“I dub thee, Sir…” — Knights in Shining Armour

We have a lot of ‘Sirs’ these days. Sir Paul McCartney, Sir Elton John, Sir Michael Parkinson…all famous people…all knighted by Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II, of the United Kingdom for various services. It must be fun to be able to say you’re a knight and have ‘SIR’ in front of your name. But these days, admittedly, being given a knighthood is more a ceremony than anything else. You wouldn’t expect Paul McCartney to put on a suit of armour, hop on a horse, cry out ‘Tally ho!’ and charge off to Iraq, would you?

While these days knights have very little in common with the “knights of old”, people have always had a fascination with these strange and alien beings, the best of the best, the bravest of the brave, the strongest of the strong, the Green Berets, the SAS or the Marines of the Medieval world…but who were knights? What did being a knight mean? And most importantly…

How the hell did you become a KNIGHT anyway?

What was a knight?

A knight was a medieval soldier, a gentleman soldier, and a gentleman soldier who fought a gentleman’s war. He was an elite warrior and fighter who swore an oath of alliegence to the king. This is why in movies set in the medieval period, some people who bow to the king would address him as “my liege”, as he was the person to whom they had sworn alliegence.

A knight was expected to be many things. He had to be an expert warrior above everything else, but he also had to be courageous, brave, courteous, protective, polite and respectful of authority. He had to be in top-condition all the time and he was expected to keep his equipment and his horse in fighting condition as well, for he never knew when the king might call upon him to ride into battle. The knight held a position of respect and responsibility in his community and he was expected to uphold the law and not to abuse his authority, which was given to him by the king.

The Code of Chivalry

A knight was expected to behave like a knight…but how was a knight expected to behave anyway?

A knight’s life was regulated over by a set of rules, regulations and guidelines known as the Code of Chivalry, or the Chivalric Code. These days, if someone is said to be behaving ‘chivalrously’, it’s generally assumed that he’s kind and polite, compassionate and helpful…however, that is just one tiny iota of the vast and complex code of honour and conduct that regulated a knight’s life. So what is the full Code of Chivalry?

The original Code of Chivalry, also called the ‘Knightly Virtues’, were divided into three parts, they were:

1. Warrior Chivalry. Here, you were expected to fight for what was right. You were expected to obey your lord or your your king (whoever was your ‘superior officer’, so to speak), you were expected to be merciful, courageous, fair, selfless and you were expected to protect those who could not protect themselves, be they the weakly, the sickly, the poor, the young or the delicate. So effectively…the sick, the elderly, the impoverished and the children. You were expected to fight to the best of your ability for a child or for the innocent poor, as well as you were expected to fight for the life of your liege lord or your king.

2. Religious Chivalry. Religious Chivalry meant being faithful to God. It meant protecting the innocent, it meant being generous to others, to protect the church and to battle evil and misdeed and to be a beacon of what was wholesome and good in the world.

3. Chivalry of Courtly Love. This is the branch of chivalry which most people still recognise today. The knightly virtue of Courtly Love meant that a knight was expected to be a man of honour. That he was to be as good as his word. That he was to be discreet. He was expected to be polite and courteous, especially to women. He was to protect the womenfolk and to be helpful, kind-hearted and understanding, firstly of his own lady (either the wife of his lord or the queen, or to his own wife), and thereafter, to all ladies indiscriminately.

A Knight’s Tale

We’ve covered what a knight was and how a knight was supposed to act…but now, probably the most important question is…how did you become a knight?

I’m sure everyone would love to be a knight in shining armour. I’m sure a lot of kids back in the Medieval Era wished they were knights. Dressing up in armour, doing brave things, winning all the hot chicks and getting bags of cash from the king for all the awesome stuff you did…It’d be like a professional wrestler today. But to become a wrestler…and more importantly…a knight…isn’t easy. In fact it was so not-easy that if you intended to become a knight, you had to start training from the very day you could walk! So…where did you start?

Hither Page, Come Stand By Me

First and foremost, to be a knight, you had to have some sort of social-standing in life already. Most people who became knights had wealthy parents, were the children of knights, or were the children of wealthy or powerful noblemen who had good connections with the king. Money was a key part of becoming a knight; you had to be rich, or at least well-off, because you needed the money to pay for the training, the horse, the armour, the sword…it all came out of your own pocket. And once you had the money and you were considered knight-material, the training would begin. Don’t get cushy, training a knight was the medieval equivalent of special forces bootcamp today.

Considering that the training was so hard, if you intended to be a knight, a real knight, a knight in shining armour, then you had to start training young. Very young. How young? Try seven years old.

That’s right. If you intended to be a knight, you had to start at the age of seven. These days, kids at the age of seven are in elementary school learning how to read. Back in the 14th and 15th centuries, if you intended to be a knight, you had to start training at this age…and it wasn’t softened up just because you were a kid. So how did it work?

Once the decision had been made to turn you into a knight (usually by your parents), you were sent off to a neighbouring castle or even to the king’s household itself. Here, you would start your training as a page.

A page was a knight-in-training. You learnt how to ride a horse, you learnt how to throw spears, how to fight with a sword (using a human-shaped dummy known as a quintain as a target). You had to learn how to ride a horse and use your sword effectively at the same time and you had to do sparring-matches with the quintain, stabbing its shield with your sword and then hopping out of the way as the dummy swung around on its stand after the strike (the dummy’s movement was to simulate an enemy knight swinging his sword back at you, after you’d taken your swipe at him).

Apart from all the physical training, the young page also learnt things which other children his age would give their eyes to be able to do. He was taught reading, writing, various languages such as Latin or French, and the lady of the house or a lesser noblewoman in the king’s household, would teach the boy courtly manners so that he would know how to act in front of the king (if he ever met him).

As you can see, being a page wasn’t just some weekend correspondence course you did through the post, or a weeklong workshop you did down at the local community center. Starting at the age of seven, you were expected to do this stuff for the next seven years at least! Your training as a page didn’t finally stop until you were fourteen, or in some cases, as late as sixteen!

‘Ello Squire!

Once you finished your page’s training, about the age of 15, you then became a ‘squire’, or, to use the full term, an arming-squire. Becoming a squire meant that you had a position something between a knight-in-training, a junior knight, and a personal manservant. A squire was a teenage trainee who was assigned to the service of a specific knight. His knight was his mentor and his master who was supposed to teach the young whip everything he was ever likely to need to know about knighthood. The squire did everything for the knight, he served his meals, he accompanied him, he cleaned up after him, he took care of the knight’s horse, he accompanied him on journeys, he followed him to tournaments and matches and he assisted him in combat.

Much like a valet, a squire was also expected to look after a knight’s clothes. And what does a knight wear?

Yep…a squire was expected to learn how to look after the knight’s suit of armour, in training for when he would someday (maybe) wear his own. The squire was expected to dress his knight and know where everything went and how it fitted and held together. He was expected to know how to do a few basic repairs to the metalwork and of course…he had to know how to keep the armour clean! His master couldn’t be a knight in shining armour if the armour wasn’t shining!

There was no Brasso back in the 15th century, no steel wool, no Simichrome polishing-paste. How was the squire to keep his knight’s kit clean?

14th and 15th century Brasso was a polishing agent made up of sand…vinegar…and…urine. The squire would rub this stuff onto the armour and scrub it in and wipe it off over and over and over, to get a nice, glittering shine. In the middle of a battle, a squire was expected to be hot to trot at a moment’s notice. When his master was out in the fray, slashing, bashing and crashing away at the enemy, the squire was expected to be able to repair broken pieces of equipment, he was expected to help the knight if he was injured, he was expected to run out into the middle of hell with a new piece of kit for his knight and he was expected to protect his knight if he was in trouble.

A full suit of armour, with the helmet, shoulderpads, breastplate, arm and legplates, kneepads, gauntlets (gloves) and sword. Under this would be a chainmail suit and more clothes to act as padding against the weight of the metal.

Along with all this stuff, one of the most important parts of becoming a knight was learning how to wear authentic, 15th century medieval armour! All knights wore armour, so as a squire, part of your more advanced training was to learn how to put on a suit of armour, how to take it off, and most importantly, how to move around and FIGHT in a suit of armour! These days when we think of protective clothing, we think of bulletproof vests or kevlar or something like that. Medieval armour was nothing like that. A real, full suit of medieval armour was made of steel and iron and it was incredibly heavy. You had the helmet, the visor, the breastplate, the backplate, the armplates, legplates, you had the gauntlets. Under all this you had the chainmail and your tunic and your trousers (hose). You had your socks and your shoes and your protective metal overshoes. Add to this your belt, your dagger, your sword and your shield…you were a walking tank, carrying at least (note, at LEAST) 30-50 kilograms of metal (about 80-100lbs). Part of your training was to dress up in full kit and spend the entire day in your armour, walking around and doing your regular duties. This was to get you used to wearing the armour in all kinds of weather and to be able to move around in it comfortably during battle. You were also expected to be able to mount, ride and dismount a horse in full armour.

I Dub Thee, Sir Knight

Exactly how long it took you to become a knight was variable. Official training from page to squire took seven years. How long it took you to become a fully-fledged knight from just being a simple arming-squire depended on a lot of things, but it usually hung onto the size of the squire’s nuts and how brave and courageous he was during battle. Don’t forget, a squire wasn’t just a servant, he was a junior knight-in-training, and he WAS expected to fight or at least to defend himself and his master in battle. If the squire was brave enough, if he was courageous and ballsy enough, if he had proven himself to his knight or to the local lord or even to the king himself…he might get a nice word about him put into the next ‘graduation ceremony’, and the king (or more commonly, the local lord), would consider him knight-material.

The Knighthood

If young Jimmy Ryan had started life out in the 14th century as the son of a wealthy nobleman who desired Jimmy to become a knight, Jimmy would have started training at the age of seven, as a page. At the age of fourteen, he became a squire. After proving himself worthy after years of loyal service, the knight might speak to the lord or the king (depending on who he served), or the squire himself might speak to the big man. If the lord or king decided that the squire was indeed worthy, he would agree to arrange the knighting ceremony. While there was no fixed age from which a squire became a knight, it usually happened in the squire’s early 20s.

Officially, a knighting is called an ‘accolade’ or a ‘dubbing’, hence the term “I dub thee…”. It was performed in the following manner:

The king or lord, having decided the squire was indeed ready for knighting, would arrange a time and place for the knighting ceremony. The night before the big day, the squire would dress in clean, white and red robes and clothes. He would pray and fast throughout the night, purifying his soul for the next great moment in his life. While this was going on, a priest would bless the sword which the squire was to recieve and then lay it down on an altar, ready for the ceremony.

In the early morning, before dawn, the squire would bathe, making sure he was thoroughly clean. He then put on his best clothes, attended confession with a priest, had breakfast, and then headed off to the place where the ceremony was to take place. By now, it would be dawn.

Just like a graduation ceremony from university today, this was a big event. It wasn’t just the knight, the king and a flock of peasants. It was everyone. The squire’s family, his best friends, the wealthy and the powerful and the respected families and personages…anyone who was anyone, would show up for the big day, to watch this historic event.

When everyone was assembled, the ceremony took place. The squire would kneel in front of his liege lord, or his king (again, depending on who was available), and the person in charge would raise the sword (placed on the altar earlier that day) and he would do the motions which we’re all familiar with. He would tap the flat of the sword-blade on one shoulder, and then on the other, while saying something along the lines of: “For services rendered, I dub thee, Sir James Ryan…”. In older times, the lord or king might actually strike the squire with the sword, but somewhere along the way, it was decided that this was a bit dangerous, so it was replaced with the gentle shoulder-taps which we recognise today. This over with, the squire was officially proclaimed a knight and what followed would be a night of food, wine and making merry, into the small hours of the next day.


“A woman might piss it out!” – The Great Fire of London

Everyone’s heard of the Great Fire of London; it’s one of those famous disasters that you grow up hearing about. It’s like the sinking of the Titanic or the 9/11 attacks or the Boston Molasses Flood of 1919. However, in most cases, it’s probably likely that you know it was a fire, that it was big, and that it happened in London and…that’s it. So…what was the Great Fire of London and what made it ‘Great’, anyway? Surely a city as old as London has had hundreds of fires. Why should this one stand out and be any different or any more memorable than any of the dozens that had come before it, or that had gone after it?

What was the Great Fire of London?

The Great Fire of London was a massive conflagration that started on Sunday, 2nd of September, 1666 and ended on Wednesday, 5th of September. Burning for four days and three nights, it destroyed four fifths of the ancient city of London, reducing thousands of homes, businesses and public institutions to rubble and ruin. It covered several hundred square yards of the city and it remained uncontrollable for several days, with Londoners’ 17th century firefighting-methods and technology, unable to effectively combat the blaze. Although the fire could have been stopped earlier, the bungling and indecision of the city’s officials caused a citywide catastrophe that left thousands of people homeless and destitute. But what was the cause of all this misery?

The Start of the Fire

    “…Some of our mayds [sic] sitting up late last night to get things ready against our feast to-day, Jane called us up about three in the morning, to tell us of a great fire they saw in the City…”

– Samuel Pepys.
Diary, Sunday, 2nd September, 1666.

The spark that was to ignite one of the most famous disasters in history, was born in the ovens of Mr. Thomas Farynor, official baker to His Majesty, King Charles II. In the 1660s, commercial bakeries had large, open-fire, wood-burning brick ovens, consisting of a small fireplace underneath and a cavity above, and a chimney and flue behind, to carry away the smoke. The fireplace at the bottom was where the burning fuelwood was set and burned, and the cavity above was where the dough was placed to be baked. At the end of the baking day, it was common for bakers and their assistants to rake and remove the ashes from the ovens and to put the kindling for the next day’s fires inside the empty fireplace. The bricks of the fireplace, heated by the day’s baking, would dry out the kindling ready for use the next day.

It is theorised that Farynor had placed his kindling and firewood for the next day into or near his ovens, to dry it out for the next morning’s use and had then retired to bed. Near midnight, the kindling and fuelwood caught fire. The flames, unchecked by the baker and his staff, quickly spread through the kitchen, setting fire to the wattle & daub walls of Mr. Farynor’s home. Farynor and his family (who lived above their bakery), were awoken by the smell of smoke. Finding their way downstairs blocked by smoke and flames, Farynor thrust his wife and children out of an upstairs window onto a neighbouring roof. With his family safe, Farynor made the jump himself, and turned back to help the family’s servant-girl to safety. The maid, too frightened to make the jump from the windowsill to the roof next door, was the fire’s first victim.

Downstairs, the flames spread rapidly. Houses in Stuart London, much like in the Tudor period before, were made of wattle and daub, materials used in construction for centuries before. A typical Tudor or Stuart-era building had strong, wooden beams creating the framework of the house, and then reeds which were interwoven between the beams and longer, upright reeds (forced into the ground), to create a rudimentary wall. These reeds or ‘wattles’, were then strengthened with a substance called ‘daub’, which was made up of…ehm…animal droppings…straw and water. Mixed correctly, ‘daub’ became a bit like plaster and once it was slapped onto the walls (by hand!), it would dry hard and solid. It was then painted or whitewashed over, eventually creating a structure that would look something like this:

A typical ‘wattle and daub’ house. The wattles are plastered over and filled in by the daub, which is then whitewashed. The thick, dark, oak beams give the house its strength.

Although they were cheap and easy to make, wattle and daub houses had one big problem…they were incredibly vulnerable to fire. The wattles, the oak beams, the floorboards and even the daub itself, were all amazingly flammable, and in the summer of 1666, houses were baked dry until just the tiniest spark could turn them into raging infernos. Thomas Farynor’s bakery (located on the aptly named Pudding Lane), was just one of thousands of similar structures that could be found in nauseating abundance in Stuart-era London.

The Fire Begins to Spread

Farynor and his family (with the exception of the housemaid) had escaped unscathed from their burning home, by running across the rooftops and then descending to the street below. Their house was not so lucky. Within minutes, first one, then two, then three, then the entire block of houses, was on fire! There hadn’t been a drop of rain in weeks, and the thatched rooves of the houses were as flammable as tissue-paper. All it took was one stray ember to set the roof on fire! With Mr. Farynor’s building burning like a bonfire, stray embers were everywhere, and nearby houses were soon raging infernos. People, roused by shouts and cries of alarm, quickly evacuated their homes, taking with them, whatever valuables they could lay their hands on at the time.

It was around this time that Lord Mayor, Sir Thomas Bloodworth, was roused and alerted about the fire. He surveyed the unfolding catastrophe, famously uttered that “A woman might piss it out!”, and then went back to bed, leaving the people of London to their fate and ignoring the crackling of the flames and the billowing smoke.

17th Century Firefighting

These days, we have all kinds of things to fight fires with: Fire extinguishers, high-pressure hoses, aerial water-bombers and fire retardents. Back in the 1660s, Londoners had to make do with buckets, archaic and ineffective water-pumps and water-squirts, to combat a blaze larger than anything that they’d had to deal with before! In the 17th century London, the main way for firefighters (or rather, citizens and soldiers, as actual firefighters didn’t exist), to combat a fire, was to create firebreaks. This isolated the fire and prevented it from spreading. The contained fire could then be drowned by bucket after bucket of water. One of the big problems with this method of firefighting, was that to create the firebreaks, it was necessary to tear down buildings in the fire’s path…private buildings. People’s homes and their shops and their businesses. Obviously, nobody wants their homes torn down, even if there is a fire on the way, and to override this, the firefighters needed the permission of the Lord Mayor. Bloodworth considered such actions to be unnecessary, so for several hours, the people of London fought a losing battle with a fire that was by now, totally out of their control.

The main combatants against the Great Fire of London included ordinary civilians, trainbands (militia-groups) and city watchmen. These three groups of people, later assisted by soldiers, had to fight a fire that by now, was covering several city blocks. The main firefighting tools of the day were buckets, made of either leather or wood, which were slung, hand-to-hand, in long bucket-brigades, water-pumps, which were huge, wooden water-barrels on wheels with hand-pumps and a leather water-hose, and the water-squirt, which was a big, metal syringe which could take up to three men to operate. While all of these firefighting tools were good against small blazes, they were useless against huge infernos. Bucket-brigades couldn’t deliver the water fast enough, mobile water-pumps were slow and cumbersome to move, and the water-squirts were too cumbersome for one man to operate and at any rate, had about as much power and effectiveness as a “super-soaker” water-gun!

One of the water-squirts or water-squirters used to fight the Great Fire of London.

The Great Fire of London

By dawn on the 3rd of September, the fire was well and truly out of control. Farynor’s bakery, along with the homes and businesses of hundreds of other Londoners, were now reduced to rubble and ashes. London Bridge, located a few streets away, was a blazing holocaust, and people who lived on the bridge fled their homes southwards, away from the flames. London Bridge in the Stuart Era had several shops and houses built upon it and this made it a great firetrap. Fortunately, breaks in the buildingworks, which allowed people who crossed the bridge, to look out between the buildings and over the water, acted as firebreaks, preventing the spread of the fire southwards. This came at a cost, though. The fire had destroyed the waterwheel at the north end of London Bridge, cutting off the firefighters’ main source of water to fight the blaze. Without the waterwheel (which pumped water up from the tidal River Thames, to street-level, several feet above), Londoners faced a serious shortage of water to put out the fire.

A Blast from the Past

Finally given permission to start ripping down buildings, firefighters and soldiers started pulling down or otherwise destroying buildings which stood in the fire’s path. King Charles II himself was alerted to the presence of the fire and wasted no time in rushing to the aid of his subjects, taking part in the firefighting efforts himself, by manning bucket-lines and helping to pull down buildings. The king’s presence amongst his subjects was a big morale booster…especially when the king pressed gold coins into the hands of his subjects whom he believed were working particularly hard to fight the fire, as an incentive to work even harder and not to give up the fight.

In a risky move, permission was granted to access the powder-stores of the Tower of London. In the 1660s, the Tower of London was still a working military base, and barrels of gunpowder, stored there since the end of the English Civil War, were now rolled out into the streets of the English capital. The idea was to use the gunpowder as an explosive to bring down buildings faster and more effectively, to create better firebreaks. This was a hit-and-miss method of firefighting which didn’t always work. Usually, people brought down houses using long firehooks – long poles or ropes with hooks on the end of them. The hooks would be attached to rafters or the rooves or windowsills of houses and then teams of men would pull the wooden frames out, causing the house to collapse.

Fleeing the Fire

By the afternoon of the 3rd of September, London was well and truly ablaze. The docks were on fire and the barrels of oil, wine, pitch and resin which were stored there, burned and exploded from the heat of the flames. Terrified Londoners fled from their homes, taking with them their most treasured belongings. With London Bridge now closed to traffic, people were forced to cross the river by going down the steps near the riverbank and paying watermen (the men who operated private river-ferries) to save their lives and their worldly goods. Watermen quickly raised their prices as the fire progressed, trying to make as much money as they coud of off the desperation of their fellow citizens. More people fled out of the city’s gates to the fields nearby, to escape the flames, smoke and the sound of the collapsing buildings. Strong winds and high temperatures fanned the fire rapidly northwards and westwards.

The Fires of Hell

    “…The fire coming on in that narrow streete, on both sides, with infinite fury. Sir W. Batten not knowing how to remove his wine, did dig a pit in the garden, and laid it in there; and I took the opportunity of laying all the papers of my office that I could not otherwise dispose of. And in the evening Sir W. Pen and I did dig another, and put our wine in it; and I my Parmazan [sic] cheese, as well as my wine and some other things…”

– Samuel Pepys.
Diary, Tuesday, 4th September, 1666.

The 4th of September was the most devastating day of the Great Fire. High winds and temperatures had made it utterly uncontrollable and time and time again, the fire jumped firebreaks made by soldiers and army officers who attempted to fight the fire with military efficiency. Charles II continued to rally his subjects to extinguish the flames by assisting them personally in their duties and by continuing to reward those who worked especially hard, with generous tips of gold and silver. The king placed himself in more danger on this day than in any other because of how fast the fire was spreading. This day saw the destruction of the famous St. Paul’s Cathedral, which was being restored by Sir Christopher Wren at the time. The wooden scaffolding around the building meant that the cathedral, made of stone and therefore thought impervious to flames, caught fire, destroying several hundred valuables stored therein for safekeeping during the blaze.

    “…The stones of Paul’s flew like grenados [sic], the melting lead running down the streets in a stream, and the very pavements glowing with fiery redness, so as no horse, nor man, was able to tread on them…”

– John Evelyn.
Diary, Tuesday, 4th September, 1666.

In a turn that must’ve scared thousands, the winds changed later in the day, and the fire started burning backwards along the way it had come. Although it had burned westwards for the past two days, it now burned, heading eastwards, towards the Tower of London and its valuable and dangerous stores of gunpowder. Guards at the tower awaiting orders from the Duke of York (later James II, and Charles II’s younger brother), finally decided that they could no longer hang around to wait for royal permission and took matters into their own hands. They rolled out the gunpowder and blew up several buildings in quick succession, thus halting the fire’s spread to the East.

The End of the Fire

The Great Fire of London finally ended on Wednesday, 5th of September. On this day, the winds subsided and the firebreaks had effectively starved the inferno of its fuel. With the fire beginning to die out, it was easier for firefighters now, to close in on individual blazes and extinguish them with buckets, water-pumps and water-squirters. Moorfields, then a public park on the outskirts of London, was turned into a refugee camp for the homeless, with tents and temporary housing set up there to house the newly destitute. King Charles II visited Moorfields once the fire had been successfully extinguished and encouraged his subjects to leave London and to start lives elsewhere, away from the destruction of their nation’s capital. How many people acted on the king’s suggestions of relocation, is unknown.

Rebuilding London

Once the fires were out, rebuilding London became everyone’s chief priority. There were several plans drawn up for the reconstruction of the city, but the bold new plans and layouts, which favoured wide roads, central squares, large public parks and large, open, welcoming avenues, were largely ignored by the city’s officials. While King Charles himself admired several of the new suggestions, he bowed to the pressure of the city’s government officials, who stressed the necessity of rebuilding the city as quickly as possible, as opposed to redesigning it from the ground up. As a result, London was rebuilt on virtually the same lines as it existed on, before the fire and London’s basic street-plan has remained unchanged for the past, nearly 400 years.

King Charles and Sir Christopher Wren, who was one of the architects who had submitted plans for a ‘new and improved’ London, did manage to keep some of their ideas, much to their relief and to our safety. The king decreed that houses should be made as fireproof as was then possible; thatched rooves were banned outright within the city of London, and buildings made of wood and wattle and daub were discouraged or made illegal, in favour of buildings made of safer materials such as stone, slate or brick. Houses which still had thatched rooves had to have these rooves replaced with roof-tiles, slate or shingles, to prevent the risk of the house catching fire in the future.

The Great Fire of London also saw the rise of insurance companies. After the Great Fire, fire-insurance companies sprang up all over town, and they issued various marks (metal plaques) which their customers could purchase and affix to the outer walls of their houses. In the event of their houses catching fire, the company would help to put out the fire, or if the house was destroyed, to compensate the homeowner for the loss of his home and contents.


Dip Pens and their Accessories

Oh, what a picturesque sight, eh? A man sitting at his desk, oil-lamp burning brightly, an inkstand open in front of him and a fine, gold dip-pen in his hand. Listen as he dips the nib of his pen into the inkwell, the soft ‘clink!’ as he taps the excess ink off the nib against the side of the well, and then the soft, scriffly scratching as the sharp, metal pen-point scrapes over the paper as he pens down the latest novel, scientific theory or groundbreaking essay on tropical medicine.

The Dip Pen has been part of human life for centuries, and its dominance only ended less than a hundred years ago. This article is devoted to that one, archaic writing instrument with which so many great documents and literary creations were penned down with, and to explore how they work, what came with them, and what they’re like to use. For the sake of convenience, this article will concentrate on the mass-produced steel pen-points which came into existence at the turn of the 19th century.

What is a dip-pen?

A rather obvious answer awaits this question. A dip-pen is a writing instrument (be it an actual steel pen, a quill, a brush or a reed) that is without its own, inbuilt, long-term ink-supply, and which must be dipped repeatedly (hence the name) into a source of ink, to allow it to write. Said source usually being a bottle of ink or ink contained in an inkwell. As I said above, this article will concentrate on the steel dip-pens which dominated much of the 19th and early 20th centuries.

How a dip pen works.

Dip-pens, like the fountain pens that succeeded them, worked by a combination of gravity and capillary action. Capillary action worked off the natural surface-tension of liquid while gravity directed the flow of ink. When a dip-pen is dipped into an inkwell, a small amount of ink clings to the underside of the specially-shaped nib. Surface tension keeps the ink on the underside of the nib, while capillary action and gravity draws the ink downwards towards the tip of the nib. Quite simple really. Unfortunately for mankind, this was as far as writing-technology got until the late 19th century when people began to understand the importance of air-pressure in making a good fountain pen.


A note of importance is the terminology. A dip pen is actually the steel pen-point…what most people today would call the nib. The shaft which the pen-point fitted into, was the pen-holder. If you went out to a stationer’s shop in the 1870s and asked for a ‘box of pens’, you’d recieve a small cardboard box filled with little steel pen-points. These days, however, the ‘pen’ is synonymous with ‘nib’, since the introduction of the fountain pen.

Preparing your nibs.

If you’ve just gone out to your local art-shop and bought some paper and a pen-holder or two and some nice dip-pen nibs and now you’re at home at your desk with your ink and your paper and your pens and you’re itching to start writing, there are a couple of things that you should do before starting your inky adventures. The first thing, rather obviously, is to select a dip-pen nib and slot it into your pen-holder. The second thing that you need to do is to prepare the nib for writing.

Now if you don’t understand this, I don’t blame you…but try this: If you get a fresh dip-pen nib and dip it into ink and then take it out of your inkwell or bottle, you’ll notice that the ink drips right off the nib, or otherwise, it forms nasty little ink-drops on the nib which crawl away from the slit and the pen-point like ants from a Huntsman spider. The reason for this is that the pen has a very thin film of oil on it, which was left there in the manufacturing of these nibs. You might get lucky and there won’t be any oil there at all, and you can write straight-off. However, in most cases, this won’t be the case. Now I’ve read several posts in forums about people who say: “I got my nibs, I got my pen-holder, but the ink refuses to stay on the nib. What do I do?”

Quite simple. Burn it. Or rather, temper it.

To do this, you need to strike a match, or light a candle, and pass the nib through the flame several times, making sure that all parts of the nib go through the flame at least once. What this does is remove the oil from the nib, and this allows the ink to cling to the nib as it should.

A word of warning. As these nibs are made of steel, they heat up VERY fast. Put the pen-nib into the pen-holder BEFORE running it through the flame, or else hold the pen-point with a pair of tweezers, first. Otherwise you’ll give your fingers a very nasty burn.

Having done that, your pen should hold ink perfectly fine.

The next thing to do is to smooth the nib. By this I mean, you need to smooth out the tip of your pen nib, with some very fine sandpaper, to give yourself a nice, smooth writing experience. This isn’t always necessary, but sometimes, pen-points (which are razor sharp) can tear and rip at the paper when you use them. Smoothing the nib and testing it occasionally, will give you a nice, comfortable writing experience.

Who uses dip pens?

“Hang on, hang on!” You’re saying, “Why the hell are you telling me this? Who the heck still uses dip pens these days!?”

You’d be surprised. A lot of people still do. Artists, calligraphers, illustrators, historical re-enactors and people who wish to explore the history of writing, or who wish to have a bit of fun when they write. I fall into this last category, myself. Also, fountain pen users sometimes find themselves drifting into using dip-pens for more interesting and creative writing-styles, which can’t be achieved with a fountain pen.

Dip Pens in School.

Even though dip-pen nibs were dying out by the first decades of the 20th century, they still persisted in schools for a surprisingly long time. Up to the 1950s or 1960s in some places. I’m sure many of you are wondering: “Why?”

Why would teachers and schools force kids to write with dip-pens when more effective, cleaner and more easily-used fountain pens were available?

There are several reasons for this, but it mostly boils down to convenience and cost.

In a school where you might have upwards of 1,000 boys, it was cheaper to supply them all with dip-pen nibs, which cost tuppence a box, rather than fountain pens, which were much more expensive. Ink for dip-pens is very easy to make and it was cheap. You could buy huge quantities of it (massive bottles of it, actually!) which would last for ages. Fountain pen ink had to be specially-made and formulated, and this was expensive.

But then you might ask: “Why didn’t students just buy their own fountain pens and fountain pen ink?”

Well…that was because they were students. You have to remember that in the 1920s, when practical fountain pens really started taking off, a decent fountain pen cost about $3.00-$5.00. While this doesn’t sound like much money today, in 1925, you could buy yourself lunch and a drink with twenty-five cents. Spending three whole dollars on a fountain pen was considered extravagant, expensive and far beyond the reach of most children’s pocket-money. And even if their parents bought them fountain pens to use, they would probably have warned their children not to take them to school, on account of how expensive they would’ve been.

It’s for these reasons that dip-pens lasted in schools for as long as they did.

Dip Pen Accessories.

Dip pens require various accessories to make them really work properly. These accessories are…

1. A leather writing-pad.

A leather writing-surface, either nailed into a desk or inlaid into a writing-box or writing-slope, was a necessary addition for dip pens. The cushioning of the leather allowed for the sharp, metal pen-point to travel smoothly over the page, without also scratching the wooden desktop underneath. It led to a more pleasurable writing experience.

2. A rocker-blotter or blotting-paper.

Dip-pens tend to write incredibly wet. By this, I mean they have a tendency to lay down a very generous amount of ink. Blotting-paper, either as a loose sheet, or cut into a strip and put into a rocker-blotter is essential. Failure to blot regularly can result in big, nasty, inky messes on your writing.

3. An inkwell or inkstand.

An inkwell was a necessary accessory to the dip-pen. Unable to carry their own ink-supplies, dip-pens need an inkwell near at hand when writing. Usually, it would be just the one inkwell, with a hinged lid. However on larger desks, you might have two inkwells, set in an ‘inkstand’, a special desk-accessory that held spaces for pens, inkwells, spare nibs and even, in some cases, space to store a rocker-blotter.

A typical inkstand, of silver and lead crystal (or glass). In this particular case, the stand would have been placed in the middle of a large, partner’s desk, for use by two men (note the opposing troughs, either side of the inkwells in the middle, for storing pens). The inkwells were filled with ink, usually two different colours (such as red and black), but in this case, probably both with black ink. The box between the two inkwells was for storing postage stamps.

Frequently Asked Questions.

Here are a few frequently asked questions about dip pens…

1. What kind of ink can I use?

Any ink, really. Traditionally, it was powdered ink or iron gall ink, and this is still the best ink to use, but regular fountain pen ink works just as well.

2. How long does a nib last?

You just got a new nib, it’s tempered, it’s smoothed, it’s ready to go…how long will it last before I have to change nibs?

That depends, really. It depends on the type of nib, it depends on how you use it and how frequently you use it. I’ve had dip-pen nibs that lasted a few weeks, I’ve dip-pen nibs that have lasted me the better part of a year.

3. Are dip-pen nibs really fragile?

You read this a lot in autobiographies of people who grew up in the early 20th century, of breaking dip-pen nibs at school. Or maybe your parents or grandparents used to tell you they broke dip-pen nibs when they were at school, and ink went everywhere and then the schoolmaster gave them a right, royal hiding with a bamboo cane for all the mess.

How fragile a dip-pen nib is, depends on the kind of nib it is. Most stiff, steel nibs are actually quite tough and VERY sharp. You could probably stab someone to death with one of them and then write a confession-note later with the same pen. It’s pretty hard to break them.

On the other hand, dip-pens which are flexible in nature, with softer, more malleable metals, might be more prone to breaking. I personally, have never broken a dip-pen nib. One the one occasion that I actually tried, it’s actually damn hard to do. That said, the nibs which students would have used in school were probably the cheaper steel nibs, which was all they could afford with their pocket-money, but that’s all I could say on the matter.


Welcome to The Rock: The Story and History of Alcatraz Island

The Rock; United States Federal Penitentiary: Alcatraz Island, one of the most famous and legendary maximum-security prisons of the 20th century. A Pacific hideaway for America’s most hardened criminals, and possibly the most famous prison in the entire world. What else could be more fascinating than a big house on an island in the middle of a bay surrounded in fog, that’s filled with the meanest, hardest, most dangerous men in the entire country? A place accessible only by boat, which cross the San Francisco Bay where man-eating sharks swim through the waters, to deter escapees?

The History of Alcatraz Island

Located a bit more than a mile off the coast of San Francisco, California, is a small island. The Spanish who arrived in California in the 18th Century gave this island the name ‘La Isla de los Alcatraces’: The Isle of the Pelicans.

From almost the very day it was discovered, Alcatraz was used for protective purposes. When California joined the United States as its 31st state in 1850, the US Army started taking a very big interest in Alcatraz. Considering that the island was right in the middle of the bay, the most obvious first action was one of shipping safety. The first lighthouse on the US West Coast was erected on Alcatraz in 1854. It lasted just over fifty years until the 1906 earthquake put it out of action. It was torn down and was replaced by another lighthouse on Alcatraz in 1909 (which still stands and operates today).

Initially, the US Army decided to make Alcatraz an island fortress, building barracks on the island and setting up gun-batteries along its perimeter. A total of 108 cannons were placed around the edges of the island, to protect the San Francisco Bay Area against naval attacks during the Civil War. The guns were never fired, and soon, soldiers began to find a new purpose for Alcatraz…a military prison.

Throughout the Civil War, Confederate sympathizers and the crews of privateer vessels were locked up on Alcatraz and from 1861, when the war started, until 1865, when it ended, hundreds of captured Confederate soldiers were housed here. In 1868, Alcatraz was officially turned into a military prison, and it was soon to recieve even more inmates. The Spanish-American War of the 1890s swelled the prison’s inmate-population from twenty-six, at the start of the war, to over 450 by its end.

In 1906, the San Francisco Earthquake and Fire levelled the famous coastal city, destroying several houses, public buildings and…the city’s prisons. Desperate to find somewhere to house these criminals, the city’s government shipped them to Alcatraz where they could be locked up in the military prison there, until further notice.

The Birth of The Rock

The 1906 earthquake levelled San Francisco, and the famous city by the bay was razed to the ground by the fires that started shortly after. With the city’s prisons destroyed, the local government had its criminals sent to Alcatraz to serve out the rest of their sentences, and so the island got its first taste of what it would soon become most famous for: housing hardened criminals.

The 1920s and the 1930s saw a dramatic rise in crime throughout the USA. Prohibition, followed by the Great Depression, had sparked an unprecedented crimewave, and gangsters, bootleggers, confidence-men, pimps, bank-robbers and the owners of illegal gambling dens were popping up like mushrooms. In the 30s, the American government started sitting up and taking notice, and all kinds of law enforcement agencies, from the FBI downwards, started rounding up all these crooks and shoving them in jail.

Unfortunately, these guys were too hot for jails to hold them, and time and time again, they busted out and went on the rampage all over again, or, they managed to bribe prison guards and get special priveliges inside prison, which allowed them to run their criminal empires, even from behind bars…Al Capone did this, and bank-robber John Dillinger managed to bust out of jail twice! It soon became painfully obvious that a new, super-prison, a real, hardcore maximum-security prison, was needed to lock these guys away for good. Enter Alcatraz.

The idea of building a prison on Alcatraz Island first emerged in the early 1930s. The United States Department of Justice acquired the island and its facilities in 1933 and were determined to make it a super-prison. Unfortunately…this was the Depression, and the money, which was desperately needed to upgrade the island’s aging military facilities into a working prison, was nowhere to be found. The Department appealed to Congress for help and funds, but were refused. But then, J. Edgar Hoover, the head of the FBI, stepped in. Having a super-prison to house all the guys who were giving him ulcers, was something he liked the sound of, very much indeed. With his…persistence, influence, pestering…call it what you will…the Department managed to get the funds to start renovations.

Alcatraz Island. The cellhouse is in the middle of the island. On the right is the Alcatraz lighthouse (built 1909, still operational today). To the right of the lighthouse are the ruins of the warden’s house, destroyed during an Indian occupation of the island after it closed in 1963.

The Main Cellhouse on Alcatraz was renovated, fences were repaired, guard-towers were put in, barracks for guards, prison staff and even their families, were either constructed or fashioned out of existing buildings, and the latest security-devices, such as mechanically-operated (later, electronically-operated) doors and metal-detectors were put in. Watch-towers had powerful searchlights and the guards up the top were all armed. Around the inside perimeter of the Main Cellhouse, an enclosed, metal walkway known as the Gun Gallery was constructed. From here, armed guards could stare down into the cellblocks below, and keep an eye on the prisoners.

One of the two-tier gun-galleries that run all around the inside of the main cellhouse.

Open for Business

In 1934, Alcatraz was opened for business, and the warden sent out an ‘open invitation’, so to speak, to all his other warden-buddies, inviting them to send to Alcatraz, all their hardest and most dangerous criminals. He would take care of them. The other wardens jumped at the idea, and soon prisoners were being shipped to Alcatraz in boatloads.

Getting to Alcatraz was quite an ordeal. When you arrived in San Francisco, you were put on the prison ferry. What followed was a choppy, mile and a half boat-ride across the San Francisco Bay towards the island. Once on the island, you were dumped into a prison truck and driven up towards the Main Cellhouse. When you arrived there, you were given a body-search, you were ordered to have a shower, you were given your blue, prison jumpsuit and then you were led to your cell.

There were four cellblocks on ‘The Rock’, as it came to be known. They were called A, B, C and D blocks. They were set out, side by side, lengthwise. A, B and C blocks were for the general prison population; D block was the Solitary Confinement block. The majority of the prisoners were housed in B and C blocks (one prisoner to each cell) and a few in A block. Only prisoners who misbehaved were locked in D-block.

A typical cell on Alcatraz. Not much space, huh?

One of the renovations made to Alcatraz in the 1930s was the introduction of ‘toolproof’ bars. These bars were specially designed to be untamperable. Originally, the bars on the cell-doors were just flat, steel bars, welded together. Unfortunately, these, with enough persistence, could be filed through, bent open and rendered completely useless as a form of imprisonment.

D Block, solitary confinement on Alcatraz.

The newer, ‘toolproof’ bars were specially designed to make filing through the bars almost impossible. They worked like this:

Instead of the ordinary, flat, steel bars, the doors had tubular steel bars in them, instead. The tubular steel bars were stronger and harder to saw through, but with enough persistence, again, you could cut through the bars. To remedy this defect, the new bars were filled with lots of iron rods. This gave the bars extra strength, and there was more metal to file through! But apart from that, the rattling of the iron rods inside the bars, when someone tried to file through them, was very loud. Once someone started filing…everyone and their brother knew what was going on…especially the guards. Only B and C blocks were upgraded with toolproof bars, however. This being the Depression, there wasn’t enough funds to also upgrade A-block, which is why it was not very much used.

“Broadway”, the main corridor of the Main Cellhouse, between B and C blocks.

The prisoners had their own names for certain parts of the prison. The main corridor between B and C blocks was called ‘Broadway’; the area at the end of ‘Broadway’, in front of the prison’s dining-hall, was called ‘Times Square’. The cellhouse dining-room was called the ‘Gas Chamber’. This was an apt name; as the dining-hall was one of the places where prisoners could harm other prisoners, or prison-guards (because they now had knives and forks!). The prison officials built canisters of tear-gas into the ceiling of the dining-hall. In the event of a riot, the gas could be released, to aid prison-guards in their attempts to restore order.

The dining-hall on Alcatraz. Note the small, round gas-canisters attached to the rafters.

A closeup of one of the tear-gas canisters inside Alcatraz’s dining-hall.

The Daily Grind

Once you were on The Rock, one thing that immediately got to you, was the Daily Grind. This was the boring, slow, monotonous daily routine which happened seven days a week, three hundred and sixty-five days a year, with almost no exceptions.

7:00am. You woke up, roused by the cellhouse bell. Your cell was tiny and cold. How tiny? Five feet wide, nine feet long, about six and a half feet high. You could barely get up and stretch your arms!

7:20am. The cell-doors were opened (by a special set of levers). Prisoners stepped outside their cells and waited. They were not allowed to talk and they were not allowed to look anywhere except directly across the corridor.

7:30am. Breakfast. Prisoners were allowed to talk (quietly!). They were allowed to eat as much as they liked, but were not allowed to waste food. All silverware was meticulously counted by the guards. A stray fork or knife could be fashioned into a deadly weapon.

7:50am. Breakfast finishes. Prisoners on work-details line up. Prisoners not on work-details are led back to their cells. Work-details included working in the laundry, the woodwork shop, the metalworking shop, cleaning the cellhouse or working in the prison library.

8:00am. Prisoners are led to the buildings where they will work. They have to pass through the metal-detector (called the ‘snitch-box’ by the inmates) on their way out of the cellhouse.

8:20am. Prisoners started work.

10:00am. Prisoners are allowed a short break.

10:08am. Work recommences, until 11:35am.

11:35am. Work finishes. Prisoners stand to be counted.

12:00 Noon. Lunch, for 20 minutes.

From 12:20-1:00pm, prisoners are locked in their cells and counted again. After this, they’re led back to work.

At 4:40pm, the prisoners have dinner. Dinner ends at 5:00pm. Prisoners are sent back to their cells and locked in for the night.

5:30pm. Another head-count.

11:30pm. A final headcount. Lights out.

Famous Prisoners and Escapes

Alcatraz boasted some very famous prisoners in its 29 years of operation. Al Capone, Robert Stroud, Alvin Karpis and Machine-Gun Kelly, to name but a few. Al Capone had a job cleaning the cellhouse and was known as the Wop with the Mop.

Alcatraz was often toted as being ‘escape-proof’. It was said that the one and a half miles from the island to San Francisco was too cold to swim, that the currents were too strong and that the bay had man-eating sharks in it! Well…the bay did have sharks…but they were harmless, sand sharks, but the guards encouraged the ‘man-eater’ rumors to scare the prisoners, anyway.

Despite all this, despite all the security measures, there were escapes from Alcatraz. A total of thirty-six prisoners tried to escape from The Rock, in fourteen separate attempts. Only a handful of these were ever successful…although how successful is still debated.

The two most famous escapes were the ‘Battle of Alcatraz’, from the 2nd-4th of May, 1946, in which two guards and three prisoners were killed by gunfire and grenades, and the 1962 escape involving the Anglin brothers.

In the ‘Battle of Alcatraz’ of May, 1946, it took several prison guards, plus two platoons of US Marines to regain control of the cellhouse. The botched escape-attempt, in which the prisoners hoped to escape to the exercise yard, scale the wall and make it to the sea, was foiled when the key put into the lock of the door to the yard, proved to be the wrong one. The lock jammed and the men found their escape-route cut off. A furious gun-battle ensued between prison guards and the prisoners who had managed to obtain firearms from dead prison officers. The prisoners who had started the ‘battle’ were eventually killed by grenades, thrown into the space where they were holed up, by prison guards and the marines who were sent to storm the cellhouse.

The other famous escape-attempt happened in 1962, when three men, the Anglin Brothers, John and Clarence, and their friend, Frank Morris, busted out of the cellhouse by chipping away at ventilation-grills under their cell sinks and finding their way through the utility-corridors to the roof of the cellhouse. Once on the roof, they climbed down the outside of the building and made it down to the sea without being spotted. Here, they fashioned a raft out of raincoats and managed to paddle away from the island and were never seen again. This daring escape was depicted in the film “Escape from Alcatraz”, starring Clint Eastwood. The popular science show “Mythbusters” carried out a similar escape from Alcatraz to see just how plausible such an event was. They concluded that a successful escape from the island-prison like this, was plausible, and that the men might really have managed to escape from the most famous prison in the world!

The end of The Rock

Rising maintanence costs, combined with the bad publicity of all the escape-attempts, meant that Alcatraz was beginning to become a big burden on the US government. One of the biggest problems with Alcatraz was that it cost so damn much money to run! Nothing grew on Alcatraz. It didn’t even have any soil! Everything that the prison officials wanted for Alcatraz, from building materials to topsoil for plants, to food, all had to be shipped to the island. This made it a very expensive prison to run. To add to this: cost-cutting measures taken during the Depression, when money was tight, meant that the prison was in desperate need of repair by the early 1960s. Corrosion caused by the salt-water used to flush the prison toilets (just one of the several cost-cutting measures), meant that the plumping and the structural integrity of some of the buildings, was greatly compromised.

The escape attempts from Alcatraz had proven to the US public that people could escape from their legendary ‘inescapable prison’ and that even jammed on a rock in the middle of a bay, wasn’t enough to stop hardened criminals. People lost their confidence in Alcatraz, and in 1963, after 29 years of operation, the prison closed for good.

The Legend of Alcatraz

Even though it was only used for barely more than two dozen years, Alcatraz remains the most famous prison in the world. It recieves over one million tourists a year, who, like so many thousands of prisoners before them, took the ferry across the bay towards the island, only this time, they go there to explore, and not to be locked up. The prison has been the location of at least three films and when J.K. Rowling wrote her “Harry Potter” series, her maximum-security wizarding prison was very similar to Alcatraz. It was in the midde of the North Sea, it was considered inescapable and it even had a similar name: Azkaban. And just like Alcatraz, it was considered the scariest prison in the world.

Azkaban Prison as it appears in the Harry Potter films.


Blackouts, Raids and Rationing: The Blitz and the Home Front of WWII (Pt I)

Part I

The Second World War is one of the greatest and most significant and one of the most important events of the 20th century. It shaped and changed everything that happened after it, from the Cold War to a divided Germany to the United States becoming the next superpower over the United Kingdom. But when we study the Second World War, be it in the classroom at school, in university or in documentries on TV, there’s one major trait which I think you’ll all notice at once…

It’s all about the battles. About Market Garden, Barbarossa, Chastise, Dynamo, Overlord, about the bombing of Dresden, the Battle of Stalingrad, the Battle of Berlin…it’s all about the big, history-making events of the War. I think anyone who’s studied the Second World War would know what happened on these dates: 1st of September, ’39, 7th of December, ’41, 6th of June, ’44, 8th of May, ’45, and so on…they’re all famous and important dates, and rightly so. But in times of war, it’s not just the battles, the air-raids, the shootouts and the charging tanks, it’s not about the brave dogfights or the bombing or soldiers being blasted to pieces or charging to victory…it’s also about the ordinary people living on the Home Front, whose lives changed forever with the outbreak of the Second World War. It was about mothers who had to scrape and scrounge and scrabble for every single scrap of food to cook a meal, it was about fathers and grandfathers who remembered the Great War of 1914, barely a generation before, it was about how the war affected the lives of ordinary people, not just the commanders standing over a table with long sticks and toy tanks. So what was it like during the War on the Home Front?

What is the ‘Home Front’?

The Home Front is the civilian side of warfare. Away from the battlefields with the cannons and guns and bullets, the homefront was where ordinary people fought in their own way, to help their boys who were fighting miles away on distant battlefields and it was where great sacrifices were made by ordinary mothers, fathers, wives and relations, to keep their soldiers alive and safe, even though they might be on the other side of the world. The Home Front was important for supplies, information, moral support and intelligence-gathering. The Home Front showed that war touched everyone, not just the soldiers fighting in the field. The Home Front is what this article is about…

The World at War

On the Third of September, 1939, Great Britain, France and Australia (as a part of the British Empire), declared war on Nazi Germany, after its flat refusal to withdraw its troops from Poland, which it had invaded just two days before, on the First of September. The Second World War had started and with the famous words:

    “…I have to tell you now…that consequently, this country is at war…with Germany”

– Neville Chamberlin; British Prime Minister; September 3rd, 1939.

The moment war was declared, people began to fear the worst. They feared…invasions…bombings…gas-attacks…night time air-raids…What were they to do? Within weeks, months or even as quickly as days after the attack, things began to change. In England, children of school-age were evacuated from major cities, mainly London, but also other large cities which might be targets for enemy bombers. They were packed into trains and sent north, out of the range of enemy bomber-planes, and put into the care of foster-families or put into boarding-houses set up inside grand, country houses run by the wealthy. Children who were lucky enough, got to stay with relatives already living in the country. Otherwise, to these children, it meant spending weeks and months away from home, away from their parents, staying with strangers with whom they’d had no prior contact or knowledge of.

Mass Evacuations

The evacuations happened months in advance. As early as June, people, fearing war, had already fled north. The official, government evacuations started on the 31st of AUgust, 1939, and they were called “Operation Pied Piper”. Under this operation, children of school age, mothers with young chidlren or newborn babies, or other persons who were in heightened danger, such as the elderly, were packed into trains. It was a massive undertaking; Upwards of three and a half MILLION Britons were evacuated from southern England. Some went north, some braved an Atlantic crossing and sailed to Canada, the United States, or even halfway around the world to Australia, to escape the impending doom. It was suggested, at one point, that the British Royal Family should evacuate, either to the country, and then later, to Canada, for their own safety. Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother, horrified at the thought of what the Royal Family abandoning its people to its fate, might do to civilian morale, famously declared that:

    “The children won’t leave without me, I won’t leave without the king, and the king will never leave!”

– Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother.

Operation Pied Piper in action. These are just a few of the 827,000 children who were evacuated from London from 1939-1940. The cards attached to their clothes would allow their carers or relatives to identify the children when they arrived at their destinations.

Many children were understandably terrified of leaving their mothers and fathers and spending months away in some strange place they’d never been to. However, if they’d know what was coming up next, I think they would have left for the country a lot more willingly.

Preparing for War

All over the British Isles, people were preparing for war. They bought miles and miles of sticky-tape to tape neat, diagonal crosses onto the windows of their houses and shops. The tape was to hold the window-glass together so that it wouldn’t shatter and become lethal pieces of flying shrapnel in a bomb-blast. Similarly, people filled sandbags (although usually filled with soil) and stacked them up outside important buildings, around air-raid shelters and Underground railway stations. The sandbags protected buildings against flying shrapnel and absorbed the shock of exploding bombs when they hit the streets. People started digging Anderson shelters in their back yards. An ‘Anderson’ shelter was a partially-buried air-raid shelter, made of corrogated steel, usually placed a few feet into the ground, or in some cases, right under the ground!

Two families of neighbours preparing their ‘Anderson’ shelters. The soil which they shovelled on top was to protect against bomb-blasts.

Anderson shelters were very cramped and small, only six and a half feet long, six feet high and four and a half feet wide! They were designed to hold up to six people, generally the size of a nuclear family at the time: Mother, father and their children. Anderson shelters were not designed to be protection against a direct hit, they were meant to be protection against falling debris and flying shrapnel. When buildings collapsed or caught fire, the window-glass, support-beams or the bricks in the walls, could become dangerous missiles when they were blown away from the point of explosion.

Public Air-Raid Shelters

One of the most enduring images of the Home Front of WWII, was the organsation of public air-raid shelters in London, which centered around London’s famous “Underground”, its subway-system, which had existed since Victorian times.

At first, government officials were against Londoners using the Underground stations as air-raid shelters. The official reasons they gave were that there was a lack of running water, proper sanitary facilities, food and that it would become incredibly cramped down there in the tunnels. They were actually worried that Londoners would ‘chicken out’ and that, once given the Underground stations as bomb-shelters, they would move in permanently and never want to leave. This fear proved to be unfoundd, and in 1940, several of London’s lesser-used Underground stations were converted to bomb-shelters. Bunk-beds, canteens, toilets and chairs were put in for peoples’ comfort. Food was delivered on subway trains towing specially-modified carriages, which rolled into each station at dinnertime, to serve soup, bread, coffee and other necessities. Of course, this rolling restaurant-service wasn’t available to all stations, so actual canteens and kiosks were set up downstairs as well, so that people in the shelters could get a bite to eat.

Londoners sheltering from an air-raid in the Bounds Green Underground station. The men wearing steel helmets are blackout wardens.

Londoners were not always safe in the Underground, even if it was safer than being outside. When an air-raid began, they would charge into the nearest Underground air-raid shelter, wait out the bombing, come out again and go on with their lives. But sometimes, they never made it out. On the 13th of October, 1940, Bounds Green Underground station was destroyed by a bomb! It struck houses slightly to the north of the station and the force of the blast caved in the roof. Part of the station’s tunnel-system collapsed, killing sixteen people immediately, seventeen people in hospital the next day and injuring about twenty others, who later recovered.

Although this incident proved to Londoners that the Underground was not an infallable system of protection, it was the only one that most of them had, and for the most part, the Underground saved many lives.

The Blitz and the Blackout

All over the world, not just in England, but in Asia, Europe, out on ships at sea, in Australia, even in the United States, people observed the ‘blackout’. The blackout was the mandatory electrical blackout which governments enforced on their populations, for their own safety. After sundown, every single person, every home, every business, had to either turn off its lights, or it had to cover its windows with heavy, jet-black blackout curtains. In the streets, public streetlamps were turned off. Cars had their headlamps covered, allowing only a tiny slit of light to shine onto the road, windows were shuttered and billboard lights were turned off.

The purpose of the blackout, which happened every single night for the duration of the war, was to disorientate enemy fighter and bomber aircraft. In late 1940, the Blitz began. The Blitz was the intense, night-by-night bombing of London (and other cities, such as Coventry), by German Luftwaffe bomber-planes. It was supposed to pound the British into submission, all it did was wreck London, kill people and waste valuable German war-materials. By blacking out their houses and streets, Londoners hoped to confuse German planes. Without radar, the enemy planes were not able to detect where key targets were, without lights below, to guide them. To combat this, bombers dropped incendiary bombs first, which set buildings on fire, and giving the bombers a sight-reference. With this established, they then moved to more damaging high-explosive bombs, which exploded, either on impact, or after their fuses had burned out.

Despite the nightly bombardment, which ran from 7th September, 1940, until 10th May, 1941, several of London’s most famous buildings such as St. Paul’s Cathedral, the Tower of London, St. Stephen’s Tower, home of Big Ben (which kept time down to the second, despite being bombed every other night of the week) and Tower Bridge, all survived. Buckingham Palace also escaped relatively unscathed, despite being bombed no less than seven times during the Blitz. It was a deliberate target by the German Luftwaffe. One bomb fell into the palace courtyard and detonated on impact. The force of the explosion blew out all the inside windows of the palace, but still, the King and Queen refused to leave London, except on very special occasions. Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother famously said, after the palace had been bombed:

    “I’m glad we’ve been bombed. Now I feel as though I can look the East End in the face!”

– Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother.

London’s East End, then, as now, was the industrial, working-class heart of the English capital. Located here were factories, docks and warehouses. It was bombed mercilessly by the Luftwaffe, and the Queen’s comments must’ve made people feel glad that their majesties had chosen to stay in London, to be with their subjects at such an incredibly dangerous time in their nation’s history.

The front page of the Daily Mirror, dated Saturday, September 14th, 1940. Five bombs were reported dropped on the palace on that day, and yet King George VI and Queen Elizabeth escaped unscathed.

It was the job of blackout wardens, during the Blitz, to make rounds of their neighbourhoods, to ensure everyones’ safety. All lights had to be turned off or covered over. In the event of air-raids, wardens would direct civilians to air-raid shelters and help to provide first-aid in the event of injuries. The next day, teams of men who were part of special, civilian work-brigades, would help the severely overworked firemen to put out fires, shift rubble, clear away dead bodies, or rescue people trapped under their bombed houses.

The Air Raid Siren

The air-raid siren is one of the most famous sounds of the Second World War. Its haunting, undulating, wavering, screaming, shrieking wail of danger and distress could be heard for blocks in every direction. When aircraft-spotters on the south coast of England or in towns near to London spotted German bombers coming over from France, they sent messages to London, where the air-raid sirens would be turned on, to warn everyone of the impending danger.

The most famous air-raid siren signal was the one called ‘red danger’, characterised by regular, high-low tonal changes in the siren’s distinctive, wailing sound. This indicated that the air-raid was imminent and that civilians should make for cover as soon as possible. After the air-raid, the sirens sounded ‘all clear’, a single, long, high-pitched tone.

The siren remained a fixture throughout the War and even today, it is still used to warn of danger, although these days it’s used to warn of cyclones, bushfires or massive storms.

“There’s a War on, You Know!”

Finding food, clothing, water and other essential supplies was a constant, daily struggle during the War. On the Home Front, housewives in the UK, but also in other countries such as America, Canada, Australia and various British colonies in Asia, all had to be incredibly resourceful when it came to making ends meet when there was barely anything to eat. Rationing became a way of life for everyone, rich or poor. When someone complained about the rationing, the common reply was: “There’s a war on, you know!”, or “Don’t you know there’s a war on?” All kinds of things were rationed during WWII, here’s a list of just a few things which were rationed:


If mothers, wives, girlfriends, fathers and younger brothers ever heard of their soldier boys complaining about their lack of food, I don’t think those boys would’ve been complaining for much longer once their folks back home were done with them! At the height of rationing in England, around 1942, this was an ENTIRE WEEK’S rations in food for one adult:

It’s not much, is it? Four small pieces of meat, one egg, a little bit of butter, a bit of flour, sugar, and precious little else. Housewives had to stretch their cooking-skills to the max, if they intended to feed their families. The government even issued special ‘ration-recipes’, giving suggestions to wives on how to use their rations effectively, to cook delicious meals. Foods such as meatloaf, popular during the Depression, came back ‘into style’, as it were. The popular dessert, Apple Crumble, was invented by British housewives during the War. Without sufficient ingredients (YOU try making a pie out what you see in that photograph!), women would just chop up apples, throw on cinnamon, flour, oats and raisins, and bake the mixture in an oven.

Other things that were rationed included cigarettes, makeup, plastics and certain metals, such as steel. During the War, more fountain pens were made with gold nibs than steel, because steel was needed in the war-effort. Pen-companies even advertised that people should take better care of their pens, because pen-repair materials, such as metal (for nibs), plastic (for pen-barrels and caps), and rubber (for the ink-sacs), were all now valuable wartime resources.

This was the official list of food-rations for one week allowed to adults living in England, during WWII:

BACON and HAM ……… 4ozs ( 100g )
MEAT …………………… to the value of 1s.2d ( 6p today ). Sausages were not rationed but difficult to obtain : offal was originally unrationed but sometimes formed part of the meat ration.
BUTTER ………………… 2ozs ( 50g )
CHEESE ………………… 2ozs ( 50g ) sometimes it rose to 4ozs ( 100g ) and even up to 8ozs ( 225g )
MARGARINE ……………… 4ozs ( 100g )
COOKING FAT …………… 4ozs ( 100g ) often dropping to 2ozs ( 50g )
MILK …………………… 3 pints ( 1800ml ) sometimes dropping to 2 pints ( 1200ml ). Household ( skimmed, dried ) milk was available. This was I packet each 4 weeks.
SUGAR …………………… 8ozs ( 225g )
PRESERVES ……………… 1lb ( 450g ) every 2 months
TEA ……………………… 2ozs ( 50g )
EGGS …………………… 1 shell egg a week if available but at times dropping to 1 every two weeks. Dried eggs —– 1 packet each 4 weeks.
SWEETS …………………… 12 ozs ( 350g ) each 4 weeks.

Of note…

Fish and chips, the ‘national food’ of Great Britain, was never rationed, during the war! Restaurants were expected to be thrifty with the food offered to them, and could not charge over 5/- (that’s five shillings) for each meal, no matter WHAT it contained. People had to make do, eating things which they wouldn’t normally eat. For example…how about powdered scrambled eggs for breakfast? It’s a real egg…dried out…into a powder. You added water, beat it up…put it into the frying pan…cooked it…and ate it! Or how about banana custard? No real bananas, it was smashed up parsnips with banana flavouring mixed in!

When the United States entered WWII in 1941, there was even more rationing. Perhaps not quite to the same extent as the British, but there was rationing, nonetheless, of basic foodstuffs, clothing, cigarettes and gasoline (petrol). Starting in 1942, all motor-vehicle owners in the USA, had to have one of various lettered cards on their windshields, indicating how much gasolnie they were allowed to buy.

An A card was given to drivers whose car was nonessential to their work, meaning that they didn’t have to use their car all the time. People with ‘A cards’ on their windshields could buy 4gal (about 16L) of gasoline a week. A WEEK. And absolutely NO MORE. You can be people didn’t do much driving during the War!

A B card was given to drivers who needed their cars for work and whose work was essential to the war-effort. They were given 8gal. a week, or about 24L.

Other cards included C, T, R and X gasoline ration-cards. C cards were given to people who required their cars for regular work, and who performed important duties. People such as medical doctors, railroad workers and postal-employees, were allowed to carry ‘C cards’. ‘T cards’ were given to drivers who drove long-haul trucks which carried important war-supplies around the nation. ‘R cards’ were used by rural folks, such as farmers, who needed gasoline for their tractors and delivery trucks. You couldn’t feed the nation if you didn’t have gas to drive your tractor to plough your fields! The ‘X cards’, the rarest of the lot, were used in extra-special circumstances, and were given to vehicles used by VIPs and members of the American government.

Victory Gardens

To supplement their tiny food allowances, civilians were encouraged to “dig for victory”, by making what were called ‘victory gardens’. A victory garden was a vegetable patch, essentially. Here, the housewife and her husband had to grow their veggies: Lettuces, tomatoes, potatoes, carrots and if they were lucky…a few fruits, such as apples and pears. A lot of England’s fruit was imported from other countries at this time; as it was too dangerous to ship food across the ocean with U-boats on the lookout, England was cut off from its regular supplies of food and had to make do with what it had.

This cartoon from ‘The Bulletin’, an Australian magazine, was published in 1942, and shows how much the war and rationing affected everyone. The original caption, if you can’t read it, says: “Money my foot, she’s marrying him for his tea-ration!”


Blackouts, Raids and Rationing: The Blitz and the Home Front of WWII (Pt II)

Part II

All a Jumble

Clothes were scarce during the Blitz, and throughout the war. It wasn’t possible for people to really go out and buy new clothes. Wool and cotton was needed for the soldiers socks, clothes and uniforms. Silk for women’s stockings was needed for parachutes, and cloth and thread were both needed for making army kitbags. Due to this severe lack of clothing, people had to exchange clothes, rather than buy new ones. While you COULD go out and actually buy a brand new suit, dress, pair of socks, a new trilby, a tie or a winter coat, it would now be a lot more expensive, and it was better to buy clothes second hand. People organised big ‘jumble sales’ where people offloaded all their unwanted clothes. The clothes would then be sorted out and examined by other people who wanted ‘new’ clothes. The slogan became known as “make do and mend”.

The Black Market

Of course, there were some people who just became war-profiteers. Throughout the war, people had to buy everything through a strict system of rationing. You recieved a ration-book for each month. In that book were little tickets which you ripped out, to buy certain things. There were ration-tickets for everything from eggs, flour, coal, cigarettes, meat and clothing.

Ration-book for Mr. John E. Court.

People who wanted more than their fair share, would go to the black market to get what they wanted. They could get extra food, extra clothes, more cigarettes…but this was very risky. People working the black market were seen as war profiteers…and worse. Although very few people were hanged for treason during the war, running the black market might be considered, by some, to be just that.

“Oversexed, overpaid and over here!”

If you’re English, this is something your grandfather might say! During WWII, thousands of American soldiers poured over to England and Australia, starting in 1942. They caused all kinds of hell for people on the Home Front. Some people viewed the Americans as loud, noisy, obnoxious and ignorant…not much has changed in 70-odd years, has it?

Joking aside…the Americans were both welcomed and unwelcome in the British Commonwealth. The popular slogan of British ‘Tommys’ was that Americans were “oversexed, overpaid and over here!”, meaning that they got all the hot chicks because they had better-looking uniforms, they got paid more money and had more ration-cards, and they were over here in England, stealing all the good-looking English ladies, much to the Brit-boys’ fury. The Yanks often replied that the Brits were: “Undersexed, underpaid and Under Eisenhower!”

On more than one occasion, American and British, or American and Australian soldiers actually started massive riots in the streets of cities such as London, Melbourne and Sydney, because Australian and British soldiers felt that their ‘allies’, these…snotty, alien Yanks…were stealing their women and their resources! Fortunately, these events were few and far-between.

Wartime Entertainment and Morale

At home, civilians didn’t always have to put up with half-rations, blackouts, fuel-shortages, air-raids and a lack of clothing. Occasionally, they did have some fun. Then, as now, people headed out to the cinema to watch the latest movies, they danced the night away in ballrooms, hotels and nightclubs. Many of big-band jazz’s most famous and iconic tunes, now synonymous with the Second World War, became popular during this time. How many of these famous, wartime jazz-songs do you recognise?

Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy.
In the Mood.
Moonlight Serenade.
Chattanooga Choo-Choo.
We’ll Meet Again.

‘In the Mood’, published in 1939 and made famous by Glenn Miller and His Orchestra, was almost the ‘theme-song’ of WWII. Thousands of Americans, Aussies and Brits jitterbugged and lindyhopped the night away to this fast-paced and energetic jazz-tune. Ladies resident at my grandmother’s retirement home testified to the fact that during the War, when they were teenagers, they used to go out nightclubbing and the house band always ended the night playing “In the Mood”, encouraging everyone to get up one last time and dance the night away, to forget their wartime troubles for a few more hours.

Morale was a big issue to the people back home. If you expected to win the war, you had to feel good about doing it! Hollywood and the American and British music-recording industries pumped out dozens of wartime propaganda songs, satrising the Germans and the Japanese, the two main enemies of the Allies during the War. Famous wartime propaganda songs, included…

“You’re a Sap Mr. Jap”.
“Der Feuhrer’s Face”.
“Hitler Has only Got One Ball”.
“Goodbye Mama (I’m Off to Yokohama)”.
“Run, Rabbit, Run!”
“Any Bonds Today?”
“There’ll Be a Hot Time in the Town of Berlin”.
“The Victory Polka”.

“Der Feuhrer’s Face” was probably the most famous of all the wartime propaganda songs. Perhaps you’ve heard of it? It goes like this…

(To the tune of “Land of Hope and Glory”):

Land of soap and water,
Hitler’s having a bath,
Churchill’s looking through the keyhole,
Having a jolly good laugh,

(To the tune the Colonel Bogey March):

Hitler, has only got one ball!
Goering, has two, but very small!
Himmler, has something similar!
But poor old Gobbels,
Has no balls at all!

Frankfurt, has only one beer hall,
Stuttgart, die Munchen all on call,
Munich, vee lift our tunich,
To show vee chermans, have no balls at all!

Hans Otto is very short, not tall,
And blotto, for drinking Singhai and Skol.
A ‘Cherman’, unlike Bruce Erwin,
Because Hans Otto has no balls at all.
Whistle Chorus:

Hitler has only got one ball,
The other is in the Albert Hall.
His mother, the dirty bugger,
Cut it off him when he was still small.

She tied it, upon a conker tree,
The wind came, and blew it out to sea,
The fishes, took out their dishes,
And had scallops and bollocks for tea!

(Another ending line was: “She threw it, out over Germany…”)

Keeping morale high was very important during the War. Many people lived in constant fear of one thing.

The Telegram.

During both World Wars, opening the door to meet the messenger from the local telegraph-office, meant only one thing. That your husband, brother, son or father, had been killed in action. Wives, sisters, daughters and nieces lived in constant fear of opening the door to an official messenger, who would have been given the painful message of delivering a telegram, much like the one below, to the widow of the dead man:

A telegram informing a widow about the death of her husband during WWII.

Telegrams were used to inform next-of-kin and immediate family, of a loved one’s death in action, or other important events concerning their relations, such as significant injuries or if they were Missing in Action. Telegrams were a cheap, effective, simple way of sending important news quickly to the recipient. The messages were short, and brutally to the point. The message above was what a woman would have recieved in the United States if her husband had been killed in action.

Throughout the war, charity dances were held to raise money for the war. People were encouraged to buy war bonds to help fund the war so that the United States, which was supporting Great Britain, could win the war in the Pacific. Popular celebrities of the day encouraged thriftiness of use with household commodities and encouraged people to save up things which they would usually throw away, like used cooking fat! Fat was used to make soaps and oils and other necessities.

“Trash for your Cash”

‘Trash for your Cash’ was a jazz-song popularised by Fats Waller, the famous 1930s and 1940s jazz pianist. In it, he describes how people can help the Americans win the war-effort, by saving up their old newspapers and scrap metal and other rubbish. While this was a fun way to get a message out to the American public, it was no laughing matter.

Throughout the war, there were serious shortages of almost everything imaginable. Old food cans for fish, fruit, vegetables, old bottlecaps, old glass, old wastepaper, which nobody wanted, wasn’t just shoved into the landfill. Oh no. It was far too valuable. What started out as volunteer scrap-drives soon became a regular thing, as people donated their scrap metal and other, recyclable rubbish, to recycling plants to melt down the metal, reconstitute the paper and reshape the glass. During the War, people didn’t waste anything. Any food scraps you didn’t eat, you gave to the pigs. The pigs had to grow nice and fat so that there would be enough meat to feed everyone. People didn’t slaughter chickens for the table…you had to keep them alive so that you had the eggs! Every inch of your garden was turned into a vegetable patch for growing crops and you did anything and everything you could to save a bit here, scrimp a bit there.

Military Intelligence

Depending on who you were, knowing what was going on in the War was either very important…or very unimportant. Civilians were strongly urged not to gossip. The mantra “loose lips sink ships” became the rule of the day. You weren’t to tell anyone anything that they were not supposed to know. Public service cartoons, such as the famous “Private Snafu” series, graphically and comically illustrated what would happen if people started blurting out, seemingly innocent pieces of information.

The title-card of the black and white ‘Private Snafu’ cartoons, shown during WWII. These were screened to American servicemen to teach them about what to be mindful of, now that they were fighting for their country. They covered topics such as camoflage, booby-traps, censorship, discretion and the importance of maintaining one’s fighting equipment.

Censorship was high, and you couldn’t just send anything in a letter or a telegram. Letters were posted, intercepted, read, censored, edited, re-written, and then sent on to their addresses. In his autobiography, RAF fighter pilot and famous children’s author, Roald Dahl, recalls his mother’s shock at hearing his voice on the telephone after he was invalided back to England. He said that:

    “…My mother couldn’t possibly know that I was coming [home]. The censor didn’t allow such things…”

– Author and pilot Roald Dahl.