So I thought I’d do a MOOC …

I’ve been doing a lot of reading about the Victorian era on the back of my work documenting Dow’s pharmacy.

During that period the world changed immeasurably, with the electric telegraph enabling long distance near instantaneous communication, the railway and the steamship substantially reducing the cost of freight, allowing global commerce, as well as allowing people to travel beyond their home parishes.

One of my favourite stories is about Rocke and Tompsitt, pharmaceutical wholesalers in Melbourne. One partner stayed in Melbourne, the other relocated to London, and by dint of the telegraph they were able to substantially quicken the turnround on orders for products imported from the UK.

At the same time the penny post – and cheap colonial mails – allowed people to send letters, order goods, and maintain contact with friends and family.

All in all a fascinating period of history.

But I’m also aware that there are gaps in my knowledge, so I thought I’d do some long distance study to identify gaps in my knowledge.

As I live in rural Victoria, online distance education seemed the best solution – we have good internet, and we’re close enough to the city to manage the occasional day trip if required.

So I thought the answer would be a MOOC – a short course, no obligations on either side, I could drop out if wasn’t doing it for me. I wasn’t a total freetard, I was happy enough to pay a modest fee for online tuition and gaining some sort of certificate at the end.

On a more personal note, it is 40 years since I last did any formal study – and while I’ve done a lot of professional training and learning in these 40 years – it’s not the same as academic study, so again a MOOC seemed ideal to let me see how I went with going back to study.

So I went looking.

Ideally I’d have signed up to an Australian one, it’s just easier being in near enough the same timezone for shared sessions, but a UK one would also have been fine given the sort of material that I wanted to cover.

Colonial Australia tended to follow the UK playbook, and things that happened there came here etc etc.

I more or less ruled out US Victorian studies as the history of the post Civil War US and its economic development was quite different.

Well it didn’t really matter.

There was a time when MOOCs were flavour of the month, but not any more. They seem to have morphed into an online training solution in the main.

Now maybe there weren’t ever that many Victorian Studies MOOCs but I can tell you that I found exactly one – from Oxford University’s Continuing Education service.

It was a paid for course, which was fine, but it was only around $500 – which while it’s a reasonable amount of money, the cost was around the same as a multi day oil painting workshop costs J.

Unfortunately, a critical part of the course coincided with when I’d planned to be in Norfolk Island, so that wasn’t going to fly.

Perhaps next time.

But what was interesting was the number of UK universities spruiking masters courses in Victorian Studies, and equally interesting was just how many of them came out of English departments rather than History departments.

Many of them seemed based around nineteenth century literature, and while it is true that literature tells us how people felt and reacted to the changes in society brought about by the changes in technology – Wilkie Collins is full of references to train travel and the penny post, and of course Magwitch’s money in Great Expectations come from his sheep farming business as a ticket of leave man, it doesn’t cover the whole picture with the technological changes, and the appearance of consumer goods, be it toothpaste or patent medicine …

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Pot lids

In the latter half of the nineteenth century items like toothpaste and cosmetics started to be packaged in small ceramic pots.

These pots are sought after by collectors of nineteenth century ephemera and good examples go for a couple of hundred dollars

Being ceramic they are fairly indestructible and regularly turn up in bottle dumps and online auctions – the example above was found on ebay and claimed to come from a bottle dump in Claremont WA.

Of course, it’s a rarity for any of these pots offered for sale to come with anything resembling a provenance, but because they’re sought after by collectors we can track how the design changed over the years, giving us a rough chronology – for example, though S Maw.Son and Sons sold their cherry toothpaste for most of the latter half of the nineteenth century we can date this particular pot lid to the 1870’s, which tells this that someone was importing and selling their toothpaste in Western Australia, or just possibly, someone migrating from England brought some with them.

Sometimes of course, the lid tells us something more

Some chemists (this one is from St Andrews in Scotland) made up and packaged their own products. This particular item is unprovenanced save to say that Smith and Govan were pharmacists and druggists in South Street in St Andrews, and just to add interest, Mr Govan was a noted early calotype photographer in the 1850’s.

Provenanced however, thes pots tell us more – when out of area they let us tie bottle dumps to migration patterns.

Most of these ceramic pots seem to hail from the UK. I’ve done quite a bit of searching over the weekend and most of the examples seem to be from UK firms – there are examples from the United States, but again they seem to be from collectors disposing of their collections.

Initially I only found one unambiguously Australian example

and none from New Zealand. Searching a little more widely I came up with a number of other Australian examples, including this one from FH Faulding


I suspect that as Australia was a much smaller place in those days – under four million people as opposed to the UK’s near forty million in the 1890’s – there were simply fewer local manufacturers and and as we’ve seen with patent medicines, local brans were always at risk of being outcompeted …

[update 14 Jan 2019]

After a lot of time messing about on pinterest, I suspect I wasn’t quite correct in my conclusions.

A lot of chemists in England had ‘own brand’ ceramic containers in the late nineteenth century, with the pots being transfer printed by specialist manufacturers, and I would guess that the chemist either filled, or had these pots filled to order.

In the case of Australia at the same time, I suspect that the containers had to be manufactured, printed and filled overseas, and are consequently considerably rarer as few chemists went to the bother (and expense) of doing so …

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Open science citizen science and stuff

This is a post that has been knocking round the back of my brain ever since I ended up paying $16.50 to get a thesis from the University of Queensland.

First, some terminology:

Citizen science

This term is used in two ways. The first one is really just crowdsourcing where individual sign up on a relatively large scale – say to collect sighting of songbirds in spring.

The second is more interesting. Start delving into local nature clubs, field studies groups, astronomy groups, archaeology and local history societies and you rapidly discover that there are a substantial number of people spending quite a lot of their own money, to do something that looks a lot like something that might well get funding in an academic context.

For example, comet tracking. Amateurs have often beaten the professionals to this by using relatively simple equipment, often based around cheap computers such as the Raspberry Pi and off the shelf telescopes and cameras.

These people are often highly knowledgeable in their field and have serious contributions to make. The work is, on the whole, not cutting edge, but solid observational work documenting things – worth that a nineteenth century scientist, many of whom were themselves gentleman amateurs, would recognise as science.

And this second group can be described truly as members of the scientific community.

In my own work cataloguing the contents of Dow’s pharmacy I’ve had a lot of help from both amateurs – eg the Australian expert on Remington typewriters, professionals such as museum staff particularly cataloguing and research staff, and academics with expertise in nineteenth century Australia, and in this we all treat each others as equals and members of a community of interest. While it might not strictly be citizen science, it’s certainly community cataloguing and archiving.

Open science, Open access

The open science movement really started as a means by which academic libraries wished to wrest back control from the oligopoly of academic publishers, who each year demanded more and more for subscriptions to ‘must have’ research journals.

In the open model, researchers pay to publish their results in journals to which access is itself free. They pay because producing these journals, even if online, costs money to defer the costs of refereeing, peer review, the publication process, and keeping the servers running.

When I used to manage academic repositories for a living, I’d estimate the cost of running the servers, the content management, archiving, backup and all the other sordid minutiae of IT at around $200,000 per annum.

Basically that would get you a couple of highly skilled software engineers to work part time on keeping the lights on, upgrading systems, supervision contents ingest, plus a server to run it all on.

Now an academic repository is just a specialist content management system. An online journal is much the same but with editorial and content control, and while I’m no expert that probably adds another $200,000 to your running costs – bottom line people are expensive, and they want pensions, holidays, in some countries health insurance, as well as just being paid.

However, the costs are a lot less than those charged to libraries in aggregate for subscriptions by some of the major publishers.

There is also the case of what to do with research data. Due to a panic over reproducibility there’s an increasing requirement for researchers to deposit their supporting data. Again all you need is a repository and some people to look after it. If you’ve already got an academic repository you can probably capitalise on existing experience, and while you might need to hire an extra person, machines and storage are relatively cheap these days.

But this gives us a couple of problems.

One is kind of a non-problem.

Citizen scientists need access to journals and research publications. Some might even on occasions co-author with an established academic researcher. The simple solution is to let them have access to the contents, both online and physical of academic libraries. Yes, we probably do need a gatekeeper mechanism to keep the numbers manageable, but organisations such as Museums Australia are probably well placed to do this – basically membership of a learned society or a professional body is probably the only criteria required.

The other problem is what to do with these citizen scientists’ data. It’s not a new problem. If you google me hard enough you’ll find me mentioned in a 1988 Linnean Society report as a biological records co-ordinator in mid Wales. (Actually I wasn’t, or rather not any more, I’d moved elsewhere by the time the report came out so no one ever contacted me about the long term custodianship of their data).

However, the problem of what to do with the data is an ongoing problem.

The costs of hosting a repository on Amazon are trivial – for example Dspace costs around 20 cents an hour or a little under US$1800 per annum. Adding a reasonable amount of storage would cost a bit more, but not eyewateringly so.

Hosting is of course not the same as running and maintaining a public repository. Human beings are expensive, and ones that know what they are doing more so.

The costs are probably beyond most learned societies, simply because of the need to employ people to manage the repository solution.

I don’t have an answer to this, except to say that I don’t think charging people for access is the solution …

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Citizen science and access to libraries

Recently I’ve become interested in the development of natural history in nineteenth century Australia.

After all not only was the Victorian era the heyday of natural history, but in Australia it had an importance in people trying to understand how the ecology of this wide brown land worked and in describing what they found.

There were individuals such as von Muller who was employed as the colonial botanist to carry out a botanical survey of Victoria, the numerous local clergymen, doctors and phramacists who did a little botany, entomology, or zoology as a hobby, and the numerous watercolourists (mostly but not exclusively female) who painted the plants they found in their area.

Put together, they assembled a picture of Austalia as it was before it transformed from a lightly populated pastoral country to the post industrial country it is today. It also gives us an ecological baseline from which to gauge the effect of climate change.

But it’s not only local naturalists. Ships’ naturalists visited as well, including Hooker, Huxley and of course Darwin.

Now the interesting thing about ships’ naturalists is that they were usually employed as assistant surgeons by the Royal Navy – which meant that they had some medical scientific knowledge, and some knowledge of botany and zoology. What’s more, their conmtracts of employment meant that all their journals and records became property of the British government on the end of their contracts – which is why quite a few of the early records are in London.

So, I thought I would do a little bit or reading about ships’ naturalists.

Well there’s not that much written. There’s a book and what looks to be quite an interesting PhD thesis held at the University of Queensland. The abstract certainly suggested that it would be worthwhile downloading.

Except for one little problem – access was restricted to staff and higher degree students at UQ.

So I emailed the UQ library to ask if I could have access to the thesis. They replied that they didn’t handle requests from individuals and that I would have to ask my local library.

We’ll ignore the fact that the thesis was already digitised and it would have been as easy for me to download it directly rather than get it through my local library, but its their data, so its their rules.

Asking my local library was fun. I’m no longer affiliated to an academic institution, but my local library is a member of the Swift consortium, and had been able to get me a book on nineteenth century paleography from the State Library of Victoria in the past so I reckoned I was in with a chance.

So I talked to them. They’d never done this before, but UQ did have a page explaining how libraries could request a copy of a digitised thesis.

And they did give it a go, very successfully. I now have a copy of the thesis sitting on my OneDrive account.

But I do have a little niggle. The process cost me $16.50 in processing charges, which is something I’m happy to pay once. After all I’m basically a dilletante – but on a repeated basis, perhpas not.

And that raises a larger question about citizen science – people doing it are funding it out of their own pockets, and paying for access to materials, and, in these days of open access should that really be the case.

Equally the other thing about citizen science is, what happens to the data?

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A very tangential connection to the Russian Revolution …

Visiting family always seems to involve a boozy dinner with alittle too much red wine, or at least ours do.

And as always with coneversations involving a decent red, sometimes they take some slightly odd turns.

And so it was a few days ago, ironically on the 101st anniversary of the Russian revolution.

We were talking about family history and where various strands of the family had come from. Most of us have been fairly ordinary hardworking folk, in Scotland, or the north of England, or by marriage, Ireland, or more accurately London Irish.

And the story was that when he was small, the great grandfather on the London Irish side worked as a newspaper seller and used to sell Lenin a copy of the Evening Standard most days.

I’m not sure how you would ever prove this, but the dates fit – the London Irish GGF was born in 1894 making him eight or nine in 1902 when Lenin was in London.

However I’m sure he didn’t know at the time who the foreign gentleman he sold his paper to was – however he did go on to be a trade union shop steward, and probably realised afterwards that he might have been selling Lenin his paper.

But memory of course can be a funny thing. It could have been Trotsky, or indeed any other memorable delegate to the 1902 RSDLP party congress that was held in exile in London …

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Opera girls …

We’ve started watching the ITV adaptation of Vanity Fair on BBC First.

The lead protagonist, Becky Sharp, is described as the daughter of an ‘opera girl’, a term clearly designed to be redolent of illicit sex and debauchery.

It’s the sort of term that, when reading nineteenth century books, you immediately realise means something sleazy and disreputable, even if you don’t exactly know what it means, and move on.

Well, maybe it means something something more.

Thackeray, as we know, was born in Calcutta and had East Indian connections, and if you look up ‘opera girl’ on the free dictionary, it come up with opera girl being used as the name for a species of ginger, Mantisia saltatoria (

Given Becky Sharp’s character, I wonder if Thackeray had this plant in mind when choosing to describe Becky Sharp as the daughter of an opera girl, rather than some other declassé profession ….

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One aspect of the Catherine Morton case that puzzled me was just how common was chloroform in colonial Australia.

So I did some digging.

The key date in the story of chloroform is 1847, the year when Simpson first started using chloroform for pain relief and anaesthesia in childbirth.

The discovery clearly took the world by storm – as early as 1848 there were adverts in the Sydney Morning Herald for dentistry under chloroform:

Screenshot 2018-09-29 13.19.04 SMH 03 Jul 1848 via

and wholesale druggists were advertising its availability as in this advert from the Colonial Times (Hobart) of 16 February 1851

Screenshot 2018-09-29 13.19.51

So, when Meard asked Mr Witt the chemist for chloroform to anaethetise a favourite dog he wished to castrate, the use of chloroform was most definitely common knowledge – after all Queen Victoria had used it as early as 1853 to relieve the pain of childbirth …

[update 01 October 2018]

Just for fun, I ran a querypic search on the word chloroform, and as expected it confirmed that the discovery of chloroform was an overnight sensation:


with mentions (in Australia) peaking in 1848 and  minor peak around 1853, doubtless as a result of Queen Victoria being administered chloroform during the birth of Prince Leopold …

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