Books and bookshops

I like books.

Always have, and always will. And what I particularly like reading about is history, especially late antiquity and early medieval, plus a fascination with the Victorian era.

And what I’ve learned about these fascinations I’ve learned by reading books. Perhaps I should have made a career out of them, and perhaps I should have followed my eight year old self when asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, relied ‘An archaeologist!’.

Well kids don’t really know what they want to be, but I’d just read about the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb, and certainly it was one of the things that lit the flame.

Unfortunately, no one in my family had had a quasi academic career, and what careers advice was available through school was worse than useless so I ended up following a fairly standard set of courses, decided I didn’t like them, tried biochemistry – not a success, tried psychology, or more accurately animal behaviour and neuropsychology and loved it, so much so that I tried doing a PhD. Well that didn’t work out but along the way I learned a lot about computing and data which I parlayed into a succession of research support roles, making me a sort of academic groupie.

But along the way I read, voraciously, and being close to universities and cities with big bookshops, my idea of an enjoyable Saturday afternoon in winter was to browse bookshops.

When I was young and poor I had a little game with myself – I’d set myself a budget for the afternoon and scour the second hand bookshops to see what I could find that was relevant. If I could find one history book I could spend the balance on a coffee, or else a mystery novel or some science fiction, and the rest went into the pot for next week’s hunt.

And of course I didn’t always stick to it, but it was fun, and of course when I could afford to buy books without having to worry too much I stopped playing the game.

All good, but then I found myself living in Canberra, which had many qualities, but a good bookshop wasn’t one of them, well not until Borders came along.

This was the early noughties, there was nothing like Amazon in Australia, and while there were a few small companies selling books online, they didn’t have the catalogues of the big international players.

This was a problem to me, as I’d just started working on a project which involved a lot of IT stuff, but I needed to know more. I also had the problem that the Australian dollar was worth bugger all internationally so buying direct from Amazon in the US or UK wasn’t really an option.

Now the thing about computing books is that they are often really expensive new, but older editions are cheap second hand as they may refer to an earlier version of software.

So I discovered the early online second hand booksellers, and bought a pile of remaindered books about text manipulation and archiving to keep myself ahead of the curve.

And I started buying some of my recreational reading the same way – not always cheaper – but certainly doing so delivered greater choice.

Then the kindle (and other e-readers) came along. Great for linear reading, great for the mystery novel you read on a long flight, and absolutely useless for anything with footnotes and references which needs something a bit more non-linear, more hypertextual.

So the mix of what I bought changed – and indeed not everything is available on the kindle, not to mention that some publishers set their kindle prices within a dollar or two of the price for the physical copy of the book making second hand or remaindered a viable option even for books you might consider ‘disposable’.

And now I’m retired and living in a rural area – no decent bookshop within miles, and even though there’s a shop than specialises in bin ends and remainders in Albury – I sometimes still go and play the book hunt game for old times’ sake – almost everything I buy is bought online from second hand vendors.

Is it the cheapest way of doing it? Probably not, but it delivers choice, unimaginable choice, and that’s certainly worth paying for …



Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

What 1860’s women actually wore to go swimming

Punch to the rescue:

This rather charming cartoon from the 3 August 1867 edition of Punch (see for attribution etc) clearly shows that most of the young women depicted are wearing a simple shift.

Which makes perfect sense – it allows reasonable freedom of movement, hides the shape of their bodies, and probably allowed them to swim a few strokes if they wished.

Given that photography in the 1860’s was a cumbersome business there are very few beachside photographs, however Punch cartoons, satirizing as they do the habits and foibles middle classes are drawn from life and are mostly reasonably accurate as regards dress, etc

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Three men and a Bradshaw–a review

I’ve been reading a book – Three Men and a Bradshaw – which is an edited set of Victorian travel journals by John Freeman, a London clerk.

John Freeman’s journals date from the 1870’s and are roughly contemporary with those of the better known Francis Kilvert, but unlike Kilvert’s, his journals only cover holiday trips with his brothers, rather than the full run of daily life.

However while John Freeman can seem a bit priggish at times – he was teetotaler and an enthusiatic member of the Tonic Sol Fa movement, his diary does reveal rather a lot about travel and vacationing in the 1870’s.

Like Kilvert – who railed against having to wear cotton pants to go swimming – he enjoyed swimming nude in the sea – the Freeman brothers enjoyed a naked dip or two, but then it was still the norm for men to swim naked in the 1870’s.

And that actually leads to a little puzzle. While on Jersey the brothers went for swim one morning, accompanied by Lucy, who was the wife of John’s elder brother George.

Lucy had intended to swim with the brothers, but was unable to as all the bathing machines had been put into storage for the winter.

Now a bathing machine was more than a changing hut – it was pushed out into the sea to allow whoever was inside to enter the sea without being seen, and indeed they often had quite large canvas hoods that folded down to ensure privacy.

Equally we know from department store catalogues and cartoons in Punch that bathing suits for women were available from the 1860’s onwards – and these usually consisted of a heavy serge dress and pantaloons, which would undoubtedly make swimming rather difficult.

Photographs from the era are almost unknown, and cartoons from Punch usually refer to the situation at crowded resorts such as Brighton on a public holiday, so we don’t actually know what the situation was at all resorts, especially remoter out of the way ones.

However, there’s also some evidence that some women only wore a light shift to swim – but unfortunately the only  evidence I’ve found relates to a moral panic in Margate, but it does remain interesting that Lucy was obviously happy to swim with the brothers – all of whom would have been naked, and possibly wished to wear something rather lighter than a heavy serge bathing suit to do so.

However, there’s more the journals than nude swimming – what shines through is the importance of the penny post for keeping in touch with family – the brothers are always writing letters home or interestingly receiving post restante letters from home – it’s always interesting to realise how much the penny post in Victorian times was about two way communication – much as we would use Facebook Messenger or email to maintain a conversation. This of course was function of the general efficiency of the Victorian era post office – letters were invariably delivered, even in remote areas, within a day or two of being posted, and in big towns there would be several collections and deliveries a day.

The other major trope is the effiiency of the various private railway companies.

The Freeman brothers used the rail network extensively for their walking holidays, and their journals are full of comments about the trains – mostly that they were late – sometimes ludicrously so, and dirty.

Despite what may be our view today, the mid Victorians clearly did not view the railway companies as models of unbridled efficiency.

The other aspect to the trains was that in the 1870’s the railway network was not complete – for a walking holiday in Devon the brothers had to use a coastal packet to complete their journey to Ilfracombe, and even when it was complete taking an overnight packet boat from London to Edinburgh was a more comfortable alternative than taking the train …

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Murder most foul (or perhaps not)

A couple of years ago, I became fascinated by the Madeleine Smith case – not by the story itself, involving as it did sex and murder among the middle classes of 1850’s Glasgow, but how it was reported world wide.

Madeleine was accused of poisoning her lover by putting arsenic in his cocoa.

She wasn’t the first to do so, nor was she the last, but she was one of the first to be reported in newspapers around the world, in part due to the development of the electric telegraph – although of course the Madeleine Smith case happened before Australia was connected to the rest of the world by telegraph.

She wasn’t the first – the murders perpetrated by Sarah Chesham, aka Arsenic Sally, in the early 1850’s in Essex were reported reasonably widely in Australia.

Other earlier murders less so. For example, Ursula Lofthouse, who murdered her husband in 1835, and was incidentally the last woman to be hanged in York, appears not to rate a mention, despite the case being reported widely in Yorkshire at the time.

However, the use of arsenic by women to dispose of unwanted husbands and lovers was certainly common currency by the 1850’s, and is the reason that sales of poisons became restricted in the late 1850’s in England, and a little later in Victoria and New South Wales.

It didn’t stop it happening though. Louisa Collins, the last woman to be hanged in NSW, managed to poison both her husband and lover, probably to get an insurance payout.

What is interesting though, when you read the newspaper reports of the time is how careful the authorities were in Victorian times to determine the cause of death, usually having autopsies performed by two separate doctors, and often having tests for poisons performed by two analysts.

Just as in the case of the attempted rape of Catherine Morton in Beechworth in 1858, where the victim was blindfolded and given bottles of different substances to smell to confirm the use of chloroform, there seems to have been an attempt by the authorities to use objective scientific methods to obtain a conviction rather solely relying on witness statements.

Of course this could work against them – in the case of Louisa Collins, her husband was a wool processor and employed arsenic in his work – and it was possible to argue for accidental poisoning.

I was curious to see if I could find reports of similar scientific tests being used in murders in the Beechworth area during the gold rush period. Arsenic is often found in gold deposits and is still a hazard in the washout from old mine tailings, so I would have expected to find cases of suspected accidental poisonings which turned out to be murder or attempted murder.

Well, I didn’t find any, but I did find a sensational case from the 1880’s. The fullest report can be found in the Albury Banner and Wodonga Express of 16 July 1886, and a rather shorter version made it into the Press in Christchurch in New Zealand.

Essentially, the murder victim’s body had been burnt, perhaps to get rid of the evidence, and the alleged perpetrator, Harriet Stevens,  claimed that she had a small taxidermy business and consequently had a legitimate use for arsenic. She also claimed that the victim’s house had been struck by lightning at the time of his death and that was why the body had been burned.

Despite two of her previous partners having died in mysterious circumstances, the evidence was not enough to convict Harriet Stevens of the murder of John Plum.

Incidentally her (last) husband John Stevens appears to have been an equally dubious character, but nowhere near as bad as Harriet Stevens …

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Libraries …

Yesterday I tweeted a link to an article from the Atlantic about how libraries, and we really mean university and research libraries, are seeing a massive decline in the use of the books on their shelves.

No real surprises there. Some years ago, ANU cleared a lot of books off their shelves to make space for student study areas – informal sitting areas, classic desks, power sockets and wifi – basically the aim was to provide a warm and congenial workspace.

Likewise if you visit the State Library in Melbourne, the reading rooms are crammed with desks equipped with power sockets and of course wifi is everywhere.

Even more humble establishments like the Albury Public Library, provide well equipped workspaces, and even really small public libraries can provide a viable workspace – just add wifi and desks.

Everything else is online. Digitised newspapers, older books, the rest it’s all online.

It’s even possible to do family history online – no more trekking to old record offices, or sending off requests for copies of old documents, all you need is a computer and some sort of affiliation to access some databases.

My best example is the work I’m currently doing for the National Trust, documenting the contents of Dow’s Pharmacy in Chiltern.

Some of the work is fairly mechanical – brown glass bottle ~120mm h, metal cap, etc, printed label …, but some of it isn’t.

Some of it involves tracking down vanished pharmaceutical companies and finding information on when they were in business, what they sold, who, if anyone, they were taken over by, etc etc,

Background information, and in many cases more interesting than the actual material – like the story of Hayman’s Balsam of Horehound, and what it says about nineteenth century trade patterns and the rise of newspapers as advertising media following improvements in printing technology, cheap woodpulp paper, the reduction of taxes on newspapers, not to mentions increasing literacy.

Or the fact that Australia had no home grown glass making until 1872, and that consequently bottles were valuable, as can be seen in the case of this nineteenth century bottle of whale oil

20190517_141049  20190517_141113

with a sticker on the back informing that a deposit of 4d – quite a substantial amount of money then, and in purchasing terms a hell of a lot more than the 10c container refund you get in South Australia today.

All this information could not have been assembled without the aid of Trove, Welsh Papers Online, the Science Museum in London, Collections Victoria, MAAS in Sydney and others too numerous to mention.

Once, not so long ago, I would have needed to visit a range of institutions to do this work, and some of it would frankly have been impossible for me, as a volunteer, to do. Even though I have the skills to do the research I would have had to cover the travel costs somehow.

But now it can be done, and is done, either sitting at home in my study, or else in a draughty nineteenth century shop byulding in rural Victoria.

And that’s the power of digitisation, and why, increasingly, reference books are basically wallpaper …

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

I was wrong about Petropaulowski …

Well about the Polish origins of the name anyway.

The name Petropaulowski was in use in English long before the Crimean war.

Searching GoogleBooks for the name shows it is used in an account of Cook’s voyages published in Manchester in 1811, and in the British parliamentary proceedings in 1848 discussing a search to find Franklin’s lost 1845 expedition, as well as other places.

The name in this form also turns up in German and Dutch accounts of expeditions  to the Russian Far East in the 1840’s and 1850’s so I guess that it was first transcribed as Petropaulowski, possibly by a German or Dutch merchant, and the name stuck …

But not everyone used it. Using the Google Ngram viewer for Google corpus of English books we see that both names were in use in the first half of the nineteenth century, and crucially Petropaulowski is the most common in the 1850’s


Of course what the ngram viewer does not show is what town Petropavlovsk, or indeed Petropaulowski referred to – there are several in Russia …

… and it wasn’t just a British thing either – David L. Gregg, the US consul in Hawaii (then an independent polity) uses it in his diary entries referring to the comings and goings of the joint Anglo French force.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Petropavlovsk in the Crimean War

The Crimean War has been referred to as the first modern war, by which people usually mean that there was something very like modern trench warfare during the siege of Sebastapol, few large set piece battles with the exception of Alma and Inkerman in the early stages of the war, and of course the presence of newspaper reporters, who made use of that newest invention, the telegraph, to send home reports, often less than flattering to the British military establishment from the battlefront.

However, what’s often not appreciated is that this was not just a conflict localised to the Crimean peninsula, but involved naval actions in the Baltic sea and an attack on the Russian naval base at what was then Petropavlovsk, and is now called Petropavlovsk-Kamchatskiy (Петропавловск-Камчатский) in the Russian far east.

There’s quite a good account of the attack in Wikipedia, so I won’t repeat the details here, but essentially British and French naval squadrons in the Pacific sought to interrupt trade between California and the Russian Far East by attacking Russian ships, just a few years later, the Russian navy was to support the Union navy during the American civil war in hunting down Confederate commerce raiders trying to disrupt the trade between California and Russian Far East – remember that at this time Alaska was still a Russian province and there had even been  a Russian fort in Hawaii.

While the Hawaiian fort had been abandoned by this stage, the Pacific was of great military interest to Russia, which is why  a Crimean war cannon was sent to Cooktown to defend the town from possible Russian invasion, and also why, for one, Port Fairy on Victoria’s south coast sports an impressive nineteenth century gun battery


And the war had other effects – it’s been suggested that the Crimean war curtailed organised mass emigration from the Highlands of Scotland to Australia.

So, you could guess that the attack on Petropavlovsk would have been of great interest to Australian (and New Zealand) newspapers of the time, and you would think that it would certainly show up in a search of digitised newspapers in Trove.

There’s only one problem, It doesn’t. Using QueryPic, it’s simple to show that there was a great interest in the Crimean war:


Search for Petropavlovsk, and you really only find references to the loss of the  battleship Petropavlovsk in 1904 during the Russo Japanese war.

Nowadays, there’s pretty much a set of standard rules about how to transcribe  Cyrillic to Latin script. Back in the nineteenth century, the rules were a bit more vague, and sometimes they followed nineteenth century German transcription rules, which is why sometimes you see Chaikovsky written as Tchaikowski  and Chekhov as Tchekhov (or Tchekhoff) in old books.

So my first guess was a transcription problem, so I want looking for websites that included contemporary or near contemporary accounts of the battle.


In this Russian example we can see that Petropavlovsk is spelled in Russian exactly as we would expect, and that the post Revolution spelling reforms have had no impact on the name.

And in this English map of about the same date


the town’s name is given as Petropavlofsk.

Well, that’s believable, the way the stress falls on the ‘o’ – pyetrO-pavlofsk – means the final ‘v’ would be pronounced softly, and could well have sounded like an ‘f’ to a nineteenth century ear, just as a lot of Russian surnames which end in ‘ov’ (ов) are transcribed as ending in ‘off’ in nineteenth century transcriptions – closer to the sound if not the way it’s spelled.

Only one problem. That doesn’t show up either in QueryPic.

In fact it was only by searching Trove for the names of the ships involved in the action did I discover what the British called the town: Petropaulowski or even Petro-Paulowski – a transcription that looks almost Polish, but there it is when you search QueryPic

chart (1)

Perhaps because it was a joint Anglo-French operation there was an officer of Polish heritage among the French  naval officers who could speak some Russian – I’m waving my hands here – and his transliteration got into the official reports of the time. I don’t know, I’m guessing, but it’s odd given that a near contemporary English language map gives it as more reasonable  Petropavlofsk.

But when you do search Trove for Petropaulowski, you notice something else interesting about the reports – they almost all come via Californian newspapers, rather than, as is the case with reports from the Crimea itself,  from English newspapers such as the Times.

Just as we can see with the prevalence of American condiment bottles in Norfolk Island from the 1850’s, do we see that already trade across the Pacific between Australia and California  was already well established in the 1850’s …

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment