Another nineteenth century post box

In quite a few places in Victoria you can come across old colonial post boxes – sometimes even still in use as in the early example I spotted in Port Fairy.

Well, Beechworth we don’t have any old pattern boxes still in use – but we still have two old pattern boxes, one in Mellish St, and another at the end of Malakoff Road.

As in Mellish St, the postie no longer calls but it’s still there as a historic object:



essentially a standard colonial long door format box with the clenched fist boss on the handle for the postie to open the box to get the mail …

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Toilet Parlours

There, I was innocently working away documenting old pharmacy bottles when I came across one that caused me quite a degree of puzzlement:


it’s from Lane’s Pharmacy in Wangaratta. It’s difficult to see from the picture but underneath the Lane’s Pharmacy line on the label it reads Chemist and Toilet Parlour.

Now that’s a term I hadn’t come across. Nowadays we associate toilets almost solely with excretion, and my first thought that was that Lane’s had decided to provide one of these upmarket facilities with an attendant to help with any quick fixups required as well as providing a place for relief.

Personally I’ve never really encountered anything like that outside of Dubai where the attendant handed one a towel after you had washed your hands, or in Morocco, where in one town in the south – I forget where exactly – we had gone to the only hotel in town that had a bar that served alcohol – warm white wine and even warmer red – but at least the beer was cold.

After a beer I of course needed to go to the toilet, where there was all the modern glistening push button flush facilities one would expect anywhere, and a man in a yellow gown whose job appeared to be to flush the urinal for you in return for a dirham – which was only about 15 cents – so hardly worth worrying about.

Anyway, back to the story – curiosity piqued I did some digging, and was rewarded with this from PapersPast NZ


A toilet parlour was a beauty salon – and it wasn’t just an Australia and New Zealand phenomenon – the term was also in use in America in the 1890’s


A quick search on QueryPic shows that (in Australia at least) the term was only really widely used in the nineteen twenties and had pretty much gone out of use by the early nineteen thirties …

chart (4)



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I’ve become interested recently in Egyptomania – the sudden engagement of western countries with Ancient Egypt in the nineteenth century.

Egyptomania spawned a whole range of things – from the Egypt Exploration Society to the Amelia Peabody novels and is with us even today with the hype around any large exhibition of Ancient Egyptian artefacts

Before the nineteenth century, Pharonic Egypt was unknown in the west save for some biblical texts and references in a few classical authors. Napoleon’s Savants pushed open the door a little, as did Champollion’s work on hieroglyphs, but in the first half of the nineteenth century what archaeology there was was little more than glorified tomb robbing.

‘Proper’ access didn’t really happen until the 1870’s, indirectly as a result of a financial crisis in Egypt, which resulted in a take over by stealth of the two largest creditors, Britain and France.

This enabled tourism, as exemplified by Amelia Edwards’ 1877 A Thousand Miles up the Nile,and with tourism came curiosity, and gradually a more formal system of regulated exploration and excavation. Of course Amelia Edwards was not the first, or the only lady tourist cum egyptologist, there was Marianne Brocklehurst, Amelia Oldroyd and Annie Barlow to name but three, all of whom used their money to build substantial collections.

But of course it’s not just these high profile collections – many people were infected by Egyptomania which why there’s an Egyptian mummy in Hyderabad, one in Perth museum in Scotland, in Derby museum in England, in Manchester, in Adelaide, in Lisbon, and even in New Zealand, not to mention those scattered across museums in the United States and Canada.

And of course it’s not just mummies – Egyptian artifacts are lodged in museums from Montrose in Angus to Sao Paulo in Brazil.

In fact there are so many holdings it’s impossible to list them all – Wikipedia attempts to list the main holdings but the list is incomplete – Annie Barlow’s collection in Bolton is omitted as is the Marianne Brocklehurst collection in Macclesfield – and of course collections keep on changing as this recent discovery in Sydney shows.

The impact of Egyptonmania spread far beyond collecting and souveniring – the discovery of the tomb tomb of Tut Ankh Amun by Howard Carter spawned a whole new burst of Egyptomania – Tutmania – with Egyptian themed clothing and jewellery.

And it’s with us today – with television specials on Ancient Egypt and tomb hunting drawing substantial audiences from a jaded public.

So Egyptomania hits the public’s buttons in so many ways, despite the deep disconnect between our world and the dark god-ridden world of the ancient Egyptians.

I have no doubt that they laughed, loved, suffered the agonies of loss just as we do, and in a few places the voices of ordinary people shine through, but mostly it’s king lists, praise to the gods, and other highly stylized ritual texts. We know of them, but we do not know them in the way that we know the lives of the classical world, but yet the fascination remains, and that’s something we see today.

So what’s out there?

A quick and rather random survey turns up ancient Egyptian holdings in Australia at

as well as the well known collections at the Nicholson Museum and the Australian Museum in Sydney – the real revelation came with Victorian Collections which revealed a substantial collection held by Queen’s College in Parkfield .

I’m sure there’s others I’ve missed, plus given the role of Australian soldiers in the middle east in the first world war various items locked away in local museums or even sitting on someone’s mantlepiece ..

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A left turn on the family history front

Researching family history can be incredibly frustrating, especially when one tries to find people born before the start of systematic record keeping in the 1850’s.

Just to make it doubly confusing people in my family line at least kept on reusing names, James, David, John, George to name but four, and given that a lot of them were resident in the same area of north east Scotland it can be difficult to sort out who is a direct ancestor and who wasn’t.

So, in order to save myself some work, I sometimes go searching various family history wikis to see what I can find about these common names.

Well yesterday I was searching for James Moncur and I found an entry that stopped me in my tracks:

james moncur nz

This James Moncur had clearly married a Maori woman – in fact two separate Maori women and had a number of children, all of whom had Maori names as well as western names.

Now, Pakeha men having children with Maori women was not exactly unknown in the early days of European settlement, but what was interesting was that his relationships appeared to have some legal status, and that the children were probably baptized.

The actual entry is slightly confusing and it’s just possible it has conflated two James Moncurs, but Matilda Juliet turns up on another genealogy website:

matilda juliet moncur

A little more digging revealed that James had been born in Stepney in London and had been a master mariner. He appears to have died while at sea in 1845, while master of the Gypsey, sometime after May 1845.

As well as searching Papers Past NZ, I also searched Trove for shipping information and turned up this entry from 1832:


sydney herald admiral gifford 1832

Unfortunately, it doesn’t give the name of the Moncur concerned, but it probably wouldn’t help much – James Snr was now living in Sydney, having been a master mariner for the East India company.

His daughters, Susannah and Sophia had come to Sydney in 1832 to join him, and they established a millinery business:

misses moncur millinery

We also know that by the time of Sophia’s marriage in 1837 James Snr had died

sopie marriage 1837

It may be coincidence, but it’s worth noting that one of James Jnr’s daughters was also named Sophia – perhaps named for his sister.

While James Jnr was born in Stepney in London, James Snr was born in Dundee in 1774, suggesting that his father had moved to London at some stage in his life. The Stepney connection is perfectly explicable – in the eighteenth and early nineteenth century Stepney was where the docks and commercial waterfront was, with most ships sailing from there.

Now one of the other members of my family history curiosity cabinet is John Moncur, who was a naval officer during the Napoleonic wars.

I don’t know where John Moncur was born, nor do I know if he had any children, but I do know he died in Greenwich in 1814 at the age of 71, and he was commissioned as a lieutenant in 1790 when he was  roughly 46 years old.

This in itself is a puzzle – lieutenants were usually midshipmen who had passed the lieutenant’s exam at around the age of nineteen, suggesting that John may have had a career before he joined the navy, perhaps as a master mariner.

With a wild leap of supposition, it’s just possible that James Snr might have been one of John’s children – he would have been fifteen or sixteen when John was commissioned and may have moved to London with John’s family …


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Spectacle Makers

Well I did the obvious thing and ran the query “spectacle maker” on querypic:

chart (2)

Querypic doesn’t differentiate between “spectacle maker” and “spectacle-maker” as a query, so we can say that graph shows usage of both forms of the term.

The interesting thing is that while spectacle makers were around before the 1860’s it is only in the 1860’s and 70’s that usage of the term peaks, perhaps due to the development of wire frames making spectacles simpler to manufacture.

However, while the term was clearly in use, graphing spectacle-maker, oculist and optician together shows that the term optician was the one in most use

chart (3)

and it is again interesting to note a sudden surge in the 1850’s, perhaps due again to advances in technology, coupled with increasing literacy producing increasing demand …

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Rural Oculists revisited

It turns out the whole rural oculist thing is more complicated than I thought.

Firstly I was wrong in thinking that oculist was the preferred term in the nineteenth century. Five minutes with Querypic showed that while that might have been the case in the early part of the nineteenth century, by some time around 1860, the preferred term was optician:

chart (1)

The other complication is that until 1896 anyone could claim to be an optician, meaning that jewellers and watchmakers – both skilled crafts – could also claim to be opticians:

watchmaker and optician

As well as pharmacists

oculist hobart mercury 1896

(interestingly, while the pharmacist was doing the testing, the spectacles were being made up by Carter and Werner, a large wholesale optician in Ballarat)

and those who simply claimed to be spectacle makers

optician and spectaclemaker

and not just in Australia – a search of Welsh Newspapers online reveals much the same story:

optician and spectaclemaker wales

with spectaclemaker being the term used in the days before the medicalisation of sight testing. and the Federation of Spectacle Makers being the recognised trade body:

optician and spectaclemaker wales 2

But basically anyone could claim to be an eye tester.

However, what is also interesting is the case of our Tasmanian pharmacist outsourcing the making of spectacles to a wholesale optician- it meant that the pharmacist need only do the sight test without having to develop any technical skill in spectacle making …

[Update 21 October 2019]

I was in Canberra recently, and while I was there, visited my optometrist, and as one does we had a bit of chitchat while he was running all the various tests.

Now my optometrist is a bit younger than me – say ten years younger – and hails from South Africa. When I mentioned the oculists equipment at the pharmacy he immediately said that used to be quite common and he could remember rural pharmacists doubling up as opticians …

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Nasty coughs in the nineteenth century

I’ve mentioned this before, but it’s quite amazing how many people died of chest and lung related complaints in the late nineteenth century.

Not surprising really.

I grew up in Stirling, in Scotland, which was at first glance a quiet middle class sort of place. Today it’s all nice and clean and touristy, but when I was a child people had coal fires, and indeed the town was surrounded by coal mines – I can even remember seeing men coming up from a shift below ground.

Later, in my teens, when I took to hillwalking in the Ochil hills above the town, I can remember the developing pall of smoke on a winter’s afternoon when people lit their fires.

No wonder people died of what are now preventable diseases.

This is confirmed by a New Zealand project looking at the remains and burial records of early settlers in the South Island also shows the prevalance of respiratory diseases, doubtless accentuated by living in damp conditions and breathing in smoke from open fires.

So it’s no surprise that patent medicines like Hayman’s Balsam of Horehound and Baxter’s Lung preserver were popular – probably most of the population would have had a persistent cough over winter.

At least the horehound balsam may have done some good, it’s been used for treating respiratory ailments since Roman times

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