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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The diary of William Holland

I’ve just finished reading Paupers and Pig Killers, Jack Ayres’ edition of William Holland’s diary.

William Holland was a parson in Somerset around the turn of the nineteenth century and kept a diary for the first few years of the nineteenth century. This of course was the time of the Napoleonic wars, the expansion of the British Empire in India, the takeover of the Dutch settlements in South Africa, and from an Australian perspective, the founding of the first British settlements in Australasia.

At home, it was the beginning of the industrial revolution that was to power nineteenth century Britain.

In fact, it could be argued to be the first phase of Britain’s rise to something more than a middle ranking European power.

It’s also the world that Mary Wollstonecraft and Jane Austen lived in, not to mention Byron, Keats and Shelley. and of course it was also when Frankenstein was first published.

So I thought it would be an interesting read. Also, it worked quite well as something to read while looking after J as she recovered, lots of short entries, making it easy to break away from.

It is an intensely personal diary chronicling his ill health and his business affairs, but contains few observations on the wider world despite the fact the Holland took a weekly newspaper and complained bitterly in his diary when the paper was late or did not arrive at all. Napoleon gets scarcely a mention, as does Trafalgar and Peninsular war, despite the fact the Holland would have been required to organise a government ordained celebration of Nelson’s victory.

The other is his narrowness of focus, despite’s living less than fifty miles from Bristol there is no mention of the slave trade and its outlawing in 1807, or the influence of sugar money from the West Indies on the growing middle class, or other things that might concern him.

How representative of the middling classes of England Holland was is open to debate. I suspect that there simply is not enough available in the way of sources to show us how concerned or not the middle classes of England were with the progress of the wars, and the politics of the time …

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St Kilda Cemetery

In Melbourne, at the corner of Dandenong Road and Hotham Street, lies St Kilda Cemetery.

I’ve driven past it hundreds of times, and never stopped to look, but today I did.

J was doing something else, so I hopped on a train to Windsor and rode the tram four stops down Dandenong road to the cemetery.

It’s a typical Victorian cemetery, laid out by denomination and is still a ‘working’ cemetery, meaning that the original separation by creed doesn’t quite hold with Greek Orthodox and Confucian burials shoe horned in wherever a plot has become free.

The cemetery is slightly tatty and down at heel, but most of the grave sites seem to be in relatively good order.

Most of the graves date from the late Victorian era and the early part of last century, with quite a few of young men who died on the western front, but there’s also the rather over the top monument of Ferdinand von Mueller, the first government botanist in Victoria and founder of the Melbourne Herbarium

It’s not von Mueller’s only monument – his name is scattered across Australia, including a creek on the Great Ocean Road, reflecting both his immense contribution to botany in nineteenth century Australia and his many expeditions, so maybe we’ll forgive him his massively over the top monument …

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Did the Victorians have pubic hair?

The short answer is, of course they did, but if you were to go on the evidence of paintings alone you might be forgiven for thinking that Victorian women did not have pubic hair.

This clearly was not the case.

Not only do we have the story of Ruskin fleeing into the night when he discovered that his wife, Effie Gray, had pubes, there’s more than enough evidence in the form of nineteenth century pornography to show that women did indeed have pubic hair.

Hardly surprising

What’s more interesting is the question of when and why did women start removing their body hair.

People have always done things to change their appearance to enhance their attractiveness according to the cultural norms of the time, such as plucking their eyebrows, wearing eyeliner and lipstick etc, etc.

In the nineteenth century women didn’t wear makeup or, if they did, it was very discreet. It’s interesting that Louise Bryant, in her early days as a schoolteacher in the pacific north west of America was thought to be of dubious character because she wore powder and perfume.

And, of course, until the nineteen-twenties most female clothing covered the armpits and legs which meant there was no reason to remove body hair.

With the adoption of shorter dresses and styles that revealed the armpits safety razor manufacturers sought to expand the market selling the idea of hairlessness as somehow more feminine, and of course the safety razor made it a relatively safe thing to do, and something that could easily be done in the privacy of one’s boudoir

Although not everyone got the memo

Even though women had started shaving their armpit and leg hair by the late 1920’s, pubic hair remained untouched. Art studio photographs from the 1930’s (and there’s a whole industry out there providing high quality nude images scanned from the portfolios of 1930’s photographers – you too can have some tasteful 1930’s nudes on your apartment wall) show that basically people still had pubic hair and it was relatively ungardened.

As indeed can be seen in the art from the time

In fact pubic hair seems to have remained as nature intended until the nineteen eighties when high cut swim wears and underwear started to require a bit of trimming ….

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Sort of an Indiana Jones moment

I was on a beach a few days ago, birdwatching, when I noticed a small corroded metal disk stuck in a crack.

“Wow, a coin!” I thought, and did what anyone else would and picked it up.

Well the face was completely illegible, and I thought I could just about discern a Queen Victoria young head

Face of the coin

But to be honest it could have been the King of Thailand, it was so corroded. It didn’t appear to have any reeding or milling on the edges so my first guess was a nineteenth century half penny.

However, it wasn’t my lucky day. When I flipped it over all was revealed

coin reverse

it was simply a very corroded standard 10 cent coin.

Now we all know that more often or not what turns up is not that interesting, but it’s the finding and tracing that’s fun …

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