The woman in the library

While we were in the Kimberley, I read a book – The woman in the library by Sulari Gentill.

Like a lot of my recreational reading it’s a murder mystery, but this one got under my skin a bit.

Most mysteries go a little like this – a body is discovered in circumstances that suggest something untoward has happened. The competent authorities are incompetent or otherwise disinterested.

However, the lead protagonist feels there is more to the case and starts to ask questions, only to be given the brush off. They keep digging and find a greater mystery – illegal logging, an ice lab in a school, a corruption cover up.

The real trick is to set the story in an exotic location – 1980’s Moscow, nineteenth century rural Wales, a broken Aboriginal community scarred by drug abuse out in the desert, or among the hippy towns of northern NSW.

Done well these stories tell you something of the realities of life in these communities and the issues facing them.

I heard Sulari Gentill speak about her book at WinterWords, our local literary festival a few months ago, and while she was an entertaining speaker I got the feeling that even she didn’t quite get the appeal of her book.

On paper, if you simply go on the plot synopsis, it doesn’t stand out.

Like most classic mysteries, Sulari Gentill’s novel starts with the discovery of a body, or rather this time it doesn’t, it starts with a scream.

Four strangers are flung together and a fairly classic locked room mystery plays out among the middle classes of Boston. (One of the protagonists is a visiting Australian author incongruously named Winifred – personally I don’t believe that anyone in Australia has been called Winifred since Bob Menzies was in short pants)

The mystery plays out with all the various twists and turns you would expect – was Winifred’s lover the murderer, or was it a stranger, and what did the homeless man found dead by the lake know?

It’s a good story and well written, and if it had simply been a locked room mystery I would still have read it and enjoyed it, but I wouldn’t be writing about it – what makes it different from most is a second story told in a series of emails interleaved in the book about how the author is being stalked by someone allegedly helping her gather source material and how the relationship becomes more threatening.

Anyway, enough. Read it yourself – you’ll enjoy it

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A little progress on the family history front

Off and on I’ve been puzzling over Henry Thomas Hill, who was J’s great^n grand parent who appeared with his wife Anne in Castlemaine in 1848. His history prior to then has been a puzzle to me and is hopelessly muddled due to there being another Henry Thomas Hill who was married to a lady known as Charlotte Elizabeth Salt.

Today, I did something different.

I’d been avoiding researching Anne Hill as it was such a common name, but today I bit the bullet and came up with some circumstantial evidence

ann humphries 1841 tweaked fragment

It turns out that there were not that many people called  Anne Hill who were born in 1820 (ish) and married to someone called Henry in the 1841 English census. In fact the only instance that looks a possibility is this one from the census in Walton in what is now West Yorkshire.

It’s a bit problematical – Henry should have been 30 or 31, but we actually don’t know his date of birth, the birth year of 1810 comes from the record of his death, which doesn’t record his date of birth, only his age – it’s just possible that at some point he added five years to his age ie he may not actually have been 72 when he died in 1882.

Screenshot 2022-07-28 134209

The other bit of circumstantial evidence was that an Anne Hill, accompanied by her husband, arrived into New South Wales on the Emperor in 1848, 1848 being the year they appear in Castlemaine. Unfortunately the online record for Anne Hill, which is only an index to the microfilmed records, does not list her husband’s name

This is of course complete hand waving, I might be utterly and completely wrong, but it’s worth a punt …

[Update 28 July 2022]

Well, a little more digging, and while there’s no Henry Thomas Hill taking passage on the Emperor in 1848, there’s a Thomas Hill.

Unfortunately, the records have not yet been digitised and are on microfilm, which means I can’t take this further at the moment, but circumstantially it looks likely …

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How cemeteries end

Back at the end of June I tweeted a link to a story from South Africa about the looting of the Avalon cemetery in Soweto, and that’s certainly one view of how cemeteries end.

But there’s another one.

Australia, and other places, are full of nineteenth century cemeteries, and quite a few are effectively abandoned. For example, Carlyle Cemetery near Rutherglen is full of goldrush era graves, some of Chinese miners, but mostly of people of European heritage.

And of course, during the gold rush the population of the area was higher.

There’s a section of the cemetery that is still in use but there are a lot of nineteenth century graves which are untended and abandoned, graves to which people have no connection.

The rain comes, the wind blows, headstones topple and break, and  gradually things fade away.

One can imagine that in another hundred years or so, especially if the cemetery ceased to be maintained, that one would have an overgrown paddock with a few intact headstones and a lot of rubble, bits of broken monuments and the like.

Metal fitments, and even cast iron grave monuments would probably be stolen for recycling, and in the end it would simply be ‘lumps and bumps’ ….

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I’ve written before about the nineteenth century use of abortifacients – in an age without reliable contraception unwanted pregnancy was a risk for women, especially unmarried women.

One of the most common remedies was pennyroyal, often sold in pill form


(Incidentally I’m not advocating its use in any way – it can cause serious liver damage and people taking it can suffer serious bleeding requiring hospitalisation.)

However in the nineteenth century it was one of the few remedies that was both accessible and which had a reasonable chance of bringing about the desired outcome if taken early enough.

However, how did people access them?


Obviously no one wanted to go into the local pharmacy and ask for pennyroyal pills. In a small town it would be tantamount to admitting you’d been having sex with the butcher, the baker, or the candlestick maker.

For a married woman, especially if her husband was away, supremely embarrassing. For an unmarried woman be she the village schoolmistress or a girl who helped out in the haberdasher simply impossible.

So, the answer was mail order

Screenshot 2022-06-27 102525

A search of Welsh Newspapers online Papers Past NZ and Trove here in Australia for ‘pennyroyal’ turns up numerous adverts from chemists offering to post out pennyroyal pills, as well as adverts for  apiol and steel pills as an alternative (Apiol is a distilled extract of parsley, and was also used as an abortifacient.)

Screenshot 2022-06-27 103223

(Apiol and steel pills are still available in India for those who wish to practise ayurvedic medicine, and as with pennyroyal there are potentially serious health risks associated with their use)

Screenshot 2022-06-27 103059



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Gallowhill (or spaces matter)

Before the pandemic I’d played about with family history  on hot days in January, but it was only with the pandemic that I started to play with it seriously, and it’s brought a number of puzzles, one of which was Gallow Hill Farm.

Some of my forebears apparently lived on Gallow Hill farm in the parish of Tealing, which is not that far from Dundee. (Incidentally, Tealing was where John Glas, the founder of the Glasite sect preached – and while there’s no family history connection, the Baxters with whom Mary Shelley visited were members of the Glasite sect.)

This makes perfect sense as Tealing is the next parish going south towards Dundee from Eassie, where I’d already been able to place my ancestors around 1800.

Between Tealing and Eassie there’s a couple of hills, one of which is called Gallow Hill, so you would naturally tend to assume that the farm was somewhere on the slopes of Gallow Hill.

Well, no.

Having spent more time than I should have staring at the National Library of Scotland’s digitised maps from the early 1840’s I’ve been unable to find any trace of it, which was strange, given that people had turned up in the census as living there.

And then I had an idea, I searched for Gallowhill without the spaces  and there it was – still in the parish of Tealing but at the south end of it near Strathmartine Castle, on the outskirts of Dundee

Screenshot 2022-06-18 123647

it only appears as a named place on the 1840’s six inch map – confusingly on the 1860’s one inch map it’s not named

gallow hill above the ine

and today it seems to have disappeared into outer suburbia


gallowhill today

Still, lesson learned.

Just because the census people and the local minister put a space in the name of a farm when recording births, deaths and marriages, it doesn’t mean the original Ordnance Survey surveyors did …

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Finding Franz Josef (or is it Joseph)

I have long been fascinated by the events of the Russian revolutions of 1917 in February and October of that year, but over the years I’ve come to realise that that the collapse of the Austro Hungrian Empire at the end of the first world war created a power vacuum in central Europe that helped events play out as they did.

Remember that in 1916 Russia had pushed back the Austro Hungarian army and throughout 1917 managed to hold the line until the army disintegrated, and by that time the Austro Hungarian forces were no longer capable of taking advantage of the chaos.

Their own army was disintegrating and it was increasingly clear that the 1867 compromise between Austria and Hungary was on borrowed time.

At the same time Kaiser Franz Josef had died on 21 November 1916 at the grand old age of 86, and had for many, been the only Kaiser they had known.

Franz Josef was Austria Hungary.

So, if I was to do some research on the period as a wet weather topic over winter the death of Franz Josef seemed as good a point to start as anywhere.

Except there was a little problem. Franz Josef was also known as Franz Joseph in English.

I first of all thought it might be possible to get away with a search for ‘Franz’ but a trial searching for ‘Franz’ in Welsh Newspapers Online for 1916 rapidly showed that there were just too many  people called ‘Franz’ in the news.

So, I turned to QueryPic to check usage in both Australia and New Zealand:

franz josef australia

and we can see that while ‘Franz Joseph’ had been more popular as a usage in the nineteenth century, by the time of World War I both usages were equally popular.

The peak for ‘Franz Josef’ around 1900 is due to Fridtjof Nansen’s landing on Franz Josef land during the Fram expedition.

franz josef nz

In New Zealand, the situation is slightly more complicated due to the Franz Josef glacier on the South Island, with later post 1920 usage favouring ‘Franz Josef’.

So any search needs to be something like

Franz AND (Josef OR Joseph)

and even when, as a test, I ran the searches for real for news of his death or funeral even the same newspaper would refer to him as Franz Joseph one day and Franz Josef the next.

However, there does look to be an explanation of sorts. Austria was at war with France and Britain (and by extension Canada, Australia and New Zealand) which meant that the only English speaking correspondents in Vienna were American and of course were subject to censorship by the Austrian authorities.

News was restricted – its not for nothing that Ernesta Bullitt’s diary of her travels in Germany and Austria in the summer of 1916 was entitled An Uncensored Diary from the Central Empires.

And in an attempt to avoid censorship it looks as if the major source of news about what was going on in Austria Hungary in Welsh, Australian and New Zealand newspapers was syndicated reports from news agencies in Zurich and Amsterdam (both Switzerland and the Netherlands were neutral during world war one), and quite a few of these reports preferred Josef rather than Joseph.

Only when the reports were rewritten or compiled into a longer news article was Josef replaced with Joseph, and then not always or even consistently…




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Paper Diaries in 2022 …

I recently replied to a tweet from @wmarybeard about diaries and the demise of the Cambridge University diary.

And that got me thinking about paper diaries and why we use them.

All my professional life I’ve used a diary to keep appointments, manage meetings, projects and the like. And strangely, I still use a paper based one, and have done ever since the mid nineteen eighties.

The university where I first had a permanent job used to issue these academic year diaries to staff that let you plan meetings and schedule appointments, all within the then standard three term framework.

Sometime in the late nineties they stopped issuing them and I moved to using a Filofax, which in those days had an option for a generic English university diary (three terms, October to June, and a three month long vacation.)

That worked well enough for two or three years, but once online calendars arrived sometime around 2000 I needed something that synced and that I could carry round in my pocket.

In these pre smartphone days the answer was a Palm Pilot – I still have both of mine, including an optional keyboard for those of us for whom character recognition never quite worked – a device that synced your calendar, let you draft emails and notes offline which you could then sync when you got home. In its time a truly wonderful device.

But I had a problem. Sometimes I would work for people other than my main employer, and I needed to keep records.

I discovered these Leuchterm project management diaries – the page on the left showing the week, and the page on the right for notes.

And they were ideal. Appointments and meetings in the diary pages, notes and expenses on the note pages – use different colours for different project, and you were organised.

Helpfully the notebook was A5, which meant that opened out it was an A4 landscape page which could be scanned and filed online, which meant compiling activity reports and the like a doddle, not to mention expenses and travel claims.

When I retired I thought I’d stop needing to do this, and even if I still needed a paper diary a cheap $10 generic one would do.

Not a bit of it. I ended up volunteering to catalogue the contents of Dow’s Pharmacy for the NTAV, which again meant recording activity, not to mention all the shuffling and planning that goes into daily life.

The only major change is a change from Leuchturm to Moleskine for planning diaries – the former have proved just too difficult to get during the pandemic with disruptions to the supply chain, so its been Moleskine for the past couple of years.

So, while they’re not as full as they once were, diaries still provide a record keeping function to show what was done when and where.

Now, I am not a luddite. I use Google Calendar extensively, not to mention tools like Boomerang and Microsoft To-Do to manage reminders and tasks, but none of them truly provide a record keeping function, something that is absurdly easy with a paper diary …

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So how expensive did train travel use to be?

Following on from my post yesterday on how trains services in country Victoria are actually better than they were in 1880 and 1905, I thought I’d look at the comparative costs.

Both the 1905 Bradshaw and 1880 Victorian Railways helpfully list the price of a first class single (in shillings and pennies) to Melbourne from Beechworth:

1880 28s6d
1905 33s1d

Written out in pounds, shillings, and pence format, 28s6d is £1:8:6 and 33s1d is £1:13:1.

The Reserve Bank of Australia have an inflation calculator allowing you to work out what a pre-decimal sum of money would be in today’s dollars. The sum needs to be entered as pounds, shillings, and pence (being old enough to have learned how to calculate money in pre-decimal days helps) we get the following result

So we can say that in 1905 a first class single would have cost around $260 in today’s money.

Working out the 1880 costs is a little more complex.

The RBA calculator only goes back to Federation in 1901.

Prior to Federation, Australia, or rather the six colonies that were to become the Commonwealth of Australia used British money (and British coins – this is why our 10c and 20c coins are still the same size as the pre decimal British 1s and 2s coins).

So, making the assumption that a pound in London in 1880 had the same purchasing power as a pound in Melbourne we can use a British inflation calculator

Just to make things fun, this calculator wanted the amount entered as if it was in post 1971 decimal currency, so £1:8:6 is £1.43 rounding to the nearest penny.

We of course don’t use pounds any more so the second fudge is to convert the amount in British pounds to Australian dollars using an online converter

which gives us a cost of $312.29.

So what does the equivalent journey cost today?

Or a rather more modest $48.


So, we can say that train travel in country Victoria in 2022 is considerably cheaper than it was either in 1905 or 1880.

The distance from Beechworth to Melbourne is a little under 300km. Just for fun I used an English train booking website to see how much the same journey (say from London to York) would cost

The website helpfully calculated the fare in Australian Dollars for me so we can see that a LNER economy ticket is on average roughly twice a V/Line first class ticket for the same distance, and that in most cases a first class ticket is more like the 1905 cost of a first class ticket on V/Line’s predecessor, Victorian Railways.

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Train services in country Victoria

There’s an unspoken assumption that country trains have become less frequent and fewer over the years.

In one sense they have with the closure of branch lines, but actually, they seem to be no less frequent than they once were.

When I was writing about my ride out to Baarmutha earlier this week I happened across a 1905 Bradshaw’s, and the first thing that strikes you is how few trains there were

bradshaw 1905

By 1905 the gold was running out and Beechworth had begun to fade from being one of the most important towns in north east Victoria to a sleepy country town,

But things were not much better twenty five years earlier in 1880, five years after the railway came to Beechworth when it was a place of some importance

vr 1880

Basically, two trains a day was your lot.

Nowadays, despite having to catch a V/Line coach for the leg to Wangaratta we have three services to Melbourne.

(Actually we have more – there’s a mid morning coach that goes all the way  to Seymour to connect with a train from Shepparton to the city, and while no one admits to this, if you can get someone to drive you to Wangaratta – there’s no convenient V/Line bus – you can catch the late afternoon New South Wales Trainlink  Sydney Melbourne train. V/Line used to list the NSW train on their timetables but now ignore its existence.)

So, we actually have more (and faster) trains than we did at the start of the twentieth century.

It is actually possible to go to the city and back in a day (we’ve done it) even though it makes for a very long day…

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John Kirk, photographer

john kirk

John Kirk is famous for many reasons. For being Livingstone’s deputy, for being instrumental in ending the slave trade in Zanzibar.

But in 1854, he was none of these things. He was a newly qualified doctor who volunteered for the Crimean war. He already had some expertise in photography

john kirk arbirlot

and as a doctor, he naturally had access to chemicals, and  began to document what he saw. Unlike Roger Fenton, he was not an official photographer, but an amateur.

Doubtless he did photographs of his compatriots but the main interest in his photographs is what he photographed for his own use


The hospital and army camp, the prefabricated hospital buildings


and the inside of the wards


Kirk wasn’t the only unofficial photographer – there was James Robertson and Felice Beato, and doubtless others whose work has not survived – early photographs were incredibly fragile – but Kirk’s photographs are incredibly valuable as he used photography to document the medical facilities in the Crimea.

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