteenth century letter

cross wriiten letter

as a way of saving paper, even though as a wealthy young woman Madeleine could well afford to write several letters a week …

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Queen Victoria’s bun

We’ve recently been watching first series Victoria on the ABC, which has finally shown it eighteen months after its first release in the UK.

In one of the early episodes Victoria has her hair done in an elaborate style with looped plaits over her ears.

Afterwards, J asked me if I knew of any photographs showing her using that style, and I pointed out that 1840 or thereabouts is just too early for photographs, but that there are portraits and also she was depicted using that hairstyle on Indian Rupeesqueen victoria elaborate head rupee

and some English silver coins

gothic_florin queen victoria elaborate head

note that the portraits are slightly different – the hairstyle is not the same nor is the dress, and the profile is a little different, which is not that surprising as the Indian rupee dates from the early 1860’s after the administration of India had been taken over by the British government after the events of 1857, but before Disraeli created Victoria Empress of India.

So, hairstyle problem solved, J had a second question. She remembered that before decimalisation getting worn Queen Victoria pennies in her change, and that they seemed to show her hair in a bun, or else when she was very old and veiled.

Well, the old and veiled head is one I remember getting in change in predecimal days half a world away in Scotland as well

queen victoria late head

though they were usually very worn. I don’t remember Queen Victoria pennies with her hair in a bun, but I did remember writing about the early 1840’s East India company rupees and how some of the dies had given an indefinably Indian cast to her features, so I showed J the post, only for her to say that it’s not quite how she remembered them.

Easiest way seemed to be to buy an old Queen Victoria penny from ebay. I picked one that had a head like the rupee coins

queen victoria early bun head

and dating from the 1850’s. The coin, when it arrived was heavier and thicker than the predecimal pennies we both remembered, and not the correct head. What had happened is that the old heavy pennies had been withdrawn in 1860 to be replaced with the (relatively) lighter ones we both remembered.

Back to ebay to buy a post 1860 penny, and hey presto, the correct head

queen victoria later bun head

showing her with a more distinct bun and a ribbon hanging down

queen victoria later bun head detail

as can be seen in this more detailed view which also shows her as looking older and more jowly than in the early heavier coins.

The only other question is why there were still Queen Victoria pennies circulating in 1960’s Australia, when Australia had had a separate coinage since 1910.

The answer probably goes back to 1825 when the British government decreed that the same coinage should be used everywhere in the Empire. That of course never happened, India and territories governed from India such as the Gulf states stuck to the Rupee, the Straits Settlements, which later became Malaysia and Singapore, preferred the silver dollar beloved by Chinese merchants and traders, as did Hong Kong.

Canada pragmatically chose the dollar because of its proximity to the United States, but Australia, New Zealand, the Caribbean possessions, Cape Colony (later South Africa), and a few other places ended up with the British Lsd system, and a common interchangeable coinage. Oddities, such as Jersey and Guernsey, who had established local currencies continued to issue their own coins well into the nineteenth century.

The other great oddity was Gibraltar which used a currency tied to Spain’s currency until 1898 when the Spanish peseta crashed in the wake of the Spanish American war leading to a swift adoption of the British system.

As the various Dominions went their own way in the early 1900’s they began to issue their own coins – New Zealand not doing this until 1933 – and the older British high value coins were replaced with local issues.

However it wasn’t worth the expense of replacing all the old lower value coins, so the old British pennies continued to circulate, even though they weren’t strictly legal tender, much in the same way as Australian and New Zealand 10 and 20c coins, which were the same size and weight (and based on the old British shilling and two shilling coins) used to circulate side by side in a completely unofficial arrangement until New Zealand reissued its coinage with newer lighter coins a few years ago.

You also used to see the same unofficial co-circulation in Ireland until the Irish pound separated from the pound sterling, and the same sort of thing continues in Gibraltar and the Channel Islands where local coins circulate alongside British coins.

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The penny post


(not actually the penny post – it’s from Victoria where the post cost 2d in the 1890’s …)

I’ve written about the significance of the penny post before, but one thing that comes through from both accounts of the Madeleine Smith trial and the novels of Wilkie Collins is just how many letters people wrote, and how it changed people’s lives – people expected to send and receive letters speedily, and not just within the British Isles or the colonies.


(Nineteenth century post card sent from London to Batavia (now Jakarta) for 1/2d)

The penny post was the email and the Messenger of its day and allowed people to communicate quickly and cheaply no matter where they were. Remember that before 1840 sending a letter was expensive, and often letters sent to distant places would be sent informally with someone travelling there rather than via the official post. (And of course they sometimes got lost or never reached their destination)

This meant that letters were rare, special, exotic things. Come 1840 it was suddenly affordable for the middle classes, and as other countries adopted a cheap universal mail service peering arrangements came into place by which one country’s postal service would agree to handle mail sent from overseas with the expectation that it’s overseas mail would be handled the same way.

At the same time railways and steamships were developing, ensuring reliable and predictable communication. If you’ve ever looked inside one of these Victorian compendiums of useful information there’s usually a section entitled ‘Mail to the Colonies’ detailing the costs and likely transit times for letters and packages sent overseas.

I’m also old enough to remember writing to a girlfriend overseas and knowing that a letter sent on Monday would most likely be there by Friday, meaning the replay should most likely come the following Friday, and the agony and anticipation of waiting for a letter with foreign stamps to appear in the mail, so I can appreciate just how important the predictability of the service was to the Victorians.

So not only could the butcher the baker and for all I know the candlestick maker send their monthly bills in the mail, raffish cousin Albert could also stay in touch despite having been sent to the colonies for having a fling with the parlourmaid and the popular young curate who, despairing of ever getting a living, had taken a post in a church overseas, could write back to his friends and family about how he was finding life among the heathen …

And of course these letters tell us vast amounts of detail about people’s lives and how they managed in a strange and alien land, as well as how people lived their lives at home, as social history is built on what is essentially gossip and the minutiae of people’s lives …

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The pharma typewriter continued


I continued to be intrigued by the pharma tyewriter and ended up doing some searching on Google and eBay (a useful source of comparison information) which let me know that examples such as this were pretty rare.

I ended up contacting Scott Kernaghan, a typewriter specialist and blogger, who was kind enough to take a look at my pictures and advise on a likely date:

I can tell you that it is was built between March 1922 – as that is when they started putting dual shift keys on this model, up until January 1925. Being that few models were made in that January, you can quite confidently say that the machine is from 1922 to 1924. That’s the closest I can tell you without the serial number.

When you have a chance to get a closer look at the machine the serial number should be found at the back right hand side of the machine.

Well, when I went to look for the serial number I found that the typewriter’s ninety five year old rubber feet had glued themselves to to an equally venerable rubber mat, meaning that getting at the serial number was going to involve a bit of delicate conservation work to unstick things, so I bailed out at this point, but still, to have a date of somewhere between 1922 and 1924 is pretty good …

[update 20/12/2017]

Well we now have a serial number, NC41856, which gives us a date of October 1924, using the typewriter database – a hobbyist resource for typwriter collectors.

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