Those Baker brothers …

While reading about Victorian crime and sensationalism I came across a story that you have to put in the “you couldn’t make this up” category.

Like all such stories, it has a sordid and dramatic beginning:

On the 17th of June 1875, Colonel Valentine Baker of the 10th Royal Hussars, a personal friend of the Prince of Wales, attempted to rape Miss Rebecca ‘Kate’ Dickinson in a first class railway compartment on a London and South Western train.

At that time trains were of the non-corridor type, each compartment had a separate door, which on some lines was locked between stations to prevent passengers getting out while the train was en route.

Fortunately this was not the case on this train.

Some where between Woking and Esher, Col Valentine pushed Miss Dickinson into a corner of the compartment, attempted to kiss her repeatedly and put his hand up her dress. Struggling, Miss Dickinson tried to  pull the communication cord, but the mechanism had not been connected properly and it failed to work.

Miss Dickinson survived, severely shaken, by opening the compartment door while the train was in motion, and clinging to the outside of the train while standing on the running board. When apprehended, Colonel Baker’s clothing was said to be in disarray, Victorian reticence not wishing to into the sordid details but some commentators suggested that Colonel Baker’s fly buttons were undone.

It is worth remembering that many mid Victorian women did not wear underpants, something which made it easier to pee when going to the loo wearing a long and voluminous skirt, instead wearing a shift and long stockings under their dress, so when Miss Dickinson states in her deposition that Colonel Baker’s hand was under her dress on her stockings above her boot, she could be suggesting that she felt his hand on her thighs, rather than somewhere below the knee.

Miss Dickinson, a well connected upper middle class young woman was persuaded by her brothers to press charges, a rarity at a time when rape or assault required the woman to file a civil suit for damages against the perpetrator.

Colonel Baker was bailed on a surety of two thousand pounds and later convicted, sentenced to a year in prison and fined the, for then, remarkable sum of five hundred pounds.

Furthermore, rather than being allowed to quietly resign from the army, he was cashiered, thrown out in disgrace.

After his sentence, some of his powerful friends tried to have him rehabilitated, but Queen Victoria, to her eternal credit, refused let him back as a commissioned British officer. Instead he found service with the Ottoman army.

We know this because Miss Dickinson pressed charges. Given his behaviour, one cannot but wonder if he was some sort of sexual predator and had committed previous crimes and got away with it due to the reluctance of his victims to press charges, or indeed because his victims were from a lower social class.

This would be simply another sordid tale, as well as one of great courage by Miss Dickinson, were it not that one of those who stood surety for the unfortunate Colonel Baker, was his brother, the explorer Samuel Baker, who, in 1864, was one of the first europeans to see Lake Albert, which lies between Uganda and the Congo.

By the time of his discovery Samuel Baker had already had a colourful career. He had lived for several years in Ceylon, and helped found the British hill station of Nuwara Eliya (which we visited in a rainstorm in 2013). After his wife died he returned to Europe, worked as a project manager building a railway in Romania, and befriended Duleep Singh, the last Sikh Maharajah, who had been deposed by the British, and was now exiled in a gilded cage in Scotland.

On a shooting expedition in the winter of 1858-9 to south eastern Europe with Duleep Singh, Baker, who had been widowed a few years previously, acquired a fourteen year old slave girl of Hungarian origin from the slave market in Vidin, in what is now Bulgaria, but was then part of the Ottoman Empire. Baker claimed to have rescued her from slavery, escaping across the Danube on an ice floe, but the reality may have been rather more prosaic.

The slave girl, Flora or Florence, became in turn his lover and his wife. Despite the strangeness of their meeting they seem to have formed a genuine and long lasting relationship, lasting until Baker’s death in 1893. Florence lived on for another twenty years, and was buried beside him in Worcestershire.

Baker originally claimed that they had married in Romania after her rescue, but never offered any proof. Perhaps in part due to his irregular home life, Baker set off with Flora in 1861 to find the source of the Nile.

They encountered Speke and Gordon on their way back from finding the source of the Nile, in a small settlement in what is now south Sudan, but pressed on, on Speke and Gordon’s advice, to find Lake Albert.

Despite his success in Africa, Baker was never really accepted by the Victorian establishment, perhaps because of his relationship with Flora,and how he had acquired her.

Despite their marrying in a “proper” Anglican ceremony in London in 1865, Queen Victoria always avoided meeting him due to the suspicion that they had not really been married when he went on his African expeditions with her in tow.

In tow is not quite the right term, by all accounts Flora was a strong woman who rode horses and helped make the expedition a success, perhaps because she was simply better than Baker in managing the porters. By all accounts, Baker not the most patient of men.

Quite what impact the irregular nature of Samuel and Flora Baker’s relationship had on Queen Victoria’s views on Colonel Baker and his conduct is unknown, but given that Colonel Baker was both a member of the Marlborough club and the Marlborough house set, she probably didn’t have a particulaly high opinion of him to start with ….

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Black swine in the sewers of Hampstead

I’ve been reading quite a lot about the Victorian period, and particularly about Victorian crime, newspapers and newspaper reporting as well as reading a number of Victorian sensation novels such as Wilkie Collins’ “Woman in White” and Mary Braddon’s “Lady Audley’s Secret”.

Doing this in parallel, especially with my reading about the Madeleine Smith trial made it quite obvious to me that the reporting of crime in newspapers had clearly influenced the ‘sensation novels’ of the 1860’s.

Besides the normal tales of human greed and misbehaviour, some of the stories sound almost theatrical and wildly dramatic.

Examples include the governess who conspires with the husband to have the wife locked up in a private asylum, or worse poisoned, the maidservants made to serve dinner to the master and his (male) friends with their breasts exposed, or the grim story of the young governess hired to accompany the family on a trip to Italy, only to be raped and abandoned in Florence to make her own way home.

Shocking stories all, perhaps even more so to the twenty first century reader who is unused to stories of servants and their maltreatment. The stories often sound more like stories of the maltreatment of Filipina or Indonesian maids in the Middle East than something we associate with Europe.

The newspapers of course played a part.

Freed from stamp duty in the mid 1850’s there was a circulation war among the newspapers. At the top end, the (London) Daily Telegraph took on the Times, and lower down the scale, the News of the World appeared – characteristically its first issue featured a tale of ‘grievous ravishment and violation’.

And crime reporting played a part in selling newspapers, allowing the very Victorian combination of salaciousness and moral rectitude.

And it was against this background that the sensation novels appeared. It’s important to remember that when they first appeared they didn’t appear as novels to bought in railway bookstalls, but as serials in magazines – hence both their length, and their convoluted plots, just like some of the better and more complicated TV series today.

The sensation stories sold magazines, and if they were successful, they became books in their own right.

(Quite where this leaves Fergus Hume, who arguably created the first Australian best seller with his sensation novel ‘The mystery of a hansom cab’ some twenty years later is a different question)

Inevitably the sensation novels drew on the crime reports. They also make frequent reference to the penny post – fast and efficient, and to the railways – to anchor themselves firmly in the present day of the 1860’s and seventies, just as Bram Stoker referred to Kodaks and typewriters to give an air of modernity to Dracula, something which now passes the reader by.

So, the black swine.

I had been groping towards what I’ve outlined above, when, via Dr Beachcombing, I came across the book ‘Black Swine in the Sewers of Hampstead’ about Victorian sensationalism. This was just before Christmas, and I thought it might be a fun seasonal read, so I tracked down a copy via AbeBooks.

Well, in fact it turned out to be a semi autobiographical account by a professor of English at Brooklyn College in New York, describing his research into Victorian sensationalism on the basis of a collection of newspaper clippings from the 1850’s and 1860’s. And it’s good. It crystallises just about all I’ve spent the past few months groping towards.

However, the author, Thomas Boyle, who sadly is no longer with us, was circumscribed by his collection. For him, searching and finding material in the pre-internet 1970’s and 80’s was a complicated manual process, involving visiting document repositories and spending long hours carrying out manual searched of indices, or poring over blurry photocopies of old newspapers.

It’s a little easier now. With papers past in New Zealand, and the NLA’s trove we can find and search for digitised reports from the time just as I did with the Madeleine Smith case, and that of the murder of Mary Dobie.

And because the newspapers in Australia and New Zealand reprinted some of the more dramatic stories from Britain, we have easy access to a range of reports. While one still has to do the work, one could perhaps, by looking at the newspapers of the time track down the sources for the inspiration for Fergus Hume’s ‘Hansom Cab’ without numerous and tedious trips to the NLA and the National Library of New Zealand.

The same goes for the various bushrangers of the 1860’s and 70’s, and more intriguingly, to me at least, the role of the Chartists involved in the various disturbances of the 1840’s, such as the Pull Plug riots, who were transported to Australia, almost as political prisoners, who then appear in various protest meetings for miners’s rights in the 1850’s in Australia, such as the monster meeting in Castlemaine, the Madman’s gully meeting in Beechworth, and of course the Eureka stockade in Ballarat …

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Queen Victoria’s bun in Jamaica

jamaica and the uk obverse

jamaica and uk reverse

I’ve previously written about the heads used on Queen Victoria’s coins, and how there had been an abortive attempt to introduce a common currency throughout the British Empire.

One place where it didn’t work was Jamaica, where the local Afro Caribbean population didn’t like bronze pennies or half pennies. One explanation, which may be apocryphal, is that people did not like to be seen putting bronze coins in the offering plate at church services, bronze coins being associated with poverty and slavery.

To counteract this, the colonial government minted pennies and half pennies of the same size and weight as the British originals, but in cupro nickel rather than bronze, and with quite a different design.

If you look at the side by side images above you can see that apart from being the same size and weight, the coins differ markedly in design. In fact the only common element seems to be the use of the Leonard Wyon bun head – and that’s only because the coin is worn. In fact they used a different head by Wyon  in which Queen Victoria compliments her bun head hairstyle with a diadem. The same design turns up on Channel Island coins as well as other places.

jamaica half penny

I’m afraid that the example in my collection is pretty worn, making it difficult to spot the diadem.

jamaica diadem head

The diadem is rather clearer in this 1871 example from ebay.

Note also that Victoria is simply styled Victoria Queen, just as she was on pre 1877 Indian coinage before Disraeli created her Empress of India.

I’m guessing that the logic was that the coins were for use in Jamaica and other associated Caribbean islands and as Victoria was Queen of Jamaica. (Equally, British coins did not acquire IND.IMP until the introduction of the veiled head coins in the late 1890’s.)

Later coins such as those of Edward VII and George V used the robustly imperial title King and Emperor, while of course British coins stuck with IND.IMP until 1947 …

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Balaclava Road

A few days ago I was on the number 16 tram in Melbourne rattling up Balaclava Road, and half day dreaming while looking out the window.

When the tram got as far as the intersection of Balaclava and Orrong roads I noticed a tram shelter that looked rather different from the usual functional nineties shelters.


I thought it might be a survivor from the end of the nineteenth century, but when I checked the Victoria Heritage Database, it turns out to date from 1916 or 17, which turns out to be a bit later than I thought. Anyway, I thought it was worth a further look so I did exactly that, hopping off the tram on my return journey …

Architecturally, it’s reminiscent of school wet weather shelters, or more accurately the old nineteenth century ones I remember from the early sixties


with the cast iron columns doubling as down pipes


But that’s not all, round the corner is a fairly standard colony of Victoria Postal receiving pillar of the same basic design as the Mellish St postbox


except that this one has obviously only been recently abandoned by Australia Post, and despite being sealed still has a current collection time sticker.

Further down the street street is another nineteenth century gem, one of the obelisk style post boxes that preceded the receiving pillar design, but taller than usual, making it look, in style, a little like a Victorian gravestone


The reason for the extra height is because it has two mail slots, the upper for newspapers, that went at the (reduced) printed papers rate, and the lower for normal letters.

This one has not been abandoned by Australia post and the lower slot is still in use as a posting box. I didn’t examine the newspaper slot closely but it didn’t look as if it was sealed – what would happen if you posted something in it might be a bit uncertain though ….

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The Mellish St postbox

Yesterday, as well as being the last day of the year was a beautiful cool summer Sunday morning and ideal for a walk before it got too hot.

For a change we decided to walk up to the old Lunatic Asylum, the initial design of which was originally based on the Colney Hatch Lunatic Asylum (later renamed the Friern Hospital) in London.

As it was our Sunday walk we took a circuitous route via the old train station and up Mellish Street to double back towards the hospital.

Near the top of Mellish Street I spied an old colonial era post box or more properly, receiving pillar, in among the shrubbery on the nature strip.


it had been decommissioned and was now officially a monument


and like many similar pillars had a clenched fist on the handle


something that seems to be a feature of Victorian colonial postboxes – certainly the old square model in Chiltern has one

chiltern victorian mailbox  chiltern hand as handle to mailbox

as does this rather neglected example in Balaclava just down from the train station

old and new postboxes balaclava

The real question was when did the box date from?

Well, there are a number of houses from the late 1850’s and the 1860’s at the top end of Mellish St, and the asylum started service in 1867, suggesting that there were a reasonable number of people living in the area by the 1870’s, and that they might merit the provision of a post box, given that they were a couple of kilometres from the main post office in town.

And there I stopped, but that phrase receiving pillar nagged at me. It seemed a little old fashioned, even for  the latter half of the Victorian era, so I did what anyone else would do and turned to Google.

Well, it turns out that receiving pillar was what the colonial postal service in Victoria called them. Other administrations may have also used the term but based on a Google search, Victoria seems to be the only postal administration to have used the term extensively.

What’s more a search of the Collections Victoria website brought up two examples, both in Warnambool one restored in 2014, the other in 1980. Both are the same 1885 full length door design, so we can guess that the Mellish Street box dates from 1885 or later. I didn’t think to look for a manufacturer’s plate or anything that could be used to date the box more securely, but I know what I’m doing next time I pass by …

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And how affordable was the penny post?

The answer is, of course, it depends.

Clearly it was very affordable for the middle classes but possibly less so for the poorer elements of society. Most writers suggest that it was the equivalent of something between fifty cents and a dollar, in fact around what it would cost to post a letter today.

But consider Emile L’Angelier, Madeleine Smith’s lover.

In the mid 1850’s in Glasgow he was earning around sixty pounds a year as a seedsman’s clerk. To keep things simple let’s say that he earns sixty pounds a year or five pounds a month, giving him around one pound three shillings a week, which, remembering my predecimal maths would be 276 pennies.

Now, someone working in a similar job today could arguably be getting $60,000 a year (possibly a bit more) which comes out at around $1115 a week.

If we say that a letter costs 1/276th of a weekly income to post, we come to something a little over four dollars.

Now one crucial difference is that Emile didn’t pay tax or a medicare levy. Assuming a marginal rate of 30%, our imaginary seedsman’s clerk would be paying $334 a week in tax, giving him a disposable income of $780 a week.

Using the 1/276th test, that has a letter costing $2.82 to post, not counting the cost of the paper or the envelope, which, in the 1850’s was not insubstantial given that the only paper commonly available was rag paper (Cheap wood pulp paper didn’t arrive until the 1860’s).

In other words, writing and posting letters was a substantial cost. We see a hint of this in some of Madeleine’s letters which are cross written ie the letter is written first top down and then continues at 90 degrees to the original text, like in this other nineteenth century letter

cross wriiten letter

as a way of saving paper, even though as a wealthy young woman Madeleine could well afford to write several letters a week …

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Queen Victoria’s bun

We’ve recently been watching first series Victoria on the ABC, which has finally shown it eighteen months after its first release in the UK.

In one of the early episodes Victoria has her hair done in an elaborate style with looped plaits over her ears.

Afterwards, J asked me if I knew of any photographs showing her using that style, and I pointed out that 1840 or thereabouts is just too early for photographs, but that there are portraits and also she was depicted using that hairstyle on Indian Rupeesqueen victoria elaborate head rupee

and some English silver coins

gothic_florin queen victoria elaborate head

note that the portraits are slightly different – the hairstyle is not the same nor is the dress, and the profile is a little different, which is not that surprising as the Indian rupee dates from the early 1860’s after the administration of India had been taken over by the British government after the events of 1857, but before Disraeli created Victoria Empress of India.

So, hairstyle problem solved, J had a second question. She remembered that before decimalisation getting worn Queen Victoria pennies in her change, and that they seemed to show her hair in a bun, or else when she was very old and veiled.

Well, the old and veiled head is one I remember getting in change in predecimal days half a world away in Scotland as well

queen victoria late head

though they were usually very worn. I don’t remember Queen Victoria pennies with her hair in a bun, but I did remember writing about the early 1840’s East India company rupees and how some of the dies had given an indefinably Indian cast to her features, so I showed J the post, only for her to say that it’s not quite how she remembered them.

Easiest way seemed to be to buy an old Queen Victoria penny from ebay. I picked one that had a head like the rupee coins

queen victoria early bun head

and dating from the 1850’s. The coin, when it arrived was heavier and thicker than the predecimal pennies we both remembered, and not the correct head. What had happened is that the old heavy pennies had been withdrawn in 1860 to be replaced with the (relatively) lighter ones we both remembered.

Back to ebay to buy a post 1860 penny, and hey presto, the correct head

queen victoria later bun head

showing her with a more distinct bun and a ribbon hanging down

queen victoria later bun head detail

as can be seen in this more detailed view which also shows her as looking older and more jowly than in the early heavier coins.

The only other question is why there were still Queen Victoria pennies circulating in 1960’s Australia, when Australia had had a separate coinage since 1910.

The answer probably goes back to 1825 when the British government decreed that the same coinage should be used everywhere in the Empire. That of course never happened, India and territories governed from India such as the Gulf states stuck to the Rupee, the Straits Settlements, which later became Malaysia and Singapore, preferred the silver dollar beloved by Chinese merchants and traders, as did Hong Kong.

Canada pragmatically chose the dollar because of its proximity to the United States, but Australia, New Zealand, the Caribbean possessions, Cape Colony (later South Africa), and a few other places ended up with the British Lsd system, and a common interchangeable coinage. Oddities, such as Jersey and Guernsey, who had established local currencies continued to issue their own coins well into the nineteenth century.

The other great oddity was Gibraltar which used a currency tied to Spain’s currency until 1898 when the Spanish peseta crashed in the wake of the Spanish American war leading to a swift adoption of the British system.

As the various Dominions went their own way in the early 1900’s they began to issue their own coins – New Zealand not doing this until 1933 – and the older British high value coins were replaced with local issues.

However it wasn’t worth the expense of replacing all the old lower value coins, so the old British pennies continued to circulate, even though they weren’t strictly legal tender, much in the same way as Australian and New Zealand 10 and 20c coins, which were the same size and weight (and based on the old British shilling and two shilling coins) used to circulate side by side in a completely unofficial arrangement until New Zealand reissued its coinage with newer lighter coins a few years ago.

You also used to see the same unofficial co-circulation in Ireland until the Irish pound separated from the pound sterling, and the same sort of thing continues in Gibraltar and the Channel Islands where local coins circulate alongside British coins.

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