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

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

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

Collins Street in central Melbourne as it appeared in 1839.

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

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

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

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

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

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

They had absolutely no idea.

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

What Is the Mahogany Ship?

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

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

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

Why is it called the ‘Mahogany Ship’?

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

What is the Significance of the Mahogany Wreck?

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

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

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

What Do We Know about the Mahogany Ship?

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


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

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

No we can’t.

We can’t, because we can’t see it.

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

That was 130 years ago.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

…But…what’s a chain?

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


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


Ehm…not quite.

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

Why not!?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Does the Mahogany Ship Really Exist?

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

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

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


10 Historical Myths – #02

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Yes, and no.

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

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

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

5). Punishment in the Royal Navy was Exceptionally Harsh

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

Yes, and no.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

…no, he didn’t.

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

But what about the word ‘crap’?

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

9). You Couldn’t own Alcohol during Prohibition

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



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

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

By you, probably, yeah.

But not by the Chinese.

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

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

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

Well, what’s a ‘Li’?

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

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

So there you have it!


Having A Ball: My Swiss Railroad Pocketwatch from 1950

In looking back over my blog, it kind of shocks me that in eight years almost, of writing this crazy thing, I have not once, ever made a blog-posting about one of my favourite and most prized possessions – which I think is pretty ridiculous, considering it’s one that I carry almost every single day, and have done for the past seven years.

I have mentioned it in passing in one or two of my other blog posts, probably, but I never went into detail about it, so that’s what I’m going to do now.

My Swiss-made Ball Railroad Pocketwatch

One of my most prized possessions for nearly 10 years is this pocketwatch, manufactured in Switzerland by the Record Watch Company, for the famous Ball Watch Company of Cleveland, Ohio, in the United States. In this posting, I’ll be going into detail about what this watch is, and what makes it unique, or different. So, let’s get started.

It’s Swiss but it’s American but it’s…wah…??

Yeah it can get pretty confusing, I know! The lettering on the dial quite clearly says “BALL OFFICIAL RR STANDARD / CLEVELAND”. This was the decal used by the Ball Watch Company of Cleveland, Ohio, a company which distributed watches to various American and Canadian railroad companies from the 1890s up to the end of about the 1950s. While the Ball name became famous for accuracy, ruggedness and high quality, one thing that Ball was not famous for was…making watches!

I know, crazy isn’t it? One of the most important watch companies in the world made no watches! Nope! In fact, the vast majority of Ball-branded watches were actually made by other companies, sold to Ball, and were then re-branded as Ball watches and then sold to the public (or to people working on the railroads). Companies included Elgin, Illinois, and Waltham, to name just a few.

…So why was this made in Switzerland?

Well after the Second World War, the American watchmaking industry really started to fall apart. It wasn’t able to effectively compete against European watchmakers and bad management and marketing decisions made by various company executives meant that the output and quality of watches made in the United States in the 50s and 60s started to falter. By the 1970s, almost none of the traditional American watchmaking firms was still in operation. More and more work, and eventually, whole companies, were sent out to Europe to fulfill orders and keep up with manufacturing, rather than do it in America.

That is why an American watch ended up being made in Switzerland.

Blued-steel hands on the dial were a common feature of antique pocketwatches. The heat-treatment applied to the hands to prevent rusting tinted the steel a dark, navy-blue/purple colour.

What is this Watch?

This watch is a Swiss-made Ball-Record Model 435c. In terms of the railroad pocketwatch – a specially designed pocketwatch used by people who worked on railroads between about 1890-1960, this watch represented not only the pinnacle of the style, but also the end of it. It was one of the last major-production railroad pocketwatches still produced in the 1940s and 50s after the Second World War.

Who Used This Watch?

The Ball-Record 435-series of Swiss-made pocketwatches were manufactured as railroad-standard, meaning that they could be used, theoretically, on any railroad operating on the North American continent. This particular watch, however, was likely used in Canada, and specifically, on the Canadian Pacific Railroad.  I think this for two reasons:

1). The watch has a 24-hour dial. This was a feature which was only mandatory on Canadian-use railroad pocketwatches. America, for whatever reason, never had this as part of their railroad watch regulations.

2). The Ball-Record 435-series is actually listed in Canadian Pacific Railroad documentation as being an officially-approved timepiece. In the 1957 listings of approved CPR timepieces, it’s entered as: “BALL – 16s [16-size], 435C, 21j [21 jewels]”. And that’s how I know!

What is a Railroad Pocketwatch?

Alright, so that’s the watch. What is a railroad pocketwatch, and what makes such a watch what it is?

I covered this in much greater detail in the blog posting I did years and years ago, which is also the first, last and until now, only time I’d ever mentioned the watch which is the focus of this article. If you want to read that posting, it’s here. 

But to sum up really fast:

The railroad chronometer, or railroad-standard pocketwatch was a specialised timepiece developed in the late 1800s to combat the very serious issue at the time, of railroad punctuality, and by extension – safety. Remember that this was a time before radio, before telephones, before GPS tracking and electronic sensors. The only way to know where a train was, at least in theory, supposed to be, was to know what time it was. And the only way you could do that was if everyone had the same time. And the only way you could do THAT was to ensure that everybody working on the railroads had the most accurate watches available.

After a series of disastrous train-wrecks in the United States in the second half of the 1800s, safety was ramped up, and in 1891, Webster C. Ball was made the Time Inspector for railroads in the United States. A jeweler and watchmaker of renown, Ball established the watch company which now bears his name, and was the first person to try and set nationally-recognised standards for railroad watches. Every watch had to have these features in it. They were updated and changed throughout time, but by the early 1900s, they were pretty much standardised. These criteria were numerous, but they were:

  • A large watch. 16 or 18 size. (18 size was later considered too large, and railroaders could trade them in for a smaller, more comfortable 16, if they wanted to. 18s were jokingly called ‘woodburners’ since only the old-timer railroad men, who operated wood-burning locomotives held onto them!)
  • Open-faced. No hunter-case lid to cover the dial.
  • Crown-wind, lever set. For ease of maintenance and safety in time-setting.
  • At least 17 jewels. This was raised to 19, 21 and 23 jewels as time went by. But basically, 17-23 was considered RR-grade.
  • Bimetallic balance-wheel for coping with temperature-extremes.
  • Six position adjustments so that the watch kept time in all possible orientations.
  • Temperature-variance adjustments, so that the watch kept time no matter how hot or cold it was (34-100’F, in case you’re wondering).
  • Isochronism (mainspring-tension variance and the ability of the watch to keep time regardless thereof).
  • Bold, easily read numbers, and easily-read minute-markers.
  • Bold, easily read hands.
  • Micro-regulator for precise calibration.
  • American-made watches ONLY (some leeway was given for European-made watches, so long as parts were commonly available).

That is the list of basic regulations. As time went by, more were added, but those were the starter-points. Along with all the regulations about the watches, there were loads of regulations about how they were to be used, and how they were to be serviced! Among other things…

  • The owner, a railroad employee, could not set the time himself. He was responsible for winding his watch and nothing else. Time-setting in the event of letting the watch run down, or from inaccuracy, was only done by the time-inspector for that railroad.
  • The watch had to keep time to +/-30sec a week, or about +/-4sec a day.
  • The owner was not allowed to tinker, repair, adjust or regulate the watch in any way whatsoever.

As you can imagine, with all these regulations, railroads, and the men who operated them, became famous for their punctuality and accuracy of timekeeping. From the late 1800s up to the 1950s, if you needed to know THE time, you asked an engineer, a station-master, or a railroad conductor. Almost certainly, he’d have the right time in his pocket, down to the minute, perhaps even the second!

Railroad watches died out after the Second World War. Improved wristwatches and improved signaling systems meant that railroad pocketwatches were no longer needed as much as before. By the 1960s, they had almost all gone.

Do you use this watch every day?

Um…Yeah, most days, yes! When I’m not using it, it hangs on a little brass stand on my desk. When I do use it, it’s on the end of a chain in my waistcoat pocket or inside the watch-pocket on my jeans or trousers. It’s big, it’s easy to read, and it’s also a great conversation-piece! I don’t think I’d ever trade it for anything else in the world…except for a nicer railroad watch! But I don’t think that’d be happening anytime soon.


10 Historical Myths – #01

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

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

1). People wrote with big fluffy feathers!

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

Yes…with a ‘but’. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

2). Loads of things about Knights!

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

Knights in Shining Armour!

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

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

Knights are Chivalrous!

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

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

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

An Armoured Knight Could Not Move!

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

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

Knights were Older Men

Not really!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Well, it would be – if it worked.

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

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

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

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

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

6). Loads of things about the Titanic

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

The Titanic and its Lifeboats

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

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

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

The Titanic was going too fast!

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

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

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

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

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

The Titanic was trying to win the Blue Riband

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

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

7). Loads of things about the Wild West!

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

Everybody and their momma was packin’ heat!

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

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

The murder rates were super-high!

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

Cowboys and outlaws were hot-blooded, white Americans.

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


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

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

8). Loads of things about Pirates!

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

Pirates buried treasure, and drew maps to it!

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

Pirates walked the plank!

Nope. Pure fiction, and an invention of Hollywood.

There was a Pirates’ Code!

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

Pirates were marooned on desert islands.

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

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

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

Pirates were obsessed with ‘Pieces of Eight’.

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

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

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

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

9). Stuff about the Model T Ford

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

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

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

Model Ts were rickety, unreliable, fiddly machines.

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

Model Ts could run you over when you started them.

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

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

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

The idea of taxing light is nothing new!!

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