Monthly Archives: March 2011

A Stitch in Time

In July 1965, Queen Elizabeth and the Duke of Edinburgh visited the Singer Sewing Machine factory at Clydebank outside Glasgow, which employed more than 700 people.  At the end of their tour, the company presented them with a sewing machine for Princess Anne, then 15. I like to think she ran up the odd ball gown on it, over the years, but did she tackle the more complex Vogue patterns, or stay safe with Simplicity and Butterick?

A sewing machine was once a common gift for a young woman. My then-boyfriend’s parents gave his sister one for her 21st birthday. Two years later, they gave him a car. Even in my lovelorn state, and a beneficiary of the car, I recognised the unfairness of this, but then, I was given a sewing machine for my 21st birthday too.

The sewing machine was invented many times, both in Europe and in America, from the 18th century onwards, but it was Isaac Singer who successfully commercialized the product and sold it to the world.  Singer was a rogue, a bigamist, and probably stole the idea for the machine from Elias Howe, who sued and won a patent battle with Singer in 1854 – but he was also a salesman of genius.  Rather than invent the machine, he invented the idea of hire purchase, which let people, mainly women, put a deposit on a sewing machine, then pay it off gradually through the profits they made from their sewing.

At the time sewing machines first hit the market, clothes were made by hand sewing, and the extreme poverty of ‘distressed needlewomen’ was an issue of social concern.  They were part of what were known as sweated industries, where women worked as outworkers, paid a pittance according to how much they produced.  In 1843, Thomas Hood published a poem, The Song of the Shirt, in Punch:

With fingers weary and worn,
With eyelids heavy and red,
A woman sat, in unwomanly rags,
Plying her needle and thread —
Stitch! stitch! stitch!
In poverty, hunger, and dirt,
And still with a voice of dolorous pitch
She sang the “Song of the Shirt.”

And so on, for another 11 equally dolorous verses.

Sewing machines were a game changer.  Sewing machines and home dressmaking generated a whole swathe of new auxiliary developments.  Women’s magazines thrived on a new interest in home made fashion for the middle class.  One of the first to cash in was the Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine, edited by Sam and Isabella Beeton, which printed detailed instructions for cutting and sewing clothing for women and children.  In America in 1863, Ebenezer Butterick designed the first paper patterns to come in different sizes.

The Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine also printed letters, and questions from its readers, dealing with the social nuances of the sewing machine. One reader asked if she should let her servant use the sewing machine to make her own clothes?  The general view of other readers was that this was a reasonable request, so long as it didn’t interfere with her work as a domestic servant.  But it says something that mistress and maid were both eagerly converging on the same new gadget.

Sewing at a machine was a solitary occupation.  Jane Austen’s women sat together round a table, sewing and gossiping companionably; in America, the tradition of the quilting party was equally sociable.  But a sewing machine was a heavy piece of equipment, and costly.  Treadle machines eventually became common items of household furniture, beautifully finished with wrought iron and carved wooden drawers.  But there was only ever one within the household, and you didn’t take it with you to a sewing party.

Sewing machines were widely considered a married woman’s ‘tools of trade’, a legal term that applied to the tools that one uses to make a living, and which are protected from seizure in the event of bankruptcy.  Until the 1880s, when Married Women’s Property Acts were introduced in Britain and the Australian colonies, a married woman had no property independent of her husband, so a sewing machine was a particularly valuable household asset, something that gave a woman some financial security if her husband turned out to be a dud.

While home dressmaking was a strictly female occupation, the sewing machine was not limited to women.  Tailoring was an equally gendered – male – occupation, and sewing machines transformed that work too. The schmutter trade (from the Yiddish for ‘rags’), from the late 19th and early 20th century, came to be dominated by Jewish refugees, and the sewing machine gave them a chance to set up a small business.

The sewing machine (like a university degree!) is what economists call a ‘relative good’.  That means that when most people are sewing by hand, those who own a sewing machine have an advantage in the market, because they can make more shirts or suits or whatever than a hand sewer, and therefore make more money from their sale.  But once everyone has a sewing machine (or degree) that relative advantage disappears, the price of each shirt drops, and within a generation, sewing machinists, men and women, were working in sweatshops and as poorly paid as ever.

Today, with globalization, those sweatshops have moved offshore, but they still exist.  I remember seeing brand new treadle sewing machines in the market in Bangkok, destined for villages that were not yet connected to electricity.

Not only the clothing factories have moved to Asia.  In 1854, the American Admiral, Matthew Perry, entered Tokyo Harbour, intent on persuading the Japanese, by force if necessary, to trade with the west.  Amongst the trade goods he brought with him to show to the Japanese was a very early model sewing machine.

In 1980, Singer’s Clydebank factory in Glasgow closed, with a loss of over 3000 jobs, and today, most sewing machines are built in Asia.  Be careful what you wish for.

Time Zones

Tomorrow, 25 March, is the Feast of the Annunciation, the day on which the Angel Gabriel visited Mary to tell her that, while still remaining a virgin, she would bear a child, God’s son Jesus Christ.  With gynaecological exactitude, 25 March is exactly 9 calendar months before Christmas Day, celebrated as the day of Christ’s birth.

For many historians, 25 March is also a date that does their head in.

The mystery of the virgin conception and birth has done a lot of theologians’ heads in too, of course.  Imagine then the difficulty for artists who tried to convey this scene, a very popular and often stunningly beautiful image in medieval and renaissance art.  In this image from the workshop of Robert Campin, for instance, a tiny adult Christ, complete with crucifix, is surfing down a sunbeam towards Mary’s womb.

Workshop of Robert Campin (South Netherlandish, active by 1406, died 1444), Annunciation Triptych, A larger image is at Wikimedia Commons

The Annunciation is usually depicted with a few common elements: Mary, submissive, receptive, often reading a book; Gabriel, usually young and androgynous, with gorgeous but aerodynamically unsound wings.  Usually there are lilies somewhere, representing purity, and if outside there will be early spring flowers, right for late March.  If the action takes place indoors, as here in this scene from about 1430, it gives us a peep at what furnishings and fittings might have looked like then.

But not everything is so straightforward.  In this scene, for instance, the towel on the rail seems to be a Jewish prayer shawl, Mary is about to switch books from the Old to the New Testament, and the snuffed out candle represents the end of the old, pre-Christian order.

Which is where the problem with the date comes in.

According to many clerics, if the new Christian order began with the moment of Christ’s conception, then 25 March was the beginning of the New Year.  And clerics (clerks) ran the medieval bureaucracies.  Yet there was already a New Year, 1 January, set at the time that the Julian calendar was instituted, back in Julius Caesar’s day.  The result was a dual system that must have been very confusing: Samuel Pepys, for instance, writes about New Year celebrations on 1 January, but when dating his entries, he only changes the year on 25 March.

This dual system remains a problem for people writing about the pre-modern era today.  To clarify things, historians dealing with events that occur in the period between 1 January and 25 March often write the date as (e.g.) 26 January 1688/9.

But it gets worse.  By the 16th century, the Julian calendar had drifted seriously out of whack with the actual seasons.  In 1582, Pope Gregory XIII introduced a reformed calendar, including the rule that every 400 years there will be no leap year (last implemented in 2000) and moving the date 10 days from 5 October 1582 to 15 October 1582.  Unfortunately, however, by then the Reformation had taken place.  Protestant Europe refused to go along with any changes – even sensible, scientifically developed changes – that were introduced by the Papacy.

And so, for centuries, different parts of Europe operated on different calendars.  Diplomatic letters between England and France, for instance, routinely include 2 parallel dates for each side of the Channel.

Different states converted to the Gregorian system at different times.  Scotland changed its New Year to 1 January in 1600, while staying on the Julian calendar, but in England, it was not until 1752 that both the calendar and the date of the New Year were brought into line with most of western Europe.  By then an adjustment of 11 days were needed to bring the dates into line.  It was too hard, though, to demand that people pay their taxes 11 days early, so the Exchequer stayed with the old system, and right up to the present day, income tax in Britain is due on 6 April (25 March + 11 days).

Other parts of the world took even longer to fall into line: Russia only changed after the 1917 Revolution, which is why the October Revolution actually took place in November.  Eastern Orthodox Churches still use the Julian calendar to calculate Christmas – but so also did many folk in the west, who continued to celebrate festivals based on the older calendar.  Auld Yule was celebrated well into the 19th century in Scotland.

Of course there are many calendars, though for most purposes, the Gregorian system is now the global standard.  It’s worth investigating the applet at Calendrica, which lets you explore them all.  Look up 1752 to see those 11 days disappear – or, if you prefer, go to the Mayan calendar where the whole of time will end next year.

It makes our local difficulties with daylight saving seem fairly minor.

Calendrica [this is a wonderful site, but be patient, as it crashes fairly regularly]

Steve Roud, The English Year (2006)

‘Not without a Prenup’ is at

Tobacco: the deadly weed?

Back in the 1960s, when growing tobacco did not yet put you on a par with cooking crack cocaine, my stepfather had a mixed farm where he grew tobacco, as well as keeping cattle and horses.

Tobacco is an annual.  It grows from seed, the large leaves growing from a single central stalk.  When the plant reaches maturity, it flowers, and the leaves begin to wither and die, starting at the bottom and working to the top.  The leaves were picked by hand and packed in a kiln house for smoking.

At this point, my stepfather drove his cattle into the tobacco field, to eat the stalks and trash that were left behind.  The cattle seemed to like it and the animals certainly looked sleek and healthy, though I’ve no idea whether they gained any psychotropic benefits as well.

My stepfather swore that their cattle ticks dropped off after a few days on a diet of tobacco trash, and now that I keep dogs, who get dosed every month with pills that keep down their flea burden, I take his observations more seriously than I did at the time.

Tobacco, Nicotiana, comes from the Americas.  It is part of the Solanaceae family, which other American crops, including the tomato, capsicum and chili, and potato, but also a number of other plants known for their psychoactive properties: mandrake, deadly nightshade and datura.

Tobacco was cultivated in the New World long before the arrival of Columbus in 1492.  It had religious as well as medical significance, though it was probably smoked for pleasure as well.  Columbus was offered a bunch of dried leaves by an Arawak when in Hispaniola, and in the journal of his first voyage, he describes ‘men and women with a half-burnt weed in their hands, being the herbs they are accustomed to smoke’.  Spanish colonists quickly picked up the habit of smoking, and it spread to Europe in the second half of the 16th century.

Quiringh Gerritsz. van Brekelenkam, Interior with a smoking and a drinking man by a fire (1664), Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

The first printed references to tobacco in English date from the 1590s, including a book from 1599, which gives a suggested order for a menu:

  1. Fruites
  2. Hearbes
  3. Flesh
  4. Fish
  5. Whitmeats
  6. Spice
  7. Sauce
  8. Tabacco

Apart from beginning with fruit, and placing the fish between the meat and poultry, a ceremonial dinner would not be very different today.

A debate soon arose as to whether tobacco was a good or a bad thing.  Various physicians argued that tobacco had health benefits.  Like another new fashionable drug, coffee, it was considered a drying agent, though I find it hard to believe that anyone who has ever heard a smoker’s cough could think it would reduce the production of phlegm!

On the other hand, from the beginning some disapproved, and the most famous of these was the King, James VI and I.  As a school child, I can remember being told that James’s Counterblaste to Tobacco (1604) was a good example of why he was called the ‘wisest fool in Christendom’.  These days, I think he was on to something:

A custom loathsome to the eye, hateful to the Nose, harmful to the brain, dangerous to the Lungs and in the black stinking fume thereof, nearest resembling the horrible Stygian smoke of the pit that is bottomless.

He also pointed out that it was unpleasant for a husband to subject his

wholesome, and clean complexioned wife, to that extremity, that either she must also corrupt her sweet breath therewith, or else resolve to live in a perpetual stinking torment.

An early example of the argument that kissing a smoker is like kissing an ashtray.

Nowadays it is easy to see the sense of James’s argument against tobacco, and sneer at those who advocated its health benefits.  But when I remember those cattle with their sleek, tick free coats, I wonder.

In the 17th century, most people spent their lives infested with various parasites: lice and fleas on the skin, and intestinal worms of various sorts in the gut.  Did smoking ease their burden?  The main dangers from tobacco, such as emphysema, lung cancer and heart disease, take many years to develop.  In the 17th century, many men (and we are almost entirely talking about men) would not live long enough for these diseases of middle and old age to have an effect.  But the advantages of relieving their parasite burden would have an immediate impact.

Because tobacco was expensive, and occasionally unavailable because of an erratic supply chain across the Atlantic, the level of addiction must have been relatively low.  Tobacco was also usually smoked in long pipes, too, at a cooler mouth temperature than today, reducing the risk of oral cancer.

I’m guessing, but I suspect that tobacco in the 17th century did have some health benefits, just as the physicians claimed.

In any case, although James may have disapproved of tobacco, he recognized one of its most important traditional benefits: by 1619, he had introduced an excise tax on tobacco imports.  Ever since, governments have been locked in a moral battle between their disapproval of the drug, and the money they make from its consumption.

Bearded Radicals

Everything about this new group of arrivals was wrong.  Their religion was alien to the mainstream majority, and linked to a foreign theocratic state.  They introduced separate schools, and imported foreign teachers, the women dressed in veils and clothing that dated from the middle ages.  Long established residents, whose tenure in this new land went back at least a generation or so, spoke anxiously about the size of these new immigrants’ families, and feared that within another few generations, this dangerous minority would breed themselves into the majority.

Worst of all, some of their young men carried a huge chip on their shoulders, a grievance against the society they found themselves in.  Nurtured on parental tales of violence and dispossession back in their homeland, they formed ethnic gangs, hassled women, attacked the police, and moved into organised crime and the New South Wales Labor Party.  Some of them grew a characteristic shaggy beard that announced to the world their radical beliefs – you can see it in portraits of Ned Kelly.

Yes folks, it’s St Patrick’s Day on 17 March – and these bearded radicals were Irish.

Today, St Patrick’s Day is celebrated with green beer and cabbage, if it is noticed at all.  It is certainly not a contentious political occasion, as it once was.  The sectarianism of the past has virtually disappeared – to be replaced by other fault lines, which I deliberately highlighted above.

But it is worth revisiting these past tensions, if only for the reassurance they give that hostility between Irish Catholics and English and Scottish Protestants eventually dissipated, and that the dire predictions of past generations that the Irish minority could not assimilate or would overwhelm the majority were wrong.  Similar dire predictions directed today at Islamic immigrants are likely to prove equally wrong in the future.

A lot of Irish came to Australia in the 19th century.  About one third of the 160,000 convicts were Irish.  Most were petty criminals, but some were transported for political offences, such as the United Irishmen after the failed 1798 rebellion, Young Irelanders after 1848, and Fenians in 1867.  There was also a large free migration to the colonies, especially during the potato famine in the 1840s.  All these immigrants had good reason to feel bitter about British policy in Ireland, and many transferred their resentments to the British colonial governments in Australia.

But many did not.  For a start, the British Parliament ended discrimination against Catholics in the public service in 1829, and Irish Catholics began to work for the colonial governments from then on, particularly in the law.  The policemen Kelly killed were all Irish born, as was the judge who sentenced him.  Kelly, on the other hand, was Australian born.  The Jerilderie letter, his garbled message of rage and rebellion against ‘the English yoke’, comes from his parents, particularly his American stepfather.

What would England do if America declared war and hoisted a green flag as its all Irishmen that has got command of her armies forts and batteries even her very life guards and beef tasters are Irish would they not slew around and fight her with their own arms for the sake of the colour they dare not wear for years. and to reinstate it and rise old Erins isle once more, from the pressure and tyrannism of the English yoke, which has kept it in poverty and starvation, and caused them to wear the enemys coats.

Kelly’s cry of fury does hint, though, at the potential for such grievances to turn violent, especially in the hands of someone mentally unstable.  In 1868, an Irishman called Henry James O’Farrell attempted to shoot Queen Victoria’s son, Prince Alfred, at a picnic at Clontarf in Sydney.  Shortly before this, a group of Fenians had attempted to invade Canada, so the public was already anxious about possible global conspiracies.  O’Farrell was found guilty and executed, despite his probable insanity, and the NSW Premier, Henry Parkes, rode the subsequent wave of fear about Fenian violence for his own political ends.  There are parallels with the present here, too.

All in all though, the anxieties of Protestant colonists proved baseless.  The Irish Catholic church set up separate schools, and recruited Christian Brothers and Sisters of Mercy from Ireland to teach, but their efforts to create a separate cultural tradition never amounted to much, beyond the oddity that Catholic children used to pronounce the letter H as ‘haich’, in the Irish fashion.

Irish families have not outbred the Protestants either.   Irrespective of religion, family size has tended to fall in the last century or more for many reasons: urbanisation, an end to child labour, compulsory schooling and therefore better education for women, all led couples to limit family size, long before the advent of effective contraception, or Humanae Vitae.

And the beards?  Joseph Holt, one of the leaders of the 1798 Rebellion in Ireland, was transported to NSW.  On his way home many years later, he and his shipmates were shipwrecked in the Falkland Islands.  An American whaler from Nantucket rescued them 2 months later. Captain Fanning first came ashore, looked at Holt ‘very earnest’ and shook his hand.  Holt ‘explains’ cryptically:

My Good Reader in order to let you know the cause of him coming to me: I wore my beard under my chin as a mark of what I was, and he had his in the same manner.  He and I spoke two or three words together which made us to know more than I am going to tell my reader.

For Holt, the way he wore his beard identified him to a co-conspirator in the Irish republican cause, the equivalent of a Masonic handshake.  By Kelly’s day, however, a full beard was probably little more than a fashion statement – or was it?

Reference: Alan Atkinson, The Europeans in Australia (1997) discusses the implications of Joseph Holt’s meeting with Captain Fanning.

Bloodsuckers: a short history of the leech

D’Arcy Wentworth, the first Colonial Surgeon in early New South Wales, used to predict the weather using leeches.  Like all doctors then, he used leeches in his practice, kept in a special leech jar that contained water in the base, and a perforated top to allow them to breathe.

Wentworth noticed that his leeches moved around in the jar, climbing up the sides, dropping back into the dark lower area, or clinging to the lid, depending on the weather, and used them to predict approaching storms (they got more agitated, moving faster around the sides of the container).  This is less dotty than it may seem.  Leeches are essentially a thin and elastic membrane, presumably sensitive to air pressure, and they are closely related to earth worms, which rise in the soil in response to rain.

Leeches were a standard part of the doctor’s kit in the late 18th century, and Wentworth probably brought his equipment with him to Sydney on the Second Fleet in 1790.  In his day, doctors relied on technical expertise – setting bones, rapid amputations, and so on – more than medical theory, but to the extent that a surgeon or doctor had any sort of theory to underlie his practical activities, it relied on balancing the 4 humours in the body.  Too much blood, according to the humoral theory, caused the body to overheat, so the treatment for fever was bleeding – phlebotomy.

Doctors would open a vein, using a knife or various more specialised medical implements, and under some circumstances, patients were bled ‘heroically’ to the point that they lost consciousness.  Compared with such dramatic and potentially fatal treatments, attaching a number of leeches to the body must have seemed to the patient a very benign alternative.

In Wentworth’s day, doctors were so closely associated with leeches that they were called leeches themselves, although the term goes back to Bede, according to the OED.  (In the same way, a doctor who relied heavily on mercury, or quick silver, was known as a quack.)

Gathering leeches was unpleasant work. Wordsworth wrote a poem about a leech-gatherer, an old, poor man who roamed ‘from pond to pond’ earning a living by collecting leeches from the water.  The usual method was to wade into the water and allow the leeches to attach themselves:

He with a smile did then his words repeat;
And said that, gathering Leeches, far and wide
He travelled; stirring thus about his feet
The waters of the Pools where they abide.
“Once I could meet with them on every side;
But they have dwindled long by slow decay;
Yet still I persevere, and find them where I may.

It’s striking that even this old man, in 1802, noticed that they were declining in number, and it seems that medical demand led to a shortage of supply.  They were costly to collect, and then had to be transported from rural streams to the urban areas where most doctors worked.

D’Arcy Wentworth could have got his leeches locally, since they exist in the Sydney area, but he probably imported them.  Most ships’ surgeons would have kept leeches, and a trade in leeches developed between Australia and India in the 19th century.

Fresh leeches were best, but because they were so expensive, leeches were regularly reused.  They were attached to the patient’s body, usually near the source of the problem (so on the head for a headache, for instance), and left there to engorge blood until they dropped off.  They were then collected and put back in their jar to digest their meal.  Once they had shrivelled back to their normal state, the doctor used them again – but if he was short of time, or short of leeches, sometimes he would squeeze as much blood as possible from the unfortunate leech and re-attach it to his next patient.  Since the first thing a leech does is to inject its victim with an anticoagulant, this may well have been a source of cross infection.

When the bloated leech drops off, the patient continues to bleed until all the anticoagulant has gone, so although doctors might prescribe a particular number of leeches – 6 or 12 or 24, they seem to have worked in dozens – in practice, the amount of blood lost varied from patient to patient.

The humoral theory, on which blood letting was originally based, lost its authority well before the work of Pasteur overturned it completely, but as a practical measure, bleeding continued to be done until surprisingly recently.  James Herriot describes a farmer asking him to bleed a feverish horse during the 1930s, and noted with some surprise that it seemed to do the trick.  Then antibiotics arrived, and alternative methods used for dealing with fevers went out of fashion entirely.

Recently, however, leeches have made a reappearance in medicine.  They are just as good as they ever were for drawing off blood, and in some cases, such as around a wound during reconstructive surgery, they do the job more cheaply and unobtrusively than other methods.  In 2004, they were given that ultimate form of approval, from the United States Food and Drug Administration.

Recommended discussion on the four humours in medicine: In Our Time with Melvyn Bragg, with David Wootton, Vivian Nutton and Noga Arikha, 20 December 2007.
Kravetz, R. ‘Leech Jar’, in American Journal of Gastroenterology, vol. 96, 3, 894 for the picture.
D’Arcy Wentworth Papers are in Mitchell Library, Sydney

Pecunia non olet

The Emperor Vespasian, a notorious tightwad, once introduced a tax on urine – it was used for washing togas, and other chemical purposes.  When his son Titus objected, he said, we are told by Suetonius, ‘Pecunia non olet’ – ‘money doesn’t stink’.  But does it?

The director of the London School of Economics, Sir Howard Davies, has just resigned because he accepted a donation of £1.5m for the university from a Gaddafi foundation, just shortly after Saif Gaddafi was awarded a PhD from the LSE.  As far as I know, no cause and effect has yet been proved, but it looks bad.

Universities have a long and dishonorable tradition of accepting money from rogues and ratbags, and the odd tyrant.  In a way, it’s the Robin Hood principle at work: there’s no point in robbing from the poor, but soliciting money from the rich means cosying up to some pretty shady characters.  Think Cecil Rhodes, whose generous donations to Oxford, and the formation of the Rhodes Scholarship scheme, were based on his crackpot theories of racial supremacy, and funded by what we might today call ‘blood diamonds’.

But when a dictator or a crook is outed, how do you wash your hands of the connection?  Do you, like Rhodes House, just adjust your criteria so that the scholarships can go to non-white and female recipients?  (There was a precedent in their earlier decision, in 1914, not to award any further scholarships to Germans, as required in Rhodes’ original bequest)  Or do you try to erase the memory of your institution’s lapse of judgment more thoroughly, by a few strategic resignations, or by eradicating the name or the connection entirely.

I encountered this problem when I spent a couple of months on study leave at Aberdeen University in the early 1990s.  During the slash-and-burn years of Margaret Thatcher during the 1980s, Aberdeen University went through hard times, even though it shares with the universities of Edinburgh, Glasgow and St Andrews, a unique advantage over other British universities: its continued existence is guaranteed in the Act of Union that created the United Kingdom in 1707.  Nevertheless, times were hard, and the university administration was delighted to find a benefactor.

Ján Ludvík Hoch was born in what was then Czechoslovakia in 1923.  He arrived in Britain as a Jewish refugee in 1940, aged 17, and took the name Robert Maxwell.  During the 1950s, he began to make his first serious money when he established Pergamon Press to publish academic journals.  Science was booming in the period, universities were growing in size and number, and academic libraries subscribed to all the new journals that Maxwell, and Pergamon Press, set up.

Plaque at headquarters of Pergamon Press, Headington Hill

My husband, a retired mathematician, recalls how an older colleague of his was encouraged to set up a new journal, in a new sub-discipline of mathematics, with seed money from Pergamon.  Scholars needed to publish and they didn’t expect to be paid for their work, either writing or editing the content of journals; libraries needed to buy these new journals, despite their high cost, and once the library subscribed, it was hooked.  As any librarian will tell you, for an academic, cutting back on journal subscriptions is like giving up tobacco, even as costs inexplicably rose for journals that were produced almost entirely by volunteer labour.

Robert Maxwell’s publishing empire later spread well beyond Pergamon, but there is an irony that, having made his first millions from screwing the university sector, by the 1980s he was apparently eager to give something back.  He arrived at Aberdeen University like a white knight.  In 1990, he struck the first brick into the wall of the Robert Maxwell Conference Centre – using a sledgehammer.  At about the same time, Pergamon Press bought Aberdeen University Press.

Then, in 1991, Maxwell disappeared, presumed drowned, from his yacht in the Mediterranean, and in the aftermath, it soon became clear that Maxwell’s empire was a sham.  The workers’ entitlements were gone, and his sons subsequently went bankrupt.  Aberdeen University hastily removed the name from the Robert Maxwell Conference Centre.  The building remained, but it was too late to save Aberdeen University Press.

Not all benefactors are rogues or worse, but for every Colleen McCullough, a generous and unobtrusive benefactor of Macquarie University’s Classics Department, there are likely to be others with mixed motives, who just love the publicity and the public naming rights that go with it.  Maxwell wanted Aberdeen University Press, but he also wanted respectability, a Jewish refugee made good, his (reinvented) name on the side of a building.  In Australia at about the same time, Alan Bond did rather better: Bond University extricated itself from the canny old gaolbird, but kept his name.

Earlier benefactors, such as Cosimo di Medici who set up the Florentine Academy, hoped to use good works to buy their way into heaven after a life of hard graft.  Philanthropy is seldom entirely disinterested, and the academic world flirts with dodgy benefactors at its peril.

Warren Buffett recently said, of a later financial crisis, that it’s only when the tide goes out that you can see who’s been swimming naked.  So perhaps it’s appropriate that one theory has it that Robert Maxwell toppled overboard while taking a midnight pee.

Which brings us back to Vespasian.  To the present day, in both France and Italy, public urinals are named after Vespasian (vespasiennes or vespasiani).  Sometimes it’s better not to have your name remembered on a building.

Turtles (and tortoises) all the way

At Mon Repos, near Bundaberg, the giant turtles returned again to lay their eggs during the past summer.  The turtles have swum hundreds, perhaps thousands of kilometres across the South Pacific to get to their rookery – and I’m ashamed to admit that I’ve never made the journey of less than 5 hours it takes from Brisbane to Bundaberg.  So I’m grateful for Robert Ashdown’s terrific photos of the event instead.  And also for a splendid shot of a woman riding a turtle some time during the 1930s.

Humans have been doing dreadful things to giant turtles for hundreds of years.  And also to giant tortoises.

Mostly, they ate them.  Both tortoises and turtles were an important food source for sailors.  They were relatively slow and easy to catch, and because they breathed air, unlike fish, they could be kept alive until needed for food.  Penned on board ship, they were a living, breathing, and no doubt very miserable source of meat.  With a slow metabolism, they could live without food and sometimes without water for a long time, so they have been unwilling travellers across the globe.

This was particularly true of giant tortoises.  The Galapagos Islands get their name from the Spanish word for tortoise, galápagos, but there were also other species found in the Indian Ocean, including the Seychelles.  Both areas were raided for supplies by visiting ships.  In 1925, the director of the New York Aquarium went through surviving American whaling records and estimated that American whalers between 1830 and the 1920s took perhaps 100,000 tortoises from the Galapagos, mostly female, since they were nearer the coast.

One of the oldest animals ever recorded was Tu’i Malila, a Seychelles tortoise who was allegedly given to a Tongan chief by Captain Cook in 1777.  He (or possibly she – nobody seems to mention this) died in 1965.  Another long-lived individual was Harriet (long known as Harry), a Galapagos specimen who was certainly living in the Brisbane Botanical Gardens by the 1870s, and died at Steve Irwin’s Australia Zoo in 2006.

Charles Darwin spent 5 weeks at the Galapagos in 1835, on the Beagle.  The Beagle was there to collect fresh water and food for the crew, and left with more than 30 tortoises.  Their principal purpose was to supply meat for the crew, but several juveniles made it back to England.  Was one of these Harriet?  It’s a long shot, but John Wickham, who served on the Beagle until 1841, became Police Magistrate of Brisbane in 1842, and there’s a theory that Harry/Harriet came back to Australia with him.

Like tortoises, turtles were also an important source of food on long voyages – with the added advantage that the shells, confusingly known as ‘tortoiseshell’, was a valuable item of trade.  When the Endeavour was holed in the Great Barrier Reef, Cook had to beach the crippled ship on what is now the Endeavour River, in far north Queensland.  During the 6 weeks it took to repair the ship, the crew gathered water and vegetables, but also a number of turtles.  On 15 July 1770, Joseph Banks wrote in his diary:

In the evening the Boat return’d from the reef bringing 4 Turtles, so we may now be said to swim in Plenty. Our Turtles are certainly far preferable to any I have eat in England, which must proceed from their being eat fresh from the sea before they have either wasted away their fat, or by unnatural food which is given them in the tubs where they are kept given themselves a fat of not so delicious a flavour as it is in their wild state. Most of those we have caught have been green turtle from 2 to 300 lb weight: these when kill’d were always found to be full of Turtle Grass…; two only were Loggerheads which were but indifferent meat; in their stomachs were nothing but shells.

Four days later,

Ten Indians visited us today and brought with them a larger quantity of Lances than they had ever done before, these they laid up in a tree leaving a man and a boy to take care of them and came on board the ship. They soon let us know their errand which was by some means or other to get one of our Turtle of which we had 8 or 9 laying upon the decks.

In other words, the local Guugu Yimithirr people insisted on their right to a portion of the catch.  They were, after all, their turtles.

Banks was struck by how much better turtle tasted when fresh.  Nevertheless roast turtle meat and soup were highly regarded in Britain, where a ‘turtle dinner’ was a prestigious event. Like many expensive foods, the costliness of the dish was a large part of its appeal.

Eventually, however, the cost of buying a live turtle became prohibitive, and mock turtle soup replaced green turtle soup, using a calf’s head and feet.  Alice in Wonderland’s mock turtle, with his calf’s head and feet, describes a soup ‘so rich and green’ not because of its colour, but because it comes from the green turtle.


Charles Haskins Townsend, The Galapagos Tortoises in their Relation to the Whaling Industry (1925)

Wikipedia article on Galapagos Tortoise (which is excellent)

Paul Chambers, ‘The origin of Harriet’, in New Scientist, 11 September 2004.


The Monstrous Regiment of Women

Next Tuesday is the one hundredth anniversary of International Women’s Day.  As the old cigarette ads had it, ‘You’ve come a long way, baby!’ and yes, it’s true.  Thanks to Virginia Slims and their like, rates of lung cancer amongst women are now reaching parity with those of men.

In other areas, however, we’ve still got a way to go.  No other Prime Minister, I think, has been berated by talk show host Alan Jones in quite the way that Julia Gillard was, a few days ago, and I can’t help wondering whether the ex-rugby coach felt he could bully a woman more than he would – say – an iron man with an Oxford blue for boxing.

Meanwhile one of my favourite journalists, Annabel Crabb, has a hilarious article comparing Gillard with Queen Elizabeth I.

‘Apart from the red hair and the religious pragmatism and the occasional dubious bloke and the lack of interest in foreign affairs and the resolutely single status (“Beggar-woman and single, far rather than Queen and married,” Elizabeth told courtiers in 1563), Ms Gillard even has her own scorned Mary Queen of Scots lurking in exile, the only difference being that her name, in this instance, is Kevin.’

So I thought I might go back to look at one of the most notorious put-downs of women in positions of power, John Knox’s The First Blast of the Trumpet
 Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women, published in the Protestant city of Geneva in 1558.

John Knox was one of the leaders of the Scottish Reformation, often seen as a founder of Presbyterianism.  His Protestant activities got him booted out of Scotland in 1549 by the Queen Mother, Mary of Guise, and then out of England by Mary Tudor in 1554.  He later returned to Scotland and was minister at St Giles Cathedral in Edinburgh until his death in 1572.  Knox’s pamphlet argues that the rule of women is unnatural:

‘To promote a woman to bear rule, superiority, dominion, or empire above any realm, nation, or city, is repugnant to nature; contumely to God, a thing most contrary to his revealed will and approved ordinance; and finally, it is the subversion of good order, of all equity and justice.

In the probation of this proposition, I will not be so curious as to gather whatsoever may amplify, set forth, or decor the same; but I am purposed, even as I have spoken my conscience in most plain and few words, so to stand content with a simple proof of every member, bringing in for my witness God’s ordinance in nature, his plain will revealed in his word, and by the minds of such as be most ancient amongst godly writers.’

He dwells heavily on the evidence of bad women rulers, like Jezebel, while downplaying any evidence of good women rulers, like Deborah, one of the Judges of the ancient Hebrews.  His argument is almost entirely drawn from the Bible.

Knox only mentions one contemporary woman, Mary Tudor, but there is no doubt he had others in mind as well – for one of the interesting features of the 16th century is how many women rulers there were around.  Most of them were widows, like Mary of Guise in Scotland, or Catherine de Medici in France, regents on behalf of a young child.  There were also several women rulers in their own right, including Mary Tudor and Mary, Queen of Scots – who risked becoming pawns of the marriage market, their kingdoms subsumed by their husbands, as the heiresses to Brittany and Burgundy had been in the previous century.

Perhaps the most interesting women rulers of the time were the three generations of women, all widows, who ruled the Netherlands as regents for Charles V, his aunt Margaret of Austria (1480-1530), his sister Maria of Habsburg (1505-1558), and his illegitimate daughter by a Flemish mistress, Margaret of Parma (1522-1586).

What each of these women had in common was her Catholicism.  The Protestant Reformation was tearing apart the former religious unity of Christendom.  In Scotland, England, France and the Netherlands, Protestants were engaged in an ideological (and sometimes actual) battle with Catholics, and these women were attempting to hold the line.

Knox’s argument against the rule of women was doubtless genuinely felt, based on his Biblical reading, but it also suited his political agenda.  But his timing was out.  His 1558 pamphlet was originally intended to be the first of 3 ‘blasts’, but in November 1558, Mary Tudor died childless, and her half-sister Elizabeth became Queen.  Suddenly, there was the first of a monstrous Protestant regiment to consider – and Knox never published any further Blasts.  But Elizabeth never forgave him, all the same.

Which brings us back, strangely enough, to Virginia Slims, so named because of the tobacco from the colony of Virginia, which in turn was named after the Virgin Queen.  Elizabeth’s success as a ruler came at a price, to take herself out of the marriage market, to avoid subjecting herself to any man.

Have we come a long way, baby?