Female Obstruction in the small ads

Sometimes, we tend to think of the Victorians as quite like us, except a little more buttoned up, and wearing funny clothes.

Yet, in many ways their lives were quite different from ours, one aspect being the absence of reliable and widely available contraception. This of course meant that most young married women were either pregnant or nusing, and that also women tended to die at a younger age than men due to the hazards of childbirth.

And of course the risks continued through a woman’s fertile time, even into her late thirties or early forties. For example, the Edwardian travel writer Beth Ellis  died in childbirth at the age of 38 – an age that was comparitively late to be having children, especially in Edwardian times.

Yet we know people had sex, and not just within a formally sanctioned marital relationship. The Madeleine Smith trial half a century earlier shows that young women did on occasion have sex with their lovers, and Victorian literature is full of stories of governesses having a fling with the master and being cast out, or indeed making off to live in sin with the master, while the wife is locked up in a madhouse on the basis of her unreasonable behaviour.

Court records and parish relief records also record cases where maidservants became pregnant by the groom or the footman, and were dismissed – often meaning that the maidservant’s family slid into destitution as they were partially reliant on her income.

All in all sex was a hazardous business in terms both of a women’s health and her social standing, and there must have been many cases were the woman didn’t want to continue the pregnancy.

Did she have a choice? Well yes, she did.

Unpalatable as it may be to us, she could acquire an abortifacient and abort the fetus.

While not exactly legal, there is good evidence that many women, both married and unmarried, took this route.

But how did they find out about the availability of such medications?

In a word, advertising. Discreet advertising. Sometimes for medications for ‘female complaints’ and sometimes by warnings that such and such a medication may cause a pregnant women to miscarry – nudge nudge.

However, none of the widely available published sources described the situation in Australia, which is interesting, given that from what we know, informal and sometimes impermanent unions were not exactly unknown in the goldfields and in frontier settlements.

So I decided to do some digging in the newspaper archives to see if there was evidenc that such things were being advertised.

As much of the advertising for such products flew under the radar in a cloud of euphemism it was difficult to work out a suitable search strategy, so I decided to settle on a search for one particular mid Victorian euphemism – female obstruction.

While it could refer to other mentrual problems, there’s quite good evidence to show that it was used to refer to pregnancy.

So, I first did a dry run using Welsh Papers online to see what a search for ‘female obstruction’ would turn up:

Screenshot 2018-04-27 10.43.02

Which was perhaps not quite what we wanted – this suggests a clinic rather than the use of a medical preparation, but then there was this advert.

Screenshot 2018-04-27 10.43.43

The mention of ‘married or single women’ certainly makes it fairly clear what is being advertised here.

So, on to the NLA’s Trove to see if the search works in Australia:

adelaide express 19 May 1888

Screenshot 2018-04-28 12.28.09

which it certainly seems to do, even though the adverts seem a little more discreet than those found in contemporeaneous Welsh newspapers.

There could be a number of reasons for this – one of which could be that the term was not as common in colonial Australia than in Victorian Wales. The other obviously was that the colonial authorities were more punitive in their approach and it paid vendors to be a little more discreet.

So, I tried a second search – this time for ‘female pills’.

This was a bit more successful:



Holloway’s and Beecham’s pills being widely available, Holloway in particular advertising his products widely in the goldfields. In fact Holloway was noticable for his heavy use of advertising. Hollowy’s pills seem to have, like Beecham’s pills, contained aloes, myrrh, ginger and soap, and aloe juice can induce a miscarriage, which is why most probably both Beechm’s and Hollway’s pills worked.

Holloway died a rich man. He and his wife did not have any children and he gave most of his money away.

Among other things, he spent his money founding a mental hospital and women’s college which is today Royal Holloway University in London – given that some of his wealth derived from the use of his pills by women it seems kind of appropriate.

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Jane Austen’s brother Charles

What seems a long time ago, but it was only in the middle of 2013, we visited Trincomalee in Sri Lanka.

It was only on our way back from Sri Lanka that I discovered that Jane Austen’s brother was buried in Trinco. At the time I tried to use Google Maps and Streetview to find photos of the grave site without success.

Tim Wilsey has now taken the trouble to post photos of the grave site on the Victorian Web.

Thanks Tim!

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Replacement teeth in 1861

While rooting around the bowels of Welsh papers online in search of examples of Hayman’s Balsam of Horehound adverts I came across this rather splendid advertisement for replacement teeth from 1861:

replacement teeth in 1861

Merthyr Tydfil Telegraph 8 February 1861

What I find intriguing about this advert is that you still get the same before and after style adverts for dental implants in the back pages of the Saturday papers …

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Hayman’s Balsam of Horehound

I was documenting some nineteenth century medicine bottles the other day and came across this rather nice example in bluish glass:


and it was embossed Hayman’s Balsam of Horehound


suggesting that it had held a cough medicine of some sort.

When medicines were expensive, and visits to the doctor equally so, people were more reliant on patent medicines than they are today.

Horehound is a herb in the mint family and was used to make soothing medicine that also helped people cough up phlegm. And in the nineteenth century city, with high levels of smoke and grime in the air, people were prone to bronchial coughs aggravated by the air the breathed.

Horehound based cough medicines were popular, and most probably did more good than harm. There were a number of manufacturers, and probably quite a few pharmacists made up their own to sell over the counter.

As horehound was introduced in the nineteenth century (it’s now a notifiable weed in NSW and Victoria), I fully expected that Hayman’s would turn out to be a popular late Victorian local brand.

Not a bit of it. Hayman’s balsam was manufactured by Hayman’s chemists in Neath, south Wales. A search of the National Library of  Wales Welsh Newspapers online site shows that he was prolific advertiser in both English and Welsh language newspapers from the 1860’s onwards as seen in this example from the Merthyr Telegraph in February 1861:

hayman's balsam

What’s more, he also had a considerable trade beyond Wales with balsam bottle turning up in South Africa, New Zealand and Australia. Searches of PapersPast in New Zealand and Trove here in Australia also show that his product was being advertised extensivelysydney mail 1 June 1881

as in this advert from the Sydney Mail in June 1881, from which we can see that he has signed up several significant importers, including Felton Grimwade in Victoria to distribute his balsam.

So why Hayman’s?

Well Hayman’s was not the only brand. There were other similar products imported by other wholesalers and possibly local equivalents brewed up by country pharmacists in their back shop.

I think the answer’s in two parts. Neath was a port town shipping the products of the local iron founding and coal industry all over the world, something that gave Hayman’s ready access to shippers and import export agents.

The other is that Hayman’s had discovered the power of advertising, first in local newspapers and more widely, making his product well known and one which importers and distributors would want to handle, if only because of brand recognition by recent migrants.

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Thomas Perry and Son Bilston


In the dispensary of Dow’s pharmacy there’s a rather impressive safe made by Thomas Perry and Son of Bilston near Wolverhampton in England.

The safe is pretty substantial, and painted with a rather nice wood grain effectDows Back room 181

We can guess that the safe was made some time before 1900 as Thomas Perry and Son became Thomas Perry and Son Ltd in the last years of the nineteenth century.

In their time Thomas Perry were quite famous, supplying safes to the Titanic, so I thought that they might have left a long tail of documentation allowing us to date the safe a little more accurately.

No such luck. Despite the help and advice of archivists at the Black Country Living history museum, Wolverhampton City Archives and Sandwell Archives, there’s nothing available online that would pin down the date with any accuracy.

I did however come away seriously impressed with the work done on Thomas Perry by a local history society in the area, and the quality of the Black Country Archives website.

This doesn’t however help with the question as to why a country pharmacist would have such an impressive safe.

Gold was discovered in Chiltern in 1859, and in the early wild post goldrush years the area was alive with bushrangers, all heavily armed with guns obtained from America in the wake of the American civil war (One of O’Farrell’s guns used in the 1868 assasination attempt on Prince Alfred was obtained this way).

Equally, gold rush boom towns were awash with banks, so it would not have been difficult for the pharmacist to bank the bulk of his takings daily, and compared with the richer pickings to be had they were probably comparitively modest.

But of course the town chemist would have had the skills and equipment to assay and accurately weigh gold. And if he did it would make sense to have a substantial safe, both to hold gold and the ready cash to pay for it.

Can I prove it? Not at all. But it makes an entertaining story and may even be true …

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Of gardening, history, and digitisation

Recently, now the hot weather is over, I’ve been doing some work in the garden, planting and laying out garden beds, and in the process using the UK Royal Horticultural Society plant data sheets to help plan my planting.

Not that I’m worried about my Siberian dogwoods – they’re tough plants, and the pomegranate I’ve on order from a nursery should do well too – there’s one growing in the garden of an old miner’s cottage in High Street that’s been left unpruned and looks to be a hundred years old, and still producing fruit.

The obvious question is, why use the RHS website. We live in Australia after all and while the climate here in North East Victoria might be European in style it’s more like parts of central France and northern Spain than England.

And the answer, is that there is simply no equivalent Australian resource. Which is kind of strange given that the colonial governments in the nineteenth century pored resources into economic botany to find what would grow, and you have cases such as the former Botanic gardens at Beechworth where people got plants from elsewhere to see what would grow, and what would not.

So the answer would seem to be to find nineteenth century gardening guides.

In this I was inspired by the example of WT Marshall’s A School Flora from 1910, which a girlfriend recommended to me some forty years ago when I was struggling with the identification of plants in the field. Marshall’s guide wins over many more modern guides for its simplicity, clear black and white diagrams  and lack of confusing photographs.

I imagined that a nineteenth century gardening guide would be similar, and consequently as the ideal candidates for digitisation:

  • they’re out of copyright
  • they’re black and white
  • they’re easy to reprint via a print on demand service as a consequence

and of course if you use a print on demand service it doesn’t matter if only a few copies are printed.

However, there is another resource. Partly inspired by family stories of my grandfather growing fresh vegetables during world war one and also by Kath Bode’s work on lost novels I realised that newspapers could well form a source of information about nineteenth century gardening practices.

Once the goldrushes had settled down people began to put down roots, and the former gold settlements grew into proper towns. People would have grown fresh fruit and vegetables both through economic necessity, and through the need to get fresh fruit and vegetables – remember that until the mid 1870’s there was no railway line, and goods would have to be transported slowly and expensively overland.

So I decided to do a rough and ready search. Obviously I could have used a number of different search terms, but to keep things simple I chose a single term ‘gardening’.

I first of all used QueryPic to check that there were articles citing the term:


which there were, in spades, too many to deal sensibly with so I further restricted the search to publications from Victoria and article with the term gardening in the title, and restricted the date range from 01 January 1865 to 31 December 1899.

That produced over three thousand articles from 362 different publications.

Randomly selecting a few produced articles such as this from the Mount Alexander Mail of February 1876:

mount alexander mail 19 Feb 1876

And a sequence of articles in the Box Hill reporter from the 1890’s sponsored by Thomas Lang, a major seedsman and nursery business in Ballarat. This is an example of their writing

thomas lang garden notes

A little more research also revealed that their catalogue for 1868 has been digitised and is available online from the State Library of Victoria.

It actually makes quite interesting reading. There’s an emphasis on fruit trees – economically important, and on trees and hedging plants. Scattered through the sixty odd pages of the catalogue is information on what grows, and what perhaps sometimes needs a little help. And the range is much more expansive than your usual out of town early twenty first century garden centre.

In short it tells you something of life in the early days of the colony …

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Stephens Endorsing Ink

This morning, while working on the project, I came across a bottle of Stephens blue endorsing ink.


Actually, I found a second bottle of violet endorsing ink later in the day, but by then I’d solved the mystery of what endorsing ink was and what it was used for.

Google and wikipedia gave me the clues. Endorsing ink was a particularly indelible ink that once used was difficult to remove from a document, and was resistant to fading and the effects of mould and mildew. As the bottle was next to some classic nineteenth century steel nib dip pens – one a rather nice bone handled one, and crucially the patient ledger that recorded scripts dispensed and so on, its use was clear – to provide a permanent record of what was done.

This particular bottle dates from sometime after 1930 – exactly when is not clear, but it lists the manufacturer as HC Stephens pty ltd, and Stephens set up an Australian manufacturing subsiduary in 1930 in response to import duties on ink. Stylistically the label could be from any time from the thirties to the fifties.

The second bottle looks older stylistically, and crucially does not say where it is made, so I would guess the twenties rather then the thirties but the label is damaged so one can’t be totally sure.


However, it does say it’s for rubber stamps, and given that there are a couple of inking pads, including this rather nice art deco Dalma one next to it,


and some rather cracked stamps we can say that the purple ink was possibly used for official purposes stamping invoices etc


Now this would just be a curiosity, except for HC Stephens history.

Prior to the 1850’s, clerks usually made up their own ink from powder. Stephens were innovators in that they were among the first manufacturers making up premade ink in bottles, ensuring a consistent product with repeatable performance. And their ink was not just ink. A lot of their inks were designed to be permanent, as in the days when everything was handwritten, record keeping involved writing out clear and legible records of what had been done.

Stephens’ ink was of such quality for it’s resistance to fading and the effects of mildew and mould, that in the nineteenth century the British India office – essentially the colonial administration in India, mandated the use of Stephens ink for record keeping. Not for nothing was good old HC (Henry Charles) Stephens known as Inky Stephens. He also did pretty well out of the business, enabling him to build a rather swish family home in Finchley in London.

In its time Stephens was a household name, now it’s all but forgotten. Why?

In part due to the rise of digitisation, online records management and allied technologies such as the photocopier did away with the need for rubber stamps and high quality ink. After all when there was only one copy of a single document, you cared about its permanancy. When you can copy or print as many as you like and the master document is kept online, you tend to treat paper copies as disposable ephemeral things.

And while it is simply just another example of the past being another country where things are done differently it’s still interesting to learn that in the nineteenth century the bureaucrats of the India Office were worrying about the permanancy of their written records…

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