Four-Draw French Naval Telescope w/Sliding Lens Shield (Ca. 1845)

 

This was the last antiques purchase I made before it became necessary for me to pack up all my treasures, in preparation for a big move that I had to make. I haven’t written about it yet because I’ve been sick in bed for the past few days struck down by allergies! (damn cats…!)

Anyway, now that I am sufficiently recovered, and no longer rashy and puffy (yeah it wasn’t fun…), I have decided to take some time to write about what has to be one of the finest purchases I’ve made so far, and which was partially funded by the selling-off of some of my other antiques.

I bought this from a chap at the local flea-market who went on buying trips in Europe. He’d picked this up during a visit to France, he told me. It had to be by far the most complete and perfect example I’d ever seen, and after a lot of haggling and playing of the ‘repeat-purchaser’ card, we struck a deal.

The telescope, as you can see, is a large, four-draw naval telescope, with a wooden barrel, brass fixings, and a sliding brass lens-shield, complete with the original lens-caps and shutters. Its full length is 38.5in. Engraved on the eyepiece draw-tube are the words:

Maison de
L’Ing. Chevallier, Opt’n.
Place du Pont Neuf, 15
Paris.

Roughly translated, it reads:

House of Chevallier. Optician. 
Place du Pont Neuf, 15,
Paris. 

I have researched this, and it appears that Monsieur Chevallier was a very noted French optician, producing not only telescopes, but from what I’ve seen, a lot of microscopes, as well! He was also an optician to French royalty, according to one advertisement I came across. The address, 15, Place du Pont Neuf, is in central Paris, near the River Seine (‘pont’ is ‘bridge’ in French), near to the famous Cathedral of Notre Dame!

Just picking the telescope up and moving it around in my hands told me that this was a very high-quality piece, although like a lot of antiques, it had not been restored or overhauled in decades, which meant of course, that it was jammed up with gunk, grime, and dust, and therefore, entirely seized up. There was also a significant dimple on the lens-shield, which was causing it to jam.

Restoring the Telescope

Once I got it home, I started on the usual tedious, but necessary restoration process, to prevent the telescope from being damaged any further. This included blowing out all the dust, wiping down the lenses inside and out, disassembling the entire piece and cleaning and lubricating the threads, and flushing out all the grime and grit accumulated inside the focusing mechanism and draw-tubes – which is by far the most tedious part of this whole rigmarole!

One of the more fiddly parts of fixing this telescope was removing the dent in the sliding lens-shield at the front of the barrel. The dent was not large, but it was sufficiently concentrated, and deep enough, that it kept rubbing on the protective end-stop at the end of the barrel, thereby causing the entire mechanism to jam. No amount of oil would solve this, so the dent had to be removed.

Of course, removing the entire dent was not likely to be possible, but removing enough of it to stop the jamming would be sufficient. To do this, I unscrewed the lens-shield from its coupling ring, and then slid it off the barrel over the objective lens, past the end-stop which usually held it in place. The next step was to lay the shield on a flat surface without damaging the rim on the edge (which serves as a stop-point for the lens-cap).

Once I’d done this, I needed to locate the dent. Once found, I rolled the shield so that the dent was bottom-most, and pressing against my flat surface (a solid, wooden benchtop). Then I slipped a wooden rolling pin (like what you use to make cookies with) inside the shield to act as a mandrill. Next came the tedious process of rolling, pressing, rolling, pressing, rolling and pressing, using the smooth surface of the benchtop, and the smooth, round surface of the rolling-pin to pop the dent back out.

This had to be done carefully. Too much force and I’d end up with a nice OVAL-shaped lens-shield, which wouldn’t fit back onto my telescope. Not enough force, and I’d never get rid of the dent! However, diligence paid off, and I was able to remove enough of the dimple to achieve the desired result. Rather than tempt fate, I stopped there and reassembled the telescope.

Removing, or rather reducing, the dent was the only major repair I did to this piece. The rest of it was largely just cleaning, or small cosmetic things like light polishing, cleaning the lenses and tightening up loose couplings.

What’s the point of the sliding shield?

OK, so you cleaned it, you removed the dent, you oiled it, you washed out the grime and wiped it down…but what’s the whole point of that sliding cylinder, anyway?

It’s called a lens-shield. They were pretty common on antique telescopes, both of the pocket-sized terrestrial variety, and the larger, handheld maritime variety (like this one). Their purpose was to protect the lens while the telescope was in-use. They were slid out ahead of the objective-lens, and they provided protection to the glass from things like rain, snow, and excessive sun-glare. Having the shield extended meant that when looking in the direction of the sun, the rays of light hit the shield before they would hit the lens, preventing reflective glare.

In inclement weather, the shield kept rain, condensation and snow off of the lens, so that you didn’t have to keep wiping the glass every few seconds, thereby providing you with an unobstructed view – very important when you might be on the deck of a ship in the middle of a heavy storm!

Interesting Notes on Construction

I’ve seen a fair few antique telescopes in my time, ever since I started getting interested in antique optical stuff, about eight to ten years ago. While most telescopes from the 1840s-1850s up to the 1930s, 40s and 50s were all basically made the same way, with the same components and methods of construction, there were elements of this telescope which the manufacturer included which just make me love it just that little bit more.

The first element was the way the lens-shield was attached to the barrel of the telescope. On all other telescopes of this type that I’ve seen, to remove the shield, you need to pull apart the barrel and slide the shield backwards off of the body of the telescope. It’s fiddly and annoying. With this telescope, the shield is screwed onto a threaded coupling-ring that slides up and down the barrel. You simply unscrew the shield from the ring, and then you can slide the whole thing off the telescope, without having to disassemble anything!…You don’t even have to take off the lens-cap, if you don’t want to! This makes cleaning and overhauling this particular telescope much easier!

The second element about this telescope’s construction that I really liked was the inclusion of tiny holes which were drilled into each draw-tube, at the points where their coupling-rings screw together. I’d never seen anything like this on other telescopes before, and this confused me at first. It wasn’t until after I’d cleaned, polished, and de-grimed the entire instrument that their purpose was revealed to me, since only then would their function be fully understood!

So why on earth would you have tiny pinholes drilled into the draw-tubes of a telescope? The simple answer is air-pressure!

Telescopes, for all their simplicity of construction, actually have components that fit together with remarkable precision. Every lens, every rim, every coupling-ring, every tube and cartridge, slips, slides and screws together in a very precise, tight-fitting way. To ensure smooth action, and to ensure that the telescope will not pull apart accidentally, the tubes and the coupling-rings, lenses and everything else, are fitted together with almost microscopic tolerances, so much so that the whole thing is virtually airtight!

The result of these tight-fitting parts is that when the telescope is collapsed for storage, there’s a lot of air trapped inside the draw-tubes which despite their snug fits, are obviously, not airtight. On small telescopes, this air can easily be forced out of the microscopic gaps between the draw-tubes, but on larger telescopes where this might not be possible, collapsing the telescope in the sharp, brisk, business-like manner that most people might’ve seen in TV shows or movies, just wouldn’t be practical, or probably, possible!

Here, you can see the three holes (on the left) drilled into the draw-tubes, with the maker’s details engraved on the right.

The holes in the draw-tubes therefore serve as air-pressure valves. The give the air somewhere to go when the tubes collapse into each other and force the air inside them out of the telescope. They make the process of opening and closing the telescope much smoother and easier. Without them, the resistance caused by the trapped air would likely make the draw-tubes jam or stick, both in opening, and closing the telescope.

Concluding Remarks

This concludes this latest posting, and my examinations of this latest addition to my collection. While other pieces may come and go, I’m pretty certain that this one will be a lifelong keeper. It really is an excellent piece and in such fantastic condition. There are a few minor blemishes that’s true, but you’d have a few yourself if you were nearly 200 years old!

Now all I need is a round-the-world cruise on which to bring it, so that I can do a spot of touristy sightseeing through its lenses, from the high, clear vantage point of the boat-deck of some grand ocean-liner… Eh…one day!

I’ll String Along With You – My Victorian-era Brass String-Caddy

 

Because why wouldn’t you have one??

One of my main areas of collecting has always been antique writing equipment, antique writing instruments, accessories, nicknacks and associated paraphernalia. And that also extends to pieces of desktop accessory. Inkstands, inkwells, desk-sets, candleholders, writing slopes…the list of things that mankind has invented purely to fill up his desk so that he had a suitable excuse as to why he couldn’t get any work done, is truly astounding.

And one of those pieces is this:

At first glance, you’d imagine that this is something wonderful, something amazing, something meant to hold…chocolates…peppermints…tobacco?…Face-powder…spices…it’s solid brass…it’s got beautiful, Art Nouveau decorations on it with flowers and loops and swirls, dragonflies and tulip-bulbs. And yet, its actual function is so much more banal than that!

Indeed, if it wasn’t for the small, but rather obvious hole right in the middle of the lid, you could imagine that this little brass jar held almost anything…coffee? Tea? Sugar? Powdered cinnamon? Quills of rarest saffron, perhaps?

But no…this adorably and excessively over-decorated brass tin is actually nothing more glamorous than…

…a string-caddy!

WHY does this thing Exist!?

No seriously…WHY? What the hell is wrong with just…I dunno…a ball of string!? I mean really, c’mon, right? Who the hell woke up one morning and said: “I know how we can improve on a large amount of intertwined threads coagulated into a spherical mass! What we need is something to put it in! Huzzah!

Why on earth is this even a thing?

Well, it’s a thing because of the age in which it was created.

By the 1870s and 1880s…which is approximately when an item such as this is likely to date from, the industrial revolution was in full swing. For the first time in history it was truly possible to mass-manufacture a whole wide crazy range of all kinds of products. Products that people wanted. Products that people didn’t want. Products that people needed. Products that people didn’t need. Products that people didn’t KNOW they needed!

…Like string-caddies!

By the last quarter of the 19th century, business and commerce are really taking off. For the first time, you have reliable postal systems, you have telephones, typewriters, electric telegraphs, telegrams, cheap steel dip-pens, the first reservoir fountain-pens, cheap, wood-cased pencils and…no email.

This meant that there were enormous amounts of paperwork flying all around the world. People did a lot of writing every single day. Business letters, social letters, essays, short stories, novels, business reports, newspaper columns, telegrams, postcards, love-letters…and since writing was such a preoccupation, people in Victorian times took the whole act and ritual of writing far more seriously than we do. The number of accessories that they came up with to improve, streamline and make more pleasurable, the act of writing, is truly staggering.

Inkstands, blotters, pen-wipers, wax-jacks…hell, you can even find Victorian-era stamp-moisteners, if you look hard enough! And no I didn’t make that up – stamp-moisteners really were a thing.

The Victorian era was also when people were accustomed to receiving packages done up in brown paper and string. It was ludicrously common to wrap up almost anything in brown paper. Books, food, gifts, purchases at a shop, clothing, shoes, everyday items…hell, even other types of paper! And in an age before sellotape became common, string was needed to tie all these parcels together.

Now if all you did was one or two parcels every now and then, how you stored your string probably didn’t matter. But if you were in the habit of wrapping and posting several parcels a day – perhaps you had a home-business, or maybe you worked in the giftwrapping area of a department-store, or perhaps in the mailroom of a mail-order business – then constantly hunting for your ball, or spool of string would become extremely annoying, extremely swiftly!

So, to prevent your ball of string rolling away off your desk, bouncing along the floor, hitting buttons and levers along the way, jamming up the machinery and forcing two brothers to work together to…oh wait, that’s the opening to the movie ‘Mouse Hunt‘…

…great movie, by the way – one of my favourites as a child.

…But I digress. You can probably see where this is going.

String caddies like these were invented to make it easier and neater to access string on a regular basis, which in an age when everything was done by hand, would been practically every working day of your life. And string caddies weren’t just reserved for working stiffs, either! Caddies were made of all kinds of materials. Wood or papier-mache were common for cheaper caddies, but for more refined desktops, or the counters of smartly-dressed shopfronts, or sleek hotels or office-buildings, something more refined was required.

Because of this, string caddies were commonly made of brass to blend in with the brassy tones commonly found in buildings in those days – brass lamps, brass candleholders, brass doorknobs, brass bells…or, they could even be made of solid sterling silver! Now exactly what the demand for a sterling silver string-caddy might’ve been in say, 1885, I’d have no idea, but apparently people were buying them, because they certainly did exist!

Why did you BUY this crazy thing!?

Alright, whatever, fine. We know what the hell it is!

So why on earth did you buy it?

…would you believe, I thought it was cute?

Actually, I bought this for a number of reasons. First, it was cheap. Only a few bucks. And that’s always a good thing.

Second, I like antique brassware. If it was made of anything else, I probably wouldn’t have bothered buying it!

Third, it’s an antique desk accessory, and like I said, that’s one of the areas I collect!

Fourthly, I thought it’d be something unusual. If nothing else, it was certainly very beautiful.

Fifthly…because I figured I’d get good use out of it. I sell antiques online, and whenever I post something, I always tie the package up with string (I don’t trust the postal system not to rip the parcel open, deliberately or accidentally, so it’s an extra safeguard!), so in that respect, I’m always hunting for balls of string. And this seemed as good a reason as any, to buy it!

And sixthly, and finally, and last-of-all-ly…(I swear to God, this is my last reason!), I was struck by the sheer fact that all this ridiculously over-decorated thing ever did, or was ever intended to do, was to hold, and dispense…string!

There was absolutely no reason for this thing to be as elaborate, or as highly decorated as it was, and yet, someone took the time to make it so. It’s this quality, quite above and apart from any other, which makes me love and want to collect antiques – the fact that something so simple could be so amazingly embellished – and the fact that this wasn’t a one-off thing – they did this with ALL of their string-caddies! They saw a need, or wanted to believe that they saw a need, or a desire, to create something far more beautiful than what it ever, ever needed to be!

You try buying something like this today, and see how far you get!

What’s with the Title?

For those of you who are wondering about the title for this posting, it’s taken from the 1934 song, “I’ll String Along With You”

WERTHEIM Manual Sewing Machine. Made in Germany! Ca. 1920.

 

“Made in Germany! Y’know the Germans always make good stuff! Y’followin’ me, camera-guy? It sews, it patches, it fixes, it goes forwards and backwards! It can even sit on your shelf and look a darn sight more decorative than the modern junk you could buy today! Ain’t that right, Charlie!? Charlie says ‘Yes indeed, folks!'” 

Wilkommen, mein damen und herren!

This post is all about…this:

I picked up this beauty at my local auction-house. I also picked up a mini-hernia trying to lug it home afterwards! Isn’t it a beauty?

What we have here, my curious compadres, is a German-made sewing machine, manufactured sometime in the 1920s. It was produced by the Wertheim company, which was one of the major European competitors to big-name American brands like…I dunno…SINGER. Or WHITE. Or NEW HOME.

Along with big names like Frister & Rossmann, and Seidel & Naumann, Wertheim was one of the most popular manufacturers, during the 1800s and early 1900s, of German-made sewing machines. While many people would swear by Singer, the Germans were giving the Americans a serious run for their money in the sewing machine department! And in cars! Radios…typewriters…hey, you just can’t beat German engineering, guys…

Unlike American companies, where sewing machine manufacturers made…sewing machines (Duuuuuuuuuuuh!)…German manufacturers made much more! Seidel & Naumann, for example, also made bicycles…and typewriters! Wertheim made sewing machines…and pianos! Wertheim pianos were extremely popular in Australia, where a factory was set up to manufacture them. This machine may not sound like a piano, but certainly is as sleek as one!

What Made German Sewing Machines Different?

German-made machines differed from their American cousins in a number of ways, both good, and bad. German machines had gears which were more precisely cut and fitted, than their American counterparts. This made the machines smoother, quieter and easier to operate for longer periods of time. They also had features which most American machines wouldn’t have for a good long while!

The back of the machine, revealing the detail of the decorations and gold-leaf applications.

Features like an auto-stop bobbin-winder, or a forward-reverse lever (something which SINGER didn’t have until WELL after the Second World War, but which German machines had back in the Edwardian era!), or even built-in measuring tapes on the bases of the machine-beds, for convenience in measuring, or even – built-in pin-cushions!

Another feature common to German sewing machines, and seen only occasionally on American ones, was what I like to call the ‘shuttle-launcher’. After advancing the shuttle through the race to the point of extraction, sliding back the plate to take out the shuttle would catch a lever inside the race. This would flick the shuttle out of the machine to make it easier to extract, to refill the bobbin. Depending on the machine, the extraction lever might just nudge the shuttle up, or it might flick it up into the air!

It was little touches like this which made German machines popular, and American machines seem…I dunno…’adequate’…by comparison. I mean in theory, they’d all do the same thing – they all sewed, but like those ads for ‘V’ energy-drink, the German ones had that massive hit, which improved them a bit.

What Do We Know about This Machine?

Not a gigantically-enormous amount, but we do know a bit. First: it was marketed for the English-speaking market. Secondly, it would’ve been one of the company’s later machines. We know this, because it’s a vibrating-shuttle machine, and not an older transverse-shuttle machine (which were still being made in the 1930s in Germany!).

Although German machines were highly innovative in some areas, in other areas, they rather tended to lag behind the competition.

In the 1920s and 30s, companies like White, or Singer, in America, were producing compact, easy-to-use, round-bobbin machines, very similar to the types of domestic sewing machines still manufactured today. They were easy to operate, easy to load, easy to understand.

By comparison, even in the 20s and 30s, German companies like Wertheim, or Frister & Rossmann, were still manufacturing machines like this – vibrating shuttle machines.

Now don’t get me wrong, it’s a great machine. But when you consider that the invention of the vibrating-shuttle mechanism PRE-DATES the American Civil War…you’ll get some idea of just HOW outdated this technology WAS by say, 1925. On top of that, the Germans were still making transverse-shuttle machines, as well! Now the technology behind that is even more ancient! It gets its roots from the shuttles which rolled back and forth between the warp-and-weft layers of threads which made up old cloth-looms…which dated back CENTURIES! All the way to the Middle Ages!

By comparison with this, the Americans surged ahead with the latest and greatest – electric machines, more compact designs, built-in electric lights, attachable electric motors! The Germans, on the other hand, tended to stick with more traditional, dare-I-say, antiquated designs, and then over-engineer and over-develop them until they were absolutely the very best that they could be…and then just keep on making them! Germany was still producing machines like this when the Second World War broke out, at the end of the 1930s.

Where Does This Machine Come From?

The lands across the oceans, where rain sings and clouds mourn and flowers dance in the sand…

…I dunno! I was the only bidder on this machine at the local auction-house, and managed to get it dirt cheap (or as close to dirt as I was able to, given the setting)! I packed it up, paid for it, and then lugged it home by hand, almost putting my back out in the process! They didn’t do things by halves in those days! This thing weighs a ton!

What did the machine come with?

A bad attitude, a drinking problem, and a string of angry ex-wives.

Probably, but not this machine. No, it came with four bobbins, one shuttle, the original green-and-gold (how Australian!) tin machine-box, the original lid, key, and a beautiful set of intact decals and decorations! It really is a beauty!

What’s wrong with the machine?

Not too much. The bobbin-winder needs a minor repair, but apart from that, the machine works perfectly. Or it did, once I’d lubricated it, and adjusted all the relevant thread-tensions. This machine comes with a forward-back lever on it, which I was eager to test – I’d never had a vintage sewing machine with this feature on it before. I’m pleased to report that it works perfectly! In my eagerness to test the machine, I completely forgot all about thread-tension and as a result, of course, it wouldn’t sew! I adjusted the tension-nut on the side of the machine, and then adjusted the tension-screw on the shuttle as well, to get it working right.

Once I’ve repaired the bobbin winder itself, it’ll work wonderfully!

What Type of Machine is This?

Machines using this type of technology, involving a bullet-shaped shuttle with long, barbell-shaped bobbins, which swings back and forth, is called a ‘vibrating shuttle’ sewing machine (usually just called a ‘VS machine’ in collector circles).

In sewing machine evolution, it’s the second stage in sewing machine design, one step up from the older ‘Transverse shuttle’ machine (‘TS’).

VS machines were made from the late 1800s (about 1860s and 1870s), right up to the 1960s, although they were already outdated by about 1910. VS machines are popular because they hold large amounts of thread, and are fun to operate.

What is the ‘Wertheim’ Company?

The Wertheim company was established in 1868, by Joseph Wertheim. By the turn of the century, the machines were being sold in England, Spain, Germany, and even Australia! This last, was made possible by Hugo Wertheim (Joseph’s nephew), who migrated to Australia in 1875.

To say that young Hugo (and he was young, in his early 20s at the time), had buckets of money, is putting it mildly. As with any family which delved successfully into sewing machines in the 1800s, the Wertheim family, just like the Singer family, made an absolute fortune in manufacturing, distributing, exporting and selling these beautiful machines. This advertisement is all the proof you need!

Determined to make a name for himself, young Hugo became an importer of his family’s sewing machines, and made a deal with his Uncle Joseph to be the family’s representative in the colonies! Hugo started with an emporium in the Australian city of Melbourne, with his shopfront opening onto Flinders Lane, in the middle of the Melbourne Central Business District. In time, he would also expand into Bourke Street, William Street, and Collins Street, nearby.

Apart from sewing machines, Hugo, and his growing Australian branch of the wealthy House of Wertheim, also sold anything else with the Wertheim name on it, including bicycles, laundry-mangles, infant perambulators, and most famously of all – Pianos! And you can still buy Wertheim pianos easily in Australia today. They even had a factory manufacturing them in Richmond, a suburb east of the Melbourne CBD.

So what does this say about my Wertheim sewing machine? It proves that it was imported by a family which came to Australia, and made it big, in a big way! It’s a part of Australian, and Melbournian history, and I for one, am very glad to be its latest owner!

Antique Norwegian Silver Shot Glass (1871)

 

I’m not sure what happened in Norway in the early 1870s, but whatever it was, someone felt the need to commemorate it.

I picked up this little silver shot-glass or beaker while I was at the local flea-market last week. It was in reasonable condition, it was cheap, and it had a lot of pretty engraving on it. It had a series of hallmarks struck to the base, but beyond the fact that it was silver, the seller couldn’t tell me a thing about it.

Decoding antiques can be a real challenge, and this shot-glass is a classic example of that. Even without the label on the item declaring it to be silver, I had already guessed, given the tarnishing, but also, the symbols stamped on the base:

Given the layout, the number of them, and the inconsistencies in the stampings, I deduced that they were hand-struck hallmarks, but not of any kind which I recognised. On a hunch, I bought the shot-glass, took it home, cleaned it up a bit and pressed out the dents, and then started researching the marks.

The cup came with a hand-engraved inscription on the rim, and translating this was my first clue. It read:

Erindring af mine Brodre“. Typing this into Google Search revealed it to be Norwegian: “In Remembrance of my Brothers“. After that, I started researching Norwegian hallmarks.

European hallmarks have a very distinct pattern. They typically come in groups of four, or five. A set of marks on a piece of silver will normally consist of an assay mark, a date letter, a maker’s mark, and a purity or fineness mark. Depending on where the piece was made and marked, it might also include import or export marks, taxation marks, etc.

The first mark to be uncovered was the seven dots in an oval (on the right). This was the assay mark for the town of Bergen, in Norway.

The second mark I deciphered was the ’13 1/3′. This was a reference to 13.3/16 LOTH.

In the 1700s and 1800s, European silver was divided into grades called lothiges (commonly shortened to just ‘loth’). Silver was graded according to purity on a sixteen-point scale. It started at 16, then went down to 15, 14, 13, 12, 11, and finally, 10 loth. Apart from Norway, the loth system was also commonly used by Germany, Austria and Prussia.

From top to bottom, these grades were:

1000/1000 (16),
937/1000 (15),
875/1000 (14),
812/1000 (13),
750/1000 (12),
687/1000 (11),
650/1000 (10). 

So, I had a roughly 81% purity, silver shot glass made in Bergen, in Norway. But how old was it? Here I turned to two more marks. One was ‘6M’, and the other ’71’. These stood for June (the sixth month) of 1871.

The last mark were the initials PD, which made up the maker’s mark. The trail of research ran cold here, but I had enough to know all the basic facts about the shot glass. It might be small, and old, and battered, but I think it’s beautiful. After all, it’s not every day you can claim to own a piece of antique Norwegian silver!

 

The Great Australian Sailing Mystery: The Tale of the “Mahogany Ship”

 

It is January, 1836. On the banks of a soggy, muddy river, inland from a sheltered bay, a collection of tents and simple, wooden buildings are gathered around what one man declared would be “the place for a village“. In time, it would become the gold-rich capital city of Melbourne, in the Australian state of Victoria.

In 1836, however, the city is barely six months old. It is a tiny community of freed convicts, free settlers from England and the other colonies around Australia, and the various squatters who have staked claims in the area and moved in on the land. There is almost no other Western civilisation around for hundreds of miles. The nearest major towns are Sydney, and Hobart, several miles to the north, and south, respectively. Melbourne, as it was in the 1830s, was completely on its own.

Collins Street in central Melbourne as it appeared in 1839.

One reason for this is because it’s so hard to get there by sea – the coastline is smashed constantly by powerful waves driven against the rocks by the currents and waves thrown up by the wild storms of the Southern Ocean off of Antarctica. Whoever sails beyond the heads of Port Phillip Bay, sails into a patch of ocean which, even on a nice day, is dangerous territory.

It was through these notorious waters that three sailors maneuvered their boat parallel to the shore, sailing along the coast, west of Port Phillip Bay, and past shorelines unexplored, and unsettled by white man. As far as they know – nobody has ever lived here, settled here, or even passed this way before. Suddenly, their boat capsizes in the rough waves. The three men on board are swept inland and scramble through the surf onto the beaches nearby. Nobody lives here. The nearest civilisation – Melbourne – is hours away by foot.

Trying to get their bearings, the three men head inland, climbing a high, shrub-covered sand-dune a few yards in from the beach. Once they reach the top, they are greeted by a surreal sight…

An artist’s impression of the Mahogany Ship – no images of the actual vessel were ever produced.

Splayed out before them in the sand is the worn out, rotting, wooden carcass of a once grand sailing vessel. It has been broken into at least two or three massive pieces, and has clearly been sitting there for years…decades…possibly even centuries!…in a land which supposedly – had been colonised by white man barely fifty years before.

How was this possible? Where had this ship come from? Who did it belong to? What happened to the crew? How long had it been here?

They had absolutely no idea.

Thus began the mystery of Australia’s most famous shipwreck – The Mahogany Ship.

What Is the Mahogany Ship?

The ‘Mahogany Ship’ is Australia’s most enduring maritime mystery. It refers to the wreck of a large, wooden sailing ship which was driven up onto the Victorian coastline roughly halfway between the towns of Port Fairy to the west, and Warrnambool, to the east. For nearly two hundred years, generations of Victorians have been scratching their collective heads over what this ship was doing there, how it got there, what it was transporting, and what happened to the people on board?

To this day, those questions have not yet been answered.

The first account of the ship came from these three sailors. Over the succeeding seventy years, more and more reports were made. As early as the 1840s, and as late as the 1870s, 80s and 90s, a wide variety of eyewitnesses from day-trippers, sailors, and nearby residents all claimed to have seen the wreck of an ancient wooden sailing ship beached on the coast, and many had speculated as to what it was doing there, how it had gotten there, and what the ship might’ve been carrying.

Why is it called the ‘Mahogany Ship’?

First, the Mahogany Ship is not actually made of mahogany. Newspaper reports, letters and witness testimonies merely speak of a ship made of dark, dense wood which they described as LOOKING like mahogany. What the ship was actually made of has never been determined.

What is the Significance of the Mahogany Wreck?

The most accepted theory is that the Mahogany Ship is the wreckage of a Portuguese or Spanish ship, part of an exploratory fleet which is believed to have sailed past Australia during its explorations of the continent…in 1522. This is significant because, if it’s true, it would mean that Western contact with the Australian continent could be traced all the way back to the early 16th century…a time when Henry VIII still sat on the throne of England! It would also blow out of the water the known historical timeline, that Dutchman Willem Janszoon discovered Australia eighty years after this date, in 1606!

If the ship was part of this exploratory fleet, then it was most likely a caravel – an early type of sailing vessel, commonly used in the 15th and 16th centuries. That being the case, it probably looked similar to this model of a caravel, in a museum on the island of Malta…

Even by the standards of the early 1500s, caravels were not considered large ships. At best, they were perhaps 40-65ft long, maybe 70ft at best (approx 12-32m). Imagine sailing something that tiny from somewhere like Portugal or Spain, halfway around the world into waters which were completely unknown, uncharted and unseen by Western eyes, with absolutely no certainty of getting home!…and then wrecking your ship on the coast of some far-off, uncharted island! Now there’s the business-trip from Hell…!!

What Do We Know about the Mahogany Ship?

Honestly? Not much. To date, the ship, if it exists, has never been found. We don’t know what it looks like, or where it is.

Wait…what?

Yep, you heard me. We know almost nothing about it. See, the Mahogany Ship was discovered in the mid-1830s. From the 1830s to the 1880s, the ship was subject to intense local speculation. Locals, day-trippers to the nearby beaches, and sailors from nearby whaling ports all testified that wedged in the high sand-dunes inland from the coast was the wreck of an ancient sailing vessel, complete with hull and masts.

Well, you might ask – if the bloody ship’s there, we can photograph it, right?

No we can’t.

We can’t, because we can’t see it.

We can’t see it, because by the late 1870s, and by the 1880s certainly – the entire ship had been buried by the shifting coastal sands, blown inland by the offshore winds (which created the very dunes which have entrapped the ship). Testimonies from two women stated that the last time any part of the Mahogany Ship was seen above the ground was in 1878. By 1880, the ship had completely disappeared.

That was 130 years ago.

In the century and nearly four decades since that time, the ship has been entirely buried by shifting sands, and the Mahogany Ship went from local curiosity to local legend and myth.

Can’t we just go and…I dunno…dig it up!?

Probably! IF you know where to look! And that, has been one of the chief reasons why the ship has not been discovered yet – few eyewitness testimonies give accurate directions to where they found the wreck!

The most accurate one came from a man named Alexander Rollo, who wrote a letter in 1890 to The Warrnambool Standard. This letter gives the most accurate description of where the wreck is believed to have been buried, and his description runs thusly:

“I remember a wreck that was lying high above high-water mark. Her stern was pointing towards Port Fairy [to the West], and…her timbers were standing 3-4ft above the sand, surrounded with vegetation. From the position and appearance of the wreck, I am perfectly sure she came ashore before the district was inhabited by white people.

She could not be seen from the water’s edge, being high up in the hummocks [dunes]. The wreck was 1/4mi (quarter mile) east of Gorman’s Lane, and four chains north of the sea”Alexander Rollo, 1890. 

Great! We have two reference points – a laneway, and a beach, and definite measurements!

Gorman’s Lane (today called Gorman’s Road) still exists. A quarter mile from there should be easy enough to measure.

…But…what’s a chain?

A chain is an old-fashioned unit of measurement, commonly used by land-surveyors back in the 1700s and 1800s. It possibly derives from the surveyor’s measuring chains used to calculate distances. One chain is 22 yards. There are 1,760yd in a mile, so a quarter of that is 440yd.

Great!

440 yards from the east of Gorman’s lane, and 4 chains (4 x 22yd = 88yd) in from the coast! X marks the spot! Start digging!

Right?

Ehm…not quite.

There’s a number of reasons why the Mahogany Ship, if it still exists, hasn’t been discovered yet.

Why not!?

Well, simply put, it’s a large area of land to cover and caravels, as we’ve shown, are not very large boats. Big enough to cross an ocean, but they’re no gigantic, steam-powered ocean liners; they’re small, wooden sailing ships. On top of that, the ship by now, nearly 200 years later, would be well buried under several meters of shifting sand, blown in from the coast.

This is a Google Maps image of the site in question. Port Fairy lies to the west, Warrnambool to the east. The road once known as Gorman’s Lane, is on the western edge of the photograph, marked in blue.

The yellow-bordered area represents the largest possible search-area for the Mahogany Ship, and the blue area represents its most likely burial-spot, based on the measurements and directions given by Alexander Rollo in 1890. As you can see, it’s still a pretty big space to cover – several hundreds of square meters. Where would you start!? And keep in mind that you’d have to dig down at least three or four meters (approx 9-12ft) before you would even reach the level of the top of the ship!

For any serious excavations to begin, you’d first need to be pretty damn sure that there was something down there, worth digging up. Secondly, you’d need the money, manpower and machinery to clear several tons of sand and shrubbery. Thirdly, you’d need government permission to hack up such a massive chunk of land and, if you did find the Mahogany Ship, that’s not the end of it!

Wood buried in sand for hundreds of years will remain safe and fine for millenia, because it’s relatively dry and shielded from the elements. But the moment it’s exposed to oxygen, it can start to rot and crumble. This is what happened in Europe when the 16th and 17th century shipwrecks The Mary Rose, and the Vassa were raised from the sea-floor and taken out of their own protective cocoons (in their case, seawater).

The flagship of Henry VIII, the Mary Rose would likely be the same age as the Mahogany Ship. This is the Mary Rose today.

Although both ships are now safely on display in museums, before this time, extensive conservation efforts had to be made to stop the wood from deteriorating into nothing.

These reasons are why the Mahogany Ship, if it remains to be discovered, as yet hasn’t been discovered. The hurdles to overcome in finding it, digging it up, and preserving it are significant, and until they can be, the ship will likely remain buried for several more years to come.

Does the Mahogany Ship Really Exist?

How do we know this isn’t some sort of fraud or hoax? Does the Mahogany Ship really exist?

I personally think that it does. Trawling newspaper accounts from the 1800s seems to give plenty of evidence from separate witnesses, and Australian history is so patchy and jumbled that a ship from centuries ago really could conceivably have been wrecked along its southern coast, at a time when the shorelines would’ve been vastly different to how they are today.

Only time, careful surveying, a proper archeological dig, and proper preservation of any finds will ever yield any serious answers, though. But if that ship does exist, and if it is found – it could change the entire timeline of recorded Western contact with Australia, and Australian history on a whole.

10 Historical Myths – #02

 

Historical myths are all around us. In films, in books, in TV series, they’re repeated by our teachers in school. They breed all kinds of misinformation and misunderstandings through their propagation, and this in turn can lead to mistakes and errors.

Here are ten more common historical myths which have, for one reason or another, stood the test of time.

1). Santa has a red suit because of Coca Cola

I’ve heard this repeated on so many TV shows, I’ve lost count.

The popular image of Santa Claus as a jolly old man with white hair, a beard, a prominent weight-problem, and a red, white-fur-trimmed suit has been part of many peoples’ childhoods for generations, but despite what you might think – he’s not red because of Coca Cola!

Santa’s red suit came about because of Thomas Nast, an American cartoonist from the second half of the 1800s. Nast was responsible for creating, or popularising many cultural icons which we take for granted today – one of them is Santa Claus. He was the first illustrator to read the poem ‘A Visit from St Nicholas’ and to draw  Santa Claus as he was described in the poem. While the poem gives a description of Santa, it doesn’t say what colour his clothes are – it was Nast who put in the finishing touches and painted the suit red.

It was this image which Coca Cola used during its advertising campaigns, spreading Nast’s vision of a red-suited gift-giver around the world.

2). During the First World War, soldiers spent weeks in the trenches!

Actually, no. Although it’s true that the trenches were often unsanitary, flooded, crowded, cold and uncomfortable, most soldiers did not spend a great deal of time in them. Even back in the 1910s, the top brass knew that soldier morale had to be kept high, and that the best way to do this was to keep them clean, fed and dry. As a result, it was actually very common to rotate soldiers in and out of the trenches on a regular basis. In the space of a month, a soldier wouldn’t spend more than a week or two in the trenches, if that. And if they did, then most of that time was spent in reserve or support-trenches, further back from the front line.

3). During the Second World War, the Royal Navy considered making ships out of sawdust…and ice!

This one is actually true. A mixture of sawdust (or more precisely, wood-pulp) and ice called pycrete was proven to be substantially stronger than good old-fashioned solidified water. It didn’t melt as fast, it was virtually bulletproof, and it floated. Because of these characteristics, the Royal Navy considered making ships out of it, or perhaps aircraft-carriers, in order to save on precious steel during the war. Unfortunately, the logistics involved in actually producing industrial quantities of pycrete just didn’t make it practical, and the idea was scrapped as a result.

4). The Sandwich was invented by the Earl of Sandwich

Ehm…possibly.

A popular myth since the mid-1700s is that John Montagu, the Fourth Earl of Sandwich invented the sandwich which we have today. Right?

Yes, and no.

Whether or not Montagu ever really invented the concept of the sandwich itself is up for debate. What isn’t disputed, however, is that he certainly gave his name to the meal. Mongatu, the First Lord of the Admiralty, was in charge of running the British Royal Navy, which basically meant that he was chained to his desk sorting through papers, forms, documents and letters from dawn until dusk. And whenever he could get away from his desk, he indulged in his one main vice: gambling!

The fourth earl himself…and not a crumb in sight! What a disappointment…

In order to save time during his work-day, and to keep his hands relatively clean while playing cards, it is said that he ordered his valet to bring him meat encased within two slices of bread, and this became the basis for the sandwich which we have today. Although he may or may not have actually invented the concept of the ‘sandwich’, it’s certainly true that he gave his name to the idea of a filling between two slices of bread. By the second half of the 1700s, and increasingly by the early Victorian era, sandwiches had entered the English language as a simple snack made with two slices of bread.

5). Punishment in the Royal Navy was Exceptionally Harsh

Men of iron, ships of wood! That’s what they used to say, right? And what made these men so tough was the brutal discipline practiced on board the ships of his majesty’s navy. Right!?

Yes, and no.

While discipline on board ships of the Royal Navy might seem excessive by modern standards, in the 1700s and early 1800s, it was actually seen as being significantly less-so.

England in the 1600s and 1700s operated a legal system which became known as the ‘Bloody Code’. Between the late 1600s to the 1790s, over TWO HUNDRED laws were punishable by death by hanging. This included everything from murder, to stealing a handkerchief, and absolutely everything in between.

Even at the time, laws such as this were seen as being wildly excessive – juries would often deliberately convict defendants of lesser crimes, in order to spare them the noose, while government officials tried to find more ‘humane’ alternatives, such as penal transportation, or indentured servitude.

The same applied to the Royal Navy. At a time when you could be hanged in England for stealing goods of a value over 1/- (one shilling, or twelve pence), punishment in the Royal Navy generally consisted of flogging or whipping. This was because at sea, to kill a man over what was really a petty crime, was seen as wasteful and excessive.

The Articles of War, which governed the rules and regulations of the Royal Navy from the 17th century, up until the early 21st, were updated several times, most frequently during the 1700s, when outcries were made by the public over the severity of punishments which could be meted out by the navy.

While to modern eyes, the punishments meted out in the Royal Navy were harsh, given the climate of the era, they were not as severe as they might have been, and even back in the 1700s, people were campaigning for change.

6). It’s Possible to Overwind a Watch or Clock

This is a really common myth for anybody who collects, owns, or repairs antique clocks and watches. I don’t know where it comes from, but apparently, it’s a thing.

The myth is that it’s possible to wind up a watch or a clock so much that you break the mechanism and the watch or clock stops working, as a result. Usually, what happens is that someone winds up a clock and once they’ve done winding it, the mechanism stops working. This clock has now been ‘overwound’.

Right?

Not really. All that’s happened is that you wound up the clock, and the clock refuses to run. This isn’t because you broke it, it’s because the clock is so filthy and dirty inside that the gunk, dust and grime wedged between the gears is preventing the mainspring from unwinding and driving the gear-train. In a clean clock or watch, this wouldn’t be a problem, but on timepieces which haven’t been cleaned properly for a very long time, the accumulated dust jams the gears, and causes the watch to stop. Sometimes shaking the watch or clock will get it going again, but the only serious long-term repair is to have the mechanism entirely overhauled.

7). The word ‘FUCK’ comes from ‘Fornication under Consent of King’.

Sorry folks. There is 100% absolutely NO evidence to back this up, or indeed, any other acronym of the word, and there never has been. The word ‘Fuck’ dates back as far as the 13th century, first appearing in text in the 1270s, and increasingly throughout the 13-and-1400s, by which time it had already acquired the sexual connotations with which we’re familiar today.

8). Thomas Crapper invented the Toilet…and the word Crap!

…no, he didn’t.

Crapper was a plumber, that is true, but he didn’t invent the modern toilet. He did invent a variety of toiletry improvements, such as improved cisterns, flushing-mechanisms and so-forth, but he was not the originator of the toilet itself. That honour goes to Sir John Harrington, a 16th century Englishman, and godson of Queen Elizabeth. In fact, it’s because of Sir John Harrington that Americans still call a toilet ‘the John’…today!

But what about the word ‘crap’?

Crap comes from the Dutch word ‘Krappe’, meaning anything unwanted, cast off, and considered a waste product. It evolved into the two English words ‘Crap’, and ‘Chaff’, as in “to separate the wheat (useful stuff), from the chaff (the leftovers)”.

9). You Couldn’t own Alcohol during Prohibition

1920! National prohibition sweeps across the United States, leading to bathtub gin, bootlegging, and a surge in organised crime! But of course it would! Where else are people going to get booze!? After all, it’s illegal to drink now and you can’t own booze! Right?

Ehm…

…wrong.

It was illegal to practice the MANUFACTURING, TRANSPORT or SALE of alcohol. During Prohibition, at NO TIME was it actually ILLEGAL to DRINK, or even OWN alcohol! You could own as much booze as you could hold, so long as you bought it before 1920. And you could drink as much of it as you wanted! What the law prevented you from doing was BUYING MORE booze, once you’d depleted your stockpile. That is where the bootleggers made their money.

10 The Great Wall of China is called the Great Wall of China!

By you, probably, yeah.

But not by the Chinese.

At no point in Chinese history, except for the modern day (and even this wouldn’t be true), did the Chinese ever call the Great Wall of China…the…Great Wall of China! It absolutely never happened!

The term ‘Great Wall of China’ was actually invented by the first Europeans who visited China in the 1600s and 1700s, and first sighted the wall during their trips around what was then the imperial capital of Peking.

In Chinese, the wall is named ‘Wan Li Chang Cheng’, which literally translates as: “The Wall of 10,000 Li“.

Well, what’s a ‘Li’?

Before you ask, it does not mean that the wall was made by, for, or out of, 10,000 guys named Li.

A ‘Li’ was a Chinese unit of measurement (sometimes still used today), which was equivalent to 500 meters, or half a kilometer.

So there you have it!