Joseph Rodgers & Sons Geo. V. Ivory-Handled Budding Knife: A Case-Study in Researching Antiques!

You find the strangest things in charity shops when you huddle inside them to get out of the rain! I picked this up yesterday, while on the way home from town: An antique, ivory-handled knife.

I don’t know a great deal about it, to be honest. It was made by the famous Sheffield cutlery firm of Joseph Rodgers & Sons, and is in pretty good condition for its age; that much I knew. The rest, I had to find out through several hours of very careful detective-work!

Researching antiques is a fiddly business. Sometimes it’s impossible to find out anything, sometimes you can find out all kinds of things, and sometimes, only just part of what was potentially a much bigger story. It’s not always easy, or even possible, but if you do start on such a journey, it’s best to err on the side of caution and as ever, to use the Holmesian maxim: “Whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth!”

So, let us begin! First, a close examination of the knife, and all textual evidence…

The blade is marked “JOSEPH RODGERS & SONS”:

The hilt is stamped with:

“J. Rodgers
& Sons

6 Norfolk St. 

Researching the age of this knife is a classic example of why you need to consider all the evidence prior to jumping to conclusions. After much reading and deliberation, I dated it to the reign of King George V (1911-1936) and probably to the 1910s. This is based on the following evidence:

“G.R.” = Georgius Rex (“King George”). This tells me that it was made during the reign of *A* King George. It doesn’t tell me which one! it could’ve been George IV (which issued the Royal Warrant to Joseph Rodgers & Sons in 1822), or George V, or George VI!

“6 Norfolk Street, Sheffield” = HQ of J.R. & Sons from approx 1780, until the firm sold the premises in 1929. This tells me that it had to be made, most likely, in the 1910s or 1920s. This rules out George VI, who came to the throne in 1936.

“England” = This is a reference to the McKinley Tariff Act of 1890, which decreed that all foreign-manufactured goods shipped into the ‘States had to have country-of-origin stamps on their products. This rules out George IV, who reigned from 1820-1830.

this being the case, the knife, whatever it was, had to be made in the reign of George V (1911-1936). I narrowed this date down to between 1911-1929, the year the shop closed, which would still make it between 87-to-105 years old, at the date of this posting. Which is pretty damn impressive!

If it was as old as I’d originally thought it to be (George IV), then this would be approaching 200 years in age! As it is, it’s about 100 years too young for that, but still a lovely piece of antique, ivory-handled cutlery. Now the only question is – what the hell is it?

The Purpose Revealed!

After much researching and questioning of other collectors and dealers, I’ve finally found out what it is! It’s an antique budding knife, used for pruning and budding trees, shrubbery and other plants and to maintain the plants and flowering bushes and trees in one’s garden! What a wonderful and interesting tool this is! Whoever owned this must’ve had quite a green thumb!


Australia: From Colonies to Country

Some of you may remember that I wrote this posting for Australia Day, back in January. At the end of it, you may recall that I said I’d write about more Australian history sometime in the future.

Well, the future is now. So let’s get cracking.

Colonial Australia

For all of the 19th century, Australia was an island of colonies. They were given names such as “Van Diemen’s Land”, “Victoria”, “New South Wales”, and “Queensland”. Admittedly, the remaining colonies of South Australia, Western Australia and the Northern Territory were hardly the most poetic of names to go along with the names of the other colonies, but I digress…

In the second half of the 19th century, Australia had finally broken out of the phase of being “Terra Australis Incognitia“, the great unknown southern land. It was now firmly established that an island south of Asia did exist, and that it was inhabitable, and that it now had a name. “Australia”.

Australia was seen as a great social experiment. Prior to this, no Western civilisation had colonised a landmass further south than this great, empty sandpit in the bottom left of the Pacific Ocean. The British Government was quick to realise that having Australia as a British colony would be very useful. It would be able to secure British dominance in the Southeast Asian region, along with their holdings in Singapore and Hong Kong. This would balance out the colonial scale, since nearby, the French, the Dutch and the Germans also had colonies. Colonies like French Indochina (Vietnam), the Dutch East Indies (Indonesia) and the German-held Papua New Guinea.

Colonial Australia was a hard and dangerous place to live. Summers are hot, scorching and dry. Cities were still mostly made up of wooden buildings, two storeys high, and streets were largely unpaved. Also, then, as now, Australia played host to the largest number of dangerous animals in the world – Spiders, sharks, snakes, and the vicious Spotted Quoll:


The Victorian Gold Rush

Life in colonial Australia cheered up in the 1850s, though. Gold had been found sporadically for years, but in 1851, the great Victorian Gold Rush hit Australia. And it was a rush, alright. People from all over the world came to Australia, to go to Victoria, to find gold! The population of Victoria’s capital city, Melbourne, went from 10,000 people in 1840, to 123,000 people by the mid-1850s!

Towns like Bendigo and Ballarat popped up overnight and became booming centers of trade. Just like in almost every other gold-rush in history, in California, or Canada…a significant amount of the money made came, not from mining, but from merchants and shopkeepers who sold equipment to the miners at inflated prices. Shovels, buckets, pans, tents, billys (kettles, that is), bedrolls and countless other things were in high demand, and the scheming and unscrupulous shopkeepers could make a pretty penny or two from “mining the miners” for their hard-saved money.

The Victorian Gold Rush allowed Melbourne to grow at a fantastic rate, and it soon rivaled Sydney, the oldest city in Australia, in population, if not yet in size.

The Rush allowed Melbourne to build magnificent public buildings, like the state library, the town hall, the state parliament building, treasury, and several bridges across the Yarra River in the middle of town.

Australia slowly cast off the criminal element of its past and began to grow. Famous people came to Australia to look around. Prince Alfred, son of Queen Victoria, came for a look in 1868. Two hospitals (one in Sydney, one in Melbourne) were named after him. And it’s probably just as well that there were hospitals around, because the prince was the target of an assassination attempt while he was there! He was shot in the back, but the bullet was recovered and the prince made a full recovery.

Towards a Country

Australia was a ‘country’, but not yet a nation. It had separate colonial militias, but no national army. It had lots of railroads, but it was not possible to travel all around the continent without changing trains at each border, since each colony used a different gauge of rails. As the 19th century drew to a close, Australians wanted more and more to become their own country, their own nation and their own people.

Much like the United States, a hundred and thirty years before.

But unlike the United States, Australians didn’t start stockpiling rifles and muskets.

By the 1880s, there was increasing nationalism in Australia. A higher and higher percentage of people who lived in Australia were actually born there, instead of coming to Australia from overseas. Fewer people saw themselves as being “British” but as being “Australian”. Improved communications in the 1800s, such as finally, a nationwide telegraphic network in 1872, allowed them to communicate with each other faster and easier. This brought people closer together, and strengthened the ideas that Australia should become a nation.

To that end, in the 1880s, the Federal Council was formed, a body of men whose job it was to make Australia a nation. The Federal Council was the closest thing to a national government that existed before Federation itself.

Colonies were not all in favor of federation, however. They worried that having a big national government would mean that colonies with larger populations would bully those with smaller populations. They feared that individual colonial laws, taxes and tariffs would be stamped out by a more powerful national government. They were also scared that giving power over the country to one body, instead of splitting it up amongst lots of small ones, would cause problems, since any decision made by the national government would affect everyone. In the 1870s and 80s, the American Civil War was still very fresh, and Australians didn’t want to have their own civil war!

As the years ticked by, however, federation started looking more and more interesting, and in referendums held in each state, a higher and higher percentage of people were voting for the creation of the Australian nation.

1901 – Australian Federation

On the 1st of January, 1901, the 20th Century began. And so did Australia. It was now its own nation. Its colonies were now states, and it had its own national government. It was now the Commonwealth of Australia.

It still is.

Australia was the new kid on the block in the world stage. And it wanted to do things differently. Much differently. Australia was seen as the great big new social experiment that the world would gather around to watch. Things would be done differently here and the global community sat back to watch the results of this new experiment, this new country, this new nation called Australia. Laws were enacted in Australia which were never seen in England, or indeed, in any other country on earth at the time. Some laws were popular. Some were not. Some were incredibly controversial, even for the time! Australia in the 21st Century might pride itself on multiculturalism, but it wasn’t always like that…

Immigration Restriction Act (1901)

A similar law existed in America. It was called the Asian Exclusion Act of 1924. But Australia was the first country to implement a law such as this.

What was it?

The Immigration Restriction Act of 1901 was an act that regulated who could come into Australia. They didn’t want any undesirable people in this great social experiment that Australia was! They wanted Australia to be pure, clean, innocent and…


Incredibly white.

More bleach was air-dropped into Australia before 1965 than any other country on earth.

The Immigration Restriction Act of 1901 was designed to keep out undesirable people from the Australian nation. Asians. Jews. Africans. Americans. Anyone seen as undesirable. How did they do this?

Simple. They asked them if they could speak English!

There wasn’t going to be any other language in this new country other than English, so if you wanted to live here, you had to speak English. If you couldn’t, you couldn’t come in. Simple!

This was primarily designed to keep out Asians. I’m here, so it obviously didn’t work.

The problem was that a surprisingly large number of foreigners spoke English.

So much for that idea. To try and add a few more tripwires in this new immigration law, the government started changing the conditions of entry. How did they do this?

When you arrived in Australia, you had to take an English test to evaluate your language-skills. When it was found out that this wasn’t effective in keeping out the global rabble, the law was…altered.

Instead of giving a test in English, a test could now be given in ANY European language. And I do mean ANY language. German. French. Italian. Polish. Russian. Latish. Czech. Spanish!

…it still didn’t work. But it’s what they tried.

Pacific Island Labourers Act (1901)

Along with the Immigration Restriction Act of 1901, there was also the Pacific Island Labourers Act of 1901. This was designed to kick out of Australia any persons living there who came from islands near to Australia. Again, this backfired. While several thousand Pacific-Islanders were indeed shipped out of Australia, a significant portion of them were able to apply to stay in Australia.


Simple. Because they weren’t from the Pacific Islands. Their parents, or grandparents were. But they were born in Australia! It wasn’t legal to send them back to some place which they weren’t from in the first place, so the government had to let them stay put.

And there were a lot of them in Australia. They’d been brought over starting in the 1860s to work in Queensland, on the sugar-plantations. They were dark-skinned people, after all, and they were surely much better at working in the harsh, humid, hot and sunny Queensland climate than white folks. But then it was decided that they just had to leave.

The “White Australia Policy”

All these acts and laws and regulations were designed to create something unique in the history of the world. A completely white country. It wasn’t like America where blacks and whites were simply segregated…no. In Australia, they wanted to make sure that the whole country was white from the very start!…The Aborigines didn’t count, though…

There was a lot of support for a White Australia, but just was just as much dissent. And a significant amount of dissent came from Britain.


Australia was part of the British Empire. And the British expected Australia to trade with other countries within the Empire. Countries like Singapore, Hong Kong and India. The White Australia Policy irritated the British and they weren’t happy with the fact that it existed, because it meant that non-white subjects from British colonies couldn’t live and work in Australia, an act that was sometimes necessary for purposes of trade and business. This was why the British objected to the White Australia Policy. But then, Australia was by now its own country and nation…it could do what it liked without having to listen to England.

The White Australia Policy survived for decades, strengthening and weakening and gaining and losing support through the years. During the 1930s, fears of the Japanese and a second coming of the “Yellow Peril” increased support for a White Australia. However, after the Second World War, the need to repopulate Australia caused the Policy to be significantly relaxed, when the government realised that it could not afford to be picky about who it allowed into the country if they expected Australia to survive. It was during the postwar years that the White Australia Policy began to crumble in earnest.

The fact was that the policy had never really been any good. Non-whites had been trickling into Australia for years, and the policy never completely kept unwanted foreigners off of Australian soil. On top of that, Australia needed a larger population in the postwar era to fill up the gaps left by all the dead soldiers from the War. It was unreasonable and impossible to ask all red-blooded Australian males to do their patriotic duty and shag like rabbits on Viagra, and copulate for the good of the nation, so the Australian Government had to look…overseas! (horror of horrors!)…for more people!

The popular slogan became: “Populate, or Perish!”

This meant that Australia had to increase its population if it expected to survive in the dangerous and uncertain postwar world. Massive tourism and immigration campaigns started, encouraging people from everywhere (so long as it was white) to come to Australia!

A large percentage of the new arrivals in Australia were refugees from the Second World War. European Jews, British war-brides, displaced persons with nowhere else to go. But in the 1950s, 60s and 70s, more and more Asians started flooding into Australia. Trouble in Asia was encouraging people to leave and move south. The Chinese Civil War, the Korean War and the Vietnam War were driving people out of Asia towards Australia.

The White Australia Policy finally collapsed when international events made it impossible to implement – the numbers of Korean, Chinese and Vietnamese refugees pouring into Australia made the Policy a joke, and it was officially ended in 1966.

Universal Female Suffrage

Australia, the great social experiment, while it may not have been as forward thinking in issues of race and culture, was certainly more open to other ideas…such as the shocking notion of allowing women to…vote!

In 1902, Australian women were allowed to vote alongside men.

…Yeah. So what’s the big deal?

The deal is that Australia was the first country in the Western world to do this!

Britain? Nope. 1918.

America? Try again. 1920.

Germany? 1918.

France? Good luck. Not until 1944.

China? Surely, communists with all their equality and whatnot? Nope. 1947.

Canada? 1917.

Australia was the first! (Okay, second. New Zealand – 1893…damn Kiwis…).

Australia’s Place in the World

In 1901, Australia officially became a nation. It could go to war, it could run its own affairs, create its own laws, set its own taxes and was no-longer tied to Britain!…Except that it still (and still does) have the Queen as its head of state, and the Governor-General as the Queen’s representative in the Land Down Under.

Australia was a big exporter…and importer. It sent out shiploads of gold, iron, wool, wheat and leather, and in came things such as consumer-goods from England and America.

Australia was miles from England…it took two months to get there by ocean-liner…but a lot of Australians saw themselves still as being British. They supported Britain in wartime and peacetime. When Britain went to war with the Dutch South-Africans (the Boers) in 1899, Australia sent troops off to fight. When Britain went to war with Germany in 1914, Australia sent troops off to fight. When Britain went to war with Germany (again!) in 1939, Australia sent troops off to fight.


Australia is on the other side of the world, for God’s sake! Why on earth would it get involved in British wars?

Popular opinion in Australia listed reasons such as…

– Similar cultures.
– Helping “Mother England”.
– Failure to hep England in her time of need would result in England being too weak to help Australia in hers.

In the Edwardian-era, imperial pride and ties to “Mother England” still ran strong through the fabric of Australian culture and society. When soldiers fought and died in the First World War, they died in service of “The Empire”, not Australia. Indeed, such was Australia’s closeness to Britain that when the First World War came around in 1914, over sixty thousand Australians signed up to go to war.

The interesting bit?

Not a single one of them was a career-soldier.

Australia was the only country to participate in the First World War, which had a completely volunteer army. Shopkeepers, schoolteachers, engine-drivers, cable-car gripmen, farmers, shearers, bank-tellers and waiters rushed to sign up for the army. The most experience that Australia really had of fighting in big wars was in the Boer War of 1899 (during which, Australian soldier Harry ‘Breaker’ Morant was tried…and executed…for trumped-up charges of ‘Treason’, disobeying orders, and killing innocent noncombatant Boers).

After the Second World War, Australia stopped looking to Britain for aid, and turned increasingly towards the United States. Colonialism died a slow death as the European powers grudgingly (in the case of France, incredibly so!) gave up their colonial posessions. Australia joined the British Commonwealth, the collection of countries which shared historic, colonial ties with Britain.


A Concise History of the British Secret Service

Bond. James Bond. MI-6 agent 007 with a license to kill.

Since the mid 1950s, the suave, sophistocated and sexy secret agent known as James Bond, created by the famous author Ian Fleming, has introduced us bit by bit to the world of the British Secret Intelligence Service…the SIS…more commonly known as MI-6, or Military Intelligence – Section 6.

But why is it MI-6? Why not 9? Or 3? Or 2? Or 45? What does “MI-6” actually mean and where does it come from?

This article will delve into the murky and fascinating depths and history (as far as can be discovered) of the British Military Intellgence Service, of which MI-6 is just a tiny part.

The History of Military Intelligence

Those letters and that number are magical, aren’t they? “MI-6”. Bam! We enter a world of nightclubs, cocktails, black-tie evening-dress, guns, car-chases, espionage, amazing fight-scenes and raunchy one-night stands. But MI-6 is just one small section of what was once a much larger military intelligence network. So what was it and where did it come from?

British Military Intelligence as we know it today was born in the early years of the 20th century. In 1909, the War Office in Great Britain authorised the creation of the “Secret Service Bureau”. The Secret Service Bureau was made up of a series of military intelligence departments. Over the decades, they increased and decreased in size and function. At their height, though, the military intelligence departments numbered nineteen in total. They were…

MI-1 – Codes and Cyphers. General codebreaking.
MI-2 – Geographic information on other countries.
MI-3 – Further geographic information.
MI-4 – Aerial Reconnaisance.
MI-5 – Security Service, responsible for internal national security (still operational today).
MI-6 – Secret Intelligence Service, responsible for espionage, etc (still operational today. James Bond is an MI-6 agent).
MI-7 – Propaganda.
MI-8 – Communications security and signal-interception. MI-8 was responsible for scanning airwaves for enemy radio-activity.
MI-9 – POWs, enemy & allied. POW debriefing, aid to allied POWs, interrogation of enemy POWs (until 1941).
MI-10 – Technical analysis.
MI-11 – Military Security.
MI-12 – Military Censorship.
MI-13 – Section unused.
MI-14 – Surviellence of Germany.
MI-15 – Aerial defence intelligence.
MI-16 – Scientific Intelligence.
MI-17 – Secretariat for Director of Military Intelligence.
MI-18 – Section unused.
MI-19 – Enemy POW interrogation (from 1941 onwards, taking over some of the duties from MI-9).

The Secret Service Bureau was in active duty from the early 1900s through both World Wars and onto the Cold War. Many departments were created as a direct result of the two World Wars, while others were created in response to the Cold War starting in the late 1940s, running to the 1980s. Over the years, departments changed functions or ceased functioning entirely, although some lasted for a considerable time before that ever occurred.

MI-8 was responsible for radio-surveillence during the Wars, tapping telephone-wires, scanning radio-frequencies for enemy radio-activity and helping to track down enemy agents by intercepting their messages to find out more about enemy activity.

MI-9 might be familiar to anyone who has studied the famous “Great Escape” of March, 1944. MI-9 was responsible for the aid of allied POWs and allied secret agents. MI-9 sent cleverly-disguised pieces of contraband to allied POWs and agents working behind enemy-lines, in an increasingly ingenious number of ways. Phoney aid-organisations and charity-groups were created which sent over “care-parcels” for allied POWs. Inside these parcels, which, on the outside, came from “family” and “friends”, were items such as maps, matches, compasses, knives and other escape-aids, which the allies put to good use.

MI-6 remains the most famous section of the Secret Service Bureau because of its exposure created by author Ian Fleming and his world-famous “James Bond” novels and series of films, which continues to this day. Fleming was ideally suited for writing such gripping and exotic spy-novels. During the Second World War, he had a post working for British Naval Intelligence, and his work as an intelligence officer during the war exposed him to codes and spies and espionage, a perfect background for James Bond…which probably also explains why Bond also holds the rank of “Commander” in the Royal Navy.

In the 1950s, with Great Britain licking its wounds from the Second World War, Fleming’s novels of a suave, dnner-jacketed spy who flew around the world combating evil was exactly what people wanted to read. Something exciting and escapist, so that they too, could escape from their own, dreary, rationed, postwar lives. It was because of Fleming’s novels that MI-6 has remained so famous today.

The End of the Secret Service Bureau

The MI sections began to become defunct in the years during and after the Cold War. With no “hot” war to fight (a ‘hot’ war being one with actual military engagements), many of the MI sections became useless. There were few if any POWs, there was no Germany to fight and there were few, if any, aerial engagements. One by one, the sections were closed down until eventually, only two remained. The two sections that still had a practical use to the British Government outside of an actual military conflict: MI-5 and MI-6, concentrating on internal, national security and on collecting international intelligence respectively.

Thames House, London. MI-5 HQ

Secret Intelligence Service (MI-6) HQ, London

Today, MI-6 still captures the public imagination as the ultimate secret intelligence service, this despite the fact that it is little more than a WWII-era relic of a once large and complex intelligence network. A book was published recently as an official history of the Secret Intelligence Service, covering MI-6’s history from 1909-1949. Who knows how many of those things shown to us in those glitzy Bond films were ever real?


Remembering the Great ‘Quake of 1906: San Francisco Trembles and Burns

The recent Chilean earthquake, registering a needle-shaking 8.8 on the Richter Scale, reminded me of a very famous historical event that happened well over a century ago today, but which is still mentioned in documentaries, in books, in school assignments and probably most famously, in a 1936 film starring Spencer Tracy and Hollywood tough-guy Clarke Gable. The film, appropriately called ‘San Francisco’, brought to the silver screen the true horrors of the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake and Fire, in such terrifying realism that it literally sent earthquake survivors stupid enough to watch the movie, to the hospital, suffering from panic-attacks. The film’s famous earthquake sequence, which was a true piece of special-effects wizardry in the mid 1930s, remains one of the most famous snippets of motion-picture entertainment history to this day.

But if something on the screen of a movie-theatre could send people running off in fright, what was the real event like? The one that took place thirty years before? Surely that must’ve been more terrifying than anything that Hollywood could produce, if even the mere artistic mention of it sent grown men and women fleeing from cinemas in the middle of a movie!

The Great Quake of 1906

The Great Earthquake of 1906 is one of San Francisco’s most famous natural disasters. A tremor that lasted only a few seconds reduced the famous coastal city to smoking ruins, killed thousands and left an entire city homeless. The raging fires that started after the earthquake subsided could challenge Chicago and London in terms of ferocity and terror. The destruction of the city was absolute, with only a few buildings left standing, but what was San Francisco like in the early 1900s?

The City by the Bay

San Francisco at the start of the 20th Century, just as it is now at the start of the 21st, was a bustling, exciting, modern city; a west coast melting pot of cultures, styles and nationalities. Built in the San Francisco Bay Area of California, San Francisco’s rapid growth, modernisation and rise in wealth was due in no small part to the California Gold Rush of the 1840s and 50s. The Rush had brought thousands of people to California, forcing San Francisco’s population to boom from about 500 people in the 1840s, to 410,000 people by the turn of the century. San Francisco boasted (and still does boast) the largest Chinatown in all of the USA. Its famous cable streetcar-system was iconic throughout the world, its steep streets were only for the athletic or the stupid to try and climb. Intelligent people rode the cablecars which were able to cope with the steep inclines.

Sourdough bread, with its distinctive, tangy flavour was invented in San Francisco at the turn of the century by immigrant bakers who settled there during the Gold Rush. The salty air around Fisherman’s Wharf interfered with the bread’s natural baking process, giving it a slightly sour and decidedly delicious flavour which the city is still famous for today. San Francisco was also famous for its idyllic and picturesque Victorian-style houses which ranged from narrow tenements and terraces to large, grand mansions, all painted distinctive and eye-catching pastel-shades and with their peculiar, angled bay windows. San Francisco was truly a modern, successful, popular and glamorous city. But all this was about to change.

A Rude Awakening

The earthquake that reduced San Francisco to rubble in 1906 struck at the unpardonably rude hour of 5:12am on the morning of Wednesday, the 18th of April, with a jolt so powerful that it threw many people right out of their beds! Modern seismologists now believe that the earthquake that struck San Francisco that morning registered a jaw-rattling 7.8 on the Richter Scale! An earthquake powerful enough to destroy buildings. Records from 1906 suggest that the vibrating lasted anywhere from twenty seconds to nearly a minute, clocking out at about forty-two seconds in total. While this amount of time would often come and go like a sneeze to most of us, when your whole house is shaking, it feels like a lot longer.

The earthquake caused untold levels of damage. Several buildings collapsed right into the street. The majority of San Francisco’s infrastructure was made of masonary or timber, materials not ideally suited for building in an earthquake-prone area. Many of San Francisco’s new ‘skyscraper’-style buildings were destroyed entirely, or were devoured by the flames that came later. San Francisco’s famous cable-car system was ripped up, twisted around and mangled beyond all practical use. Several lines were damaged beyond repair and many of the city’s iconic cablecars were destroyed in their barns when the structures either collapsed, crushing the cars inside, or caught fire, burning the vehicles where they stood.

A pair of classic, San Francisco Victorian terrace-houses destroyed in the earthquake

The death-toll from the earthquake was originally reported as small, a ‘mere’ 370-odd people had died. However, the true number was considerably higher, and is now believed to have been at least 3,000 or more. The damage to the city was thought to be about $400,000,000 (that’s four hundred million 1906 dollars). About $6-$7 billion dollars today.

The original earthquake was a real shaker. There were at least two aftershocks after it, which caused the next great disaster to strike the city in twenty-four hours.

San Francisco was riding high before the earthquake struck. It was the biggest, busiest and most prosperous city on the US. West Coast before the 18th of April. It was a marvellous and modern metropolis full of the all the latest gadgets and gizmoes, like electrical lighting, telephones, telegraphs, gas-mains and running water. The earthquake destroyed all of these. Power-lines toppled, cutting off telegraph communications, telephone communications and causing a citywide blackout. The rupturing gas-mains which sent natural gas to kitchens as well as the buildings which still used gas-lighting, meant that all it took was one spark to set off a bomb. The sparking electrical wires from downed telephone and telegraph wires soon set the gas on fire and within minutes, the rubble of the earthquake was burning out of control.

Photograph of Sacramento Street, San Francisco, 18th April 1906. At the bottom of the photo you can see the city’s famous cable-car tracks. In the distance, you can see the smoke from the fires that came after the earthquake

San Francisco’s fire-chief had been killed in the original earthquake. His hastily-organised replacement sent horse-drawn steam-powered pump-engines to the sites of as many fires as he could. But only then was the true nature of the disaster revealed.

The earthquake, apart from cutting out power, communications and gas-lines, had also ruptured the city’s water-mains! Taps, pumps and most importantly, fire-hydrants, were all bone-dry! Without any water on-hand to fight the growing fires, the blazes soon spread wildly out of control.

Martial Law and Disorder

The immediate aftermath of the earthquake left people dazed and scared. The world they knew, the world they lived in, socialised in, did business in, in some cases, the world which they grew up in, was suddenly wiped clean. In a world turned upside down, it was only a matter of time before there was a breakdown of law and order. With several unstable buildings around and the spreading fires, it was clear that something had to be done to preserve a sense of calm and order before riots, God forbid, broke out amongst civilians.

This painting shows the destruction of the city from the earthquake and fires. Here, soldiers help bring in food, clothing and other necessary supplies while others guard the supply-dump. Several privately-owned horses, carts, carriages and what few motor-cars there were, were all commandeered by the army or the police after the earthquake, to ferry important necessities into San Francisco

Soldiers from nearby garrisons were sent for and, in cooperation with San Francisco police-officers, US. Army soldiers patrolled the streets, aided the injured, searched for survivors and stood guard around important or unsafe structures to prevent people from entering them, either for purposes of looting, or for their own safety. The mayor declared martial law and instructed any and all soldiers, police-officers or other law-enforcement officers to shoot any persons found looting in the wreckage of damaged buildings. Several hundred people were shot for looting, although it’s theorised that several of these victims were actually home-owners trying to rescue their belongings and executed on the spot before they could offer an explanation for their actions.

This aerial shot of San Francisco was taken a few days after the disaster. It shows the sheer devastation of the fires and earthquake. The airplane having only recently been invented, this remarkable feat of photography was achieved with a camera and a kite!

Fighting the Fires

At most, the earthquake and aftershocks probably only lasted just over a minute, if that. The tremors caused widespread damage, downing power lines, cutting off telecommunications, rupturing gas and water lines, destroying streetcar lines and making roads impassable due to the rubble from collapsed or partially-collapsed buildings. Several famous structures, most notably, San Francisco’s City Hall (which, remarkably, stands to this day) were almost completely destroyed. Several of the city’s brand-new ‘earthquake and fireproof’ buildings (as they were billed as), mostly new skyscrapers, were all destroyed, either by the earthquake or the fires that followed.

Fighting the fires that resulted from the earthquake (due to ruptured gas-lines and sparking electrical wires) was a challenge, to say the least. The loss of running water to the city left the city’s firefighters with few options on how to combat the several infernos that were rapidly growing around the city. To try and at least contain the flames, firefighters, in cooperation with policemen and soldiers sent in to help with relief efforts, used dynamite and gunpowder from nearby army bases to blast their way across town. Buildings big, small, rich, poor, stately and slovenly were all dynamited indiscriminately in an effort to construct a containment line through the city to halt the spread of the fires. Many people had to be forcibly evicted from their houses that happened to be in the way of the dynamite’s path. Many fine, Victorian-style mansions and townhouses that lined San Francisco’s rich residential district…appropriately called “Nob Hill”…were blown to pieces in an effort to stop the fires’ advance. The lack of water meant that the fires burned for three days before they could finally be controlled.

In an amazing spate of mass-arson, several homeowners went about torching their homes, which probably contributed to the fires’ later ferocity. In San Francisco, buildings could, for rather obvious reasons, not be insured against earthquake damage. However, several of them were insured against fire damage. Citizens wanting to try and get some money out of the disaster deliberately set fire to their own houses to claim their fire-insurance payouts.

Search and Rescue

Immediately after the aftershocks, stunned and dazed San Franciscans, police-officers, doctors, firefighters and soldiers started raking through the rubble to try and dig out survivors. Massive refugee camps and field-hospitals were set up on the outskirts of San Francisco to house the homeless and to treat the wounded. Remarkable stories of madness, bravery and foolhardiness spouted from every mouth. One story told of a group of passers-by who ganged together when they heard shouts coming from a collapsed building. They removed some of the rubble and found a man under the wreckage. Efforts to remove the rest of the rubble were in vain, despite the concerted strength of the rescuers present and the man remained trapped to his waist in the rubble. The approaching fires caused many to run for their lives, leaving the man to his unhappy fate, while others continued to try and pry the man free. Pulling him was a waste of time, but they lacked the heavy-lifting equipment or any ropes or jacks to get the rest of the wreckage off of him. Finally, it all came to a head when the fire reached the collapsed building. The man became increasingly frantic, claiming he could feel the flames burning at his shoes, socks and trouser-legs. Desperate not to burn to death, he urged his would-be rescuers to keep trying. A policeman, one of the men at the scene, finally decided that it was hopeless. The man, terrified of his fate, begged to put to death. Rather than let the man burn to a crisp in full consciousness, the policeman took out his notebook, wrote down the man’s personal details and then shot him through the head with his service-revolver.

Furniture, clothing and personal belongings were not the only things that people ran out of their houses with or ran back to retrieve after the earthquake. One story tells of a waiter at San Francisco’s famous Palace Hotel. The earthquake had damaged the hotel’s refrigeration system and the waiter could be seen outside the gutted and quake-damaged structure, handing out free bottles of champagne to passers-by. He probably reasoned that nobody else would drink it anyway, so he might as well give it away.

While it survived the earthquake fairly undamaged, fires gutted the luxurious Palace Hotel in San Francisco. The Victorian-era facade was salvaged from the disaster and the hotel was rebuilt and reopened a few years later. It stands to this day as one of San Francisco’s finest hotels. Soldiers and policemen can be seen outside the flaming structure in this photograph taken after the earthquake

The Garden Court Tea Room in the restored Palace Hotel, as it appears today

Hot off the Presses

News of the San Francisco earthquake spread around the USA and around the world as fast as cables could take it. Within twenty-four hours, telephones were ringing off their hooks and telegraph lines were jammed with Morse Code messages telling the world of the disaster. Newspapers flashed the earthquake all over their front pages and petitions and notices for relief were sent out all over America. Donations of food, clothing and money for rebuilding flooded in.

“Earthquake and Fire: San Francisco in Ruins” this headline from Apr. 19th says. Below, smaller headlines read: “No Hope Left for Safety of Any Buildings”, “Blow Buildings up to Check Flames”, “Whole City is Ablaze”, “Church of St. Ignatius is Destroyed” and “Mayor Confers with Military and Citizens”

Rebuilding San Francisco

San Francisco had lasted where it was for sixty years before the earthquake happened, and damn it, it was going to last another sixty years. Reconstruction of the city was remarkably swift. By 1915, it was back on its feet again, despite the city looking like it had been hit by a nuclear bomb! Relief, charity and donations for the earthquake’s victims came in thick and fast. Over five million dollars (in 1906) was raised to help San Francisco and its citizens. Wealthy companies and America’s rich and famous of the early 20th century all donated phenomenal sums of money. Andrew Carnegie, for whom Carnegie Hall is named, donated the then staggering sum of $100,000. And he was just one of many people who sent in mindboggling donations to help the city rebuild. The US. Government alone sent in a million dollars, while entire cities and countries, from Canada to as far away as England, raised hundreds of thousands of dollars in relief-funds.

The official death-toll from the earthquake stood at about 3,000 people. It was most likely a lot more than that, since some deaths probbaly went unreported. A lot of things changed after 1906. San Francisco’s famous cable-car system was much reduced, its Chinatown experienced a massive boom in population. The destruction of citizenship and immigration records during the earthquake created a delicious legal loophole for San Francisco’s oriental population, who all rapidly claimed American citizenship, allowing them to jump around the then in-effect “Asian Exclusion Act”, which allowed them to bring their families and relations to America to live with them. San Francisco’s bustling Chinatown remains the biggest in the USA to this day.

The famous Coit Tower was constructed after the earthquake, specially designed to be shaped like a fire-hose nozzle to commemorate the efforts of the firefighters who fought and died during the battle against the flames.

Coit Tower, San Francisco


The Boston Molasses Flood, and other Minor Disasters

The nice thing about history is that it’s full of all kinds of weird, wonderful, whimsical little things that nobody thinks about, knows about, cares about or reads about. Events of great interest and fascination which you’d only stumble across by accident and which, once you have, find incredibly fascinating or strange and unique. Here is just a handful of natural and manmade disasters which, though famous in their own times, in some cases comparable to 9/11, are barely remembered today…

The Boston Molasses Flood of 1919

An early newspaper-report about the flood. The number of dead and wounded would soon rise to 21 and 150, respectively

The 15th of January, 1919 started out like any other in the city of Boston, Massachusetts, on the USA’s east coast. Paper-boys made their rounds, milk and ice were delivered, people went to work. But today, and indeed, the next four days, would be shaken by an event so catastrophic, so weird and so…sweet…that Bostonians still think about it today.

In the northern end of Boston’s downtown area were the facilities belonging to the Purity Distilling Company; a manufactury of alcohol and other, alochol-related products. One of the things that the Distillery produced was molasses, which was then the main sweetener in the United States, as opposed to honey or maple-syrup. On this particular day, the 15th of January, 1919, a 50ft (approx 16.5m) high tank of molasses collapsed, spilling its sweet ooze all over town. It is possible that the molasses was overheated due to the unseasonably warm January temperatures that day, which caused the rivets on the huge molasses tank to rupture. Passers-by who saw the start of the disaster described hearing the rivets ripping out of the metal sides of the tank like machine-gun bullets, followed by the intense vibrations of the collapsing molasses tank.

What followed was a tidal-wave of dark ooze, up to 15ft (4.5 meters) high and travelling up to 35mph (56km/h). The force of the molasses wave created widespread destruction throughout downton Boston. Twenty-one people were killed in the sticky surge and up to a hundred and fifty people were injured! The power of the wave destroyed buildings, swept people off their feet, flipped automobiles over like toys and laid waste to several city blocks!

The force of the molasses impact was such that it ripped out support-girders holding up a length of Boston’s elevated railway and even derailed a train travelling along that stretch of track at the time! A truck travelling along a nearby road was blasted off the street by the force of the wave, sending it flying into the nearby Charles River. When the wave of molasses was over, streets were drenched, cars were buried, people were covered in ooze and survivors and would-be rescuers alike, waded through waist-deep molasses up to three feet (1m) thick! People who died in the disaster were mostly drowned by the fast-moving molasses or were killed by debris which became speeding missiles, forced down the streets of Boston at terrific speeds.

The first rescuers on the scene were 116 cadets from the training-ship USS Nantucket, which was docked in the Charles River at the time. Under the command of Lieutenant-Commander H.J. Copeland, the cadets fanned out through the ooze, forming a human barrier to keep back the gathering crowds and to help organise rescue-efforts. The cadets were soon joined by members of the Boston Police Department, the American Red Cross, the United States Army and more sailors and personnel from other nearby naval ships docked around Boston. The rescue and cleanup efforts took several weeks. Doctors and nurses set up aid-stations and rescuers, from soldiers, sailors, Red Cross volunteers and Boston policemen combed the area looking for drowned victims. In a substance almost as black as ink, as thick as honey and up to waist-depth in the deepest areas…you can bet this wasn’t an easy task!

A photograph of the aftermath of the Boston Molasses Flood. Note the destroyed buildings and the rescue-cars and trucks parked in the lower half of the picture

Once all the survivors had been found and the bodies had been located, Bostonians started the long and sticky process of cleaning up the mess. Molasses was swept, pushed and shoved aside. Buildings were hosed down, cars were relocated, righted and cleaned and entire streets and sidewalks had to be scrubbed, scraped and hosed down to remove the sticky substance entirely. The environmental impact of the molasses flood was immense, and it took a full six months before the Charles River and Boston Harbor were cleared of the molasses.

The United States Industrial Alcohol Company, which owned the Purity Distilling Company, were found guilty in court and the company was forced to pay $600,000 in damages (1919 dollars. $6.6million today).

The exact cause of the disaster was never fully established and varies between the tank being overfilled to excessive fermentation that caused a buildup of gasses which exploded due to a stress-fracture compromising the tank’s strength. Another possibility was that it was the generally poor construction of the tank itself and that the rivets failed due to improper application.

The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire of 1911

Widely considered one of, if not the biggest industrial disaster fire in the New York City Area, the fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in 1911 showed just how dangerously ill-equipped most buildings in New York City were, to combat fires, and this disaster constantly reminds people to exercise and install proper fire-safety devices and equipment in their buildings and to have planned escape-routes in an emergency.

‘Shirtwaist’ is an old term for a woman’s blouse. The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory was a company that occupied the top three floors (eighth, ninth and tenth) of the Asch Building in New York City, which was (and still is) located on the corner of Greene Street and Washington Place. In these three floors, the company’s main employees, immigrant women, worked in gruelling, sweatshop conditions. The rooms were hot and stuffy, filled with poor migrants who worked nine hours a day five days a week and seven hours a day on Saturdays, producing shirtwaists, cutting the fabric, sewing the blouses and stacking them up to be transported off to the warehouses and shops.

The 25th of May, 1911 was a Saturday and like all good people, the women of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory wanted to finish their work and get home. Knock-off time was five o’clock, but over a hundred of these women would never go home to their families.

Although smoking was illegal in the factory due to the highly flammable cotton fabric which the women worked with, it’s widely believed that an improperly-discarded cigarette set the building on fire. A worker is believed to have thrown her cigarette into a rubbish-bin under one of the work-tables without checking that it was properly extinguished first. The embers in the cigarette set the dry, flammable scraps of cotton on fire and soon, the entire table was up in flames. Newspaper journalists later theorised that an electrical fault was to blame, but this was never firmly established. Whatever the cause, the fire rapidly took hold in the stuffy and overcrowded workspace, filled with wood from the tables, sewing-machine oil and the cotton cuttings from the shirtwaists and within minutes, the entire eighth floor of the Asch Building was on fire.

At once, women began to panic. They rushed for the elevators, they broke windows, they ran down stairs and they tried to scramble out onto the fire-escape ladders, balconies and escape-stairs which New York buildings had to have secured to the sides of their structures, to provide an escape-route in the event of an emergency.

A bookkeeper with access to a telephone managed to contact the women on the 10th floor that the building was on fire, however, the lack of a proper alarm-system meant that it was impossible to contact the women on the ninth floor in between.

There were numerous ways out of the Asch building: There were two elevator-shafts, a staircase and a pair of fire-escape staircases on the outside of the building, one descending to Greene Street and one descending to Washington Square.

The Asch Building, shortly after the fire

Women charged towards the Greene Street stairs. Kicking down the emergency-exit doors, they rushed out onto the balconies and started heading down towards the street. In the panic, there was no-one to regulate the flow of human traffic and before long, the severely overloaded staircase (which was already probably in bad repair) twisted and collapsed under the weight of its escapees. The door to the Washington Square stairs was locked and women on the 9th floor had no way of accessing it. By the time they knew the building was on fire, the Greene Street stairs were already blocked off by flames and smoke. After finally gaining access to the other stairs via the roof, more women were able to get out that way.

The building’s two elevator-operators, Joseph Zito and Gaspar Mortillalo operated their two freight-elevator cars as quickly and as efficiently as it was safe to do so. While the building still had electrical power, the two men rode their elevators up to the ninth floor, taking down packed lifts with each journey to the 7th floor where women could run down stairs to safety in the streets.

Eventually, though, the fire put the elevators out of action. Warped by heat and strained by the immense loads, the elevator mechanisms seized up until they became wholly inoperable, forcing the elevator-operators to abandon their posts after a total of just six journeys.

This horse-drawn fire-engine was photographed by a passer-by as it dashed towards the scene of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory

With the stairs impassable to all but the bravest women, with the fire-escape stairs either inaccessable or having collapsed and with the only two elevators within reach put out of action, there was little else that the other women in the building could do to escape. There was no water on these upper levels of the Asch Building for the ladies to fight the flames with. Some broke windows with furniture and jumped out of the top three floors, falling several dozen feet to their deaths in the street below.

The New York City Fire Department acted swiftly in the Triangle Shirtwaist disaster. Horse-drawn fire-engines were on the scene in minutes, with ladders, firefighters and powerful, coal-fired, steam-powered water-pumps. Despite their speed and efficiency, the firefighters were unable to combat the blaze effectively. No ladders that they possessed at the time, would reach beyond the 6th floor. In the meantime, more desperate women were jumping out the windows.

A rather poor photograph, but in all that pixelation are the bodies of just forty of the 146 victims that the fire claimed

While most of the 146 victims of the fire were women, witnesses say there were least thirty men who were killed in the fire as well. Deaths in the fire were caused by burns, smoke inhalation or blunt-impact trauma, suffered from the falls to the sidewalk. When the fire was over and the bodies had been cleared away, the owners of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory were brought to trial. They were eventually acquitted at the criminal trial, but lost a civil suit in 1913. Mark Blanck and Isaac Harris, the company’s owners, were forced to pay $75 compensation to the families of each of the victims (which was a considerable sum of money in 1911). Mr. Blanck was arrested again a few years later for endangering the lives of his workers when he locked doors during working-hours, in another one of his factories, which the authorities considered to be wreckless and needlessly endangering lives. The American Society of Safety Engineers, whose job it was to check the fire-safety of all buildings, was formed shortly after the disaster on the 14th of October, 1911.

The Asch Building today

The 1945 Empire State Building Plane Crash

On the morning of the 11th of September, 2001, the world was shocked when two fully-loaded 747 jumbo-jet airliners crashed into thw Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in New York City, killing thousands of people.

But how many people also know that a plane crashed into another equally-famous New York City skyscraper over fifty years before?

It’s true! On the morning of the 28th of July, 1945, weeks before the end of WWII, a US Airforce plane, a B-25, crashed into the top of the Empire State Building!

A B-25 Mitchell bomber, the type of plane that hit the Empire State Building

At around 9:00am on the 28th of July, a Saturday, A B-25 Mitchell bomber was flying to New York City. Piloting the plane was Lieut. Col. William Franklin Smith Jnr. He had two passengers with him, who were on a routine flight from Boston to New York. The day was incredibly foggy and Smith had contacted LaGuardia Airport, requesting permission to land. Air-Traffic Control at LaGuardia warned Smith about the incredibly low visibility due to the fog over New York City at the time and advised him to wait, if he could, until the fog had cleared a bit. Smith disregarded this advice and headed to the airport anyway. Severely disorientated by the fog, Smith’s co-ordination soon went out the window…along with much else!

Trying to use the skyscrapers of Manhattan to navigate, Smith made a wrong turn after passing the Crysler Building and suddenly found himself heading straight towards the Empire State Building! Unable to stop or change directions, Smith crashed into the north side of the Empire State Building, hitting it on the 79th floor, but damaging not only that one, but also the 80th and 78th! The impact-time was 9:40am. Fourteen people were killed in the crash: Smith, his two passengers, and eleven office-workers inside the building at the time of the impact. The fire which resulted from the airplane fuel was put out forty minutes later while firefighters and paramedics attempted to treat the injured.

A photograph of the Empire State Building, taken shortly after the crash. Note the flames coming out of the windows on the upper floors

Now here’s a Guiness World Record…How far can you freefall in an elevator without killing yourself?

This dubious and terrifying honour goes to elevator-operator Betty-Lou Oliver. The impact of the bomber against the Empire State Building had severely damaged and weakened the elevator which she was in at the time of the crash. Unaware of this, rescuers tried to help the already injured Oliver out of the building via the elevator. The weakened cables snapped and Betty freefell 75 storeys to solid earth below! Although badly burned by the fire from the original crash and suffering horrible injuries from the impact of the elevator crashing into the end of the shaft, Oliver survived and was taken to hospital. She returned to work a few months later.