Writing on Writing: Sounding out the Silent Craft


The pen is mightier than the sword!

Possibly one of the most famous phrases in history, referring to the fact that the written word has more influence over the vast majority of people, than does the sharpened edge of a length of folded steel!

…but…does it?

While this line has been repeated ad nausea, it still bears consideration. The written word is only powerful or influential if it captures the reader’s attention. If what is written means something to the reader, if it connects to the reader in some manner.

Not all writing can do this, and yet, all writing is certainly trying to do so. After all, despite what some of us might think – we never write anything for ourselves. Everything that has been written throughout history, has always been written for the consumption – willing or unwilling – of others.

That being the case – what makes good writing? What makes attractive, interesting, fun, fascinating, scary, comedic or educational writing? What makes good writing, good?

When I was in university, I learned two pieces of what I believed to be vital advice to becoming a good writer, and neither of them was more than a line or two in length. They were:

“There’s no such thing as a boring subject. Only boring writers”. 

“There’s no such thing as an original story”. 

And you know what? They’re both true. Any subject can be made interesting…or boring. All that is needed to tip the balance is the skill…or ineptitude…of the writer telling the story. Likewise, there is no such thing as an original story.

What’s that? You found an original story by some new author at your local bookshop?

No you didn’t. And neither did they write one. An original story does not exist. If you don’t believe me, keep reading and I’ll explain why, later.

Before we go any further down this rabbit-hole of pure imagination, I should probably preface everything that comes hereafter by saying that this is all based on my own experiences, gained from twenty-odd years of being incredibly bored, daydreaming, making crap up, twisting it around in my head, writing about it, and then thinking that other people might be bored enough, like I was, to actually read it.

So, where do we begin?

Why Does This Thing Exist?

It exists because I’m a big fan of roleplaying. For those of you who have never heard of roleplaying, it’s got nothing to do with you and your wife or husband pretending to be sexy farmhands and innocent milkmaids. It’s a pastime undertaken by writers (like me), who enjoy creating their own fictional characters and playing them against other fictional characters in scenarios which both players create. It’s an enjoyable, relaxing pastime which is part fantasy escapism, and part writing exercise, to keep my skills sharp. And it’s a lot of fun when everything goes right.

It’s when it goes wrong, that you realise what a finely balanced craft really good creative writing truly is, and how and why not everybody can do it. So, how do you do it? What makes it good? How do you know if it’s any good?

“What makes YOU qualified to write about good writing?”

I dunno. What makes anybody? There are no ‘official’ certifications about what is, or who can be, or isn’t, a good writer. There’s no magical fantastical scientifical mathematical formula. But, I have two university degrees in writing, and damn near thirty years’ writing experience under my belt. I think most people would consider that to be ‘qualifications’ enough. In case they aren’t – a good writer is determined by the number of people who enjoy reading what they’ve written. And I feel confident enough in saying that I’ve garnered enough of a satisfied audience – here, and elsewhere – to be considered a half-decent writer on my own merit.

Anyway. Enough horn-blowing. Let’s get down to writing about writing…

Good Fiction Writing: You Got It!…Right?

When it comes to writing, especially writing any kind of fiction, or creative work, what makes ‘good writing’ can be highly subjective. There’s no scientific way to say what makes ‘good writing’ or ‘bad writing’. But there are certain rules and guidelines that you can follow and remember, to improve your chances of producing good writing. But that said, all the rules and guidelines in the world will not help you, if you are not at least a moderately decent communicator. To be a good writer, you should first be a good communicator – because writing of any kind – is communication. And if you don’t have that skill, then you might struggle here.

Some people are amazing, funny, effective or informative communicators. Others…are not. If your ability to write funny, informative, enjoyable or engaging creative works is suffering, then perhaps this post will help you. Read on!

What Makes Good Writing?

A combination of factors. I will be covering each of these in turn throughout this posting. Some are more important than others, but a comprehension, if not a mastery, of all them, is best, if you intend to become a really good creative writer. This relates to everything from ‘voice’, ‘character development’, ‘descriptions’, ‘word-use’, and many other factors. If you really want to stand out as an accomplished or serious writer of fiction, or creative nonfiction of any kind, these are the things that you MUST be familiar with. So, let’s begin.

Show, don’t Tell

This is the most common thing that teachers of creative writing will tell you. ‘Show, don’t tell’.


Show, and don’t tell…what…exactly?

Show, and don’t tell – what is going on!

Nobody wants to be TOLD a story. They want to be SHOWN a story. They want to see, in their imagination, what is going on. Being told stuff isn’t very interesting. You don’t tell somebody a good time, you show them a good time. And you do that by how you write.

To show your story through words, rather than tell it, you need to approach it indirectly, or laterally. Instead of telling someone what happens, you need to describe and illustrate what happens. You do this by use of descriptive words and details. Say your story starts mundanely enough, by having your character going to work. Or school. Boring. Everyone does that.

What are they thinking about while they’re getting ready? What’s the weather like? What’s been going on in their lives up until this point? Details like this make what would otherwise be a mundane and routine task sound interesting. But here, we run into one of the first pitfalls of good writing.

Too Much Detail!

Most people will tell you that loads of detail in creative fiction writing is a good thing. And…I disagree. Certainly, a particular amount of detail, is important. But the trick is knowing how much of that detail to include. Let’s go back to the example mentioned above. We start off with a relatable experience – going to school or work. Everyone’s done it, everyone knows what it’s like. Good. We have started on a level playing field and have connected with our audience. They’re on board and they know what’s going on. To flesh it out and make it more interesting, we add in details.

These details are not there as pointless, decorative fripperies. A good writer should know, and should strive to achieve the goal, that details – all details – serve a purpose. This is where we reach what I like to call ‘necessary details’.

In creative writing, details should accomplish one of two goals. They should either:

1). Improve our understanding, or enjoyment of the piece.


2). They should advance the plot.

If the details you have included accomplish neither of these goals – they’re superfluous, and should be removed AT ONCE.


People think that to be a good fiction writer, you need loads of fat, juicy, jiggling details.

No you don’t.

You need the RIGHT details. The ‘necessary details’. Adding in more than the necessary details – descriptive passages or phrases – pads out the story. It makes it longer, bulkier, more wordy – and boring. Writing with too many unnecessary details in it becomes a bore to read. You might think it’s great because it’s chock-full of details! But your reader will not thank you. This is because they have to trudge through all these details, trying to decide which ones are relevant to the plot, and which ones are not, losing sight of the story in the process.

A lot of people seem to think that the way to fantastic writing is through detail. Loads of detail! To this end, they will pump their stories full of every single descriptor and adjective or adverb that they can think of! But, there is a tipping-point here.

On one side of that tipping point – the writing is engaging, detailed, entertaining and colourful.

On the other side of that tipping point – the writing is overbearing, boring and confusing. Never make the mistake of pumping your story so full of detail and description that it reaches this point. You and your writing will come across as being insecure, insincere, and virginal – like you’ve just started writing, and haven’t found your feet yet. It screams ‘I don’t know how to write, so I’ll just add in more stuff. More stuff is good, right? So more stuff = better writing!

No. Don’t do that. Your readers will not thank you. If you do, the result is boring, unattractive, mundane writing.

How Much Detail?

Alright. So what is the right amount of detail?

The right amount of detail in your writing is the amount which tells the story and embellishes it, enriches it, without being repetitive or overbearing. Sometimes, excessive or repetitive detail is good. It emphasizes a point or brings attention to it – which you might want, possibly for comedic effect, among other reasons. And that’s fine. But if you do it all the time, it becomes boring, and ends up being a literary boat-anchor, dragging your writing down with it.

To determine whether or not you have too much detail in your writing, take a sample (say, a page), and read through it.

Now, read through it again, and remove everything which isn’t absolutely necessary for the telling of the story, of improvement of its readability.

Now, read it through a third time, and look at all the stuff you removed. All the things crossed out in red.

All that red-struck stuff is all the excess baggage and clutter that you didn’t need in your writing. It should now read much more clearly and concisely, more to-the-point. Your readers can now follow the story and understand what’s going on. Provided you’ve done a good job with the plot and characters, it’s now a much more enjoyable read.

Character Development: Personality, Voice, etc.

As well as taking into considering how, and how much you write, you also need to consider the creation and interaction of your characters. The best characters, whether they’re humans, anthropomorphic characters, talking clocks or elves, are ones that people can relate to, and understand. If you can’t understand a character, can’t relate to it, can’t ‘see things from its point of view’, then you can’t engage with it throughout the story. Instead of seeing things from the point of view of the character, you become a bored member of an audience at the theatre, watching something detached and bland, happening up there on the stage, without engaging in what’s really going on.

So what do you need to do with your characters?

Building Believable Characters

In any good work of fiction, one part of the winning formula is its characters. The players who make the plot possible!

The most important aspect of any character is – is he, she, or it, believable?

By that, I mean, could we imagine that such a being might exist in real life? Are his or her actions and reactions what we might expect us, or a person like what’s being portrayed, to be like in real life? If various aspects of a character’s mannerisms, mentality, personality or other aspects (such as physical appearance, etc) aren’t believable, then the chances that the readers will be interested in him or her, connect with, or sympathise with the character in question, are unlikely. And if they’re not likely, then your story is likely to suffer, as a result of this.

Purpose and Personality

The important thing with any character-building is that each character needs to stand out as an individual. This isn’t strictly necessary with background characters, but with secondary and primary characters, it is vital. You must be able to differentiate every character. Each one must have their own way of talking, acting, reacting, interacting and engaging. They must have their own ways of doing things, or not doing things, their own morals, motivations, habits, and other things which make them human! If they’re not human, or human-relatable, then your readers aren’t likely to enjoy them.

Now, you might well ask – How important is this stuff, really? Who cares? Why does it matter? Do we HAVE to do it?

Well…Yeah. If you want your writing to work. Every character must have traits, issues, attributes, qualities, foibles and voices, which make them stand out as individuals. I’ve known writers who could have a whole cast of characters – anywhere from three to six to a dozen or more – and all their characters – regardless of age, gender, nationality, or any other form of individual marker – all sound alike. They all speak alike. They all talk alike. They all act alike.

Starting to see the problem here? If you can’t identify, or give individualism, to each of your characters – your writing suffers. And what’s even worse – your reader suffers, because they can’t tell apart your characters, their voices, and what the hell is going on! Oh my god…they’re gonna put down your book and find something else more interesting to read. Possibly Dr. Johnson’s Dictionary.

Every character should have a purpose and a personality. They should have a background and traits that make them stand out as an individual. They should act, and react in ways which are specific or unique to them. This is what makes them believable and relatable to your readers.

Victorian author-extraordinaire, Charles Dickens, at his famous writing desk. The same desk is on permanent display in the Charles Dickens Museum in London.

The Voice of the People!

Another aspect of character-building in good fiction-writing, is the creation of what I like to call a character’s ‘voice’. That is, his or her way of speaking. This means their accent, their diction, their delivery, the tone and pitch of their voice, the slang or inflections, words and phrases that they use, and so-on. This should be as individual to each character as their fingerprints, DNA, and colour of their eyes. Having two characters or more, which sound exactly the same, is very boring, and confusing.

How your character speaks lends interest, individuality and persona to it, and people will enjoy reading about his or her exploits. It will also make it easier to identify the character and build up a fuller picture of who the character is in the reader’s mind, as well as what they’re like.

How your character expresses things like joy, anger, romance, happiness, and sadness, the turns-of-phrase they use, how much they swear, how they speak to different kinds of people – these are all aspects of their ‘voice’. If you don’t have this, your character sounds flat, stale, unrealistic, and boring.

A 4-year-old toddler should not speak or sound the same way that a 45-year-old private detective does, and neither should a bitter, 90-year-old war-veteran sound like a fresh-faced, 21-year-old gaming-nerd. If your readers cannot tell the difference between these characters simply by how they speak – then you have failed to give each one of them a distinctive ‘voice’.

Flawed Fantasies

Every good character should have a few flaws, character deficiencies, or bad habits. Not many, just a few. They might be forgetful, easily angered, claustrophobic, mentally or physically scarred, have a broken relationship in their past, or even their present. Flaws and imperfections make your characters sound realistic.

Now, I do understand that some people – myself included – have this thing where they want to try and create the PERFECT character – whatever that may be, varies from person to person – and sometimes that’s fun to do, and fun to write about. But it’s not always fun to read. A character which is TOO perfect can become boring.

One way around this is to make what appears to be an impressive asset, actually a hindrance or personal issue to your character. A war veteran with loads of combat-experience might struggle from shell-shock. A person who’s really tall, muscular and good-looking might have to deal with issues like how the world just isn’t sized for someone of his height.

On the other hand, unexpected or contrasting flaws or failings can make a character more interesting or human. An intelligent, bookish and adventurous character, such as perhaps Prof. Robert Langdon of the ‘Da Vinci Code‘ fame, suffers from claustrophobia, while Indiana Jones is afraid of snakes, and so-forth. A ‘Mary Poppins’ character, which is practically perfect in every way is unrealistic, and uninteresting.

Producing Plot and Purpose

Once you’ve understood the rudiments of good writing, and the surprising complexity that can go into producing a good character, you now need to decide what type of story you’re going to write, and how that’s going to happen. Here, there’s good news, and there’s bad news.

The good news is that there’s loads of different plots and ideas and scenes and scenarios to pick from! Everyone – give me your best Homer-Simpsonesque ‘Whoo-hoo!’ fist-pump right now!

Great, huh?


Here’s the bad news: Every single one of those ideas – yes, even that one you had as a child about a kingdom of bunnies made of candy-floss who harvest chocolate baubles that grow off trees made of cinnamon – has been done before.

There’s No Such Thing as an Original Story

Remember how I said – there’s no such thing as an original story?

Well…guess what? It’s true.

Now I’m sure there are people who will read this, who might dispute this assertion, but it is, in essence – true. There are only so many story-ideas and plot points and twists which can exist in the world, and after thousands of years of making stuff up – mankind has pretty much exhausted all of them.

Well crap!“, you think. “I might as well give up being a writer now, then!

Why? Because you can’t think of an original idea? Big deal. Why should that stop you? Nobody’s thought of an original idea for centuries. Even Harry Potter, where the protagonist discovers a secret world which he’s never realised ever existed, isn’t a new idea – Alice in Wonderland, anybody? There is a reason why writers are always suing other writers for stealing their ideas – it’s because they probably did! After all, there’s only so many ideas to go around, right?

The skill of a good writer is NOT to try and create an original story. That’s already been done. Don’t bother wasting your time trying to do the impossible.

The skill of a good writer – a REALLY good writer – is to take what has already been done – and CONVINCE PEOPLE that what they’re reading – that thing you’ve written – is actually something completely new and original!…even if it isn’t. Not only is it much more impressive, but it also keeps other writers from suspecting that you’ve just pinched their ideas and are claiming them as your own. And not getting sued for plagiarism is always a bonus.

And that, my friends – is a MUCH harder job. If you want to test yourself as a writer of skill and creativity – try doing that. Not many people can. And that is why really, really GOOD writers, are few and far between.

Ask most people to tell you the same story ten different times, and make it sound like a different story every single time, indistinguishable from the last one – and most people would struggle. And yet, that is what a good writer must be able to do. This is why to be a really skilled, effective and successful writer, is not something that just any Joe Schmoe from Cocomo, can do, right off the street. I doubt even I could do that, and I’ve been writing for over twenty years.

Building your Story from the ground up!

Because this task of dressing mutton as lamb, of making something old or bland look new and fresh again, is so difficult, great care and planning must be undertaken in any serious literary endeavour which you undertake. You must consider absolutely everything about your characters, your plot, what drives it forward, what holds it back, what makes it what it is, and what doesn’t. You should therefore plan and write down as many of these details as possible.

Decide things like how the story starts, why it starts where it does, and what happens to your protagonists to drive them forward, make them stagnate, retreat, or reach some sort of resolution. It’s best to write these things down in a notebook, where you can scribble, cross out, re-mark and change things as you go along. I still have notebooks which are crammed with hundreds of pages of notes, ideas, characters, and even entire chapters, all written by hand. At last count, I had about half a dozen of them.

As you plan, don’t be afraid to chop and change things. In fact, the more you do that, chances are, the better things will be. As with the act of writing, itself, the act of building up the plot and the details that hang off it or propel it forward works best when it’s uncluttered. Less is more. When you can’t see the forest for the trees, then you’ve got too many things going on, which will result in your reader getting confused, bored, or both. And if they do become confused, or bored, they won’t bother reading what you’ve spent weeks or months or even years, trying to produce. As the Comte de Exupery once said:

“Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away”. 

And this applies just as much to writing, as it does to anything else.

Addressing your Audience

I have said that the way to good writing, is to have clear writing. Writing which is uncluttered by too many plot-points, twists, descriptors or details. Clear, concise, inventive and entertaining writing is the best kind – where people can be both engaged and entertained, or engaged and educated. But they can only do this – if you know what you’re doing!

I have met people who take the sparsity of detail in their writing to absolute extremes, and this makes the writing difficult to follow. As I said earlier – the right amount of detail is the amount at which the story is easy to read, enjoyable, but not overbearing.

If you want to succeed as a writer – be it of fiction, or non-fiction – then it is vital to always keep in mind who you are writing things for – your audience.

I’m sorry to say this, but many people write without considering who their audience is; and their writing suffers greatly, as a result.

Unless it’s a diary, you never write something for your own consumption. Everything that anybody has ever written, has always been for the consumption or use by another party, whether that’s a kids’ story, a teen-fiction novel, a crime drama, the script of a blockbuster movie, a computer-game strategy guide, a repair manual, or anything else that’s meant to entertain, or inform. So when writing anything of substance, be it informative or entertaining, remember the following:

Never assume that your reader knows what you’re talking about. Never assume that they can guess something. Never assume that they will draw the correct conclusion from hints and tidbits of information. Never assume that they understand what particular types of jargon mean, unless you’re writing to an audience which uses said jargon regularly, and you wish to connect to them and ‘write on their level’.

These are the things you need to consider when you write. At all times, you must consider who your audience is, what they might, or might not know, and how to tailor your speech in what you write, accordingly. If you do not, then you run the real risk of boring, insulting or otherwise alienating your readers.

How to be a Good Writer: Ten Commandmants

Here’s a few final tips on those aspiring to be really good writers. Things to always remember, if you intend to be as fantastic as you possibly can. These should be used as guidelines, to ensure that you’re always at the top of your game, and constantly finding things to raise that game, at all times.

1). Thou Shalt Remember Thine Audience, and keep them holy. Those who do not risk alienation and loneliness.

2). Thou Shalt be Humble in the eyes of thine Readers. No writer ever got anywhere by thinking that they were incredible and without the need of self-improvement. If you think you’re fantastic, you’re going to get a NASTY shock when people think otherwise. Especially if your delusions of grandeur result in your writing falling in quality.

3). Thou Shalt Strive towards Perfection. Just like the Soviets and True Communism, a writer should always strive to attain perfection in writing, even if perfection, like true communism, is actually unattainable. The closer you get to that ever-escaping pinprick of light at the end of the tunnel, the better you’ll be as a writer. The key is to never stop chasing it.

4). Thou Shalt Be Pedantic and Methodical. Always write things down. Always take notes. Always keep writing-aids (be it a dictionary, reference books, plot-notes, notepad, etc) near-to-hand. Never settle for second-best in your writing.

5). Thou Shalt Always Write. The true writer, the writer who wishes to constantly improve, and maintain their craft, is the one who never, ever stops writing. This is one reason why I took up roleplaying as a hobby. It forces me to think fast, and write all the time, and that is what improves you. Sometimes pressure is good. Also, nobody will believe that you’re a serious writer if you’re not always at least thinking about something to write about!

6). Thou Shalt Keep Thine References Close. If you want to be taken seriously as a writer, you need to have a good command of the language in which you write. Know the difference between words, know proper grammar, spelling, punctuation, etc. Don’t make the mistake of, for example, confusing a depository of information with a suppository of information. A dictionary is your friend. If you don’t like physical dictionaries, then try something like www.dictionary.com

7). Thou Shalt Read Constantly! You won’t become a good writer if you do not read, and read voraciously, preferably about subjects which you are at least a little bit interested in. History, geography, science, literature, technology…the list goes on. But if you expect to be a good writer, you must first study the craft itself and observe the styles, techniques, word-choices and sentence structures of other writers. These will show you what is possible, and how it may be achieved.

8). Thou Shalt Ask for Feedback. You’ll never know if you’re doing any good as a writer, of anything, if people don’t actually read what you’ve written. Only impartial, unbiased opinions are worth anything when it comes to finding out how creative, imaginative, interesting, or easily understood, your writing is.

9). Thou Shalt Be Thine own Critic. It’s often said that the creator of a work is usually its most scathing critic. And this is good. A writer should always view his or her own work with the most critical and dispassionate eyes possible. Detach yourself from what you’ve written, and look at it objectively (or as objectively as you can). This will enable you to ruthlessly make the changes which are necessary to improve your work, regardless of how much effort you might’ve put into it.

10). Thou Shalt Use Thy Details Wisely. This bears repeating, since it’s a huge problem with aspiring writers. Be careful with how much, how often, and what kinds of details, descriptions and adjectives you use, to add spice, colour, flavour and texture to your writing. Too much, and it becomes overbearing. Too little, and it becomes incomprehensible. The best way to do this, I find, is to go back and remove as much as you can, without sacrificing readability, and not to add so much, that the essence of what you’re trying to say, gets lost in all the fancy words you’ve gone and scattered everywhere.

I call bulky, over-descriptive, over-compensatory writing ‘sawdust‘. In the old days, flour was expensive. To stretch out flour, and to make it last in hard times, bakers used to add ground-up sawdust into the dough to thicken it up, to make the resultant loaves of bread seem bigger and more substantial than they really were.

It didn’t DO anything to the bread. It didn’t make it taste better, or bake faster, or last longer…all it did was fatten it up and make it look more impressive. But in terms of actual benefit – there was none to be had. The bread was not more nutritious, or easier to eat, or anything. It was purely a superficial result.

This is the exact same result that comes from using an overabundance of detail and description. Avoid it like the plague!

Anyway, that ends this rather lengthy posting about the craft of writing. I hope that it has in some way helped any aspiring writers of creative fiction or creative non-fiction out there, who have been hopelessly groping around in the darkness, trying to find writing advice that they can actually understand, follow, and apply to their own work.


Antique Blue Enamel Tiffin Carrier (Ca. 1900)


The things you find on your vacations, huh?

I bought this at the Lorong Kulit flea-market in George Town, Penang, a few weeks ago, when I was there on holiday. The stallholder had a whole van overflowing with bric-a-brac, junk, battered antiques and nicknacks, and this was one piece hiding up the back. I ended up buying it, and two more pieces (which I may cover in a later posting), and somehow managed to get them all back home to Australia in one piece.

The carrier. In this shot, you can see the four containers, the lid, and the carrying frame. You can also see the flowery gold decals printed on the sides of each bowl, and the original owner’s name engraved into the side in Indian (probably Tamil?) script.

It’s a classic, four-tier antique tiffin carrier, of a style that was extremely common during the 1800s and early 1900s. I fell in love with the colour, condition, and quality at once. And at the price it was going for, decided that I simply couldn’t let it pass!

What’s a ‘Tiffin Carrier’?

If you haven’t read my other couple of posts about these things, I’ll summarise it really quickly here.

A tiffin-carrier is the English name given to a type of stacked-bowl or stacked-container food-carrying device which has been used in Asia for hundreds of years. Versions of these have been made from wood, bamboo, porcelain, and more recently, brass, stainless steel, enameled steel, and even plastic. They date back in countries like China, India and other countries in Southeast Asia for generations.

A side-on view, showing the frame and handle.

Each container of the carrier stacks on top of the other, with each one holding a different food, or component of a meal. Dumplings, noodles, rice, dessert, soup, etc.

Tiffin carriers started being made of punched brass and steel coated in enamel paint, in the 1800s. Although they were very popular throughout Asia (specifically India, Singapore, Malaya, Thailand, Vietnam, Burma, China, and Indonesia), a large number of them were actually manufactured in EUROPE, and exported to southeast Asia. That said, brass ones were commonly manufactured in India, where the interiors were plated in tin, to prevent the brass from corroding and tarnishing, which would affect the taste of the food stored inside them.

Where does ‘Tiffin’ come from?

‘Tiffin’ is an old English slang-word, a holdover from the Victorian era. It referred to any assortment of light snacks, nibbles, or comestibles consumed for luncheon or afternoon tea. It gained popularity among the British expats living in India at the time, and spread throughout southeast Asia, becoming virtually synonymous with lunch, afternoon tea, or a light dinner, taken anytime beween midday and the late afternoon.

Dissecting the Blue Meanie!

The blue tiffin carrier I have comprises six different components: Four stacked bowls, a lid, and a steel frame made out of one long piece of flat steel bent into a U, and a turned, wooden handle on top.

The four bowls or containers are used for storing the food. The first three are identical in size. The fourth one, at the bottom, is slightly larger. The staple food (rice or noodles) would’ve gone in the bottom bowl. Into the upper bowls would’ve gone meat, vegetables, or curry, with possibly, a dessert or snack in the uppermost bowl. The shape of the lid that goes on top of the topmost bowl means that it could be flipped over, stood up, and used as a rudimentary plate while eating.

The steel frame that holds the carrier together is shaped in such a way that the two ‘handles’ or ‘tabs’ on the sides of each bowl may slide down the inside of the frame. In this way, they may be held in place without being damaged, and without falling apart unexpectedly, which would cause food to spill everywhere.

The top of the carrier. Here you can see the lid, the turned wooden handle, the security clamp (which is hinged, so that it may be pushed out and up to open the carrier), and the holes drilled in the side of the handle and the clamp, where a padlock could be passed through, to secure the carrier even more.

At the top of the frame is a swing-down steel clamp. This serves to keep the lid and the bowls underneath it, firmly in-place. There’s also a hole drilled through the clamp, and the handle of the frame, so that it may be locked with a padlock (don’t want anybody stealing your lunch now, do you!?).

The handles at the top of tiffin carriers like this are usually turned wood. In brass models, the handles might be made of turned brass instead. The carrying handle on modern tiffin carriers are usually just flat steel, or moulded plastic.

As a decorative element, the enameled sides of the carrier were decorated in gold decals. Antique carriers were often decorated in a wide variety of ways. Some Indian ones were embossed or chased, with repousse work set into the brass. Others were engraved, or as with this case – set with gold decals on the sides. Tiffin carriers used by the Straits Chinese were often bedecked with handpainted flowers on the sides, and sometimes, gold leaf borders, decals, and words in Malay for good eating, and an enjoyable meal!

Modern Tiffin Carriers

“DUDE!! That thing is so cool…I want one! Gimme!”

No! Bugger off! Go gitcher own!


Actually, you can buy them pretty easily online. Modern tiffin carriers are widely available. These days, they’re usually plain stainless steel, enameled steel, and sometimes brass (although this appears to be rare). Some are even made of plastic. Typically, the design hasn’t changed much – it’s a set of bowls or containers (usually 2-6) stacked up, and held together by a frame of some description.

These have the advantage of being dishwasher-safe, and will typically withstand daily use, carrying your sandwiches, cookies, leftover spaghetti-and-meatballs, or last night’s Chinese takeout, to the office or school with you, easily. They’re also great as a conversation-piece in their own right, since most people outside of Asia have never seen them.

Do these things leak?

Honestly? Yeah, some probably do. They were never designed to be airtight, so if you do buy one, best to transport it standing UPRIGHT. If you’re only carrying dry-ish foods which don’t have a lot of sauce or soup, knocking it over or laying the carrier on its side shouldn’t be a problem, but don’t try that with anything that has a lot of liquid in it.

The interior of the carrier, and the empty frame. The inside walls of the containers are lined in white enamel whereas the outside is in blue.

“Why should I buy one instead of say…a box?”

Good question, 99! A tiffin carrier has many advantages over a box, or even a thermos-flask! (does anybody use those anymore?).

For one thing, it’s bigger. You can put more stuff in it. Yummy!

For two things, it’s compartmentalised. Your food tastes and smells won’t get mixed up. Your chocolate muffin won’t taste like last night’s beef stroganoff, and those delicious cookies that your wife baked as a treat won’t get soggy when they’re separated from your spaghetti by another one or two bowls in between, which no doubt hold the meatballs, and the shredded cheese that you want to put on top of your spaghetti.

For three things, each container in the carrier is its own individual bowl. No need to decant the contents of your thermos into something else before eating it, or to try and recreate Aesop’s fable of the fox and the stork.

Do tiffin carriers keep food warm, then?

Uh, no. Traditional ones do not. But you can buy modern ones with insulated sides, which will. Antique carriers were usually wrapped in cloth, or stored in a metal tube or casing, to keep the food warm. This had the added advantage of protecting the carrier from damage while it was being transported. The tiffin wallahs of India still use this method today when they transport lunches to office-workers in Bombay.

So, why did you buy this?

I guess because I’ve always been nonconformist and unconventional. I have never liked doing what ‘everybody else’ does, just because they’re doing it, and it’s the ‘in thing’ or whatever. And I suppose that extends to the type of antiques I like collecting. I like collecting, owning and selling things which are just…different, and weird. Or unusual. Tiffin carriers are hardly known in the western world, and the chance to buy a really good bargain was just too great to pass up. Plus, they’re a link to my own family’s culture and history, so why not?

Will you use it?

Uh, probably not. It’ll mostly be used as a photography prop, as a decorative piece, and a conversation starter, but hey, it’s still cute, yeah?

Uh, don’t you already have one of these?

Yuh-huh! Sure do! Here they are together:

So, what’s the difference? Well, there are a few differences, if you pay attention. The biggest, and most obvious one is colour, of course. The one on the left is punched steel, coated in enamel paint. The one on the right is just plain, polished brass. The interior on the left is white enamel. The interior on the right is tin-plated brass.

Size-wise they’re just about the same. The one on the right is exactly 18 inches tall, so the one on the left is a bit more, maybe 19 inches, or 18.5in.

The other thing you might notice is the slightly different design of the lids. The one on the left is a flat, plate-style lid, whereas the one on the right has yet another little compartment on top (used for storing spices, sauces, etc).

“I want an antique tiffin carrier too! Where do I get one!?”


*scratches head*

That’s a DAMN good question.

You can always try eBay. That’s a good start. But to find them in places like antiques shops or flea-markets and such, you really have to go to the ‘source’. Next time you’re on holiday, go to India, or Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia, Burma, etc. Tiffin carriers of a WIDE variety of styles were used throughout this region for a LONG time, and that’s where you’re most likely to find them ‘in the wild’, like I did.

How much do they cost?

Eh…it really depends. A simple one is probably under $100? A really fancy, or rare one (either in design, style, decorations, condition, etc), could be going for nearly $1,000.

How do you tell an antique from a modern one?

There are various ways. Usually, it’s pretty obvious, just based on size, style, colour, materials, etc.

Antique ones were meant as day-to-day food-carriers. You took your lunch to the office with them. You took it to a friend’s house for pot luck, when they ask you to bring dessert. You gave them to the kids and they took them to school. That being the case, a lot of the antique ones are actually in quite bad repair. Most of them were used day in, day out, day in, day out, for DECADES, until they literally fell apart. That’s what makes functioning antique ones quite expensive.

But, to tell the difference, look for things like genuine wear and age. A real antique one will have wear on the lid, the rims, the bottom edge or base, the sides and along the security frame that holds the whole thing together. This will be caused by years of heavy use, years of rubbing, washing, opening, closing, stacking, unstacking, and of course – eating.

Antique ones were almost entirely made from either brass, or steel (the latter was almost always enameled, to prevent rusting, which would’ve been EXTREMELY common in the South Pacific, thanks to the humidity and sea air). Modern ones are made of stainless steel and plastic.

Look for things like markings and engravings. Modern tiffin carriers are all made in China or Thailand. Antique ones were mostly made in Europe, or India (brass ones were usually Indian or Burmese). A tiffin carrier with European markings is more likely to be an antique one. A tiffin carrier with Indian script on it is more likely to have come from the subcontinent.

What do I look for?

Look for damage, basically. Remember that antique tiffin carriers were used relentlessly, day after day, after day after day for years on end. Make sure that there are no cracks, chips, big rust-spots, bent frames, dents, scratches or missing parts. Check the hinges on the security clamp, check the state of the handle, check that the brackets that hold the containers to the frame are not damaged. Make sure that the bases of the bowls are not dented or deformed – if they are, they won’t stack properly.

A bent or misshapen frame can sometimes be repaired. Careful bending and reshaping will get it back to its original shape, and everything else should just fall into place accordingly, but do this with CARE – too much bending and the frame will just snap in half. Woops…

Be very careful with cleaning your carriers. Don’t remove any decals or paintwork on the sides, as these are often what give the carriers their VALUE. People collect the carriers with fancy decorations. If you’ve gone and scrubbed them off…well…I hope you like it, because other people might not.

Can I eat out of it?

That depends. If it’s in really good condition, then yeah, probably, if you want to. But carriers with serious rust, chipping, enamel loss, or damage to the frame, should only be used as display-pieces. If you have an antique brass carrier, then if you can find one, send it to a guy who does tin-plating (this is sometimes still a service provided, because people need to get their copper cookware retinned from time to time).

A fresh, solid coating of tin inside the brass interior should be all that you need to make a brass carrier usable again.

Concluding Remarks

Anyway, that finishes off this posting. I hope you’ve enjoyed reading it and found the photos interesting! Getting this back in one piece was challenging, but at least it didn’t take up too much space in my luggage. At least, not after I stuffed the insides of the carrier with rolled socks and T-shirts! It’s always easiest to bring back antiques that you can pull apart, or fill up.

Whistlin’ Dixey: Two-Draw Georgian-era Guillotine Pocket Telescope


Yarr-harr!! Avast, landlubbers! Belay thy squabblin’ and take heed:

This telescope was one of about half a dozen things I bought at the local flea-market this weekend. And ain’t she gorgeous!?

She is a Georgian, or very-early-Victorian two-draw pocket guillotine spyglass or telescope, with brass fittings and a wooden barrel. ‘Two-draw’ comes from the two, brass draw-tubes that comprise the telescope’s focusing mechanism. The ‘guillotine’ refers to the built-in lens-shutter that protects the glass from grit, rain and damage. It is a beautiful example of an early telescope, made in London by one of the best manufacturers of the age.

How do you KNOW it’s Georgian?

Good question, 99!

I know it’s Georgian, because of the way it’s constructed.

Most telescopes these days are solid metal. This one has a wooden barrel – a feature common to antique telescopes made during the 1700s and 1800s. By the later 1800s, telescope barrels were made more, and more out of brass (which was more expensive), rather than wood (which was plentiful, and cheap!), than wood. By the last decades of the 1800s, leading into the early 1900s, wooden barrels had almost entirely disappeared, replaced by brass barrels (sometimes clad in leather, to provide grip).

Secondly, I know that it is exceptionally old because of the built-in, sliding lens-shutters.

This French naval telescope, from the 1840s or 50s, has a removable, spun brass lens-cap, common to telescopes made from the second half of the 1800s, to the modern day…

Most telescopes you buy today – and most antique telescopes – have removable, round lens-caps. Some of the older ones also have swing-open, kidney-shaped lens-shutters over the eyepieces, to keep out dust. But only the really old telescopes have what some people have called ‘guillotine’ shutters. That means that the lens-shutters are built into the body of the telescope itself, and when the telescope is in operation, they simply slide up, out of the way, and then snap back down again (like a guillotine, hence the name), when the telescope isn’t being used.

I don’t know why that particular aspect of telescope design died out…I think it’s a pretty cool feature, actually. But that’s how it is. At least it’s a useful dating tool.

…however, this other telescope has a different type of sliding, ‘guillotine’-style lens shutter, which is only found on much older models.

The third reason I know that it’s Georgian is because of what’s engraved on the draw-tubes, the maker’s mark of “DIXEY / LONDON”, a company that was established in Georgian times, and which is still going today (more about them in a minute).

The fourth reason I give for saying that this telescope is Georgian is how the lenses are fitted into the telescope.

Most lenses these days are either screwed in, with washers to hold them tight, or are glued in with clear adhesive (as was the case, starting from the Victorian era). However this telescope’s lenses are neither. They’re turned in.

By that, I mean that someone fitted the lenses into the telescope, an then secured them in place by spinning a brass rim directly against the glass. This would’ve been an easier construction technique than having to cut threads and grooves to make the lenses drop and pop and screw in with washers, but it also meant that if the lenses BREAK…you can’t replace them. A bit of a problem…

Fortunately, the lenses on this telescope are in great condition, so I’m not worrying!

So how do I know it’s Georgian? That’s it! How it’s made, what it’s made from, and what features were included in the telescope during construction.

These are the sorts of things you need to learn, if you’re going to date antiques, even if it’s only a general ballpark number.

‘C.W. Dixey & Son – LONDON’

Telescopes were extremely common during the Georgian and Victorian eras. At a time when all international travel was done by sailing ship, or steam-powered ocean-liner, it was vital for members of the crew to own telescopes of quality. And at any rate, passengers who frequented the seas with any regularity, would likely have one as well, if only for sightseeing. Telescopes, although larger and bulkier, had a much further range than most binoculars of the day, and had much greater magnification.

The first draw-tube, with the maker’s mark of C.W. Dixey & Son.

Before the days of accurate maritime navigation (in the late 1700s), sailors found their way by ‘line-of-sight’ navigation – telescopes were used to sight landmarks such as buildings, cliffs, land-formations and rocky outcrops. Telescopes were therefore vital for safe navigation, when sailors ‘hugged the coasts’ of continents, to prevent their ships from being wrecked on reefs and rocks.

Engraved on this telescope are the words “DIXEY” and “LONDON”.

‘Dixey’ refers to C.W. Dixey & Son, an 18th century family firm of opticians, established in London in 1777. Although they don’t make telescopes anymore, the company still exists, as a manufacturer of eyeglasses. Among others, C.W. Dixey & Son made optical gear for the Qianlong Emperor of China (a telescope), Winston Churchill (a pair of spectacles), famous author Ian Fleming, Napoleon Bonaparte, and several British monarchs. It’s rather thrilling to own a telescope made by such a famous manufacturer!

Restoring the Telescope

The telescope required very little work to make it function properly, which is surprising, given its age. A good general polishing, blowing out dust, cleaning the lenses, and wiping down the draw-tubes with oil to remove interior grime, was all that was required to fix it and make it function like new! The sight down the barrel is clean and crisp, and the lens-shutters open and close smoothly and firmly, and the draw-tubes open and close without problems.

Cleaning off all the grime on the telescope of course wasn’t really possible – it would’ve required far more disassembly than I wanted to endeavour, but the end-result is pleasing enough. Now, it works, and it looks nice, and that’s really all you could hope for!

The finished telescope with its brass all polished and clean!

Victorian Writing Slope with Green Velvet Skiver (Ca. 18–?)


Anybody who’s known me for any length of time (and for that you have my sincere condolences!), you’ll know that one of my pet passions in collecting and restoring antiques is the refurbishment of antique writing slopes.

Slopes and Me

I got into writing slopes, writing boxes, stationery-boxes, writing-cases…whatever the hell you wanna call them – analogue laptops…when I was very, very young. As a child, I lived very close to two antiques shops, and I used to go in there every weekend as a five, six, and seven-year-old boy and drool over the antiques, wishing that I had the money to own even a quarter of the amazing things they had for sale.

But of all the things I saw, one in particular, grabbed my attention. I would’ve been seven or eight years old when I first beheld a Victorian writing slope – complete with its gorgeous, tooled leather skiver, bright green in colour, with gold leaf inlaid into the edges. Oh how badly I wanted it! Ever since the age of six or seven, I’d had a mad passion for antique writing equipment – dip-pens, quills, inkwells, the list goes on…and to me, to own a writing slope was a dream come true, ever since that fateful day.

Unfortunately, writing slopes are extremely expensive, and as employment opportunities for prepubescent boys are limited, my dream remained a dream for twenty years, until I finally started buying, collecting, and restoring my own writing boxes, starting in about 2010. Ever since, I’d like to think I’ve become a bit of an expert on them. I genuinely feel that they are an underappreciated and forgotten antique, and too few people bother to save them or understand the historical significance they once held.

The Velvet Box

I purchased this particular box, the box on which this posting will be focusing, at my local auction-house. I’d never actually won one of these things before. I’d bought a few, and fixed them, but I’d never won any – mostly because the prices they go for – even in appalling condition – can be prohibitively expensive for a budding antiques dealer such as myself.

Anyway, this particular trip to the auction-house, I got lucky. Nobody wanted it, and I managed to catch it at a good price.

The box was essentially intact. It had no key and no inkwell…which is pretty common with these old boxes…and the writing slope was a bit wonky…and the security-catch didn’t work right. But I was convinced that I could repair it. I’d refurbished boxes in worse condition than this, after all, so I was sure it wouldn’t be an issue.

Cutting a Key for the Lock

The closed box, with the new key on top.

How easy it is to cut a key for an antique lock, I think, largely depends on two or three different factors:

1). Complexity of the lock.
2). Accessibility to the lock.
3). Materials and equipment that you have available to you. 

If the lock you’re dealing with is a simple, one-lever dealie, then finding, or making a key to fit the lock is pretty easy (although it may take a while). If the lock you’re dealing with is open (as in, you’re not trying to pick a lock that’s already locked and shut and tight!), then cutting or finding a new key for it will be much easier – especially if you can actually remove the lock, pull it apart and then put it back together again to see exactly what type of key it needs.

Lastly, comes the rather fiddly process of actually cutting the key – should this be necessary – for your lock. If you’re lucky, you’ll find a key that fits perfectly and you won’t need to cut it. But if for whatever reason, you need to (to fit the lock, to fit the wards, etc), then having the right stuff will determine how easy, or how difficult, this is going to be.

First, you won’t actually be ‘cutting’ anything. You’ll more likely be filing. Get yourself a set of small, fine-grained metal files. Find a standard, flat, rectangular one, and start there. Make sure the files are fine – if they’re coarse, you could scrape off too much metal on the key and be left with something useless.

Second, you need access to the lock. This is why it’s so much easier to work on a lock when whatever it’s locking, is open. That way you can see more easily how the lock works (or even better, remove the lock entirely). If you can’t, then cutting a new key will be much more difficult, probably even impossible. It can be done (I’ve done it!), but it will take a lot of trial and error.

Once you’ve successfully found, or cut a key for the lock, the next step is to lubricate the lock, just to be sure that everything works exactly as it should, and to prevent the lock from seizing up on you unexpectedly.

Repairing the Skiver

The trickiest part of restoring this box was repairing the skiver.

The skiver is that thin sheet glued over the writing-leaves which holds them together. They’re usually made of leather, but this one was made of velvet. Velvet skivers were a thing, and they certainly were popular, but as with anything that’s over a hundred years old, they wear out.

The skiver on this box was starting to come apart. The glue used to hold it down had deteriorated long ago. Fortunately not to any great extent, but it still put the future of the box in a precarious position. All it would take was one careless tug or rip, for the entire thing to come apart. Re-gluing the skiver and pressing it down to stop the rot, was the first restorative action which I took on this box. Everything else could take time and patience. This could not. It had to be tackled right away if keeping the box in one piece was going to be a reality.

The skiver is the dark green velvet rectangle in the middle of the box, which makes up the writing surface.

Antique writing boxes were made in such a way that the writing-slope panels were held together not with nails, screws, rivets or hinges, but…glue. Glue, and fabric. And only glue and fabric. The two wooden panels that make up the writing-surface are held onto the box only by the velvet panel going across them, and the sheer grace of God.

And a bit of glue.

You can see the implications here. Once the fabric rips – the ENTIRE PIECE has to be replaced. And it’s a very fiddly, irritating, messy, long, drawn out process.

I should know. I’ve done it before. And it’s not a pleasant operation.

That was why, to save the skiver and glue down the loose fabric as fast and as effectively as possible, was the first thing I did. Once that was done, I re-enforced the hinge with some extra-strong adhesive tape from the inside, underneath the wooden panels, to ensure that the box’s writing-slope panels really could be opened and closed without incident. The skiver and its beautiful border-decorations had been saved.

Cutting a New Notch

The next step in restoring this box was to rebuild the notch in the lower writing-leaf.

All boxes of this kind had a notch chiseled or carved into the lower writing-leaf. This was to accept a little brass catch which held the leaf closed when you opened and shut the box. If you didn’t have it, then the lower writing leaf would drop open the moment you closed the box, spilling whatever was inside it, all over the place.

As is fairly common with these old boxes, the notch in question had worn away from decades of the little brass catch rubbing and rubbing and rubbing and rubbing on it, over and over again, from the countless times the lid was opened and shut. Because of this, it simply didn’t work anymore. The writing-leaf would pop open, or fall open or rattle around inside the box, and it’s probably how the skiver got damaged in the first place. With a spare piece of wood, a hammer, a chisel and some extremely strong glue, I was able to chisel out the old notch and replace the worn out wood with a fresh piece of wood large enough to catch the brass tab, without damaging the box.

How Old is this Box?




*clears throat…scratches head*


The truth is that dating antique writing boxes is very, very hard. They were manufactured for a very long time (approximately three hundred years), and once established designs had been formalised, they rarely altered. Unless the box is of a particular style, or from a particular maker, they can be extremely hard to date. Most boxes of this type were generic, and were made in their thousands. My roughest guess would be mid-Victorian, probably around the 1850s or 60s, and I’d just as likely be wrong as right. At any rate, it’s certainly been around the block a few times, although whoever did own it at one point certainly seemed to have taken good care of it, since it’s not in anywhere near as bad a condition as some boxes I’ve seen!

Anyway, that concludes this little foray into restoring yet another Victorian writing-box. This one was easier than most, but it was still a challenge to get everything right. That said, I am extremely pleased with the end results!

Clang-Clang-Clang Went the Trolley: A Rattling Good Time at the Melbourne Tram Museum!


If you know anything about Australia beyond the fact that we have weird animals, dangerous snakes, venomous spiders and an abundance of tanned, bleached surfer-dudes populating the ‘top-end’, then you might also be aware of the fact that the city of Melbourne has the largest tram network in the world (or at least the southern hemisphere!).

Melbourne’s tram network is world-famous. Anyone who’s ever been to Melbourne, heard about Melbourne, or seen photographs of Melbourne on the internet, will know that Melbourne has trams.

A Brief History of Melbourne’s Tram Network

Following hot on the heels of San Francisco, Melbourne installed its first tram-route, operating a grip-cable streetcar, in 1885. Built on the floodplain of a river, Melbourne is a relatively flat city, but there are places where hills are found in abundance, and to traverse them, something other than your stoutest pair of wingtips is probably ideal.

The Hawthorn Tram Depot, the location of the Melbourne Tram Museum. The streetcar barn (building with big grey doors) is where the main exhibits are housed!

Cable-cars ran in Melbourne from 1885 until 1940, and featured a dummy car trailing behind a grip-car, with the grip-car being open to the elements, and the dummy-car being closed off with windows and doors.

Tales from the Grip

Cable-cars were operated by a two-man team — emphasis on MAN — very few women ever did this job — and you’ll find out why in a minute!…these two men were the gripman, and the conductor.

The conductor helped people on and off the tram, operated the brakes, collected fares, issued tickets, answered questions from commuters, and oversaw the general welfare of the passengers. To be a conductor required a fair bit of acrobatic expertise – swinging between the benches and in and out of the rails, jumping up and down between the carriages and helping people up and down was an exhausting job!

His counterpart was the gripman. The gripman got his name because he operated the two ‘grip-levers’ at the front of the cable-car. One lever was the brake – which does what a brake has always done – and the other lever was the grip-lever.

An old Melbourne cable-car from the 1880s, rattling past Spring Street in the CBD. The building on the right is Parliament House. The building on the left is the venerable Hotel Windsor, commonly called the Duchess of Spring Street!

The grip-lever was what grasped the moving steel cable underneath the streetcar, which ran along in a groove between the two running-tracks. Once the claw at the end of the lever had grasped the cable, it would pull the car and it’s trailer along.

If this doesn’t sound hard – remember that you’d be doing this in freezing cold, pouring rain, boiling heat and raging storms. Remember that you’d be doing this going uphill, and downhill, going across intersections and around corners. Remember that these streetcars were entirely mechanical…and weigh about five tons each!

The oldest tram in the Melbourne Tram Museum. The two levers in the middle of the tram (between the benches) are the ‘grips’ which operate the cable-clamp, and the brake, giving the ‘gripman’ his name.

There were no engines or motors to operate them – only human muscle. They were pushed out of the stables by muscle, they were spun around on turntables by muscle, and they were started, stopped and operated by muscle. The upper-body strength to operate these things for HOURS EVERY DAY OF THE WEEK was why gripmen remained MEN – the sheer physical exertion meant that no woman wearing a full-length Victorian dress and corset could ever operate something like this.

The Hotel Windsor, or the ‘Duchess of Spring Street’, as she appears today – Melbourne’s last great Victorian-era luxury hotel. The cable-car in the previous photograph would’ve been rattling along across the street, from left to right in this photograph, heading into the Melbourne Central Business District (the CBD to locals!).

The last cable tram in Melbourne ran in October, 1940 whereafter the system was ripped up and replaced entirely by electric trams.

The other end of the cable-tram. When the sliding door is shut, it has a warning on it for passengers to hold on tight. For those who couldn’t read, conductors (‘connies’) would shout the words ‘Mind the curve!’ to alert passengers to expect a sudden change in direction which would make the entire vehicle shake as it crossed the tracks.

Power from Above!

By the late 1800s and early 1900s, Melbourne had both cable-driven and electrical trams, as well as older horse-drawn tram technology, and for quite a while, all three ran together. By the 1920s, most of the city’s main tram-routes had been laid out, extending to St Kilda, Hawthorn, Camberwell, across the Central Business District, north to suburbs like Macaulay, North Melbourne, Kew, and even Far Kew….which, for the sake of taste and decency, was later changed to the more polite-sounding “Kew East” (say it five times fast, and you’ll soon figure out why…).

Melbourne’s W-class electric trams operated continuously from the 1920s onwards. A few are still in regular service, but most of them are either in storage, or serve as tourist attractions, like the Tramcar Restaurant, or the classic City Circle tourist tram which rattles around the CBD offering people a free lift.

Trams continue to be a major part of the Melbourne public transport network, and in the 50s and 60s, when a lot of cities around the world, from London to New York, Los Angeles to Shanghai, Singapore, Ballarat and countless others, were ripping up their streetcar networks, the Melbourne network remained, saved by public sentiment and probably, the cost of replacing it with something else. The result is that in the 21st century, the Melbourne tram network is the largest and most complete in the Southern hemisphere.

The Melbourne Tram Museum

Housed in the old Hawthorn Tram Depot, the tram museum is open two Saturdays a month. I’d been meaning to go for years and years and years, but I never got around to it. You know how it is – when you live there, you can see it anytime you want…which means you never bother to actually go!

Anyway, I found out from a friend’s Facebook post that the museum was having another open-day, so I hurried on over as fast as Routes 48 and 75 could take me there, and shuffled on in.

The museum featured twenty trams, ranging from 1886 to 1977. The trams were all lined up on their tracks, and open for inspection. You could jump on, jump off, and check out every single part of every single tram, hopping into the driver’s seat, or behind the grip-levers, turning cranks and pulling levers. Like many of the people there, I couldn’t resist ringing the bells on every single tram I came across!…Come on, we’ve all wanted to it! It’s like that kid in The Polar Express:

“I’ve wanted to do that my whole life!”

I went around taking photographs of all the information boards, all the trams and some of the pieces behind glass cases. In all honesty there wasn’t that much to see, and I was done in about 90 minutes, but what there was to look at, was certainly worthwhile. The majority of the trams dated to the 1920s and 30s, but I think most people agreed that the oldest tram was the one which held their interest the longest!

I bought a reprint of a 1908 tram network map while I was at the museum, as well as a book on the history of cable cars. As interesting as the place was, I felt it suffered badly from a lack of volunteers to run the museum – which is why it’s only opened a few times a year. That said, the trams in the museum do get occasional use! The last time one of them was rolled out of the stables was ten years ago, back in 2007…when they required period Melbourne streetcars to roll past Flinders Street Station during filming scenes in the HBO miniseries “The Pacific“!

All in all it was an enjoyable visit and a fun distraction for an hour or two. Anyone visiting Melbourne when the museum is open (2nd and 4th Saturday of every month except December) should certainly check it out. I just feel rather saddened that a museum dedicated to one of the city’s most famous moving landmarks is so inaccessible to the public.

All Aboard the S.S. Pap Boat! 222-year-old Georgian Silver Feeding Vessel…


“All Aboard the…what?”

Pap boat.

This thing:

In use largely in the late 1600s, 1700s and early 1800s, pap boats were small, shallow, boat-shaped feeding vessels used to deliver pap to the mouths of babes and sucklings. They died out in the mid-1800s when feeding-bottles (similar to the kind we have today) were invented. Sterling silver christening sets including a porringer (small bowl), spoon, fork, knife and sometimes a silver mug, as well, which became very popular in the Victorian era, also saw the decline of the pap boat. As a result, in the 21st century, they can be pretty rare pieces to get your hands on.

“What the hell is ‘pap’?”

In its oldest form, ‘pap’ means ‘breast’, ‘teat’ or ‘nipple’. By the 1700s, ‘pap’ also came to refer to a sort of sweet, liquidy gruel or porridge – basically baby-food – which was fed to infants and toddlers.

Recipes for pap typically included milk, flour, butter, sugar, and sometimes softened bread or breadcrumbs (for added bulk and nomminess!). Pap was thought to be soothing, tasty, and especially for babies – especially easy to digest. if babies were ill, medicine might be mixed into the pap formula so that the tot could take its dosage with minimal fuss.

Dating the Pap Boat

Dating this small piece of very old silverware was a real challenge. The actual date letter on the row of punched-out hallmarks was long gone. But there was still enough of the sovereign’s head duty mark to identify it as George III.

Duty marks on English silver came in starting in 1784. They died out in 1890. Marks changed over the reigns of the monarchs, changing marks every time the old ones either wore out as the monarch’s reign lengthened, or when the king died and another one replaced him. The duty mark on this piece of silver was identified as 1795. That doesn’t necessarily mean that’s when the boat was made and marked, that’s just when the new duty-stamp was introduced. Without anything else to go on, however, I’m dating this piece at 1795.