Popping Pills: Restoring an Apothecary’s Pill-Rolling Machine

This gorgeous artifact and fascinating piece of medical history is the latest addition to my collection of antique brassware, and is also the latest thing I won at the local auction-house…

“Ooooooh!” I hear you say.

“Wussit do?” I hear you say.

“Can I have one??” I hear you say.

Well…uh…no, you can’t have one! I’ve been chasing one of these for five years, and I finally got one!

“Awww…okay fine!…But…w-whassit do?”

Well, it’s a pill-rolling machine, from the Victorian era! Ain’t it neat?

No, seriously dude…what does it actually, like…really, do?

…I just told you. It’s a pill-rolling machine!

I know, I know, it looks like some sort of antique cheese-grater, but yes, this is actually a pill-making machine, and back in the mid-1800s, no self-respecting apothecary would’ve been without one of these proudly on display on his shop counter!

“So how does it work?” I hear you ask, “And I mean…why does it exist? I thought pills were made in factories and stuff?”

Uh, yes…they are…now. But 150 years ago, they weren’t. In this post I’ll be talking about what this device is, how it works and what it does, I’ll also be going into a few of the differences between pharmacies today, and how they were, a hundred and fifty-odd years ago, in the middle of the 19th century, when this pill-rolling machine was invented…

Your Friendly Village Apothecary

This machine dates back to the days when your local pharmacist or apothecary bought, sold, and manufactured all his own drugs, medicines and curatives to everybody who lived within the bounds of a given community, and when the dispensing, manufacturing and purchasing of medicine was very different to how it’s done today.

These days, we get sick, we go to the doctor, he’ll give us a script, we’ll take it to the pharmacist, he’ll read it off, get the medicine, give it to us and we’ll walk out of his shop with a bottle of pills, a tube of paste, a jar of ointment, and a bag of diabetic jellybeans.

Back in the 1850s and 1860s, when machines like this were invented, how you got your medicine was very different.

For one thing, you likely didn’t even go to the doctor! Back in Victorian times, physicians were usually far beyond the reach, financially, of most people. Your average, workaday schmoe likely never met a doctor professionally, unless it was a real emergency. On a day-to-day basis, most poor and middle-class people would visit the pharmacist or apothecary for the majority of their healthcare needs.

Even if you did go to the doctor, he’d write out a prescription, and the instructions he generally gave you were to take the script to the apothecary and have the chap behind the counter make up the medicine for you, which the apothecary would’ve done anyway, even if you hadn’t gone to the doctor. And that’s the key difference between a Victorian pharmacist, and one which trades and deals today: Victorian pharmacists and apothecaries MADE their drugs, whereas modern pharmacists just sell them.

Let’s make some drugs… 

Back in Victorian times, there was no such thing as off-the-shelf medicine. Every tablet, pill, suppository, ointment, potion, lotion, tincture and syrup to treat everything from a sore throat to fever, headaches to constipation, was made laboriously by hand, by the pharmacist. There was no such thing 150 years ago, of medicine-making factories like what we have today.

“So where’d they get their drugs from, then?” I hear you ask.

Well, what used to happen was that pharmacists would draw on the centuries of accumulated knowledge passed down from master to apprentice, over countless generations. This knowledge foretold of which plants, herbs, roots, leaves, barks, piths, saps, syrups, foodstuffs and various animal parts, had healing properties. It was knowing how to find these ingredients, how to identify them, how to use them and what they did, that was the biggest part of being a pharmacist or apothecary back in the Victorian era. Indeed, a lot of ancient and past medicine had far less to do with pills and potions, and more to do with herbs, roots, leaves and saps. A lot of the medicine was plant-based (it still is, we just don’t realise it, that’s all!), and because of this, a pharmacist 150 years ago did not have packets and jars and bottles of medicine – he would’ve had jars, and jars, and jars, and row after row after row of drawers, all filled with these plant extracts and component-parts.

Old apothecary shops were famous for having dozens, hundreds of jars, bottles and drawers, all filled with plant and animal components, all of which were used for treating illnesses. Stuff like willow-bark, opium, cannabis, cocaine, smelling-salts, essential oils, cold-creams, arsenic, cyanide, moisturizers, lip-balms and all other manner of countless ingredients!

What used to happen is that you’d go into your apothecary, and he would diagnose you, and then recommend a treatment based on that diagnosis, or based on the symptoms which you told him of. After making his diagnosis or recommended course of treatment, the apothecary would then make the medicine for you – on the spot, there and then. This might take a few minutes, it might take hours! You might be told to come back later to pick it up, or you might just take a seat in the corner and read the newspaper in the meantime.

Victorian-era Medicine

Medicine for most of the Victorian-era varied little from medicine in previous centuries. All medicinal plant-and-herb components were bought, sold, and used in their raw form. No aspirin – just willowbark. No sleeping-pills – just opium. No laxatives, just rhubarb!

So what happened when you had to take your medicine?

Well, to make it easier to digest, and to make the active components easier to absorb, the plant material had to be broken down. This was most often accomplished by grinding, crushing, pounding and muddling, using an apothecary’s mortar and pestle, like this one:

A lathe-spun Victorian apothecary’s mortar and pestle, made of brass to make it easier to clean, more resilient to constant daily use, and to prevent medicine or poison from absorbing into the body of the mortar (which might cause poisoning!) This one’s from my personal collection of antique brassware.

Once the medicine had been crushed, ground and pulverised into dust, it could then be either dispensed into a jar, wrapped up in sachets, sealed inside capsules, or mixed with syrup in order to form a paste, which could then be rolled, or pressed into pills or tablets. As tablets were tricky to make by hand, some medicines were simply sold as the powder they ended up as – put inside a folded piece of paper and put inside a box along with a whole heap of others. One folded piece of paper meant one dose. The medicine was unfolded, tipped into a glass of water or other convenient beverage, and then consumed. It’s the origin of the expression ‘to take a powder‘. My dad remembers having to do this when he was a child for things like painkillers when he had a fever or headache – he said it always tasted horrible!

The Victorian Pill-Roller – How Does it Work?

Hard tablets were tricky to make. The powder had to be poured into a mold, the mold was closed and then hammered to compress the powder. The mold was broken open and a single tablet would drop out. This was slow, fiddly, and imprecise. Making pills on the other hand, which didn’t require this fiddly process, was much easier. And that’s where my Victorian pill-roller comes in.

Once the necessary ingredients for the pills had been measured, crushed, ground and pulverised, a final ingredient was poured into the mortar – syrup. The syrup wasn’t there to sweeten the mixture, it was there to act as a binding-agent. You mixed the syrup into the powder until the entire thing coagulated into a paste or doughy mixture. Then you could scoop out the entire mass, and roll it into a snake or sausage – one long, continuous worm of medicine!

Obviously, nobody wants to take an entire worm of medicine, no matter how sick they are. So to make it easier, the whole mass had to be cut up and shaped into pills.

This used to be done by hand. And there’s nothing wrong with that, except that no two pills were then ever exactly alike – which could be dangerous if the medicine was exceptionally potent!

To even the odds, and to make pills more uniform, the pill-roller was invented, around the 1850s.

So, how does it work?

Well it’s very simple. It has two parts (well three, but the third one is missing – I’ll get to that later on).

The largest piece is the board. This is set at an angle and is comprised of the rolling surface, the cutting grooves, and the collection-tray. The large flat surface is for rolling out the pill-paste into the sausage that I mentioned earlier. This is then rolled towards the brass cutting-grooves. The paddle (the second piece) is flipped over so that the grooves there line up with the grooves on the board.

Rollers on the ends of the paddle roll against the brass edges of the board, and they guide the paddle straight across the grooves, taking the pill-mass with it. The grooves on the paddle and the board slice up the pill-mass and, after rolling the thing back and forth a couple of times like a rolling-pin, the circular pills – each one exactly the same size now (wow!) – roll off the grooves and into the tray at the bottom. And there you have it – two dozen pills all done in less than a minute! Talk about mass production, huh? This process could be repeated countless times and the results would always be the same – perfectly shaped pills, which were all the right size, and the right dosage.

Now, remember I said that the board was on an angle? That’s to ensure that the pills only roll one way – across the grooves from one end, to the other, turning from lumps of clumpiness on one end, to emerge as recognisable pills on the other. Now this presents a problem: Pills are round. And if you studied university-grade physics like I didn’t, then you might or might not know that round things on a sloping surface…roll. A simple application of gravity overcoming friction.

To prevent your newly-formed pills from rolling off the board, onto the table, and then all over the floor, the pill-roller came with a third component, which on this one, is missing – a removable, wooden collection-drawer. At the end of a session of rolling, the pills would land inside the drawer and remain there while you made more. When the drawer was full, you could slide it out and empty its contents into a jar or bottle, easily, and cleanly.

That said, simply rolling the pills wasn’t always sufficient. To improve their look, or to change their shape, each pill was then placed inside a highly sophisticated pill-rounding device, which is different from a pill-rolling device, in that it doesn’t roll the pills, it rounds them.

What’s the difference? One device makes the pills, the other one pretties them up for the camera.

The pill-rounder is basically a flat wooden disc or cup. You stick it over the pill (one pill at a time) and slide it back and forth and all around. This rolls the pill inside all over the place, smoothing out any lumps and bumps, so that it’s a perfect sphere. Shaking the rounder back and forth flattens out the sides so that it looks more oval than circular – one trick to differentiate pills from each other if they’re the same size or colour, but have different functions – was to make different pills a different shape. You don’t want to confuse a laxative with a sleeping-tablet…

Restoring the Pill-Roller

Anyway, so much for the pill-roller and how it works. What about fixing it up?

Well, this is what it looked like when I bought it…

As you can see, worn out, and rather dry. The wood was supposed to be a beautiful dark mahogany colour and the brass is supposed to be a gleaming gold…instead both elements look rather dusty. In that photograph it’s almost impossible to tell them apart! It took a lot of polishing with Brasso and ultrafine steel-wool to restore the brass back to its previous luster…

The brass grooves and rails after my first concentrated polishing effort. It would take a lot more to finish it off.

Apart from polishing and cleaning the brass, I also had to tighten screws, fix dents in the brass rails (which fortunately were few and easily remedied), and clean out the grit and dust stuck inside the cracks.

The biggest repair I had to do was to rebuild the one missing piece from this device: The pill-collection drawer. This involved a lot of careful measuring, tracing, cutting, and research.

Rebuilding the Drawer!

I didn’t know that this thing was missing something when I bought it. I was so excited at the possibility of owning it that this had never crossed my mind! It was only after I’d started researching it, that I’d realised that something was missing. In researching the history of these things and trying to dig out photos of them online, I started to realise that mine was incomplete. Fortunately, rebuilding the drawer looked like a relative cakewalk, so I headed out, purchased the necessary materials, and started.

The first step was to measure and mark all the pieces that I’d need, after looking at loads of photos to determine the general style and shape of the thing. The next step was to cut them out and figure out how they’d all fit together. Due to the shape of the board and the grooves which the drawer had to slide in, each piece had to be carefully sanded, chiseled, cut, measured and oriented a specific way, otherwise it wouldn’t work.

Sanding and chiseling took up the most time. The first and easiest step was to measure, cut and sand the baseboard for the drawer. This had to fit perfectly, because everything else would be measured and cut in relation to how it moved inside the pill-roller. Once its size was perfected and it could slide in and out comfortably, I started on the side-pieces. These were harder because to fit inside the drawer-space, they actually needed quite a lot of wood taken off. I accomplished this with a ruler, pencil, hammer and chisel to carefully score, chip and split off as much wood as I needed, before sanding the chiseled area smooth.

The next step was to cut the curved, quarter-circle rails that would be at either end of the drawer. One end had to be lower than the other, so that the pills would roll into the drawer easily. The other end had to be higher, so that the pills wouldn’t then be encouraged to roll out the other side! The challenge here was to cut and sand these rails to the right length. Too short and they’d fall out and be the wrong size. Too long and if I forced them between the sides of the drawer, I risked splitting the pill-rolling board in half – which would be a disaster!

The next step was to fit all the pieces together, and ensure that they would slide in and out smoothly, without jamming…

All the pieces fitted together, before final assembly.

Once I was satisfied with how they fit together, I started gluing them together. This was the easiest bit. I started with the end-stop rail first, then the rail closest to the pill-grooves. And then I glued the side-panels onto the sides of the rails and the top of the baseboard. Then I slid the whole thing into the drawer-space to compress it a bit while the glue dried. This was the result:

Drawer goes in…

…drawer comes out!

I had to be very careful with these last few steps. The drawer had to be just the right size. If it was even a fraction too small, then it would just fall out. If it was a fraction too big, then it would jam, and quite possibly damage the board. But patience paid off and the results speak for themselves. The final step was to nail the pieces together here and there, just to provide some extra strength and peace of mind, and then to stain everything with oil to bring out the grain and colour, but the project was essentially finished at this point – all the other things that still had to be done were purely cosmetic. The main ‘reconstructive surgery’ as it were, was now completed.

BEFORE:

AFTER:

And there you have it. The finished product. Next comes staining, and perhaps a demonstration of how this thing actually operates, but that’ll be for another posting! Stay tuned!

 

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

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

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

Collins Street in central Melbourne as it appeared in 1839.

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

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

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

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

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

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

They had absolutely no idea.

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

What Is the Mahogany Ship?

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

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

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

Why is it called the ‘Mahogany Ship’?

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

What is the Significance of the Mahogany Wreck?

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

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

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

What Do We Know about the Mahogany Ship?

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

Wait…what?

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

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

No we can’t.

We can’t, because we can’t see it.

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

That was 130 years ago.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

…But…what’s a chain?

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

Great!

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

Right?

Ehm…not quite.

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

Why not!?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Does the Mahogany Ship Really Exist?

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

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

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

 

10 Historical Myths – #02

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ehm…possibly.

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

Yes, and no.

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

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

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

5). Punishment in the Royal Navy was Exceptionally Harsh

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

Yes, and no.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Right?

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

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

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

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

…no, he didn’t.

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

But what about the word ‘crap’?

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

9). You Couldn’t own Alcohol during Prohibition

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

Ehm…

…wrong.

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

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

By you, probably, yeah.

But not by the Chinese.

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

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

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

Well, what’s a ‘Li’?

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

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

So there you have it!

 

10 Historical Myths – #01

One of the biggest things which I love…and perhaps sometimes hate…about studying history is that you get to clarify, learn and debunk all the rubbish about history that you thought you knew as a child. Once you’ve done that, everything else that you’ve learned either makes a whole heap more sense, or makes you start questioning everything else. Not everything that we’d like to imagine about history is actually true.

Here are ten really common historical myths, and why, or why they aren’t, rubbish!

1). People wrote with big fluffy feathers!

This is a really common one, thanks to Hollywood, and big-time historical dramas. I’m thinking stuff like The TudorsThe BorgiasMaster and Commander, and so-on. But did people really write with big white (or other-coloured) feathers, back in the old days?

Yes…with a ‘but’. 

YES. People did write with feathers – they’re called ‘quills’, by the way – but NO, people did not write with feathers which still had all the frilly, fluffy bits (‘barbs’) still on them. During the Middle Ages, right up to the early 1800s, writing with a quill was the most common way of writing anything that had to be done with ink. The feathers used were typically large flight-feathers from big birds like geese or swans. They were large, long and thick enough to be worthwhile turning into quills.

The first step was to remove all the barbs. Barbs got in the way of writing – they were big, frilly and unnecessary. They also added a lot of weight to the pen, which isn’t exactly comfortable when you could be writing for hours at a time!

Once the barbs – the frilly pretty bits – had been cut off, the naked feather-shaft was buried and filled with hot sand. This dries out any moisture in the shaft and hardens the material (which is the same stuff which your fingernails are made of, by the way), so that it’s ready for the next step: Carving.

The point of the quill was then cut with sharp, short-bladed knife – a pen-knife. At least four cuts were required to turn the shaft from a quill into a pen. Shaping the pen-point would determine how the pen would write.

Of course, as you wrote, the pen-point would soften. Eventually, the point would be come so soft, it’d be like writing with cooked spaghetti, and it’d be pretty useless. So you cut off the point you made, and then you started cutting another one. And then you went back to writing…and then eventually that point would wear out, and you’d cut another one…after some time, the quill would get shorter, and shorter, and shorter, with your hand slowly creeping up the shaft, until it finally became too short to be practically used.

This is why the barbs on quills were often removed – to make them easier to use, and last longer as writing instruments. The notion in the Middle Ages, that you’d write with a feather that still had the barbs growing out of the sides would’ve been as ridiculous then as trying to write today with the cap still on the pen!

2). Loads of things about Knights!

Forget the U.S. Marines or the SAS, SWAT teams or the Royal Navy – knights will always be the ultimate battlefield heroes! And like any other hero, there are loads of ridiculous rumors that have come to surround knights in the centuries after their dominance. What are they?

Knights in Shining Armour!

Sorry to upset you, but knights in shining armour were not always a thing. In fact, for much of the Middle Ages, most knights did not wear the classic depiction of ‘shining armour’ – what is properly called ‘plate armour’ today. Most knights would’ve worn a tunic, hose, a thick, padded, quilted overjacket called a gambeson, and over the top of that – a shirt or jacket of mail (NOT ‘chainmail’, just ‘mail’), which was composed of thousands of steel rings linked through each other and riveted together with tiny steel rivets. This was basically the medieval equivalent of your bulletproof vest.

Last but not least, there’s no evidence that the military salute comes from a knight raising his helmet-visor, or removing his helmet altogether. A knight only removed (or even opened) his helmet when it was absolutely necessary – since it’s kinda important to protecting his head and all – so the likelihood that this is the origin of the salute is flimsy. It’s much more likely that the salute came from the time after knights, when it was common practice to sweep off one’s hat as a gesture of greeting and respect. The modern military salute is simply a much-simplified version of this.

Knights are Chivalrous!

As Mr. Gibbs says in the Pirates of the Caribbean movies, ‘they’re more like guidelines, than actual rules’!

And that is the truth. The idea of knights being all romantic and noble, chivalrous and dashing is…honestly not as true as you’d like it to be. Sorry folks. Knights are humans just like the rest of us, and just like the rest of us, they followed these guidelines when it was convenient to them, and not because they had to.

Chivalry actually came into play after knights had been around for a while. Without wars to fight, knights became restless and would often just go off raiding to find something to do. To keep knights in line, the Catholic Church decreed that from then on, knights were religious warriors, bound to a certain ‘code of conduct’, although there is no proof that all knights followed this code. The chivalrous knight might sound extremely noble and romantic, but it has little to do with the actuality of knighthood.

An Armoured Knight Could Not Move!

On the surface, you can kind of see how this thing plays out – a knight typically wore three to four different layers, at least two of them made from heavy steel mesh or plate, and at least one from heavy fabric. How on earth did they move around!?

Actually, armour was not as heavy as you might think. The modern soldier on the battlefield carries more crap with him than the knights of old! Although they’re typically thought of as being horse-mounted warriors, knights did have to be able to fight effectively on foot, so mobility and flexibility were extremely important. A knight which couldn’t move was of no use to anybody!

Knights were Older Men

Not really!

Training for knights started very, very young, and typically had two or three stages. A boy becoming a knight started at the age of seven. He would be sent away to the home of a nobleman-knight, who would oversee his education. This included things like swordsmanship, horse-riding, reading, writing, serving, and other important skills.

At the age of fourteen, the boy (then called a ‘page’) would step up to the rank of ‘Squire’. A squire was an apprentice-knight. He had to learn to wear, clean, and repair armour, he had to know how to fight, he had to know how to attack someone while riding on horseback, and had to physically assist the knight who was training him, in any number of ways, so as to fully understand what he was getting himself into.

Finally, at the age of anywhere from 18-24, usually at 21, a squire became a fully-fledged knight.

As a result, the average knight was probably no older when he started, than your typical raw military recruit these days, something which really hasn’t changed much throughout history.

Despite the Armour, Knights could be Killed on the Battlefield.

Well, yeah. Sure, they could. But in actuality, it was more common for a knight to be captured on a battlefield, rather than killed. Knights were the military elite of their day, and as such, typically earned great sums of money, land, titles and courtly positions. This made them far more useful to the enemy, alive, rather than dead.

It was common practice for knights to be captured and then ransomed back to their family, or whichever person was their immediate superior (such as a king or higher noble). Because of this, it was far more important to keep a knight not only alive, but also comfortable during his imprisonment.

3). Spices were used to disguise the taste of rotten meat

Food during Medieval times could be scarce. Effective farming and knowledge of cattle-rearing and breeding had not yet become a thing, and because of this, the availability of food could vary significantly from season to season, and year to year.

Because of this inability to reliably produce or store food year-round, absolutely nothing would’ve been wasted. Every part of an animal would be eaten, and every part of a plant or vegetable which was not otherwise dangerous or inedible, would be consumed.

This possibly led to the myth that medieval cooks would even go so far as to mask the taste of rotten meat by lacing it liberally with spices in an effort to waste absolutely nothing at all.

Now, I’m not sure exactly why this myth is so common, but…I can tell you that it isn’t true.

Spit-roasting meat was a long, slow, laborious process requiring nonstop attention. Wasting spices on rotten, roasted meat would’ve been unthinkable in the Middle Ages.

The fact is that spices were hideously expensive in the medieval world. They came from places like China, India, Madagascar, and Indonesia in long, long voyages and treks which could take months to complete. The price-hikes that were paid on spices at each exchange from merchant to merchant were huge, so much so that by the time they reached Europe, spices were so expensive that only the wealthy could afford them – and they certainly weren’t going to waste something which came halfway around the world, and which cost so much – on meat which wasn’t worth flavouring!

4). Chinese Emperors ate with silver chopsticks, to detect poison!

On the surface, this sounds really sensible. You eat your food with a metal which changes colour when it comes in contact with poison – that way, you prevent assassination! Real smart, yeah?

Well, it would be – if it worked.

Chopsticks have been made out of all kinds of things over the years, bone, ivory, rare woods, porcelain, and yes, even silver, so silver chopsticks certainly did exist – but there’s no proof that they were ever used to detect poison. And that’s for one very good reason: loads of things turn silver black!

The myth goes that when the silver chopsticks come into contact with the poisoned food, the silver tarnishes and turns black, and this warns the diner that he’s about to be poisoned. But actually – loads of foods, poisoned or not – turn silver black. Especially things with sulphur in them. That means anything flavoured with, or cooked with – eggs, garlic, onions, and various types of meats and vegetables, would all sooner, or later, turn a set of gleaming silver chopsticks – black. For this reason – poison-detecting silver chopsticks just simply wouldn’t work; they’d be too unreliable.

5). Columbus Found America, and Proved the World Was Round

Actually, neither of those things is true. Through geometry and sheer looking-aroundedness, mankind has known that the earth was round for centuries before Columbus. Knowing that Earth was round goes back to the Ancient Babylonians and Ancient Greeks. By the time Columbus showed up in the 15th century, it was a widely-accepted fact.

Along with this, neither was Columbus the first to discover America. In fact, he never did discover it! Vikings got there first, via Greenland, and Columbus only ever landed in the Caribbean, although he did eventually end up in what is today, Florida, on future voyages.

6). Loads of things about the Titanic

The most famous ocean-liner in the world. And with fame comes rumor and scandal, and the Titanic has loads of that! Here are some of the more persistent Titanic rumors, and why they are, or aren’t, garbage!

The Titanic and its Lifeboats

The Titanic has constantly been criticised for its chronic lack of lifeboats. But how many was the ship actually supposed to hold?

On the fatal night in question, it had twenty lifeboats of varying capacities, eighteen of which were successfully loaded and launched, with the last two being floated off the sides as the ship went down.

The Titanic was designed with Welin Double-Acting davits. These davits (winches or cranes, basically), had the ability to swivel both out (over the side of the ship) or in (over the deck). They were designed to lower multiple lifeboats. Had the Titanic been stocked the way that some in the White Star Line had desired, she would’ve carried approximately thirty-six lifeboats, which, if they’d been fully-loaded, would’ve been enough for everyone on board.

The Titanic was going too fast!

Actually the Titanic was not going ‘too fast’, the Titanic was going at its cruising speed. Which was absolutely normal. It was nothing which any other ship of the time would’ve been doing – it’s still standard practice today! The only reason for a ship to slow down was if it was departing, arriving, or if there was any imminent danger.

If the lookouts had had binoculars, the Titanic would’ve been saved!

Um…no. And for one very simple reason – the whole point of binoculars (or telescopes or any other such distance-viewing equipment), is to sight a specific item, object or location in the distance. This is tricky enough to do during the daytime, never mind at night. And on top of that, the lookouts on the Titanic were not sighting a known object.

Victorian-era brass binoculars. Glasses of this style would’ve been commonly used by officers and deckhands on ships such as the RMS Titanic

You can’t look for something which you’re not even sure exists. Binoculars would only have been of use to them if they know that something is definitely out there and they have some sort of reference-point with their eyes, with which to find it. Since they didn’t know there was an iceberg out there, they didn’t know where to look to find it with a pair of binoculars, which means even if they had them, they would’ve been useless, up until the time they’d spotted the iceberg with their eyes, which as we know, was already too late.

The Titanic was trying to win the Blue Riband

Another common (and completely pointless) myth is that the Titanic was trying to win the Blue Riband, which at the time, was the unofficial speed-record for ships steaming between the United States and Europe across the Atlantic Ocean.

While the Blue Riband certainly did exist, and was competed for, the Titanic did not, and could not, have won it. For one very simple reason: It simply didn’t have the speed to do so. The Titanic was built first and foremost for luxury and comfort, and to have the latest, and greatest technology available at sea during the early 20th century: Electric lights, elevators, telephones, radio, electric heaters, a photography darkroom, and the latest in safety innovations, but the one thing the Titanic did not have, was record-breaking speed, and this was part of her design. Even if she had wanted to, the Titanic would never have won the Blue Riband.

7). Loads of things about the Wild West!

Aaah, the Wild West. Where men were men, and where gun-toting outlaws shot it out in the streets and stuck up steam trains, stagecoaches and riders, relieving them of their gold, silver, watches and jewels. But how much of all this is actually real?

Everybody and their momma was packin’ heat!

Actually, despite the depictions shown by Hollywood and big-name Western films…everybody and their momma was more than likely, NOT packing heat. Believe it or not, but a lot of Western cities and frontier towns during the days of the ‘Old West’ (ca. 1865-1920), actually had extremely strict gun-control laws.

It was not illegal to own a gun. It was not illegal to own ammunition. It was not even illegal to fire a gun! But it was, in many towns, illegal to carry a gun openly in town. It was seen as threatening, hostile, and inviting danger. Because of this, town sheriffs actually enforced strict no-carry laws, regardless of open, or concealed.

The murder rates were super-high!

Actually…no. While murders certainly did happen, since people were not allowed to carry loaded guns in public, they were not nearly as common as Hollywood would have us believe. Most towns had less than five deaths a year!

Cowboys and outlaws were hot-blooded, white Americans.

Sure. Some were. But actually, there were also a lot of other ethnicities. Mexican, African-American and other, lesser ethnicities and nationalities were all represented in the Wild West – even gay cowboys were apparently a thing!

…Why?

Remember that a lot of these people lived very rugged lifestyles. Towns were days apart by horse and cart, and trains were not always as frequent as you’d like them to be – sometimes they didn’t run at all! Because of this, long cattle-drives and long journeys between towns relied on competent, reliable, sober men, if the stock (and the men driving it) were going to reach their destination alive.

This meant that they didn’t have time to piss around with things like racism or homophobia. That doesn’t mean it didn’t happen – sure it did – but in such a harsh environment, most people didn’t have the luxury of complaining about it. What was far more important was whether this guy on your team could do his job, more than anything else!

8). Loads of things about Pirates!

Just like with knights, pirates are also drenched in myth. But which ones are actually true?

Pirates buried treasure, and drew maps to it!

Nope. Instances of pirates burying treasure are phenomenally rare – there’s maybe one or two recorded instances of buried treasure in all of classical pirating history (ca. 1600-1800), and even those are contested. It’s certainly true that pirate ships sank, loaded with treasure, and that some of this treasure has been located, recovered, and put in museums, but that’s not the same thing.

Pirates walked the plank!

Nope. Pure fiction, and an invention of Hollywood.

There was a Pirates’ Code!

Actually…yes, there was! Well, yes, and no. At no time in history was there ever ONE specific pirates’ code. Such a thing never existed. But individual pirate captains did have codes of conduct on their ships which they expected to be obeyed. Articles listed in these codes mentioned everything from health insurance, bedtime, dividing the spoils of victory, a strict no-rape policy, and that every pirate was responsible for keeping their weapons in working order.

Pirates were marooned on desert islands.

Yes, this really did happen, and there are recorded instances of this happening throughout history. Admittedly not often, but it was a recognised pirate punishment. As is the bottle of water (or rum) and the pistol with one charge of powder and one shot.

Pirates spoke like they do in the movies! Yarrr!!

Sure they did!…Buuuut…only in the movies. A lot of that comes down to early Hollywood ‘talkies’ from the 1930s, 40s and 50s.

Pirates were obsessed with ‘Pieces of Eight’.

Probably, yeah. The ‘Piece of Eight’ is the slang term for the Spanish 8 Reales coin, millions of which were minted in South America, and  shipped back to Spain by the galleon-load. They certainly did exist, and you can certainly go and buy one, if you look hard enough. Spanish treasure-galleons loaded to bursting with gold and silver coins like these were often targeted by Dutch, English and French pirates and privateers.

Pirates wore eyepatches, had peg-legs and hook-hands.

Again, probably yes. While some of this has certainly been dressed up by Hollywood, it’s also true that pirates (and seasoned seafarers in general) did have eyepatches, peg-legs and hook-hands. Losing a limb during naval battles was extremely common, and crude prosthetic limbs would’ve been made out of whatever materials would’ve been available on the ship at the time.

Pirates wore eyepatches so that they could retain night-vision in one eye, and day-vision in the other. This was to make sight clearer when going above, or below decks, and switching between the darkness of the ship’s interior, and the brightness of the open decks.

9). Stuff about the Model T Ford

The most legendary car in history, there have been quite a few myths and misconceptions about the old ‘Tin Lizzie’. What are they?

‘The customer may have any colour he desires so long as it’s black!’

Actually, the Model T was available in a wide array of colours. While black was certainly one of them, it was also available in blue, red, green, grey and maroon. Ironically, black was NOT the first colour which Ts came in!

Model Ts were rickety, unreliable, fiddly machines.

While they were certainly fiddly to operate (the controls are NOTHING like those of a modern car), Model Ts were actually manufactured to be amazingly robust and long-lasting! Their engines were simple, their controls were…not exactly straightforward, but at least not dangerous to operate…and they were designed to cross open country! Remember that in the 1910s when most Ts were made, roads were often little more than dirt tracks. As a result, cars had to be built extremely tough to drive over them safely.

Model Ts could run you over when you started them.

Yes they could, if you didn’t follow the correct starting procedure. The handbrake had to be engaged (pulled all the way back) before the engine started (if you cranked it), or else the car could very well run you over!

10). The British Government once had a Window Tax!

Actually…yes! During the 1700s, with the British fighting an increasingly large number of very expensive wars, all kinds of taxes were introduced. One of them was a window tax, whereby every house which had more than a specific number of windows had to pay a tax for the privilege of having them. Some people got around this ridiculous law by simply employing the services of a competent bricklayer, and blocking up the extra windows!

The idea of taxing light is nothing new!!

Other taxes from the 1700s included ones on candles, watches and clocks, soap, newspapers, wigs and wig-powder, personal income, and the employment of male servants!…this final one lasted until the 1850s! During this time, candles, soap and newspapers became so expensive that they were virtually luxury items until the mid-Victorian era.

 

Researching Family History – Genealogical Needles in Haystacks!

“So uh, where are you from?”

Looking Chinese, I get this question a lot. Almost every time I meet a new person, it pops up. Depending on the situation, a sarcastic or honest reply usually follows. But it’s a difficult question to answer. I’ve never been fully comfortable with saying that I’m Chinese. I’ve been to China but once in my life – I don’t speak Chinese, I wasn’t born in China, and neither were my parents.

Despite this, we have undeniably Chinese roots. Both my grandfathers were born in China in the early 20th century. But here again there’s a separation – my grandmother (on my father’s side, at least) – was not. She was born in Singapore – at the time, a jewel in the crown of the British Empire. She grew up speaking English, along with a slew of other languages,

You can start to see why there’s hassles involved in researching my family history.

My Own Historical Journey

I only really started getting interested in genealogy after my grandmother died in 2011. She had led what I felt, was an incredible and arduous life, as well as growing up during an incredible time in history, and as part of a unique element of Chinese culture.

I knew very little about my grandparents’ lives while they were alive. My grandfather died before either my brother or I were old enough to know him, and I never felt comfortable asking grandma about him. At any rate, grandma’s worsening Alzheimer’s disease as she entered her 90s meant that by the time I was old enough to ask intelligent questions, it was becoming increasingly difficult for her to answer them. As a result, I learned most of my family history by asking my father, uncles, aunts, and older cousins.

It was only after my grandmother passed away that I gained access to a whole wad of her personal papers. Statutory declarations, passports, immigration papers, household documents, employment slips, hospital records, and even my grandfather’s death-certificate, that I was able to really delve into the history of our family – who was who, when and where they were born, and how everyone was related to everyone else. This was very exciting, but also incredibly confusing and difficult – not least because half the documents were written in a mixture of Cantonese, and Malay – two languages which I know almost nothing about!

The Difficulties of Asian Genealogy

In the Western world, tracing one’s family history is relatively easy. There are workhouse records, war-department records, immigration records, census-documents, birth and death registers, marriage records and school and university records to look through, to find out all kinds of things like when grandpa migrated to America from Italy, where and when he met grandma, what his parents and grandparents did for a living, where your Uncle Tony was born…all kinds of stuff.

Sadly such ease of access to ancestral information is next to impossible to attain for Chinese families. Centuries of war, revolution, invasion, occupation, more revolutions, more wars, more occupations and changing governments throughout China, Japan, the Malay Peninsula, Singapore, Vietnam, Thailand, Hong Kong and other Asian countries has meant that the likelihood of finding a complete and unbroken chain of records and dates going back more than a few generations is pretty unlikely.

Confucian Filial Piety

Another huge barrier to recording Asian genalogy is filial piety, a notion established by Chinese philosopher Confucius, centuries ago, and something which a lot of Chinese people still adhere to, to this day. Confucius stated that in everything, there was an order, a ranking and a hierarchy which had to be maintained. Every person in this hierarchy, from the emperor downwards, had a ranking and a title. This even extended to the family-unit, where every member was addressed not by name, but by rank and title. And in many Chinese families, this has continued into the 21st century.

“Alright”, I hear you say. “So what?”

Well, imagine trying to trace your family tree through even just a couple of generations, when you don’t know ANYBODY’S names. Not your grandparents’ names, not your uncles or aunts’ names, not the names of your great-grandparents, your grandparents’ siblings, their spouses…nobody, all because they would’ve been known by rank and title, and not by name.

Beginning to see the problem here?

The fact of the matter is that it is very, very difficult, unless you have access to loads of documents, and someone who is willing to sit down with you and go through them all, and explain things – especially if, unlike your parents or relations, you don’t speak your ‘mother tongue’, let alone read or write it!

Grandma’s little brother. I never knew we had a pipe-smoker in the family!

For my own part, I was lucky enough that my father’s side of the family was largely brought up Christian, and as such, almost everyone had Christian names as well as Chinese ones. This made recording names, dates and relations much, much easier! I didn’t have to think in terms of first uncle, second uncle, third uncle, second aunt, second-aunt’s husband, fourth uncle’s wife’s brother, third uncle’s cousin’s brother…

You get the idea. It can be maddeningly confusing!

Researching My Own Family

Researching family history can be a lot of fun. I found out the names of my great-grandparents, I found out when and where my grandfather was born, I found out that my grandmother had a little brother who died in the 1950s – and that he worked as an apothecary! I found out that our family has had more adoptions in, adoptions out, and adoptions around the family, than a revolving door orphanage, but it helped to explain how we got where we are, and how the current family all fits together.

Clockwise from top left: Uncle Mark, Aunty Lucy, Aunty Noni, grandma (middle), Aunty Nancy (left) and dad (on grandma’s lap!). Date: December, 1952.

I found all these details out from photographs, records, and from interviewing family members. Unfortunately for me, finding out about my family history isn’t as easy as doing a Google Search, and that means that every single unearthed speck of genealogical gold-dust that I find is precious and fascinating. If you’ve ever struggled to piece together your family history, you’ll know what I mean!

My uncle as a youngster! Born in September, 1935, he estimated this was taken just after World War Two, so he’d be about 10 years old in this picture.

For some people, knowing who they are and where they came from is a point of pride and fascination. For others, they couldn’t give a damn!…My uncle is one such person – he didn’t even keep his wedding photographs! He told me so! I have copies of them, though, and keep them as a record of everything that’s happened in our family which I’ve been able to find out.

Researching Your Own Family History

Genealogy can be a fascinating hobby, albeit a frustrating one. if you ever intend to start, then the best advice I can give is to find every elderly member of your family that’s left, with decent memories, and absolutely pump them for every single drop of information you can squeeze from them.

Living memories are better than dry words on paper, and questioning people when they’re alive means that you get more details out of them, rather than trying to figure out everything from records, after they’re dead! This is one thing I wish I’d done with my grandmother before she’d died, but unfortunately I just didn’t have the interest back then.

Next, get a-hold of all the papers you can find. Birth records, death records, passports, immigration records, in any way that you can. If you need to, get them translated! And above all, make sure that you cross-reference things. Records are not always as definitive as you’d like them to be!

My great-grandmother. Nobody knows when she was born, or when she died. She lived into her 90s, that’s all anybody seems to remember!

Once you’ve confirmed what you know, write it down! On the backs of photographs, in a family bible, in a document that you’re keeping – anything! Once lost, information like this is never won back, so guard it jealously! And make things easier for future generations (should you intend to have any), by keeping, saving and recording everything that you can, if not for your own children, then for your nieces and nephews further on down the line. You never know who might be interested in who came before them!