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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Retro photography

I’ve always been interested in photography – ever since I was given a box brownie when I was round about eight.

The ultimate point and shoot – 127 format film, and 8 shots a roll. You rapidly learned to compose your shots and be careful with them. (Well as much as an eight year old who wanted to take photos of trains and historic sites could)

Later on, as a teenager, I graduated to 35mm photography, at first with a basic point and shoot that only allowed some fairly simple control over the image focus, exposure time  image depth.

Enough to learn.

And around the same time, I started processing and printing my own pictures, not to mention rolling my own 35mm cassettes from bulk film.

All black and white of course. Colour processing required better equipment than I could afford, and a proper photo lab, but at the same time it was possible (and I did) to turn a bathroom into a temporary film lab for black and white developing and printing.

From there it was a journey to a proper SLR and a lot of colour slide photography. While there were nice lightweight Japanese cameras around, as a poor student I couldn’t afford them, so I was stuck with heavy, totally mechanical, Soviet and East  German cameras.

I kept my photo lab gear for years, only ditching it when I moved permanently to Australia. At the same time, I was finding that simple cameras like the Pentax Espio – all electronic, all automatic did an excellent job of everyday photography, even to the extent that I almost abandoned my SLR for day to day photography.

Though I didn’t recognise it at the time, cameras like the Espio represented the last gasp of film – as easy to use as one of today’s small digital cameras, they used film to get the image quality as hi resolution CCD’s were still expensive.

(I still have my old Espio – and it powers up and works, but to be honest my Canon Ixus does a better job.)

And then, some time around 2005, film just disappeared.

Processing labs just went, film was no longer available, and you could no longer buy the chemicals for home processing, and it’s been digital all the way since.

Until recently.

Every few years I’ve looked at my film cameras gathering dust and wondered if I could play about with wet film photography for old times’ sake.

And every time I’ve looked it’s been too difficult – too difficult to get hold of fresh film, way too difficult to get hold of processing chemicals, and if you wanted your film processed in a lab, no chance outside of Sydney or Melbourne.

This time, when I looked at the possibilities I forund there’s a retro photography scene developing which means that you can once again buy black and white film, processing chemicals, and even a small home processing lab in a box.

There’s no need for an enlarger, I have a film scanner and obviously the way to go would be to scan the images and then play with them with some image processing software like Gimp.

So, I’ve decided to jump back in.

I’ve still got an old totally mechanical Praktica SLR which still seems to work, so I guess the next thing to do is get some film and do some simple performance testing to make sure everything works as it should.

I’ve looked at buying a better camera, but old Japanese cameras in working order command a high price from collectors, and sometimes the electronics in early cameras can fail.

Prakticas have the advantages of being almost totally mechanical and reasonably well made. There’s also quite a few around, so if I needed a replacement, it wouldn’t be that expensive to pick one up via auction sites like ebay. And of course the same goes for peripherals like extra lenses, lens hoods, filters and the like.

I do have some old film sitting around, but it’s all about twenty years old, and while black and white film is fairly stable, it can degrade, so it probably makes sense to use some new film for performance testing.

There are also now some small mail order processing labs, so I don’t need to invest in the whole home film processing thing until I see how I go with my return to nineteen eighties technology …

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Thomas Skidmore and Sons, Wolverhampton

I had been to get my flu shot at the local pharmacy, and as is usual these days they asked me to wait for fifteen minutes to make sure I didn’t have a bad reaction.

The waiting area obviously doubled up as an office for the duty pharmacist but was quite nicely organised with some comfortable chairs,  a computer playing a live stream of one of the ABC channels and soothing music on Spotify.

However the thing that caught my eye was the rather impressive nineteenth century safe still in use. I could see that it wasn’t a Thomas Perry safe like the one we have in Dow’s, but one by a different Black Country manufacturer.

I realised however that scrabbling round on the floor in a pharmacy waiting room was probably not on, so I contented myself with grabbing a quick picture of the makers plate:

Like the safe at Dow’s, it was an impressive wood effect steel safe.

Wear on the makers’ plate made it a little difficult to read but after a little bit of image massaging I came up with the following:

Which proudly reads

Thomas Skidmore • Bilston Road Wolverhampton

Nonconduction Fire and Thiefproof Safemakers

which is a claim that reeks of nineteenth century self assurance.

A little googling showed that Thomas Skidmore safes were as well known in the nineteenth century competing with Thomas Perry to supply Post Offices and bank branches throughout the British Empire.

While Thomas Skidmore went out of business in the 1920s, their safes are still well regarded, and a scan of various auction sites shows them continuing to command high prices – around £2000 (say a little under A$4000) for a good example in working order.

The pharmacy in Beechworth is in an old nineteenth century building. What I don’t know is how long a pharmacy has been on the site, but it’s probably a guess that the safe has been in use for as long as the business has been on site, if not longer.

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White Lead and Elizabeth I of England

Yesterday, I posted the following tweet,  really because of my work documenting Dow’s Pharmacy and my interest in the Madeleine Smith trial


The podcast is about the work of Fiona MacNeill, a toxicologist at McMaster in Canada. She’s actually well known for her work on lead poisoning and if you google her you’ll turn up a number of scholarly articles and a couple of videos about her work.

Basically there were two forms of white lead make up in use between the sixteenth centuries – Ceruse and Venetian Ceruse.

By looking at early apothecary’s recipe books they were able to recreate the two forms of the cosmetic.

Ceruse is basically white lead ground up in pig fat or some other greasy vehicle make a paste which was then applied to the skin. While white lead is undoubtedly highly toxic, the skin forms an effective barrier against it, meaning that if the paste was only applied to unbroken skin, and no one licked either the area the paste was applied to, or the brush used for application, occasional use probably wouldn’t cause you serious harm.

Venetian ceruse was made differently and was essentially a mixture of vinegar, water and white lead, meaning that it was slightly acidic, and being acidic, removed the natural oils in the skin and allowed the white lead to penetrate into the subcutaeneous layer, which is most definitely not a good thing.

They found this out by painting samples on pig skin (pig skin is a good analogue for human skin) and studying the amount of penetration into the skin.

It is said that Elizabeth I of England used Ceruse, in part to hide skin blemishes caused by smallpox.

Actors playing Elizabeth often use a fairly grotesque white make up containing Titanium Dioxide. While there are concerns about titanium dioxide in cosmetics, it is certainly less toxic than white lead.

However, when Fiona MacNeill compared ceruse with a titanium dioxide based stage makeup, the ceruse came out with a warmer and more natural hue, meaning that Elizabeth did not look like a painted grotesque, but rather more like the historian Lucy Worsley dressed as Elizabeth I in this image from the BBC:


Which rather changes our image of Elizabeth, perhaps a little more natural looking.

However, Elizabeth is also reputed to have used arsenic based cosmetics to get rid of blemishes, perhaps caused by smallpox, perhaps caused by her used of Ceruse, which probably would not have improved her overall health …

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Of rats, mice, and New Zealand

A few days ago I tweeted a link to a blogpost from Te Papa about nineteenth century mice.

Essentially, and I recommend reading the post yourself, they sequenced DNA from mouse and rat remains from early nineteenth century archaeological deposits in Sydney and compared them with the genotypes of the mouse and rat population in both the North and South Island in New Zealand.

They found that in the North Island population the genotype resembled that of the nineteenth century Sydney rodent population.

European mice and rats are of course introduced species in both Australia and New Zealand.

The Sydney population probably derived from those that arrived on convict ships post 1788.

Sydney, in the early part of the nineteenth century was not just a convict settlement, but a base for whalers and sealers, as well as the informal trade with New Zealand.

New Zealand was not formally organised as a British colony until 1841 (with a short period in 1840 when it was governed by Britain as part of New South Wales), but prior to then there was some settlement by missionaries, not to mention trade in guns, rum and tobacco (all the delights of civilisation) with the Maori, principally in the North Island.

The North Island being warmer, supported a larger population.

So, not surprising. Most trade and contact would be through Sydney, so that would be how the mice and rats would have come, and might even have been introduced by a possible ancestor of mine.

If there are still extant rat populations on some of the remoter Antarctic and sub Antarctic islands, it might be worth repeating the experiment comparing these populations with the nineteenth century Sydney population – for, as James Clark Ross describes in his Voyage to the Southern Seas, there were numerous informal whaling stations on these islands.

So far, so good.

But it gets better, when they analysed the population on the South Island, they found that, rather than being related to the Sydney population, they contained genetic markers linking them to a rat population in China.

Not what you would have expected. Given that before the 1860s gold rush in the South Island, many of the European population were graziers and farmers who migrated from Scotland, one might have expected traces of Scottish ancestry in the rodent population, as well as Sydney, but not China.

It could be due to trade, but what was the trade in?

The Maori population of the South Island was comparatively small and agricultural. Other than greenstone, I can’t imagine anything that the Chinese would have wanted to trade for.

It’s possible that the rats arrived with Chinese goldminers in the 1860’s and outbred the small local population and effectively masked their genetic signature.

Conversely, I guess the reverse could have happened in the North Island, if there were Chinese traders, they could have introduced a small population of rodents which was subsequently outbred by the arrivals from Sydney.

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Bile Beans

For seventeen or so years of my life, I lived in York, in England, and one of the local landmarks was the Bile Beans sign on the side of a building in Lord mayor’s walk, just outside of the city walls.

Bile beans were a laxative cure first marketed in the 1890s, and allegedly based on exotic herbs known only to Aboriginal Australians.

Complete rubbish. Analyses have suggested that they were based on nothing more than rhubarb, cascara, licorice and menthol, products used in most 19th century over the counter laxatives.

However, imagine my delight, when doing some documentation down at Dow’s pharmacy in Chiltern, I came across an original pack of Bile Beans

complete with the contents still in the bottle

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How an ambrotype might have survived 150 years at the bottom of the ocean

A few days ago I retweeted a story from the Observer on ambrotypes recovered from the wreck of the SS Central America, a ship carrying gold miners back from California to New York.

There was, of course, no Panama Canal  or rail route across the USA at the time, but there was a railway across the isthmus of Panama.

Rather than risk a long and dangerous voyage round Cape Horn, travellers would sail to Panama and take the train across the isthmus, and then resume their ocean journey, (Incidentally, mail from Britain to Australia and New Zealand would sometimes go this way as well as, prior to the Suez Canal, it was quicker than going via Cape Town.)

The image the Observer chose to illustrate the article with was a particularly arresting one of a young woman dressed as if for a party or a ball, wearing her jewellery

daguerrotype of young woman c 1855

image attribution

Who she was is unknown. I would guess from her age that she was someone’s sweetheart or intended.

It’s a fascinating image, but how did it survive 150 years or more  on the ocean floor?

The image is an ambrotype, an early photographic process that replaced the daguerreotype in popularity, especially in North America.

You might think it was a positive image, but in fact it’s a negative image on a glass plate.

Once the image was taken, the back of the plate was either coated with a black varnish or backed with black paper. This had the effect of making the image look like a positive in reflected light, as the clear parts of the image showed black, and the rest of the image showed grey to white depending on the darkness of the silver emulsion,

A thin glass plate was then fixed over the image to protect it, and the whole thing mounted in a frame or case, which is why quite often when you look for old images, they are encase in an ornamental frame,

Crucially, and I’m guessing this is what happened here, sometimes the protective glass plate was glued in place over the image using a resin glue around the edges. Given that the image is high quality and clearly produced by a talented photographer, it’s probably the case that the image mounting was done to a similarly high standard.

This means that while the varnish may have flaked off, the case rotted, or the backing paper peeled away, the actual image may have stayed safe and the seal held to keep the water out.

(While the collodion image layer would probably survive a soaking, prolonged exposure would probably cause the image to lift, just as it might cause the backing varnish to flake. For more information on preserving early photographs, the  Conservation Wiki has an excellent guide to the conservation of ambrotypes.)



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The Ocean Telegraph to India

I’ve been rereading Peter Hopkirk’s book on the Great Game in parallel with my rereading of Fred Burnaby’s A ride to Khiva (Google Books have a good copy of the latter – Peter Hopkirk’s book only appears to be available as a physical book)

Hopkirk’s book was written over thirty years ago in the dying days of the USSR and without benefit to Russian sources, and so tends to concentrate on the British side of the power play.

However, there was a passage that suddenly leapt out at me


simply because of the concern with the risks of people interfering with the cables between England an India – India of course being the jewel in the crown of the British Empire and whose exploitation made the whole empire thing a financial success.

I searched the online copy of the Times digital archive at the State Library of Victoria for the exact passage without success, but what emerged was an interesting technology story.

In 1870 there was an existing overland telegraph link to India via Constantinople and Teheran.

And by 1870, and remember that this was also the time of the Franco Prussian war, Britain was increasingly concerned about the security of its communication links to India

Queensland times

falmouth link times

as the Ottoman Empire appeared in danger of collapse and Persia was under Russian influence.

So, a group of British capitalists, who had already successfully built the second, successful, transatlantic cable, financed the laying of a cable from Bombay (now Mumbai) to Aden, which was then a British protectorate, via Egypt, which was nominally independent but a British protectorate in all but name, to Malta, Gibraltar and Falmouth (actually Porthcurno), meaning that the entire route was under British control.

Given that in 1878, during the Russo Turkish war, the Russians got as far as Yesilkoy, about 10 kilometres from the then centre of Constantinople, it probably seemed a very sound investment.

And of course, having built a cable to India it was possible to extend it to Singapore, and via what was then the Dutch East Indies to Australia, which is exactly what happened in 1873, connecting Australia to the world.

And connect it it did, not only for news, but it allowed pharmaceutical wholesalers such as Rocke Tompsitt in Melbourne to order stock and supplies directly from England almost instantaneously, and halving the time it took to complete orders (I’m sure there are other examples, but Rocke Tompsitt is the example I know best).

But the thing which really amazed me about the reports of the construction of the link was the sheer amount of geekery in the reports, detailing the construction of the cables, the number of cores, the insulation used – there is even a book published at the time The Ocean Telegraph to India, detailing the construction of the link.

It really was seen at the time as a major technical advancement …

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Nineteenth century pharmaceutical packaging and letterlocking

A few months ago letter locking was very much in the news with the digital unlocking of Mary Queen of Scots last letter.

Yesterday, when I was down at Chiltern, I came across an interesting application of a quasi letterlocking technique as applied to nineteenth century pharmaceutical packaging.

The item in question was a packet of Holloway’s Pills dating from the late nineteenth century


Holloway’s pills were advertised widely in Australia and it has been suggested that as well as the laxative effect they had, the aloe juice in them could act as an abortifacient – important in an age before reliable contraception.

However, the interesting thing is that the package is still intact with the instructions for use still wrapped around the outside of the package. Normally, even if the pill box survives, the instructions are long gone, as the first thing the purchaser did was remove the instructions to open the package.

Turning over the package we can see that the instructions are held in place using some clever folding, a little like letter locking


Quite fascinating – and the first time I’ve seen anything like this, with other contemporary examples, such as this packet of Grasshopper pills not showing such an intricate technique


 with the instructions simply wrapped around the package

Or simply folded over as in this example

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Fred Burnaby and Cockle’s Pills

Captain Fred Burnaby was a Victorian adventurer and balloonist, chiefly remembered today for his epic horse rides across Anatolia and Central Asia.

I’ve never quite made up my mind whether he undertook these rides with tacit approval as part of the Great Game, or whether he was simply a mad adventurer, but his ‘A Ride to Khiva’ remains an invaluable resource for anyone interested about life on the edge of the Russian Empire in the nineteenth century.

He also has another claim to fame however – Cockle’s Pills which he took with him as part of his medicine chest on his adventures


His use of Cockle’s pills certainly captured the Victorian imagination with it being reused in advertiesments

advert linking a rid to Khiva with cockles pills

And in cartoons

caricature of Fred Burnaby with cockle's Pills

But what were Cockle’s Pills?

Well we have an unopened packet in the collection at Dow’s. and we can see that they were anti bilious or indigestion pills


Cockle’s pills weren’t unique – there were quite a few indigestion products around in the Victorian era, doubtless as a result of the heavy Victorian diet.

But what were Cockle’s Pills?

Essentially they were a laxative – again given the heavy Victorian diet, probably a useful product, especially, if as claimed, they did not contain any real nasties.

As Spike Milligan remarked in Puckoon, it was a case of make people shit and get rich…, and that was very much a trope of late ninettenth century and early twentieth century life when people appeared to be fixated on having healthy bowels …

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