Monthly Archives: June 2012

Thomas Dowse: Unaccompanied Minor

There is a lake in Sandgate, my suburb on the edge of Moreton Bay, called Dowse Lagoon.  It is named after one of Sandgate’s first European settlers, Thomas Dowse, (1809-1885) who settled here with his wife and family in 1842.  Thomas Dowse was an ex-convict.  In September 1824, at the age of 15, he was tried in the Old Bailey:

for stealing, on the 16th of August , at St. Andrew, Holborn , a coat, value 2 l. a waistcoat, value 5 s. a pair of trowsers, value 10 s. a handkerchief, value 4 s. and a shirt, value 4 s.

He stole these items and pawned them for 35 shillings.

This is where the story gets strange, for the main witness in the case was Catherine Dowse, a widow – and Thomas’s mother.  The clothes belonged to Tom’s brother (though technically they were Catherine’s, since minors could not own property).

So what was going on?  Continue reading

Dingo Dreaming

aurukun camp dog at GOMA

When my father was a young boy, he spent a lot of time on his uncle’s farm, where he had a pet dingo.  One day, he was walking in town with his pet beside him when someone shot it dead.  It still upset him when he told me the story 30 or 40 years later.  Dad was born in 1921, so this must have been about 1930, around the same time that the Queensland Government declared open season on koalas.

There was no comeback.  Anyone could shoot a dingo – even in the main street of Caboolture.  Dingoes were vermin.

Last week, the fourth coronial inquiry into the death of Azaria Chamberlain decided that – just as Lindy Chamberlain claimed 32 years ago – a dingo did, after all, take her baby.

Continue reading

Alan Mathieson Turing: where does the Mathieson come from?

2012 has been announced as the Alan Turing Year.  Next Saturday, 23 June, marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of Alan Mathieson Turing.  There have already been various events to mark the anniversary – on radio and television, and there will be a conference on Turing in Manchester this weekend. Turing was a mathematician, a very good one, possibly a genius – but nevertheless, most mathematicians don’t get this kind of celebrity treatment.

Turing’s fame depends on 2 periods of his life:

Firstly, during World War II, he led the team of cryptographers at Bletchley Park who cracked the German Enigma Code, thereby (according to Winston Churchill) shortening the war by 2 years.

Secondly, in 1952, the Manchester police charged him with ‘gross indecency’ for a consensual homosexual act.  He was given the choice of imprisonment, or a series of compulsory injections of oestrogen to cause ‘chemical castration’.  He chose the latter, but he was found dead 2 years later, having apparently eaten cyanide smeared on an apple.  There was no suicide note, and his mother never accepted it, but the general consensus is that he killed himself.

So there you have it.  Two evocative stories of triumph and tragedy, and Turing, a shy and awkward nerd who stuttered and chewed his fingernails, emerges as a hero and a reluctant gay icon.

Alan Turing don't ask don't tell

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Queen Victoria’s Journals

The Queen apparently keeps a diary, and has done so for many years.  It will no doubt be pure gold for future historians, though I doubt whether it will appear in my lifetime.

It would be interesting, though, to know what she thought of last week’s Jubilee festivities.  My mother is just 3 months younger than Elizabeth II, and while Mum probably does a good deal more shopping, cooking and laundry than the Queen, I don’t think she could have stood for hours in the rain, let alone clamber into a barge for a ceremonial journey down the Thames.

The present Queen’s great-great-grandmother, Queen Victoria, kept a diary too. Continue reading

The New Cythera and the Transit of Venus

I wonder, if Captain Cook had gone to Tahiti in 1769 to observe the Transit of Mars* instead of the Transit of Venus, he would have seen an island full of brave warriors rather than nubile maidens?

Tahitian canoes, Matavai Bay

William Hodges, Tahitian War Galleys in Matavai Bay, Tahiti

Probably not. Cook’s Tahitian visit was not the first instance of this association between the island and the goddess of love, though it is a strange coincidence that linked the planet Venus with Tahiti.

In her book, Aphrodite’s Island: The European Discovery of Tahiti (2009), the anthropologist and historian Anne Salmond looks closely at what happened when an earlier explorer, the Frenchman Louis Antoine de Bougainville, visited in April 1768.

Continue reading