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 …

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

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 …

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Pharmaceutical keyboard

One of the artifacts in the old dispensary where I’m currently working on the Pharmacy documentation project is an old Remington portable typewriter that was used in the 1930’s to type labels to be stuck on bottles of prescription medicine etc.

I’ve just noticed that it must be a pharmacist’s special model as it has some extra keys such as ℞ and a few others including exotica such as ℥ (ounce) and ℈ (scruple) …

Outside  of a blogpost on a specialist typewriter blog, I havn’t been able to find out a great deal about such specialist machines, except that they seem to be pretty rare.

On the other hand if you more are interested  in text transcription than typewriters, or indeed just how I got these weird symbols into WordPress, the Text Creation Partnership have a handy guide on the transcription and rendering apothecaries’ symbols as XML.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Queen Victoria and Madeleine Smith

Queen Victoria reigned for over sixty years. At the start of her reign, in 1837, passenger railways were still a novelty, the British Empire was half the size it would eventually become, and Australia was a gaggle of small squabbling settlements clinging insecurely to the coast.

A very different world to that of 1901 when she died.

And over that time fashions changed, attitude changed, life got better for some, worse for others, there were economic depressions, strikes, and even the threat of insurrection from those damn’ Chartists.

But our view, conditioned by years of BBC serialisations of Victorian novels doesn’t reflect this. In our mind women always wear billowing crinolines (in fact many Victorians thought the fashion ridiculous) men wear frock coats (not completely untrue), and even the poor are presentable – none of the half naked boys and girls pulling coal trucks in the mines – and know their place.

And this is for a very simple reason. Most of the novels are mid Victorian novels and written by the middle class for the middle class, and even if the writers had unorthodox home lives, the world portrayed is sensible and proper with none of the messiness of human life.

That mad aunt Agatha was locked away in an asylum in the country to stare mad eyedly at the trees while Uncle George took up with the housemaid is never mentioned, as is Albert who got one of the farm girls pregnant and left for Canada while the scandal was hushed up and the girl paid off. None of this intrudes.

The world is nice and mannered.

I always thought this was little bit pat. J did actually have a great great great uncle Albert who did get one of the farm girls pregnant. Sent to Canada, he continued to have trouble maintaining the decorum required of a Victorian gentleman and had children by at least two indigenous women as well as his ‘proper’ Anglo family.

And when I became fascinated with Madeleine Smith case I discovered a world that was different from what we think is the Victorian period with its primness and prudery, and one that is more real, one in which real life with all is messiness was played out

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Pickles in the Victorian and Edwardian diet

Since I came back from overseas I’ve been back working on the Dow’s Pharmacy documentation project.

And one thing that has struck me is just how many late nineteenth and early twentieth century pickle jars have been reused to store materia medica.


In one sense this is not surprising. Pickle jars very nature would have been easy to clean and resterilise, and are usually made of fairly heavy glass making them ideal for reuse.

But why pickle jars?

Before the advent of home refrigeration, pickles, chutneys etc were an important way of preserving produce so it could be eaten out of season.

In Australia this was important, not so much over winter, but over summer when many vegetables would spoil in the heat.

So just as you used to be able to get bottled carrots, asparagus and other goodies, not to mention the bottled gherkins, capsicums and garden salad from Poland and Hungary, in Victorian times this spawned a whole industry of local bottlers and picklers. – Victoree, John Sutherland, Jonathan Reeve, etc in the agricultural areas producing and bottling pickles on a commercial scale.

Now, as all the pickle jars have had their labels removed I can’t tell you what the original contents were as one late nineteenth century jar looks much like another, but they are relatively easy to identify as most of the bottlers used jars embossed with their logo.

Now it’s possible that the old boy just liked his pickles, but I suspect that there’s more to it than that. For example, it’s always puzzled me why, in Victorian detective stories, mysterious substances were always transferred to a pickle jar for forensic analysis.

It’s simple really. Most people, as well as buying some bought products pickled and bottled vegetables at home meaning that most houses would have a stock of clean pickle jars hidden away somewhere, just as we still hide away some jars for homemade jam.

It’s also possible that the substantial nature of the pickle jars that made them attractive to old Mr Dow to store his materia medica also made them attractive to the housewives and housekeepers of Federation period Australia – something in a jar you could reuse several times was probably a more attractive purchase than something in a lighter jar that might crack when being sterilised for reuse …

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Singapore …

So, Singapore.

I’ve always had a soft spot for Singapore. Both my father and his brother lived there during colonial times, and even when he was too old to travel, my father always wanted to see our photos of Singapore whenever we’d had a stop over there, not just to see pictures of the colonial remnants, but pictures of the new city and how things had changed.

However, the journey:

Lisbon is not the easiest place to start from to get to Australia. Our journey went something like this:

Evening flight from Lisbon to Frankfurt, arriving just as the airport shuts down – this is actually a hassle as they start turning off the power to escalators, which made walking through the airport with luggage to our overnight hotel above the airport train station a minor drama.

The next day have a morning flight to Singapore arriving just after dawn, but actually, after immigration, getting our bags back, finding a cash machine, getting a taxi it was more like 0830 by the time we got to our hotel.

We’d emailed the hotel in advance about the possibility of an early checkin, and while they never committed to one, we’d obviously been put on a list as there was a room for us if we’d care to pay an extra SGD70, well worth it for a couple of hours sleep, and a shower.

Singapore is not the cheapest but it’s easy, westernised and efficient. The MRT train system is cheap and fast, takes you to most places you are likely to want to go, and while eating out can be expensive, and shopping is no longer the bargain it once was, Singapore can be as cheap or as expensive as you want.

The first evening we ate somewhere classy but not extortionate as a treat. We’d had to borrow an umbrella from the hotel as October was starting out to be wetter than usual.

Being on the equator Singapore doesn’t have a wet season or a monsoon, it can rain anytime, but some times are wetter than others, with October and November being wetter months.

The next day we did our tourist thing, and then decided to eat dinner at the hawker food court at Newton circus – it had been about five years since we’d been there, and it had been revamped, so we thought we’d give it a try and it was only a stop on from our nearest MRT station.

When we left the hotel it was pouring with rain again, so we borrowed an umbrella and set off down Orchard Road, only to find the station closed – flooding had knocked out the MRT, and while the police were directing people to replacement buses one look at the queue told us we were going to have a long wait.

We thought about walking, but given the rain, gave up on that idea and settled for an overpriced hotel buffet instead.

The next morning, the MRT was still partly out of action, but the trains had been restarted from Orchard Road to the city so we took ourselves down to the Asian Civilisations museum to look at the pottery from the Tang ship – a trading dhow that had gone down off the coast, laden with Tang pottery for sale in the Gulf.

While we were in the museum the heavens opened, but the rain had cleared by the time we had lunch, so off we set up Boat Quay, only to be caught in another squall, and forcing us to take cover in the cat cafe.

Despite being cat tragics, we didn’t spand any time with the cats as they were all fully occupied in being stroke by other clients or sleeping, and moved on. Amazingly we found a dollar shop and managed to get ourselves a couple of cheap umbrellas.

Unlike other Asian cities, street hawkers don’t appear spruiking umbrellas and plastic ponchos the moment it rains – being clean and regulated does have some disadvantages.

That evening it was the hawker market at Lau Pa Sat, now cleaned up and no longer a little piece of anarchy in the financial district with men grilling satay at the kerbside and cheerful beer ladies bringing jugs of tiger to your table, and bowls of food ordered from the various stands appearing as if by magic.

No, nowadays you need to order the food and collect it yourself and the beer has to be bought from a concession stand, and satay grilling takes place in a designated area.

That said the food’s still good, even if things are not as anarchic as they once were. And it’s still excellent value.

And that was it – the next morning it was a cab to the airport and home. Our European trip was over.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Evora, Lisbon and Sintra

For some reason our car’s GPS decided to ignore tollways and took us an interesting way to Evora through wooded countryside and then on to the old main road north before branching west across wheat growing country that increasingly looked like the plains of inland Spain, and likewise dotted with small towns and white churches.

Evora is a medieval town on a Roman foundation – a dense and nearly car free network of twisting alleys and cobbled streets. One of its main attractions is the Temple of Diana which is the remains of a Roman temple that almost certainly wasn’t dedicated to Diana.

In theory spectacular, but on the day we visited swathed in scaffolding and plastic for emergency repairs and inaccessible.


It had however inspired some great graffiti

20170930_110816 (1)

The other major Roman site in Evora is the baths, which is accessible through the council offices. Totally unsignposted, you go into the main council building, through people either waiting for appointments or using the public access computers to file health and social security claims and there it is – the remains of the hot room.



Definitely worth a visit, but be aware that as it’s in the council offices the site’s only accessible during the week when the council building is open to the public, and of course closed on public holidays as well as weekends.

Despite being a world heritage destination Evora is not yet desperately touristy besides the Roman sites, there’s the cathedral – well worth a visit for the rooftop view alone and a few other buildings. If you visit by car the sanest thing to do is park in one of the large free public carparks outside of the walls, and given that the town is ‘a maze of twisty passages, all different’ I’d recommend a phone with Google Maps as a location guide, especially as some of the squares and streets have names different to those in some of the tourist guides.

Outside of Evora there’s also some fairly spectacular megaliths if you like that sort of thing and it’s only a short detour on the way to the main freeway to Lisbon from the north side of the city.

After that it was a simple drive back to Lisbon to return our car, including another battle with a recalcitrant self service petrol pump and then on to a rented apartment.

Not counting our overnight on the way south the last time we’d been in Lisbon was fifteen years ago when it was still low key and desperately untouristy,

Not any more – the Praca do Commercio was a sea of polyester trousers and the streets around it having with tourists and hucksters, including the men, who taking advantage of Portugal’s relaxed drug laws, try and sell you ziplocs of dried nettles on the basis that it’s something stronger.

But for all that Lisbon was relatively cheap, with dinner at an Angolan restaurant costing around the same as we paid in rural Portugal and a beer in a street cafe in the Praca do Rossio costing a bit more but at only EUR2,50 for a glass of Sagres draught, not outrageously so.

Last time we went to the castle. From memory it was either free or a fairly nominal fee. This time we didn’t – the sight of a 500m long queue for tickets put us off. Instead we wandered around, went to take a look at the underwhelming but none the less interesting remains of the Roman theatre – these you can see for free, the museum on the other side of the street charges for entry and has a small collection, but nothing that’s unique or unusual.


We also had a day in Sintra, taking the suburban train from Rossio station. As always, leave early to beat the crowds.

When we got there, there was already a queue of tourists lining up to buy tickets from the manned desk and ignoring the bank of ticket machines. We took one look at the queue and thought ‘bugger that’ and decided to try the machines.

They are of course in Portuguese, but there’s a big British flag in the bottom corner – tap on that and the machine flips into English. Most of the options are about recharging travel cards or buying multi zone tickets, but at the bottom there’s an option for a return ticket to Sintra. Tap that, insert a five euro note, and you’re sorted. No need to stand in line.

Sintra is big and confusing. You can’t do it all, but if you’re a walker you can do a couple of things – we tried the old Royal summer palace, the National Palace, and the Castle of the Moors, walking the whole way up through the villa Sassetti gardens and ignoring the guys spruiking tuk tuk rides to the top who tell you that it’s hard (it is but not that hard – just take water and pace yourself) and it will take an hour – it will but you’re on holiday, not a schedule. The walk is good, with spectacular views back to Lisbon.

And then it was home via Singapore …

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment