Reduction …

Like many children growing up in countries that still used the old British Pounds, Shillings and Pence (£sd) my early years in school was blighted by the dread exercise of reduction.

Basically, take a sum of money, break it down to the number of pennies or half pennies involved, all necessary, as unlike sensible decimal currency it was all completely non-intuitive.

Multiply the number of pound by 20 to get the number of shillings. Add on any extra shillings. Multiply the number of shillings by 12 to get the number of pennies and add on the extra pennies. Multiply by 2 to get the number of halfpennies. Later, as preparation for decimalisation, we then had to convert the resulting sum to the new currency – multiply by ⅚ to get the number of cents (a cent was worth 1.2d, hence the totally useless five cent coin is still the size of an old sixpence), and then move the decimal point to get the number of dollars and cents.

Tedious, boring and did wonders for being able to do mental arithmetic.

That of course has been in the box of dead useless knowledge until I started working on the project. Prices and materials were of course in £sd, and of course, as the old boy locked the door in 1968, 2 years after decimalisation, some of the prices are in both systems, eg 75c and 7/6, and of course there’s sometime a little creative rounding to document.

So I’ve good at pre decimal currency, surprisingly good, even though it’s still a useless skill in the main …

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Sometimes a rusty washer is just that …


I went for a walk a couple of days ago and I found an object – ok, an old rusty washer – on the footpath beside some old mine tailings, possibly brought to the surface by the recent rain.

I thought that there was an outside chance it might be a very corroded Chinese cash coin, but no, even though it’s roughly the right size, weight and thickness it’s clearly just an old rusty washer.

Why can I be so definite without a detailed examination? Well one of the distinguishing features of cash coins is that the hole in the coin is square

and the washer has an almost perfectly circular hole …

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Hoyle’s Pacific Vegetable Wonder


State Library of Victoria – original at

Last week, while I was working on the Dow’s Pharmacy Documentation Project we had a query from a lady researching her family history as to whether we had any bottles of Hoyle’s Pacific Vegetable Wonder

Unfortunately we didn’t, nor could I find an example on the Collections Victoria website. I even did a quick check of a shelf of undocumented bottles, and while most of them are from roughly the right period, most were for Wood’s Great Peppermint Cure, an alternative to Hayman’s Balsam of Horehound.

However I though I’d do a little digging, not the least because the product was distributed by Davy and Rocke, a partnership between Herbert Rocke and Henry Davy.

Herbert Rocke,who after his partnership with Davy dissolved in 1877, went on to partner with Henry Tompsitt to set up a wholesale druggist business, and an early example of electronic commerce with Tompsitt sourcing supplies in England and Rocke ordering material by telegraph from Melbourne.

Davy on the other hand went on to partner with George Mansfield to set up a patent medicine business, both importing and distributing brands from overseas, and making up, and selling their own.

However a google seach for Hoyles Pacific Vegetable Wonder tuned up very few leads. Some digitised newspaper articles on Trove, such as one from the Launceston Weekly Examiner on the product being used to treat Chinese goldminers infected with leprosy, some newspaper advertising, like this from the Herald in Melbourne, and a research paper from the ANU’s digital repository on the incidence of leprosy in Chinese migrants in the nineteenth century, and a reference on the Chinese History museum website to a photograph of Chinese lepers being treated with Hoyle’s mixture, but unfortunately the photograph had been indexed, but was not online.

Otherwise, not much.

Enough to establish that the product was around in the mid-1870’s and dropped out of sight thereafter, possibly because it didn’t live up to the hype, or was outcompeted in the market place by competing products, such as Hall’s vegetable pain conqueror. The fact that Davy and Rocke dissolved their partnership in 1877, around the time that Hoyle was marketing his product probably didn’t help.

Certainly, a quick QueryPic search shows the product was only really mentioned around 1877:

pacific vegetable wonder

But that can’t be the whole story. Hall’s Vegetable Pain Conqueror, doesn’t do any better in terms of mentions:

halls vegetable pain conqueror

Nor, despite all the money Mr Hayman spent on advertising his Balsam of Horehound, does Hayman’s Balsam of Horehound really register

hayman horehound balsam

although a search simply for Balsam of Horehound gives a wider spread

balsam of horehound

suggesting that he may have suffered competition from other, local, brands.

Incidentally, Woods great Peppermint Cure shows a wider spread, suggesting that it held its own in the marketplace

great peppermint cure 2

So, what does this all mean?

Firstly, poorer people, and migrants for whom English was not their first language, were possibly more reliant on patent medicines than middle class people who could afford to go to a doctor, and pay for formulations to be made up.

It’s also likely that people who were poorer were less likely to buy and read a newspaper on a regular basis and so may not have been a target for newspaper advertising. This almost certainly the case with Chinese lepers in 1870’s Australia, and the advertising was more likely to be aimed at the management of leper hospitals, who would probably be more likely to read newspapers than the inmates.

Hayman’s Balsam of Horehound represents an early use of advertising that was copied by some other manufacturers. Neither Hoyle’s or Hall’s mixtures seem to have gone in for extensive press advertising despite Hall’s claiming on the bottle wrappers to bring relief to an amazingly wide range of ailments

20180411_131508  20180411_131502 20180411_131512

One suspects that Laudunum may have been one of the ingredients, which certainly would have produced relief from pain.

And of course, both Hoyle’s and Hall’s mixtures may simply have fallen out of favour as they were found not to work long term …

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Dinner with a Tiger

Our trip to Malaysia went pretty smoothly. Sure, there was the time in Penang Airport when we discovered that the booking company we had used had failed to add our bags to our Air Asia booking, even though we had a receipt from them showing that they had done so, but that was easily fixed.

There were also wierd moments, like the sign outside the Caholic Mission Society in Georgetown advertising ‘We have Bacon Pizza and ice cream’, which I thought was a touch insensitive for Ramadan in a Muslim majority country.

But the best story was when we were on our way back from the Danum Valley conservation area where we had been trekking round the jungle looking for Orang Utans, and other endangered wildlife.

To treat ourselves after a few hard sweaty days we’d arranged to go to a resort on Gaya Island, where, while we intended to do some kayaking and snorkelling, relaxation was definitely on the cards.

The only problem was that transport didn’t really line up.  To get to Gaya Island from Danum Valley involved a two hour drive, mostly on dirt roads, to Lahad Datu, where there was an airport and we caught the local puddle jumper’s evening flight back to Kota Kinabalu, universally known as KK, and then another minivan across town to Jesselton point ferry dock where we would get the 9pm boat to Gaya.

We half hoped that if we were lucky and the plane landed early, we got our bags back in time, and the traffic was light we might get to Jesselton point for the 7pm boat, but no, when we arrived it was chucking it down, and everything took twice as long as we hoped, so it was 7.30 by the time we got there.

This posed another problem.


We’d be too late to eat on Gaya, and while we’d had lunch, that was seven hours ago.

There was a little food court on the pier so we went looking. Most of the stalls were fairly tired and listless, and quite a few were shutting up early, the rain having put people off. Most were offering iftar specials, which wasn’t really what we wanted, we were thinking more about noodles and beer.

And then one of stall owners slid up beside me and murmered ‘we got cold tigah’, obviously they were going to be a little coy about advertising that since it was Ramadan, but with that phrase they had us.

Two bowls of fresh cooked singapore style noodles, an instant audience of the local stray cats, and a shared big (640ml) bottle of tiger chilled to a near zero, with two equally ice cold glasses and a little bowl of soup each.

The cost – 40 Ringitt plus a tip – say something like twenty bucks. The experience was worth much more, sitting in a food court with the rain banging down on a tarpaulin strung over the tables –somehow the experience seemed to connect with the real Malaysia …

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Northam Road Cemetery, Georgetown

   2018-05-28 11.40.36

Northam Road cemetery is the oldest European cemetery in Georgetown in Penang, opening shortly after the East India Company founded Georgetown in 1794, and closing roughly a hundred years later.


As a consequence there’s a lot of pre Victorian grave monuments as well as some later ones.

Walking round the cemetery last week, what struck me was the number of Scottish surnames on the stones – Dundas, Rattray, Wedderburn and more – showing just how many of the sons of the impovrished Scottish gentry went to seek their fortune in the East India Company’s army …

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Light, data, and taxis in Malaysia

We’re back from a three week trip in Malaysia, during which we visited cat obsessed Kuching, saw wild orang utans in the Danum valley conservation area, river dolphins, proboscis monkeys in Bako national park, chilled on beaches and swam in the South China sea, and visited historical Georgetown in Penang.

But this isn’t a travel blog.

Before we went we found conflicting advice about these bugbears of 21st century travel, wifi and phone access, electricity, and how best to get around. This is our take on what we learned.


Malaysia, like Singapore, uses British style Type G clunky square pin power sockets. Most hotels also offer one of these multinational universal sockets in hotel room, but bear in mind what comes out of the wall is standard 230v 50Hz electricity – plugging in a device from a 110v 60Hz country will only work if it incorporates a suitable transformer – most USB and computer chargers will be fine, but if you have something idiosyncratic you might be in for an explosive experience.

As always Australian plugs don’t fit terribly well in these ‘international’ sockets, with some brute force required to both plug them in and extract them, so it’s best to take a single type G converter and a powerboard if you want to plug in multiple devices at the same time.


Despite what some older guides say, most international hotels have pretty zippy free wifi, and many public places, shopping malls, cafes, even hawker centres, have wifi, though it can be of variable quality. Some cities, eg Kota Kinabalu, have a free public network as well. Airports almost always have decent wifi.


Phone data and calling is cheap. Take an unlocked phone and buy a SIM at the airport. I bought a Maxis SIM with 8Gb of data and unlimited calls for MYR80 – a bit under AUD30 – and that did us for our whole time there. Maxis also had deals that gave you free data to Instagram, Facebook, or Twitter, and I guess the other companies have similar deals.

By comparison Telstra’s roaming charges are AUD 10 per day for unlimited calls and texts and a pretty measly 300MB of data – as always check with you provider – you may get a better deal.

I took my old unlocked Galaxy S2 with me for the Maxis sim – a mistake it was too old and too slow for most purposes, I should have picked up something rather more recent from one of the discount and refurbished phone suppliers such as Mobicity.

Why this is important will be revealed below …


Some taxis have meters, some don’t. In fact most don’t which means you need to agree a price with the driver in advance, which can be difficult if you don’t speak Bahasa Malaysia, as many taxi drivers only have fairly basic English.

Your choices used to be either use a taxi booking service, such as the coupon taxi system at most airports, where you pay a fixed price set in advance for your ride, or you try and find a taxi with a meter.

Well there’s now a third alternative – Grab, a local ride hailing app that’s been so successful, they’ve chased Uber out Malaysia and Singapore.

Unlike Uber, Grab offers you not only ride sharing like Uber, but also has a lot of taxis – both the standard red and black taxis and the bigger blue Teksi Eksekutif vehicles – signed up to it meaning you can agree the price in advance via the app, which of course you can configure to use English.

When you book a ride, Grab gives you a picture of the driver, the license plate, make and colour of the vehicle so you can be sure you’re getting into the right vehicle.

When booking a ride with luggage to the airport, it’s probably best to go for at least a standard taxi – I doubt if two Europeans with a couple of normal size 20kg cases could fit into a Perodua Myvi.

That said for a ride across town to a museum or a restaurant, a ride share in a Myvi or similar small car  is fine, we paid a mere MYR8 for a 15minute ride across Georgetown.

To get the best out of Grab you really need a local phone number, so that the driver can call you if he’s having difficulty finding you.

If you fly into Kuala Lumpur International – universally known as KLIA – and there’s more than one of you, ignore the KLIA Ekspres – the fast train to the central train station in KL. A one way ride will cost you MYR 55 each, plus when you get to KL Sentral, you’ll need a cab to your hotel, which will add about MYR40 to the cost. By comparison a Teksi Eksekutif booked via the taxi coupon office will cost around MYR150 from the airport to a city centre hotel. Sure, it’ll take longer, but it’s less hassle, especially when you are tired and jet lagged

Getting around

Air Asia is a Malaysian phenomenon – a cheap point to point airline that’s reliable and while it’s not always on time, efficient. Flights are often busy, so book in advance using their website, and remember everything is extra, you need to pay for your baggage separately, and if you want something to eat on the flight you need to order in advance.

You can print your boarding pass up to fifteen days in advance, but you can also print it from one of the selfservice machines in the airport, and you will also have to print your baggage tags from one of the self service machines before dropping off your bags.

By comparison, Malaysian Airlines is more old school, and while they like you to check in over the web in advance it’s not essential. You do need to pay separately for baggage on some flights, but most come with a 20kg baggage allowance, and they’ll usually feed you on a longer flight.

Peninsular Malaysia now has some fast trains, and we’d orginally planned to take the train from Butterworth to KL, but KTM changed the schedule which meant either leaving Georgetown at sparrow’s or getting to to KL much later than we wanted, so we ended up on yet another Air Asia flight …

Other stuff

Guardian and Watson’s chemists are big retail pharmacy chains, and while the brands might not be exactly the same, sell feminine hygene products, toothpaste, panadol, disinfectant for cuts from jungle trekking and just about everything else you need.

Sports shops sell a lot of the stuff you might need for a jungle trek, so foreggting something is not a disaster and there’s a number of specialist outdoor shops in KL.

Take a fleece – airports and shopping centres are often airconditioned to arctic levels, even though it’s over 30C outside.

Wine is expensive and usually not worth the money, even in expensive restaurants, with a (usually generous) glass of mediocre Chardonnay coming in at around MYR 50. By comparison a bottle of Tiger or locally brewed Carlsberg will usually cost between MYR 15 and MYR 20 in a restaurant, less in a hawker centre, with locally brewed Heineken a little more, say MYR 17-22. While these are average prices, some places charge less, with a beer in the James Brooke restaurant on the waterfront in Kuching costing about the same as in a hawker centre.

Imported beers are about 50%more than local products. There’s a small craft beer scene in Penang, but I’m afraid I missed out on that. Next time perhaps …

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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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