Crimes of the Century – Theft of the Crown Jewels

Crime of the Century? Stealing the English Crown Jewels

Century of Crime?  17th Century. May, 1671.

Criminal of the Century? Col. Thomas Blood.

Criminal Facts: 

In late April, or early May of 1671, Colonel Thomas Blood, an Irishman, planned to steal the Crown Jewels of England, stored in the Tower of London, easily one of the most audacious robberies in the history of the world.

In preparation for his robbery, Blood and a female companion who pretended to be his wife, entered the Tower of London to check out the proposed target of their robbery – The Jewels! In the 1670s, the jewels were on display in the tower and, with a small fee paid to the official custodian, they could be viewed by the public.

While scoping the place out, Blood’s lady-friend feigned a stomach-ache and collapsed on the floor. This distraction served to keep Talbot Edwards, custodian of the jewels, and his wife, occupied, while Blood checked out the jewels.

Did he steal them?

No. He wasn’t that stupid! He waited for days! He visited the Tower several times, slowly winning over the confidence and trust of Mr. and Mrs. Edwards.

Eventually, on the 9th of May, 1671. Blood figured that the jewels were ripe for the picking. Along with some accomplices whom he passed off as his nephew, and some friends, he revisited the Tower of London and convinced Mr. Edwards to let him actually hold the Crown Jewels!

The Jewels were stored in the Jewel-Keeper’s Apartment in one of the towers, in a special basement strongroom. While anyone could go into the strongroom to check out the jewels and drool over them, to actually TOUCH them, you had to unlock a security-cage to gain access to them. Feeling trustworthy of Blood and his companions, Mr. Edwards, already an old man at nearly eighty years of age (77 to be precise), led the men downstairs and opened the jewel-cage.

Immediately after unlocking the gate, Edwards had a cloak thrown over his head! He was struck on the skull with a mallet, knocking him out. He was then bound and gagged, and Blood and his partners in crime removed the Crown Jewels from their protective cage.

The thing was…they didn’t have a bag with them. And they couldn’t be seen CARRYING the jewels out of the Tower, so they had to get creative.

Using a saw, they cut the royal sceptre in half to fit it into their clothing. They smashed the crown flat using the mallet, and stuffed it into their coats. Blood even took the Royal Orb and shoved it down the front of his pants to hide it! Then, they made their escape!

Depending on which accounts you read next, one, two, or a combination of the following events occurred:

The first version is that old Mr. Edwards managed to fight out of his bonds and managed to raise a cry of treason. Tower guards were alerted and arrested the men.

The more colourful version goes like this…

On his way home to his parents house at the Tower of London, young Wythe Edwards, a soldier recently back from a foreign posting in Belgium, happened upon the one member of Blood’s gang, who was standing outside the apartment, keeping watch.

In the confusion that followed, Wythe’s father fought out of his bonds and raised the cry of treason and theft! Wythe, realising what had happened, tried to stop the robbers from escaping!

Whether or not young Wythe was present at the theft of the Jewels, what happened next was that the men in Blood’s company escaped with the jewels. They ran across the courtyard to their horses, firing on the tower’s warders (the famous Beefeaters), with pocket flintlock pistols, when they tried to arrest them!

Blood and his companions were home and free!…almost! If not for yet another member of the Edwards family!

Nearly to the gate, and the main exit of the Tower, Wythe Edwards’ brother-in-law, Capt. Beckham, tackled Blood to the ground! Blood tried to shoot him with his musket, but missed! He tripped on his cloak and fell over and before he could get up, Beckham had jumped on top of him to hold him down!

Surrounded, outnumbered and out of ammunition, Blood and his companions, in total, a party of four men, were arrested by the tower guards for attempting to steal the Crown Jewels.

What Happened Next?

Despite the fact that he was clearly guilty, Blood refused to be sentenced by just anybody! He demanded an audience with the king!

Amazingly, his request was granted! And he was dragged in chains to Whitehall Palace, London residence of Charles II. Here, he was questioned and interrogated, not only by the king, but by almost the entire royal family!

After much consideration, the king asked Blood:

“What if I should give you your life?” 

Or in other words, grant a royal pardon.

“I would endeavour to deserve it, sire!”, was Blood’s reply, and the colonel was duly pardoned of his crime.

Along with a pardon, the king gave Blood land…and money! His own noble estate in Ireland, from which he could earn up to five hundred pounds (a tidy sum in those days) every year!

Exactly WHY Charles let Col. Blood off the hook is anybody’s guess! The reason that is often cited is that Charles kinda liked the fact that Blood was a cheeky blighter who had the balls to try and steal the Crown Jewels, and own up to it! In fact, when he was being interrogated, Blood was told that he had stolen jewels worth up to a hundred thousand pounds sterling!

Blood promptly replied that he would happily sell them back to the king for the sum of six thousand pounds, for that was, he believed, all they were worth. This so amused King Charles that he let him go.

After his pardon, Blood turned over a new leaf. He became a favourite of the king, and regularly visited the royal court at Whitehall, where he managed to secure a job in the court staff.

Later on in life, Blood insulted George Villers, Duke of Buckingham, one of Blood’s patrons. Villers demanded a hefty fine be paid (up to 10,000 pounds, a monumental sum of money in those days) as settlement for the insult. The matter ended up in court as a defamation case, and Blood was sent to prison!…The duke never did get the ten thousand pounds…

Blood’s stay at His Majesty’s Pleasure did not last very long. And within a year, he had been released from jail. However, he fell ill shortly afterwards, and died on the 24th of August, 1680, at the age of 62.

Although Blood’s life was one of a scallywag and thief, his descendants enjoyed a rather more respectable reputation in the eyes of history. One of them was Gen. Bindon Blood, a respected British Army officer during the Victorian Era and the First World War, who died at the ripe old age of 97, in 1940!


Getting the Most out of your Typewriter Ribbons

A staggering 98% of typewriters survive on ribbons. The other 2% use ink-rollers, or a variation of the stamp-pad.

Depending on how lucky or resourceful you are, finding ribbons for your typewriter is not very difficult. You might be as lucky as I am, to find them at your local shop in town, brand-new, in the box. Or you may have to buy them online (eBay sells dozens of them, you can take your pick!).

But supposing…supposing that you can’t buy your ribbons locally and support a neighbourhood business? Perhaps you cannot buy the ribbons online for whatever number of reasons?

How do you make your ribbon last for as long as possible?

Typewriter Features

The typewriter itself should be able to help you.

Most typewriters have what’s called a “bichrome ribbon switch”. It’s a switch that moves from left to right (or up and down, as the case may be) on the side of your machine. Can’t find it? Look for two, or three coloured dots or squares. Typically, red, blue and white (or red, black and white, again, as the case may be).

The ribbon-selector determines which half of the 1/2in.-wide ribbon, the typebars will strike when you use your machine, either the top 1/4in, or bottom 1/4in., of the ribbon.

Simply type until the ribbon is finished. Take it out, reverse it, slot it into the machine again and resume typing on the unused half of the ribbon.

You can also use the “Ribbon Reverser”. Combined with the ribbon-switch (not all machines have both functions, some do, some don’t. Mine does), it’s possible to run the ribbon back and forth through the machine in opposite directions without even taking it out of the machine to flip it over!

Doing this, you can make one ribbon last for up to four passages through the typewriter.

Re-Inking a Ribbon

It is possible to re-ink a ribbon, if you so desire (or are unable to purchase a new ribbon).

To do so, you will require the following:

1). A dried, used typewriter ribbon, all wound onto one spool.

The ribbon must be in good condition. Either a freshly-used one, or an old used one that is structurally sound. It’s no good using a ribbon that’s frayed, ripped, trashed or otherwise nonfunctional.

2). A small plate.

This is to catch any dripping ink. Don’t worry! It’s washable. Your China won’t be permanently stained…

3). Tissues.

Just in case!

4). A bottle of stamp-pad ink.

Any stationery chain worth its salt will sell little bottles of stamp-pad ink (typically, 50ml sizes). Purchase one or two bottles of the ink of your choice (red, black, blue, etc).

Got all those things? Let’s begin.

How to Re-Ink your Ribbon

Why are we using stamp-pad ink? Why not fountain pen ink?

Let me explain. The ink in a typewriter ribbon must remain wet and usable for a long period of time. If it dried out overnight, you’d be left with yards of really pretty black ribbon…and nothing else. Completely useless.

Guess what? Stamp pads must also remain wet and usable for a long period of time, otherwise you can’t press rubber stamps into it!

Beginning to see the similarities here?


Because stamp-pad ink shares the same properties as typewriter ink, it’s a perfect re-inking tool for spent ribbons. Apply the ink in the following manner:

Having ensured that the ribbon is rolled up onto one spool (but that the tail is still attached to the other!), open the bottle of stamp-ink. The mouth of the bottle should be a small slit, like this: –

If it was a regular bottle-opening, the ink would just come rushing out and you’d have a huge mess on your hands.

Holding the ribbon-spool in one hand and the bottle in the other, press the mouth of the bottle to the ribbon and GENTLY squeeze the bottle to encourage the ink onto the ribbon. In most cases, gravity alone will cause the ink to dribble out.

As the ink dribbles out, use the tip of the bottle to spread it evenly along the whole 1/2in. width of the ribbon. Do one section, then rotate the spool, and do another section, then rotate, do another section, and so-forth, until all 360 degrees of the ribbon have been inked in this manner.

DO NOT OVERDO IT! One drop of ink has to seep right through the ribbon to the bottom of the spool. Use the ink as sparingly as possible. No more than two drops for each section, spread out along the ribbon. anymore than that, and the ribbon will be too heavily saturated to be of any practical use.

It is NOT necessary to unroll the entire ribbon and do every single inch of it. Simply roll it up and drip and spread ink onto it as I described. The ink will seep through the layers of ribbon, saturating the entire length of the ribbon until the whole thing has been re-inked. Fast, easy, a bit messy, but over and done with in 5 minutes.

Once the ribbon has been re-inked, set it back into the typewriter and position it for use. You’re done!


How to Clean Mechanical Typewriter Keys

I recently purchased an Underwood Standard Portable four-bank mechanical typewriter, from the mid-1920s. It’s a beautiful machine…

Ain’t it purdy?

…which is everything a classic, vintage typewriter ought to be. White glass keys, black steel body, a delightful little bell at the back which goes ‘Ding!’ and all the rest of it. But it frustrated me that the typewriter’s KEYS would stick and jam constantly.

Now in all fairness, I purchased this machine KNOWING that the keys would stick. But I was prepared to take the risk and buy it anyway. I might not get another chance to find a nice machine like this. But having bought it, I needed to get the keys working.

Do you have an old mechanical typewriter like this, with sticking keys? This is what you do to clean them up and stop them from jamming and sticking…

You Will Need…

1). Bottle of METHYLATED SPIRITS. Preferably a large one.

N.B.: Methylated Spirits is called different things in different places. In America, it’s ‘Denatured Alcohol’.

2). A soft brush. Like a small paintbrush. Not a toothbrush, that’s too stiff.

3). A small bowl or cup. This is to decant the meths into, during cleaning.

4). A roll of paper-towels.

5). Patience. Care. Attentiveness.

Preparing the Machine

To start unjamming the sticking keys, you need to rip off about 3-4 sheets of paper-towel. Fold them up along the perforations so that you have a nice, thick square of paper. Lift up the machine and shove the paper underneath. If your typewriter is an open-bottom machine like mine, that’s all you have to do.

If it’s a closed-bottom machine (for example, the Royal No. 10 desktop typewriter), then you must remove the bottom first (just unscrew it).

Having placed the wadding of paper underneath, fill your little bowl or cup, with meths. Fill it UP. You might be here for a long time.

Remove the ribbon from the typewriter. If you’re not already familiar with it, then double-check how the ribbon is installed into the machine FIRST, before you remove it.

Roll two or three sheets of regular A4 paper into the typewriter. This is to act as padding against the constant pounding of the keys against the platen and roller.

If your machine has one, open or take off the dust-cover that covers the type-basket.

You are now ready to start cleaning.

Cleaning the Type-Basket

Assuming that the machine is NOT damaged, and there are no bent hammers, broken linkages or other defects, but the machine’s keys still jam and stick, your next step is to clean the machine. Specifically, you want to focus on the type-basket. The type-basket is that big, smiley face in front of your keyboard.

A typewriter works in the following way:

You press on a key. The key depresses, and it pulls on a lever. That lever is attached to a typebar. When the lever drops, it pulls the typebar up with force, and the head of the bar strikes the ribbon, imprinting ink onto the paper. Releasing the key causes the typebar to gravity-drop back into place, resetting it for the next strike.

Jamming is caused by gunk and debris (dust, white-out crumbs, lint, etc) which gets into the fine, inaccessible areas of the typewriter-basket. This debris creates friction which stops the typebars from working naturally, through gravity and mechanical force, as they should.

This is what you’re trying to remove from the machine. It’s done in the following manner:

1). Dip your brush into the cup or bowl of methylated spirits. Remove it, and shake off any excess meths.

2). Brush the meths into the ends of the typebars, right at the back of the basket, into all the little grooves where the typebars attach to their key-levers. Brush from side to side, along the ‘smile’, and also, up and down in short strokes, to force the methylated spirits and the brush-bristles, between the grooves and gaps of the typebars.

3). Repeat this. Over. And over. And over. And over. Just keep brushing and probing, scrubbing, brushing, and probing and washing and flushing.

— — — —

What happens is that the methylated spirits dissolves the gunk stuck to the type-bars. It then just drips out of the bottom of the machine and collects on the paper-towels below. Any excess spirits just evaporates into the air, leaving a clean, and dry typing mechanism behind.

— — — —

Keep brushing and cleaning and flushing like this. Every few minutes, press the offending keys, along with all the others, to check for jamming, or improvement of function. This process can take a few minutes, or it can take days. If you want proof that the methylated spirits is cleaning your machine, then simply lift up the typewriter. You will have to change the paper-towels underneath the machine throughout the cleaning process, as they eventually become saturated with spirits and require replacing.

In removing the sheets of paper-towels, take note of their condition. A really dirty, jammed up machine will be dribbling oodles of black, grey dust and crud onto the paper, and you’ll be able to see it really really clearly. It’ll look almost like fireplace soot. This is the rubbish you’re trying to get out of your machine.

You must repeat this process until the paper removed from under the typewriter is COMPLETELY CLEAN and has NO debris on it AT ALL. This is the sign that it has all been flushed out and that the mechanism is cleaned and ready for proper use.

To give your typewriter a fighting chance, you might also want to clean under the machine at all the points where the typewriter-keys connect with the type-bars. Removing as much dust and crud as you can will ensure that the machine runs as best as possible. You can do this by brushing methylated spirits along the linkage-points, and then carefully wiping them clean with paper-towels or tissues. You may have to do this several times as well.

How long does it take to clean a typewriter? It really depends on its age, when it was last used, when it was last cleaned, how it’s been treated, its size and how thorough your cleaning is. It could take half an hour. It could take two hours. For me, I was cleaning it, on and off, for half a day, letting the meths soak through the machine to do its job, coming back, adding more, and changing the paper periodically to check the progress.

Important Note

As tempting as it may be, do NOT USE OIL on your TYPEWRITER. EVER.

As every person who repairs typewriters will probably tell you, and as all the period instruction-manuals (including my own) will also tell you, oil is a typewriter’s worst enemy. Do not use WD-40, olive-oil, melted butter, pig’s fat, sewing-machine oil or lard, in the hopes of getting your machine running.

Oil will lubricate the machine, yes. But it will also become a dust-trap as particles settle on the oil (which just sits there, it doesn’t evaporate and dry up) and create a disgusting sludge over time, that will…you guessed it…jam the machine. And you’re back to Square One.

Using meths is the ONLY way to clean your machine, as methylated spirits will just evaporate once the job is done, and leave no residue behind which dust can cling to.

If you MUST have lubricant (which is unlikely, as the whole machine should work on gravity alone), then make sure it is one that is non-greasy, and which does NOT attract dust. Otherwise, you’re in strife.

Is it Really That Easy?

Yes! Following this process, I successfully unjammed about a half-dozen keys in the typewriter that you see up above. It’s a messy, slow, sometimes frustrating method, but it does work. Otherwise I wouldn’t share it on my blog. Hopefully, it will work for you as well!

Happy typing!


“Atticus” the Underwood Standard Portable Typewriter

Recently, I snatched a gem off the internet for a pretty penny. It’s no sparkling ring, but a diamond in the rough. A beautiful piece of mechanical art. What is it?

Here it is:

What we have here, ladies and gentlemen, for your delectation and delight, is an Underwood Standard Portable typewriter. From what I’ve managed to find out, it dates to 1926 (Serial No. 4B220153. If anyone can be more accurate with the dating, it’s appreciated; leave a comment under the posting).

What’s with the Typewriter?

What? Don’t look at me like that…they’re cool…

I’ve always admired typewriters. I dunno why. I just do. I guess it’s because I learned to touch-type on a typewriter (albeit an electronic Canon TypeStar…look it up on Google Images and behold it in all its horrific 1980s glory)  and I liked the fact that I could see everything happening in front of me, being transferred in neat rows to a sheet of cloudy white paper.

I love mechanical typewriters. Partially for their style and elegance, their functionality, their durability, but also because they’re so much fun to use. To see everything happen mechanically as a pure extension of your hand.

About the Underwood and a Look at Portable Typewriters

Prior to the 1920s, typewriters were MASSIVE, heavy, bone-crushing monsters. Huge, solid steel typing machines that could weigh anywhere from 30-50 pounds. These typewriters were solid, dependable, and great…so long as you weren’t planning on going anywhere in a hurry.

The problem with desktop or ‘Office’ typewriters, as they were called, was that their huge bulk and massive weights (the lightest I’ve found is probably the Royal No. 10, which weighs in at about 30-odd pounds, and it goes UP from there!) is that they’re a real pain to carry around. But then, they’re not designed to be. They’re supposed to sit in your office and not move. That’s why they’re called office typewriters.

But there was a market out there for a portable typewriter. The problem was trying to find a way to make a portable typewriter so that it functioned practically.

The first ever portable typewriter was the Remington Portable, (yes, names back then were simple, plain, and to-the-point) which came out in 1921. Here it is:

The Remington Portable was considered a typing revolution. For the first time ever, you had a typewriter that you could carry around in a case, just like a briefcase! The Remington was lightweight (comparatively speaking), stylish, easy to use, and featured…most…of the features of a comparable desktop typewriter. Just as how Remington was the first company to mass-produce the modern typewriter back in the 1870s, in the 1920s, just fifty years later, it’s spearheading the design-race in getting the first portable typewriter onto the market.

At once, a typewriter-race was started. Other companies wanted to try and make portables too! And they would find fault with the Remington by pointing out that with THAT typewriter…you had to push the type-bar lever to raise the typebars up before you could type! An unnecessary, and wasteful one second! Other companies could do SO MUCH BETTER!!!

One of the companies that thought it could, was the Underwood Typewriter Co. Originally producing ribbons and paper for Remington, Underwood started making typewriters at the close of the Victorian era. Its most successful desktop model was the Underwood No. 5. An enormous machine (don’t believe me? Go find a picture) that could knock down a brick wall. Wanting to produce smaller, portable typewriters, Underwood introduced its three-bank typewriter in the 1920s.

The three-bank portable was cute and handy, but for portability, it sacrificed keys and features to make the machine small enough to fit into a briefcase. For example, there was no dedicated row for numbers. If you wanted that, you had to hit the shift-key and hit the corresponding top-row key to get a number out.

To try and rectify these shortcomings, in 1926, Underwood introduced the Underwood Standard Portable (now with new, improved, four-bank keyboard!).

At the same time, Remington introduced the Portable Model 2, which still relied on the type-bar raising lever to function properly, something that the new, four-bank Underwood portable didn’t need!

Guess which machine suddenly became wildly popular as a result?

The Underwood Portable of 1926 became one of the best-selling typewriters ever! It didn’t stop manufacture for twenty years (except for a brief period in the 1940s. Don’tcha know there’s a war on?). Other companies such as Smith-Corona and Royal also produced stylish portables, and Remington produced some sleek models in the 1930s, but the Underwood Portable remained popular because it was the first ‘complete’ portable typewriter that didn’t rely on little tricks, levers and gimmicks to do what a full-size machine could accomplish.

Intricacies of the Underwood

Despite its obvious benefits, the Underwood Standard Portable was much like a lot of vintage typewriters, in that it still made certain shortcuts here and there.

Just like every other typewriter of the period, there is no ‘1’ key. To type the digit, you press the uppercase ‘I’, or lowercase ‘l’.

Along with no ‘1’, there is also no ‘0’. A capital ‘O’ was considered sufficient for this purpose.

There is also no exclamation-mark; another thing unique to vintage machines. To type that, you hit the ‘, then backspace, and type a full-stop underneath. The two symbols combined, produce a ‘!’.

Similarly, there is no dollar-sign; ‘$’. To produce that, you type ‘S’, backspace over it, and type ‘I’ or ‘l’ over the top. The result is not as elegant, but it does work.

Shortcomings such as this were common to almost every typewriter up until the 1960s (a notable exception is the Imperial Model 50 from the 1920s, a desktop model with a full range of numerals on its keyboard, from 1-0). Where-ever shortcuts could be taken to reduce weight and size, without also impacting on quality and function, shortcuts would be taken!

One of the selling-points to me about this machine is that it has traditional, round glass-and-steel typewriter keys, a staple of pre-war mechanicals. After WWII, the design was considered antiquated and keys made of plastic became all the rage. But the old glass ones remain highly popular. But they are getting harder, and harder to find, on account of key-choppers who saw off old typewriter keys to use them in making steampunk computer-keyboards. They look vaguely interesting, but for every nice computer keyboard, there’s now a worthless, useless antique typewriter lying around somewhere. If keys must be taken, better that they be harvested from a typewriter that’s completely broken up and trashed, rather than from a working antique…like mine!

The machine features a ribbon-reverser, and adjustable right, and left margins, a carriage-release, and a left margin-clear switch (found that out purely by trial and error! Originally I thought it was a tabulation key!). It also has a TINY little switch on the left-hand side, which is the line-spacer, for Single, Double, and even Triple-Spacing! The ribbon-reverser, and the up-down ribbon-selector are two really nifty features. They allowed you to type in both red and black, and wind the ribbon onto either side of the machine. But if you’re using an all-black ribbon (as you can see in the photos), it allows you to get twice as much use out of the ribbon than you usually would, because you can type all the way along one direction, on the bottom half of the ribbon. Then all the way back, on the top half, simply by switching the ribbon-reverser, and ribbon-selector, to opposite sides of their respective settings. A real money-saver!

The typewriter also features, rather bizarrely, perhaps, a backspace key! No, it doesn’t delete letters from your paper…it’s used to reverse over your typed work to either cross it out (which in the day, was literally done by typing ‘X’ repeatedly over mistaken words), or to restrike letters that had come out faint on the paper during the first run past, and make them darker and more legible. This happens more often than you might think…

Finding Bits and Pieces

There is a resurgence in a lot of vintage things in recent years. Wet shaving, fountain pens, vintage clothing, sewing-machines, cars, instruments…and typewriters are no different.

One thing that holds people back from buying or using a typewriter is that they don’t know where to find typewriter ribbons.

There are still companies that manufacture old-style typewriter ribbons. One of them is the European pen-manufacturer, PELIKAN. Most typewriters (unless it’s a really weird one!) use a standard, 1/2-inch typewriter ribbon, that any place selling typewriter supplies WILL have.

Brands such as Underwood, Royal, Remington, Smith-Corona/L.C. Smith, Olympia, Olivetti, and so-forth, will generally all use 1/2-inch ribbons. Sometimes, you can be really lucky, and your local stationer’s shop will still stock them (or if they don’t, they can easily order them in for you). But you can also buy them online from typewriter repairers. They’re also extremely easy to find on eBay for just a few dollars each.

If the spools that the new ribbons come in do not fit into your typewriter, you can fix that simply by winding the fresh ribbon onto your existing spools and threading it through the ribbon-grooves on the typewriter. It’s a bit messy, but it works!

You should NOT use oil on typewriters. Not even really thin machine-oil, like for sewing-machines. This is because the lingering moisture of the oil will act as a dust-trap for any particles in the air. And dust will jam up the typewriter in ways that will anger and frustrate you.

Instead, you should use methylated spirits to flush out any gunk in the typewriter. The spirits will wash away (sometimes with encouragement from a brush, and gentle scrubbing) the gunk stuck to the typewriter keys, the typebars and so-forth, and then simply evaporate, leaving no residue that might cause problems later on.

Using a Typewriter

In this age of computers, iPads and text-messaging, using a typewriter to write is like using a horse and cart to go on a road-trip. It’s just so anachronistic!

But, that’s what makes it fun.

Typewriters have their place in modern society, and not just as pretty paperweights and conversation-pieces. They’re handy as the ULTIMATE laptop-computer. No power-cords, no electricity, no fading batteries, no viruses, nothing like that at all. All you need is paper, a fresh ribbon and you can literally type anywhere on earth, for as long as you have those two things. No laptop can boast of that, no matter how good its battery-life is.

Typewriters are handy for short jobs. Letters, one-off reports, lists, etc. It’s faster than writing, and you can just crank in the paper, type it out, crank out the paper and you’re done. No checking to see if the printer’s hooked up right, or if the paper’s aligned properly so that it doesn’t jam…and in our world of natural disasters, a typewriter is your best friend when the power goes out.

Here’s one last shot of the typewriter:

Why is it called ‘Atticus’?

It’s called ‘Atticus’ because in a stroke of sentimentality, I named it after Atticus Finch, the lawyer in Harper Lee’s famous novel, “To Kill a Mockingbird”. In ‘Mockingbird’, the character of the local newspaper reporter is named…’Mr. Underwood’.

That, and ‘Mockingbird’ is one of my favourite books.


1936 Singer Model 128 V.S. manual sewing-machine

A Singer V.S. Model 128 Manual Sewing Machine

This beautiful pre-war gem, dating from 1936, was mine for just fifteen quid at the Camden Lock Market in London. A steal. Really a steal. It’s less than $25AUD. I don’t know many other places apart from London where you can find such nice deals on vintage sewing-machines, or on vintage and antique anythings, really. Certainly I’ve never seen such a deal happen in Australia. Not unless you’re supremely lucky.

The Singer Model 28-series was a Vibrating Shuttle (Abbrev.: “V.S.”) machine. The Vibrating Shuttle mechanism was essentially the second generation of sewing-machine mechanisms, and was one-up on the earlier and less effective Transverse Shuttle (“T.S.”) sewing-machines. This posting will look into the various features of this machine, such as they are…

What Was the Model 28?

The Model 28 and its variants (128, 28k, 27, etc, etc, etc) was one of Singer’s most popular domestic sewing-machines. Mechanically simple and easy to use, the Model 28 was capable of producing neater stitches at a faster and more consistent rate. Because of this, it was manufactured all the way from the 1880s up into the 1930s.

What is a Vibrating Shuttle?

Early lock-stitch sewing-machines operated by using a long, barbell-shaped bobbin inside of a small, shiny, bullet-shaped thing…called a shuttle. How the shuttle (and hence, the bobbin) interacted with the machine determined the model-name.

Transverse (“T.S.”) Shuttle machines worked by having the needle punch through the cloth and pull up. The cloth moved back and the shuttle traversed (moved across) the bed of the sewing-machine, behind the needle-plate, underneath the machine, from left to right. The sharp point or nose of the shuttle (the bullet-shaped end) went through the loop of thread made by the needle, and pulled the bobbin thread through after it. Then, the shuttle slid back across the machine, from right to left, a second before the take-up-lever pulled the stitch tight and the feed-dogs shoved the cloth along, ready for the next stitch. A machine typical of the T.S. system is the Singer Model 12 “Fiddleback” from the mid-1800s:

The photo of this beautiful Singer 12 comes from ISMACS, the International Sewing MAchine Collector’s Society

This is ingenious, but at the same time, inefficient. To improve efficiency, the V.S. was created.

Exactly why it’s called a “Vibrating” shuttle is a mystery…not only to me, but it seems…to every other person who’s written about this subject, who’s writing I’ve read. It doesn’t vibrate at all! It swings!

The V.S. swings back and forth to make each stitch. The shuttle with its bobbin inside, sits in a small carriage that moves back and forth in a semi-circular motion, with each forward motion catching the loop of thread and pulling the bobbin-thread through it, and every backwards motion pulling the stitch tight.

If anyone ever asks you how a sewing-machine works, I think the best working example you could find is a V.S.

An Examination of Crank-Machines

As you may notice on this machine, it’s crank-operated…

This machine dates from 1936, by which time, the first generation electric sewing-machines had entered into the market. Why then, does it have a crank?

Singer produced manual, crank-operated sewing-machines for a hundred years, believe it or not. They were still making brand-new crank-machines as recently as the 1950s! Why you might ask, would a sewing-machine produced in an era of radio, electric lights, talking pictures, record-players and 1st-generation telvisions, still be made with a crank?

A number of reasons.

– Unreliable power-supply.

It wasn’t until the mid-1930s in Britain that there was a unified, nationwide electrical power-grid. Prior to about 1935, every town and city in England had their own separate power-stations, producing different voltages of electricity. What might be enough to power a radio or a light in one town or county, might be too much in another, or too little somewhere else. With this lack of uniformity, it wasn’t possible, or practical, to produce one electronic machine for the whole nation to use, since it would have to be adapted and altered to suit every single separate power-grid in the U.K.

So to overcome this, machines were made to be as independent of the power-grid as possible. This wasn’t just sewing-machines, but other things – typewriters, radios (which ran on batteries), and even stoves (which would run on gas, instead of electric hotplates).

– Spare Parts

In a way, Singer (as with many other products of the day) were victims of their own success. As anyone else who tinkers with these things will surely testify to, a vintage sewing-machine is built to be indestructible. Nothing short of a nuclear explosion will even put a dent into these machines. And because of this, the old cranks on machines, as well as the machines themselves, rarely broke down. As a result, any spare parts (such as cranks) which were produced, were not often sold to already-existing machines. So to prevent wastage, they simply went on making crank-machines.

– Rationing

This machine was built just three years before the outbreak of the Second World War. When the war started, and Singer’s factory in Scotland wasn’t able to produce any more modern sewing-machines with electric motors, they reverted back to the older, more reliable and less grid-dependent crank-machines. They were easier to build, and if the power went out thanks to a German air-raid, you could keep on sewing. And sewing was important during the war – with few clothes and fabric being strictly rationed for the war-effort, housewives, dressmakers and tailors had to be incredibly skilled with a sewing-machine to make every swatch of cloth count and not waste anything.

– Portability

The crank-driven sewing-machine is the ultimate portable sewing-machine. Treadle sewing-machines are strictly stationery objects. Electric machines can only go as far as the cord will allow you. But a crank-operated Singer can be taken literally anywhere, and still work flawlessly, without being reliant on anything other than the strength of the operator’s right arm (to turn the handle!)

On the famous ghost ship, the Mary Celeste, an posting about which, may be found on this blog, the captain’s wife, Mrs. Briggs, brought her sewing-machine with her when she joined her husband on his latest voyage. It was almost certainly a hand-cranked model, a treadle-machine being too bulky and heavy to carry onboard a sailing-ship. Most likely, it was a Singer 12, the most common model of the time (the Mary Celeste set sail in 1872, the Model 12 came out in 1865).

A Look at the Mechanics

Hand-crank machines worked very simply. They operated no differently from comparable treadle, or even electric machines. It was just a different method of doing the same job.

If you’ve ever looked at the side of an old sewing-machine, you may notice a hole underneath the balance-wheel. This hole is where the crank-assembly is bolted onto the machine (or in later models, where the sewing-motor is bolted on). The crank works by the arm of the crank fitting between the spokes of the balance-wheel (if your machine has a solid balance-wheel, then you can change it to a spoked one if you want it to be a manual machine) and turning the wheel.

The cogwheels on the crank-assembly work in a ratio of 1:3. One turn of the crank-handle turns the big wheel one revolution.

One revolution of the big wheel produces three revolutions of the small one.

Three turns of the small wheel turns the arm three times, which turns the balance wheel three times (and therefore, produces three stitches).

Given the size of the machines and how compact everything had to be, it’s not a bad power-ratio.

Hand-crank machines such as this one were popular for their compactness, ease of use and their portability. The tradeoff was that you had to use more muscle-power to run the machine, but on the other hand, you could take this places that your treadle, or even your electric machine, could never go.


Infernal Luck – The Sinking of the S.S. Athenia


On the last day of September, 1938, British Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, flew into Heston Aerodrome, alighted from his aircraft and proclaimed to the crowd around him, that thanks to the Munich Agreement signed with Herr Hitler, he had secured “peace for our time!”

Less than a year later, the world would be plunged further and further into the greatest military conflict ever seen in the history of mankind.

The Sinking of the S.S. Athenia

This posting looks at one of the most infamous, and yet possibly, one of the most forgettable war crimes of the Second World War. Within hours of war being declared, a passenger-liner with over a thousand lives onboard was torpedoed and sunk. It sparked fury and outrage, condemnation and denial throughout the world, and spurred Europe on into the bloody contest of war for the second time in a generation.

The Background

On the 1st of September, 1939, the German Army invaded Polish territory, claiming that the Poles had attacked guard-posts along the German-Polish border. The world held its breath to see what would happen next. For forty-eight hours, the Wehrmacht and the Wojsko Polskie, the German and Polish armies respectively, duked it out on the borderlands.

It was by no means certain that the Polish would lose, or that the Germans might win. Poland had fought, and won, a war against Russia back in the 1920s, so Polish confidence in their armed forces was not without foundation.

For two and a half days, the world held its breath, keeping tuned into the wireless, their eyes on newspaper-headlines, their ears out for the postman’s whistle or the knock of the telegraph-boy, wondering whether or not France and Britain would honor their alliances with Poland to come to her aid if she was ever under attack.

The Athenia Sets Sail – September 1st, 1939

12:05pm. The S.S. Athenia steams towards her dock at Glasgow, Scotland, ready to start taking on passengers. Onboard already are the crew, and some early-boarding passengers.

The S.S. Athenia is a British steamship; a passenger-carrying vessel that plied the transatlantic trade for the Anchor-Donaldson Line, running regular services between two halves of the great British Empire! The United Kingdom at one end, and the Dominion of Canada at the other. It did regular service between Liverpool or Glasgow, in England and Scotland, to Quebec, or Montreal in Canada.

The Athenia is a modest ship – nowhere near the size, or grandeur of the great floating palaces of the world – She cannot compete with the world-famous ocean-liners such as the Aquitania, the Queen Mary, the Queen Elizabeth, or the Normandie, pride of the French Line. She doesn’t have the old-world charm of the Olympic or the Berengaria, but she will get you to where you want to go in comfort and style. Her weight is a mere 13,580 tons, compared to a heavyweight such as the Titanic, tipping the scales at over 46,000!

The rumblings of war have been in the paper for weeks. Months, even. Fears of a second Great War had been in the air ever since the German annexation of Austria in 1938.

Some people see war as being inevitable. Others think that 1939 will close as a year of peace. Either way, she leaves Glasgow, Scotland, for Montreal in Canada on the 1st of September. She carries 1,418 passengers and crew.

The S.S. Athenia, Montreal Harbour, Canada; 1935

Passengers on the Athenia range from the moderately famous, to regular families, to single persons heading to the United States and Canada; returning from holidays, from business-journeys, or escaping from the potential powder-keg of Europe before it gets too late.

10:00pm – The Athenia takes on the last of her passengers at Glasgow. She weighs anchor and sets a course for the English port city of Liverpool.

As the ship pulls away from the dock at Belfast, dock-workers scream at the passengers on the deck that they’re cowards, for running away from a war, instead of staying to stand and fight with the rest of them. As yet, no formal declaration of war exists between Britain and Germany. The Athenia sails off into a peaceful Irish Sea.

September 2nd, 1939

3:30pm. The Athenia departs from Liverpool, England. She is bound for the open ocean. She will not stop until she reaches the Canadian port of Montreal.

7:30pm. Under advisement that a state of war is soon likely to exist between Britain and Germany, the ship’s master, Capt. James Cook, orders a blackout onboard, to protect against possible U-boat attacks. All the curtains are drawn. All the portholes are shut, the navigation-lights, mast-lights, port and starboard navigation-lamps and wheelhouse lights are all shut off. Passengers are not even allowed to smoke on deck, in case the glows of their cigarettes should give away the ship’s presence.

On the ship, the war seems far away and distant. But the crew is already taking precautions. Apart from the blackout, the ship now sails up the western Irish coast. It must stay close to land to deter submarines, which can only maneuver effectively in deeper waters.

September 3rd, 1939

3:40am. Having altered her course for safety reasons, the Athenia now sails away from Ireland and out into the open sea. She is heading across the Atlantic Ocean for Canada. As she sails off into deeper waters, there is the ever-present danger of German U-boats. U-boats have been patrolling these waters for several days now, in preparation for the official declaration of war.

Seeking to protect his ship, Capt. Cook adopts traditional wartime tactics against u-boats. The ship sails as fast as it can (15kt), and maintains a zig-zag course, steaming forwards always, but at the same time, changing her heading every couple of minutes. First a few degrees port, then starboard, then port, then starboard again. This is to prevent any submarines from getting an accurate fix on her, and therefore, hinder a u-boat’s ability to fire an accurate shot at her hull.

The Athenia is only doing what any other ship in the British merchant navy would do. But she is hampered in this by her speed and size. Big ships such as the Queen Mary can move much faster, and are less of a target to u-boats as a result, despite their much larger sizes. The Athenia may be smaller, but her slower speed makes her more vulnerable to attack.

While protected by treaties and conventions, the crew of the Athenia don’t expect the Germans to play nice. Although legally, the Germans cannot attack the Athenia due to her status as a noncombatant vessel, Capt. Cook and his men take no chances.

Unknown to Cook and his crew, the one man who is actually on their side is Adolf Hitler himself. Hitler sees the British, as a great and powerful nation of intelligent, white, Aryan people, as brothers and friends of the German people. He is eager to find a peaceful and diplomatic solution to the problem of war.

So as not to antagonise the British, he orders the u-boats of the German Navy to adhere tightly to the 1936 Prize Regulations. The Regulations are a series of rules (to which Germany was a signatory) which lay out the kinds of ships which may, and may not be sunk during maritime warfare.

Unarmed merchant ships, such as the Athenia, could not be sunk without just cause. If a German u-boat found such a ship, it was obliged to make its presence known. The ship in question was expected to heave-to (stop dead in the water). German sailors were then allowed to search the ship for illegal contraband (such as munitions or firearms).

If no such contraband was found, the ship was to be allowed to continue on its way. If contraband was found, the ship could be sunk. But only AFTER the crew and passengers had been offloaded into lifeboats.

A ship clearly marked as an armed merchant-ship, or a ship of the Royal Navy, could be fired upon without a u-boat making its presence known first.

11:00am. The Athenia is steaming towards Canada. The seas are heavy and rough. This hampers the Athenia’s speed and her ability to maintain an effective anti-submarine, zig-zag course.

11:15am. In the Athenia’s wireless-room, 2nd Radio Officer, Donald McRae, picks up a signal. It’s a radio-broadcast from the tiny island of Valentia, off the west coast of Ireland.

It is nothing less than Neville Chamberlain’s famous speech that informs the entire world that “consequently, this country is at war with Germany”.

The message is hardly unexpected. But it’s a bit of a shock, anyway. McRae makes sure that the entire ship knows the news before very many more minutes have elapsed.

The official declaration of war by Britain means that as of this time onwards, the Athenia is sailing through wartime waters. German submarines will be on the lookout for ships that are of importance to the British war-effort, and if they find them, they will sink them.

The Athenia is safe, however. As an unarmed passenger-ship without the facilities for being converted to an armed merchant-cruiser, troopship or munitions-transport, she is protected by international treaties. A ship such as the Athenia, which does not, and which is unable to contribute to the British war-effort, is an illegal target in marine warfare. This should prevent her from being sunk by German submarines or battleships.

12:00 NOON. Capt. Cook orders a notice to be drawn up. It is to inform the passengers of what has happened back in Europe. Under no circumstances are the officers onboard to cause undue panic or alarm. They are instructed to reassure passengers and tell them that the current activities onboard the ship are precautionary, and for their own safety.

1:00pm. The ship’s lifeboats are uncovered and prepared for an emergency. Two boats are swung out on their davits. Should there be an real emergency, these two may be lowered and loaded with passengers at once. It will give the ship a head-start in rescuing survivors, and provide the crew with valuable minutes with which to evacuate the passengers.

2:00pm. Fritz-Julius Lemp is 26 years old. He is commander of the German U-boat, U-30. Already at sea, he receives orders to proceed to his assigned patrol-area in the Atlantic Ocean. Germany is at war with Great Britain.

7:00pm. The Athenia is steaming full-ahead towards Canada. With U-boats about and war declared, she doesn’t want to linger in hostile waters for any longer than she has to. She is moving at top speed steering a wartime course, with her lights doused. But unknown to her crew, Capt. Lemp of U-30 has already spotted her.

Lemp orders the submarine to dive. He tails the ship, spying at her through his periscope. He finds the ship’s behavior odd. It is moving at top speed, it is steering a zig-zag course and has all its lights off to prevent detection. Lemp is well aware that Hitler does not want civilian shipping destroyed. But this ship is acting like an armed merchant-ship, or even a battleship of the Royal Navy!

Onboard the Athenia, Capt. Cook is taking NO chances. He well remembers the unrestricted submarine warfare of the 1910s and how great ships such as the Lusitania were torpedoed and sunk for no other reason than that they could be. Although he shouldn’t have to do so in this war, Capt. Cook adopts all the traditional tactics for eluding submarines. He lived through an era of unrestricted submarine warfare and knows what might happen to his ship.

7:30pm. Capt. Cook, confident in the security and safety of his ship, joins the first class passengers for dinner. The Athenia continues to steam westwards, zigzagging all the way.

7:38pm. Capt. Lemp on U-30 is finally satisfied that the ship he has been tailing is a British armed cruiser or a military vessel of some description, and therefore a legitimate target of war under the terms of international treaties and regulations. He orders the submarine to fire two torpedoes.

7:39pm. The Athenia is rocked as something slams into the side of the ship! The whole ship is rocked by the impact and the electrical power goes out, plunging the entire vessel into darkness! Crew on deck spot the disappearing periscope of a submarine, confirming that it is indeed a torpedo-strike.

7:40pm. The first torpedo has hit the Athenia square-on and blown a hole in her side. The other torpedoes have missed, or have not fired at all due to malfunctions in the torpedo-tubes.

7:45pm. 1st R/O Don is ordered to send out an immediate distress-message, in case another torpedo knocks out the Athenia’s power-supply altogether. He sends out a coded distress-message, but also sends out a message in plain English. Automatically, an electronic cry for help is sparked off across the airwaves…


At once, the ship receives welcome news. Norwegian cargo-ship, the Knute Nelson, just 40 miles away, has received her loud and clear. The Nelson’s radio-operator appears to be in shock. He telegraphs back to the Athenia:


(*’Old Man’ is the ship’s captain).

One of the ships that receives the SOS call is the German ship the S.S. Bremen. Unsurprisingly, it ignores the radio-message and continues to its destination, the Russian port of Murmansk.

8:15pm. The Athenia has been sinking for a little over half an hour, settling heavily by the stern. The submarine, U-30, has surfaced to watch the effects of the torpedo. Radio-officer Georg Hoegel intercepts the Athenia’s plain English radio-transmission. He is shocked by what he hears. He writes it down and hands it to Capt. Lemp. Lemp too, is horrified and guilt-ridden by what he reads. Instead of torpedoing a prize of war, he has attacked and sunk an unarmed civilian passenger-ship, carrying women and children! He swears his crew to silence and secrecy. They will not speak of this to anyone, ever. Lemp feels so horrible about what he has done that he refuses even to enter it into the logbook.

The distress-messages sent out by the Athenia echo around the Atlantic Ocean. Allied shipping receive the calls, and telegraph the unspeakable information to the Admiralty in London.

9:15pm. The Athenia is in no immediate danger. She is sinking, but the damage is limited and there is time to spare. For the 1,400-odd people onboard, the Athenia is amply equipped with 26 lifeboats. All those not killed in the torpedo-attack are offloaded onto the boats and lowered into the water. By now, there are only two lifeboats left. Radio Officer Don continues to send out distress-messages over the radio. So far, four ships have responded and are steaming towards the disaster-site.

9:30pm. The S.S. City of Flint is an American steamship making her way across the Atlantic Ocean. It picks up the Athenia’s distress-messages and alters course towards her. The captain, navy-veteran Joseph Gainard, informs his passengers (mostly students and academics) that the unthinkable has happened – a British civilian passenger-ship has been fired upon by a German submarine, is sinking, and is in need of immediate assistance. Passengers aid the crew in preparing the ship to take on survivors as it steams towards the disaster-site.

10:00pm. With rescue just a few hours away and all surviving passengers and crew put off in the boats, Capt. Cook, and the remaining crew and officers abandon ship. Radio Officer Don sends off one last communication to the rescue ships, that their vessel is being abandoned and to come as fast as they can. Officer Don joins the captain and remaining crew in the last lifeboat, reserved for their use, and lower it into the water.

Onboard lifeboat No. 6, Sir Richard Lake, a former Canadian politician, and his wife, watch the ship sinking. As on the Titanic, passengers row the lifeboats around and into clusters and clumps, to remain secure, and to keep warm in the open air. Despite his age (Sir Richard is eighty years old!), he insists on taking an oar and helping with the movement of the boat.

10:30pm. Now that the fuss has died down, an urgent telegram is sent to the Admiralty in London. It reads:


The signal “SSS” is similar to the signal “SOS”, but is specifically used by ships who were the victims of submarine-attacks. The letters “GFDM” is the Athenia’s radio callsign.

11:00pm. Onboard the last lifeboat to leave the Athenia, Capt. James Cook removes his uniform and dons civilian clothes instead, to make it appear that the captain has gone down with the ship. He knows that in the last war, German submariners would shoot the commanding officer of an enemy ship.

12:00 MIDNIGHT. Another telegram reaches the Admiralty in London, confirming that the steamship Athenia has indeed been hit by a German torpedo. The Admiralty sends out urgent radio-messages to all Royal Navy ships within broadcasting range.

September 4th, 1939.

12:05am. Royal Navy ship, H.M.S. Vanquisher receives an urgent communication:


12:56am. Royal Navy ship, H.M.S. Vivacious receives an urgent communication:


2:30pm. The impact of the torpedo-attack on the Athenia goes much further than other ships, the Royal Navy or even the Admiralty or the German Navy. In London, at the American Embassy, American Ambassador to Great Britain, Joseph Patrick Kennedy…as in the father of future American president John F. Kennedy…is awoken to the news of the sinking of the Athenia. Americans are onboard the ship, and he makes it his duty to find out how many, and who they are. He sends a telegram to the State Department in Washington D.C.:


At the same time out at sea, the first rescue-ships arrive. Passengers and crew from the Athenia are offloaded from the lifeboats onto the vessels which come to the sinking ship’s aid. The ships sail off to the town of Galway, in Ireland, the nearest land to the sinking vessel.

4:30am. The Athenia continues to sink. Despite the damage, the ingress of water is slow. She will not go under for another six hours. She will finally founder at 10:30am. More ships arrive to rescue more passengers and take them to Ireland. British naval ships have come to pick up more survivors.

The S.S. Athenia sinking; Sept. 4th, 1939

The City of Flint, one of the first ships to pick up the Athenia’s distress call, sails for Halifax, Nova Scotia, with over 400 survivors onboard.

The Impact of the Sinking

The sinking of the Athenia sent shockwaves around the world. Newspapers in Great Britain, the colonies, Australia, Canada and the United States flashed the despicable and cowardly act of the Germans, to attack an unarmed passenger-ship without warning, over their front pages in big letters, complete with photographs. Here is the New York Times for the morning of September 4th, 1939:

In Kansas, the Topeka Daily Capital flashed the following headlines:

If you haven’t spotted it yet, it’s under the heading: “BRITISH STEAMSHIP SINKS IN 18 HOURS”. 

Almost at once, the finger-pointing began. The British knew the Germans did it. The Germans knew that the Germans did it. But the Germans insisted that the British did it, as a way to discredit the honourable German Navy, which would NEVER attack an unarmed civilian ship! The truth was that the German Navy knew what had happened. By listening to English radio and reading English newspapers, and by plotting out the locations of all their u-boats, the Germans knew that it was U-30 that had done the deed.

The truth about what really happened to the Athenia did not come out until 1946, during the famous Nuremberg Trials.

The sinking of the Athenia destroyed any hopes that the Germans, or the British had, of finding a quick, peaceful and diplomatic end to what they hoped would be a false war. Instead, it horrified the British people and resolved them to despise the Germans. It shocked the Germans and dragged them into a war which they were still trying to get out of…get out of with Britain, at least. The sinking of one ship had so polarised the European community that by 1940, the whole continent was at war.

More Information?

“OUTBREAK 1939 – The World Goes to War”, by Terry Charman (Virgin Books, London, 2009).

Sinking of S.S. Athenia

The Sinking of the Athenia