Attacking and Defending a Medieval Castle. (Pt. II)

 

Continued from Part I, above.

Attacking a Castle.

Considering that castles were so vast, intimidating and well-defended, how did invading armies ever hope to break into them and win a siege? They used siege-engines.

A siege-engine is a massive machine used to bust your way into a castle. There were four main siege engines:

Battering-Ram.


From Medieval.Castles.org.

The battering-ram was used to beat down the castle door. A ram could be anything. Really simple rams were just massive logs carried by dozens of men, who would slam it constantly into a castle door in the hopes that it would splinter and break open. If this proved ineffective, invaders could use a more effective ram, which was housed inside a wheeled, wooden frame. This type of ram was massive, usually made of wood or stone. It was slung up on rope slings suspended inside the wooden frame. The frame had wheels to make it more manuverable and the rope slings made the ram easier to move and smash against the door. These more advanced battering-rams could also have rooves (made of wood or animal-hide) above them, to protect the soldiers manning the battering-ram, from things either fired or thrown on them from defenders on the walltops above.

Trebuchet.

Pronounced ‘Tre-buh-shay’, this siege-engine worked by a system of counterweights. Mounted in a wheeled, wooden frame, the trebuchet consisted of a long, wooden arm. At one end of the arm was a heavy counterweight. At the other end, was a rope net. The projectile (say, a boulder) was put into the net, and a securing rope was released. The heavy counterweight swung down, bringing the arm up, which rotated on a pivot. The momentum fired the projectile either against, or over the castle wall, destroying everything in its path.

Catapault.

Everyone knows what a catapault is. A big siege engine which flings things at the enemy. These worked by winding back the catapault arm and putting the projectile in metal bowl or basket at the end of the catapault arm. The projectile might be a boulder, several rocks or even the carcass of a dead animal, in a form of medieval biological warfare. In one siege battle, the corpses of people who had died from the Black Death, were catapaulted over a city wall, in the hopes that the defenders would catch the plague and die a horrible death. At the right time, a securing rope or pin was either untied or released, and the catapault fired its projectile either at, or over the castle wall.

Siege Tower.

The siege tower was an enormous, wooden tower on wheels. They were loaded with soldiers, and then pushed up against the walls of castles. To prevent siege towers from getting close to a castle, architects tried to build their castles on hills, where siege-towers would be useless. But if a tower did get right up to a castle wall, a ramp at the top of the tower was lowered onto the wall and enemy soldiers charged off the tower and onto the top of the curtain wall.

Examples of all four of these siege engines in action, can be seen in the Battle of Minas Tirith, in the final “Lord of the Rings” trilogy installment: ‘The Return of the King’.

Other ways of getting into a Castle.

Undermining.

Today, if someone has ‘undermined’ you, it means that they’ve done something which has rendered all your actions or precautions useless. 800 years ago, undermining was actually a way to break into a castle.

First of all: Undermining is not tunneling to get under the walls and into the castle grounds. No. Undermining was a bit more complex than just digging under the wall to get out the other side. This is how it worked:

Soldiers burrowed a tunnel under a castle wall or tower. Having dug the tunnel underneath (which would be shored up with wood), soldiers got out of there, while filling in the tunnel with more wood as they left. Once they were out, they set the wood on fire. Once all the wood inside the tunnel had burnt to ash, what was supposed to happen was that the tunnel collapsed. Once this had taken place, the structural integrity of the tower or wall burrowed under, would have been severely weakened. The lack of a proper foundation meant that the wall or tower could collapse when the tunnel did, which gave intruders a way into the castle.

The Petard.

The petard isn’t really a siege engine, but it was something which attackers did use to try and gain entrance to a castle. A petard is a type of bomb, which came into being in the 16th century with the rise of gunpowder in the 1500s. It was an explosive-device made of iron and wood. The iron part was shaped like a bucket, and this was filled with gunpowder. Once it was full of powder, the wooden backing-board was fastened over the top, to stop the powder spilling out. Once the petard was made, it was given to the unfortunate petardier’s assistant (a petardier is the man who makes the petards), who would have to take it and run across the field to the enemy castle gates and fasten this contraption onto it.


A petardier’s assistant running away after having lit the fuse on the petard.

Once it was fastened on, a match-cord fuse was shoved into a small touch-hole in the side of the petard’s iron gunpowder-container, and was then lit. The petardier then tried to get the hell out of there as quickly as possible. Petards were incredibly dangerous and they could blow up without warning. Assuming everything went to plan, the fuse burnt into the petard, it set off the approximately ten pounds of gunpowder inside the petard, which blasted a hole in the castle door. If the poor petardier’s assistant didn’t make it away in time (assuming he made it to the door at all, because musketeers would be shooting at him the whole time), he could be blown up along with his bomb. It is from this rather dangerous explosive device, that we get the phrase “hoist by his own petard”, which means to be caught up in the results of your own foul deeds. Of course, 400 years ago, a petardier’s assistant was literally hoist (that is, thrown into the air), by the explosion of his own petard if he didn’t get away in time.

The End of a Siege.

A siege ended when either the attacking enemy was dead or too exhausted to carry on, meaning that the castle had either held out against its enemies, or had successfully repelled an invasion, or when the defenders inside the castle were dead, when the enemy outside had successfully breeched the castle’s defenses.

Pen Profile: The Conklin Crescent-Filler (Ca. 1901).

 

In the history of writing, one can never forget a man named Roy Conklin. Conklin was an innovator, and his innovation and invention was the first self-filling fountain pen: The Conklin Crescent-Filler.

The crescent-filler is ridiculously simple in its construction; it’s filling mechanism consists of just three components: The brass filling-tab, the rubber ink-sac and the hard-rubber locking-ring. And yet, it was a total runaway success. It was so popular that one of America’s most famous writers, Mark Twain, became an enthusiastic promoter of Conklin’s newfangled *gasp* self-filling fountain pen!


My own Conklin Crescent-Filler, ca. 1914. The locking-ring can be seen on the right, with the brass filling-tab above it. This photograph is rather decieving, the tab is actually quite shiny.

To understand how revolutionary this was, you have to realise that before Conklin came along, all fountain pens were ‘eyedropper-fillers’. This meant that you pulled the pen apart, filled the pen-barrel with ink from an eyedropper, and then you put the pen back together to write with it. While eyedroppers could hold enough ink for you to write the bible, the big problem with them was that they could leak, and filling a pen-barrel with an eyedropper was messy at the best of times.

Conklin’s pen, on the other hand, was so elegant, so revolutionary, and yet so simple, that other pen-makers were kicking themselves that they hadn’t thought of it sooner! Here is how it works:

IMPORTANT NOTE: These instructions are given with the understanding that your pen is in 100% full, working condition. Do NOT attempt ANY of these steps if your pen has not been restored to an operational level. It could do irrepairable damage to a priceless antique!!

1. Unlock the tab.

All Conklin Crescent-Fillers have a round, hard-rubber ‘locking-ring’ that wraps around the barrel. The locking-ring, when ‘closed’, prevents the filling-tab (the ‘crescent’ in the pen-name, since the tab is shaped like a semi-circle) from being depressed accidently (and ejecting ink all over the place!). By sliding the ring around the barrel so that the narrow opening of the ring is directly underneath the tab, the pen can now be filled. Given that most Conklin Crescent-Fillers are now upwards of 90 years old, this should be done delicately!

2. Depress the tab.

With the tab unlocked and the locking ring open, you can unscrew your ink-bottle, put the pen into the ink-bottle and press down on the brass tab. This doesn’t have to be done fast or forcefully…take your time. Depressing the tab presses down on the pressure-bar inside the pen-barrel, which is attached to the underside of the tab. The pressure-bar, a wide, flat piece of steel, in turn, presses down on the flexible, rubber ink-sac inside the pen. Pressing the sac flat forces out any ink or air inside it.

3. Release the tab.

Move your finger off the tab. Now the pen will start to fill. Releasing the tab means that the pressure-bar springs up, and the ink-sac, depleted of air, will now form a vacuum, which will suck ink into the pen. Give the pen a few seconds to fill, and then remove it from the ink. The tab should be pressed twice for the best filling.

4. Close the ring.

Once the pen’s full, remove it from the ink-bottle, close the ring and wipe down the pen of excess ink. It is IMPORTANT to CLOSE THE RING. If you don’t, there’s a good chance of the tab being accidently depressed, and squirting ink all over the place.

While the Conklin Crescent-Filler certainly wasn’t very pretty to look at, it was nonetheless a massive success, because it answered everyone’s main concerns about fountain pens at the time:

1. It did not leak.
2. It had good inkflow.
3. It was quick and easy to fill.

Conklin’s production of the Crescent-Filler pen started in 1901, and didn’t end until the mid 1920s, by which time, better-looking and smoother-filling pens had come onto the market.

Hold the Line! – Land Battles of the 18th Century (Pt. I)

 

If you’ve ever watched movies such as ‘The Patriot’, with Mel Gibson, or any movies made about battles of the American Revolutionary War or the Napoleonic wars, you may have noticed that 200 years ago, army officers didn’t seem to have many brains. How could they expect to win a battle if all they did was line up their men in rows, facing the enemy, creating nothing but a big, fat target for enemy soldiers to shoot at?

On the surface, watching a reenactment of an 18th or 19th century battle, such as those which would’ve been fought during the American War of Independence, the War of 1812 or the Napoleonic wars of the 1810s, looks like a bloody waste of time. All they’re doing is shooting at each other until everyone’s dead. How the hell did one side ever expect to win against another?

The Weapons.

To understand how and why battles back then were fought the way they were, you had to understand the types of weapons that these battles were fought with. Back in the 1700s and the early 1800s, the main infantry weapon was a firearm known as the flintlock musket. The musket is easy to use, but it’s slow to reload and is generally inaccurate beyond a few dozen yards. At 100 yards, you had a 50/50 chance of hitting the target which you were aiming at. One rather telling quote about the inaccuracy of muskets goes:

    “I do maintain and will prove, that no man was ever killed at 200 yards, by a common musket, by the person who aimed at him.”

– Col. George Hanger (1814).


Flintlock musket, the type of infantry firearm that predominated wars from the mid 1600s until the mid 1800s.

How a Musket was Loaded.

The flintlock musket is a ridiculously simple weapon to use. A child of ten could do it. The flintlock musket was loaded in the following manner:

1. Hammer to Half-Cock.

You pulled the hammer (containing the flint-stone which gives the weapon its name), to half-cock.

2. Open Frizzen.

The frizzen is the lid and steel plate which closes over the flash-pan. Opening the frizzen gave you access to the pan.

3. Prime.

You ‘primed’ or filled the flash-pan with powder.

4. Close Frizzen.

You closed the frizzen to stop the powder falling out.

5. Cast About.

You cast the musket about, that is, you swung it around so that the muzzle was nice and close to you. Having cast it about, you poured more powder down the muzzle, followed by the musket-ball and a scrunched up piece of paper, known as the wad. The wad was there to stop the musket-ball rolling out (remember, these guns are smoothbore. Things fall out just as easily as they go in).

6. Draw Ramrod.

You drew out the ramrod from the sling underneath your musket. You rammed the wadding, bullet and gunpowder right down to the back of the barrel, so that it was next to the flashpan and frizzen. You then removed the ramrod and replaced it under the musket.

7. Hammer to Full Cock.

You pulled the hammer to full cock. You were now ready to fire. At your own will, or on command, you lowered the musket, took aim, and fired. This seven-step loading process seems like a lot of work, but it could actually be done pretty quickly. In the 1700s, a well-trained British redcoat was expected to be able to do this entire operation four times in a minute, purely by feel. Usually the rate of fire was three shots a minute, but especially well-trained armies, such as the Russian and British Armies, could get off four, or even five shots a minute, which means doing that entire loading procedure in just twelve seconds.

Musket or Rifle?

While the rifle was more accurate, the musket remained the weapon of choice for infantry for several decades. In the opening years of the American Civil War, some soldiers still preferred muskets over rifles. Why?

1. Muskets are quicker to load.

A musket is a smoothbore weapon. This means that the inside of the gun-barrel is as smooth as the outside of the barrel. This means that when you shoot the gun, the ball doesn’t always come out straight. It bounces and zings and ricochets around inside the barrel due to the windage (gap between bullet & barrel), before spitting out the end and heading off into only God-knows-where. The fact that muskets were muzzle-loading weapons, however, meant that if they were smoothbore, bullets and other important components (like wadding and gunpowder), went down the barrel quicker. By comparison, a rifle, with its rifling (spirals carved into the inside of the barrel), was slower to load. The ball had a very snug fit inside a rifle-barrel, and this made the rifle slower to load. When a split second in battle can mean the difference between life and death, you don’t wanna be caught up loading your gun in an inopportune moment.

2. Muskets can be mass-produced.

Because muskets were such simple weapons, they were easy to mass-produce. Calibres and sizes varied, but the basic design never changed. Because of this, it was possible for a gunsmith to turn out dozens, hundreds, thousands of muskets at once. Rifles, on the other hand, were usually custom-made pieces, and no two rifles back in the 18th century were the same. Because rifles were so much harder to make than muskets, muskets again, won out over their more accurate opponent.

3. Bayonets.

A bayonet is a long, thin, sharp, steel knife which fits onto the end of a gun-barrel. In modern combat of the 21st century, the bayonet is a last-ditch, close-quarters combat-weapon. 200 years ago, the bayonet was used in what were called ‘bayonet charges’. During battle, an army officer would shout out the order: ‘level bayonets!’ or words to that effect, and then bellow out, ‘charge!’, upon which, probably 2000 soldiers would charge at the enemy with two thousand long, sharp, pointy things in front of them. Being sliced or spiked by a bayonet was not pretty, and a bayonet charge was a magnificent form of psychological warfare on the enemy.

Bayonets are detatchable knives. They can be pulled off the gun, or they can be put back on. In the 1700s, bayonets were called ‘socket-bayonets’. Meaning that the end closest to the musket-barrel had a loop of metal (the socket), which fitted around the musket-barrel and slid into place, nice and securely. Because muskets were mass-produced, fashioning a similarly-sized bayonet was pretty easy. Rifles, being custom-made, meant that they all had to have custom-made bayonets, which took up too much time and money.

So, despite their inaccuracy, muskets were the desired weapon of the day.

The Tactics.

Although they were faster loading, easier to produce and came with nice, shiny accessories which could turn the enemy into a kebab, muskets were still…inaccurate. To compensate for this, tacticians in battle sent out their troops en-masse, in rows (ranks), to maximise firepower, when shooting at the enemy. Before the invention of the machine-gun, this was really the only way to ensure accurate, high rates of intense firepower.

The most common tactical formation during wars involving muskets was the ‘Line’. It’s exactly what it sounds like; soldiers formed lines (ranks), one behind the other, and marched off into battle. The line allowed as many soldiers as possible to fire at once, inflicting the most injuries as possible upon the enemy. Sometimes, the front rank of soliders would kneel, with the rear rank standing over them. This way, they could deliver double the amount of firepower from the same amount of space.

Another common infantry formation was the ‘Square’, also called the Infantry Square. This formation was commonly utilised against cavalry charges. Once a square had been formed, it meant that several ranks of soldiers could deliver devastating fire in four directions, capable of destroying enemy cavalry as it came galloping towards them. Usually, the soldiers would wait until the cavalry was very close (within a few yards), before opening fire. When horses and their riders crashed to the ground, they started forming a wall of dead bodies which other riders would either have to leap over (exposing themselves to fire), or which they would crash into, again, exposing themselves to fire.

This article is continued in Part II, below.

Hold the Line! – Land-Battles of the 18th Century (Pt. II)

 

Part II of my two-part article on land-battles during the 18th and early 19th centuries.

How Battles were Fought.

If two armies were going to do battle, for example, back in the 1770s during the American Revolution, it usually played out like this:

Soldiers formed ranks and lines. They would march out into the battlefield, shoulder to shoulder, holding their muskets against their shoulders. When they had reached a good spot, officers ordered their soldiers to halt. When the enemy had also stopped marching, an officer would yell out three orders:

1. “Make Ready!”

The order to ‘make ready’, meant that you were expected to take a firm grip on your musket, in preparation for firing.

2. “Take Aim!”, or alternatively, “Present Arms!”

The order to ‘take aim’ meant that all muskets dropped from their previously vertical position to a horizontal position, ready to be fired. Now was also the time you sought out your target. A similar order, ‘present arms’ meant that you were to present (prepare) your weapon for firing, by bringing it down, ready to shoot.

3. “Fire!”

Rather obvious. On this order, you pulled the trigger. One musket going off isn’t that impressive. But imagine 100, 200, 500 or even a thousand muskets going off at once. The noise was deafeningly loud and the amount of smoke produced by the burning blackpowder could leave you standing in a haze of your own gunsmoke.

Here comes the confusing part, which most people, quite understandably, are at a loss to rationalise.

Once you fired, you stood there like a headless chicken, waiting for the enemy to fire back at you and kill you. During this time, you were probably reloading your musket. Meanwhile, about 20 yards away, another guy with a musket is about to blow your flipping brains out! Once he’d fired, if you were still alive, you and your chums brought your muskets to bear again, and fired back. This went back and forth, like two thousand men playing a deadly game of lead tennis. Given that the majority of battles were fought like this, how the hell did anyone expect to win?

Here come your two supporting wings of the army, to help you fly to glory. Cavalry and Artillery.

The point of warfare in the 18th and early 19th centuries, and even as far back as the 17th century, was to break the enemy’s line. Once the line was broken, you could charge ahead into the disrupted enemy soldiers and hack them to pieces, winning the battle, claiming the land, and advancing your army to victory! So, how did you break the lines?

Usually, you just shot at each other until one line broke, but as you might have guessed, this was slow, tedious and a terrible waste of both ammunition and manpower. To rectify this, officers would call on their artillery to dispatch the enemy to an early grave. Artillery (cannons and mortars), would shoot cannonballs into the enemy lines to try and break them. Most people think that you shot explosives into the enemy lines, the explosives blew up, and the line was broken. No. No, no, no, no, no. That is not what happened.

Most cannons fired roundshot (see ‘Naval Warfare in the Age of Sail, pt II’ for cannon ammo), big black cannonballs. These balls were designed to smash their way through the enemy lines like wrecking-balls, ripping off limbs, kicking up soil and smoke to blind the enemy, and to cause mass confusion. Don’t forget that soldiers often stood shoulder to shoulder, which made them ideal targets for cannons and their wide variety of ammunition. With enough artillery, you could disrupt the lines bad enough that you then moved onto your next attack, either a cavalry charge or a bayonet charge. The other popular kind of ammunition was case-shot, which turned your cannons into massive shotguns. Caseshot was devastating to closely-packed infantry. Sometimes, you fired double-case or double-canister, which sent twice the amount of musket-balls at the enemy, ripping them apart. Occasionally, you would use explosive shells, but this wasn’t done as frequently as you might think.

After you and the enemy had exchanged a few hundred rounds of lead at each other, it was time to really break the enemy’s lines. After bombarding them with artillery and depending on the situation, you either ordered your officers to charge, at which all your soldiers lowered their muskets and bayonets, and charged at the enemy, spearing them and cutting them up, or you sent in your cavalry, which galloped in, swords swinging and slashing, outrunning the fleeing enemy soldiers and slicing their heads off. With the enemy lines broken, you could charge ahead and win the battle. The title of this article, to ‘hold the line’, comes from battles such as these. The order to ‘hold the line’ (which today, means to persevere and hold out against all odds), meant that all soldiers were to reform their ranks and lines, so as to form a solid wall of soldiers, capable of fending off the enemy.

Winning a Battle.

Making sure your side won in battle was a tricky thing to do. There wasn’t much that you could do about artillery except try and dodge the cannonballs. Against cavalry, you could try and form an infantry-square and mow down the horses as they charged at you, or you could try and knock them out with your own artillery. Often, picking a good battlefield was a big factor in whether you won or lost. Even today, it’s an important factor in warfare. If you intended to be successful, you usually picked a battlefield that was sloped or hilly, and put your army on the high-points such as at the top of a ridge or hill. This meant that you could see further, your artillery could shoot further, enemy cavalry charges had to fight their way uphill, and you could sit pretty and shoot at the enemy while it struggled uphill towards you with bayonet charges.

Changing Tactics.

Tactics like these lasted a surprisingly long time. From the Medieval Period, starting with archers, through the English Civil War, using matchlock muskets, through the American Revolution, using flintlock muskets, through the American Civil War, using caplock rifles. In fact, tactics such as these lasted right up until the early 1910s with the coming of the First World War. Unfortunately by that time, the machine-gun had arrived, and was capable of ripping apart soldiers who marched in closed ranks into battle, which meant new tactics had to be devised…

Pistols at Dawn – The History, Art and Culture of Duelling

 

When we think of the Victorian, Georgian, Regency or Stuart periods of history, we think of gaslight, candles, silverware, horses and carriages…and we think of one of the oldest and most dangerous customs which mankind ever thought fit to invent. The art of duelling.

Duelling has existed for centuries and while it largely died out by the end of the Victorian era, before then, it was generally seen as the ‘manly way’ of settling an argument or for gaining satisfaction for an offense, either to oneself, or to a friend or relation. Despite myth, duelling was never actually legal. Most countries had strict laws against duelling, but it happened so frequently that lawmakers and lawmen were pretty much helpless to stop it and over the years, hundreds of men shot, slashed or beat it out in the middle of a field, to gain satisfaction for an insult dealt to them by their opponent.

This article will explain what a duel is, how it was conducted, how it was fought, and what was the etiquette and culture surrounding them.

What is a Duel?

A duel is a fair fight between two gentlemen which comes after one party has “demanded satisfaction” from the other party after the exchange of insults by one, or both, of the parties.

Why Duels were Fought

Reasons for fighting duels were numerous, but the main reasons were to preserve one’s honour or to deal out revenge for an insult. Duels were fought between men, that is, gentlemen, who were members of wealthy and socially prominent families. In centuries past, the conduct of a single member of a family could taint and soil the reputation of the entire tree. It would give the family a bad name and it would disgrace the offending member for the rest of his life. Individual honour, and still more, the honour of the family and its name, was therefore of the utmost importance, and it was to be guarded fiercely.

Such was the importance of an individual’s reputation and family honour, that many gentlemen would go to great lengths, either to defend their honour, or to protect the family name; hence the duelling, which was then considered the only ‘manly’ way to settle an argument. Think of it as 18th century machismo.

Weapons of a Duel

In theory, ANY weapon can be used to fight a duel. Anything from billiard-cues, cutlery, kegs of gunpowder – at least one French record states that a duel was fought by two men in hot-air balloons. Traditionally, however, a duel was fought with swords or (from the 17th century onwards), duelling pistols.

Duelling pistols were made by master gunsmiths, and were typically sold in pairs, to wealthy gentlemen. The pistols were (and still are) single-shot, muzzleloading flintlocks. They would come in their own case, complete with accessories, everything from rammers to powder-horns and cleaning-brushes. An antique set of duelling pistols is shown below:

How a Duel was Fought

As mentioned, a duel is a fair fight between two gentlemen. These days people think of fights as bar-brawls or full, one-on-one, street-brawls. Back in the 18th and 19th centuries, the art of proper duelling was a tangle of ettiquite, rules and manners. If you didn’t play by the rules, it wasn’t a proper duel.

If a gentleman insulted another, for example, calling his wife a whore, then the insulted party had the opportunity to demand a duel. If he did desire a duel, then he would typically tell the other gentleman that he would “demand satisfaction for that insult!”.

If the offender refused to duel, the insulted party would accuse the man of cowardice (“Will you duel, or are you a COWARD?”) If the other man desired to leave the argument with his honour intact, he would be compelled to say that he would fight the duel (“Then you will have it [satisfaction] sir!”).

One rule of duelling is that it is the insulter, and not the instigator of the duel, that can select the weapons. This was only seen as being fair. Once weapons were selected (say, duelling pistols), then a time and a place would be selected for the duel. With the date agreed on, the two men would head their separate ways.

On the date of the duel, both parties were expected to show up, with their pistols loaded and ready. A flintlock pistol is an inaccurate weapon at best. It is slow to reload and has a range of only a few dozen yards, if that. After loading their weapons, the two men would stand back to back, while a second (each man had a ‘second’, that is, a companion to the duel), would count out the number of paces. A rule of thumb was that the greater the insult – the fewer the paces.

After the paces had been counted, it was up to the men to turn around and fire. If they both missed, they could reload and try again. If one was hit, the injured (or dead) man, lost the duel. Firing to miss DELIBERATELY, was a breech of the rules and the duel was disqualified.

Duelling with swords (which was common even after pistols became the favoured weapon), could be done to three different stages:

1. To first blood.

The duel would start and continue until one opponent was cut badly enough to bleed.

2. To first Injury.

The duel was fought until one opponent was injured badly enough that he could not continue the duel.

3. To the Death.

Self-explanatory, the duel was fought until one man died.

After the completion of the duel, the insulted party (if he lived) had to state that he had recieved satisfaction. Had he not, then he could demand another duel.

The Calling Card – A Georgian and Victorian Necessity.

 

These days, if someone left some sort of trademark or evidence of their presence in a location behind, they are said to have had left their ‘calling card’. This phrase has been used so often in modern English that most people probably don’t even know what a calling card is, what its purpose was or indeed, the etiquette surrounding calling cards.

Why did people have calling cards and what were they used for?

These days when someone calls you on the telephone, you have caller ID. A ringtone or a special message that lets you know who’s calling you, before you pick up the phone and answer it, or conversely, decide not to answer it.

Turn back the clock 250 years to the 1700s, and the calling-card played the exact same role as those custom-ringtones and messages on your cellphone. The calling-card allowed the recipient to see who was desirous of making contact with them, before having to meet the person themselves, and giving them the chance to decline the visit if they so-wished. For this reason, you never left home without a few calling-cards in your pocket.

Georgian Etiquette.

The calling-card was a staple accessory of polite society during the Georgian, Regency and Victorian periods, which largely died out by the early 20th century. In Georgian and Victorian times, you never called upon someone (that is, to pay them a visit), without bringing your calling-cards with you. It would be like showing up at an invite-only dinner party today, without an invite, and demanding entrance to the festivities. If you showed up at a residence back in the 1700s or the 1800s without your calling-cards, you were considered to be very rude.

In really polite society, you gave your card to whomever you wanted to meet, even if the recipient was a really close friend of yours. Unless you were considered practically family, however, the calling-card was a must. When meeting strangers or acquaintances for the first time, it was customary to exchange cards with each other, and each person was expected to treat the other person’s card with respect. Doctors making house-calls on patients would give their card to the master of the house, identifying themselves for who they were, as would lawyers or indeed, any other professional man.

So, how was it done?

If Mr. Smith intended to call on Mrs. Brown, her husband, Mr. Brown, and Mr. Smith being business-partners, Smith would ring the doorbell of the Brown household, and wait for the door to be answered.

Upon the door opening, he would immediately state the intent of his call, and present the servant who answered the door, with his calling-card. He would then be asked to wait (if Mrs. Brown was at home), or be asked to come back later (if Mrs. Brown was not at home). Having been invited to wait, Mr. Smith would then enter the house and wait in the foyer, or wait outside on the front steps. The servant, meanwhile, would hand Mr. Smith’s card to Mrs. Brown. If she was recieving visitors, she would instruct the servant to invite Mr. Smith inside. If she wasn’t recieving visitors, for whatever reason (feeling sick, not in the mood, or perhaps plain not liking Mr. Smith), she would instruct the servant to act accordingly, which meant that Mr. Smith would either be told that Mrs. Brown was not at home, or that she wasn’t recieving visitors.

But what if the person you desired to see, really wasn’t home?

This is the second function of the calling-card. While the first function was for your card to act as your caller ID when you went visiting, the second function was for your card to act as a sort of analogue answering-machine or voicemail system.

If Mr. Smith showed up at the Brown household and neither Mr. or Mrs. Brown were at home, he would be invited to leave his card on the hall table, so that when the Browns returned, they would be aware of who had come calling for them while they were out. Sometimes, you might leave a small note, written in pencil, on the back of your card, stating either, the reason for your visit, or perhaps, the time in which you might return, so that Mr. or Mrs. Brown might make themselves available at the time stated.

What did the cards look like?

Calling-cards were much like the business-cards that most people carry around today. They were small, palm-sized rectangles of stiff paper or cardboard, probably two inches wide and about three inches long. A card could be just plain, white paper, or, if the cardholder was particularly wealthy, it might be very elaborate, with coloured paper and embossed patterns around the edges. A card typically contained your name, title, occupation and maybe even your address. Etiquette stated that you never…NEVER just kept your cards loose in your pocket. To hand someone a crumpled, creased or otherwise soiled or damaged card, was considered rude. Instead, you were expected to keep your card in a card-case, similiar to this one:

The calling-card case protected your cards from damage and kept them nice and presentable.

Calling-Cards Today.

Showing up at a friend’s house or meeting an acquaintance tday, without presenting your card, is no-longer a social faux-pas, but do traditional calling-cards still exist?

Yes they do. There are companies and stationers who still produce traditional calling-cards which you can buy and use, just as people did back in the Georgian and Victorian periods. These days, the calling-card has been mostly replaced by the business-card, though, which can serve much the same service as its predecessor did, 200 years ago.

The History of Writing Instruments (Pt. I)

 

…or “the devolution of the pen from the quill to gel”, as suggested by one of my readers.

The ability to read and write has always been one of mankind’s greatest achievements. Reading and writing allowed for the recording, protection and spread of ideas, information and new discoveries. But we would never have been able to read about all these great inventions, discoveries and ideas if someone hadn’t first discovered how to write them down. So, what were the first writing instruments, and how did they evolve over time?

The First Pens.

The first writing instruments were stylii, that is, sticks which were specially-shaped so as to press wedge-shaped characters into soft wax or clay tablets. Created by the Sumerians several thousand years ago, these stylii and the wedges which they pressed, became the first form of writing, known as ‘cuneiform’. By arranging the wedge-shapes by size, distance and design, the Sumerians created the first alphabet and system for writing.

For several years, cuneiform writing was the only form of writing available. From cuneiform, came brush-writing. Brushes with thin tips dipped in inks made from water and natural dyes made from fire-soot, became the first pens. These pens allowed for more a more clearer form of writing than could be produced on wax or clay tablets, by making marks on a type of cloth called papyrus, which was made from reeds. Papyrus is the word from which we get the modern ‘paper’. The peoples of some countries (mostly East Asian countries) still use brush-pens today, to write characters in Chinese, Japanese or any other Asian language.

With trade and travel, writing gradually spread around Europe and the Mediterranean Basin. The Sumerians who invented writing, lived in the Mediterranean, so the nearest countries, such as Eygpt and Italy and Germany and Greece, were the first places to pick up on this new invention of ‘writing’.

The Egyptians created a form of picture-writing known as hieroglyphs, again, using brush pens. While very pretty, hieroglyphs took a long time to write, and they could be difficult to read. It was evident that a clearer form of writing was required, and with it, better tools.

The Romans are responsible for creating the alphabet which most of us recognise today. Originally, the alphabet was all in capitals and all the letters were very angular. The letter ‘u’ was written as a ‘v’. This was because the Romans wrote their text (in Latin) onto stone slabs, using hammers and chisels. The writing produced was easy to read; it was clear legible and faster (in a manner of speaking), than pictograph writing. But hammering letters and words into a block of stone with a chisel and a hammer was tiring and slow, and you couldn’t make curves!

Reeds and Quills.

Eventually, people moved back to inks and papers. The Romans kept extensive records of a lot of things which went on in their empire, and to do this effectively, they turned to scrolls of papyrus, and a new kind of pen…the reed. Reed pens were pretty easy to work with. You took a sharp knife and made a diagonal cut in the tip of the reed. You continued cutting until you had a triangular point. You put a slit down the middle of the point with your knife, and then dipped the reed into the ink to write with. Reeds were sufficient, but constant re-sharpening and cutting made them impractical. Ink softens the reed as you write, and once the reed got too soft, you had to start cutting out another pen-point.

By the medieval period, yet another type of writing instrument had replaced the reed. The quill.

The quill was a feather, a big, primary flight-feather from the wing of a large bird (usually a goose). Quills were plentiful, but they took a while to make. It went something like this:

Having found the feather, you first had to wash it. Then you had to dry it. You then took out a knife and cut off all the barbs (the soft, frilly bits on the sides of the feather), which left you with a long, relatively stiff, strong shaft. Contrary to what you see in the movies, you didn’t write with the barbs still on the feather because they just got in the way.

Once the pen was cleaned, dried and de-barbed, you buried it in sand and put it over a fire. Heating it up like this in the sand caused the pen to dry out and become nice and stiff and hard. Once the pen was removed from the sand and the fire and was cleaned properly, you took out a knife and started cutting the tip into the feather (much like with a reed pen).

Because the quill was stronger and stiffer, it could write significantly better than the reed pen. Different ways of cutting the pen-point allowed for different styles of writing. It’s at this time that the German Gothic or ‘Blackletter’ style of writing, synonymous with the Middle Ages, began to appear. By cutting the quill-point a certain way, you could create text with wide up-down strokes, and thin horizontal strokes. It was during this period, that the writing-surface changed from papyrus to vellum (dried animal hides) and eventually to paper.

The quill lasted for several hundred years. Several great documents such as the Bible, the American Declaration of Independence and many classic works of literature from the 18th century, were written with quills. The diary of Samuel Pepys, the famous English naval administrator of the 1600s, would have been written entirely with a quill. William Shakespeare wrote all his plays with a quill. Even though the quill had to be sharpened and reshaped every so-often, much like the reed pen before it, for centuries, it was the only pen that people had. The small knives which we have today which are called ‘pen-knives’ comes from the period when the quill was king. Your pen-knife was the tool which you used to cut the tip of your pen with. No pen-knife, no quill, no writing.

Quills remained the mainstay of writing for several centuries. The flexible nature of the pen-points, after they had become softened somewhat, with ink, allowed people to create even more styles of writing. The expressive, decorative, loopy, thick-thin styles of handwriting that came about during the 17th and 18th centuries, such as roundhand, Copperplate and Spencerian, were the direct, natural result of the writing properties of the quill.

The Steel Pen.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, a little something called the Industrial Revolution swept through Europe. With the power of wind, water, fire and steam, machines began to be manufactured which could produce all kinds of things. All these new inventions naturally created a lot of paperwork. Mankind needed a better kind of writing instrument to put all the wages and salaries and information down on paper. Then one day, an intelligent man thought to himself that if pen-points were made of something tougher, stronger and which would last longer, he could make a fortune. What if pen-points, instead of being the easily-worn-out tips of feathers, were actually made of something tough and durable…like…metal?

Using steam-powered presses, special moulds and sheets of metal, the first mass-production of metal pens were created, at the end of the 18th century. While revolutionary, it would not be until the 1830s that real, practical mass-production of steel writing-pens, which could be sold in little boxes at stationers’ shops, really began.

The invention of a simple, cheap, durable pen-point which could be made in its thousands, revolutionised the writing world. Now, if you wanted to write, all you had to do was go down to the shop and buy a box of pens and a pen-holder (the long shaft which the metal points fitted into), and you could write away to your heart’s content. Such was the popularity of this new invention that in schools, it lasted until the 1930s.


Steel pens, of the kind which started being made in the 1830s.

The metal pen caused all kinds of changes in the world. For the first time, cheap, reliable pens were available in their thousands to the masses, which greatly boosted literacy rates and helped to improve education. Great stories such as the ‘Sherlock Holmes’ canon were written the steel pen, as well as works by Mark Twain and Jules Verne. Now, authors could concentrate on their thoughts, rather than on whether their pen-point was going to snap in half and spray ink all over their desks.

While the metal pen allowed for quicker and more comfortable writing, one crucial problem still remained. Portability.

The Birth of the Fountain Pen.

Up to this point, all pens were ‘dip-pens’. You sat at your desk with a quill or a steel pen, and an inkwell or a bottle of ink nearby, to dip your pen into every few minutes, while you were writing. As yet, nobody had discovered a way of creating a reliable, portable writing instrument that used ink. The idea of a pen that held its own ink-supply had been around for centuries, but early fountain pens were frustrating and unreliable at best. Inkflow was erratic and unpredictable. A pen might write smoothly, or more often, it would leak out ink or write haltingly or not at all.

That all changed in the 1880s, with the ingenuity of a frustrated and angry insurance-broker by the name of Lewis Edson Waterman.

Popular pen-lore will tell you that in 1883, Waterman, a somewhat successful insurance-broker, was talking turkey with a rich client. The client had a nice, fat contract worth several thousand dollars, sitting on the deal-table. All Waterman had to do was take out a pen and sign on the dotted line. Waterman was so excited about this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, that he brought with him, a newfangled ‘reservoir’ pen…today known as a ‘fountain pen’. While signing the contract, Waterman’s pen threw a sickie, and chucked up black ink all over the precious piece of paper. Waterman was mortified and ran off to find another pen to seal the deal with. By the time he had, the client had upped and left and sealed the deal with another broker, leaving Waterman fuming and frustrated. The story then goes that he charged off to his brother’s farm to make improvements to the fountain pen which we all thank him for today.


1910s Mabie-Todd & Co. Swan eyedropper filler, similar to the kind of pens that existed in Waterman’s lifetime.

That story, while it makes for fascinating marketing, is generally believe to be untrue (and is even debunked by the Waterman Pen Co. itself). But what really did happen was that Waterman had made one crucial discovery.

The importance of air-pressure in making a successful pen.

Before Waterman had his brainwave, all the fountain pens in the world leaked. They leaked in buckets or they leaked not at all, refusing to write, sealing up like oysters. It was Waterman who learnt how to break open the oyster to get at the stuff inside, but without having it gush out like a firehose. Using a thin, hard-rubber rod with little slits cut into it, called a ‘feed’, Waterman learnt that, properly seated underneath the nib of a fountain pen, it could regulate the flow of ink purely by air-pressure. As ink went down two of the channels cut in the feed, air went up the third channel into the ink-reservoir, creating a balanced air-pressure which allowed for a safe and dependable flow of ink. That same principle has guided all pen-makers ever since.


Diagram showing the three-channel feed (right), which allows for proper regulation of inkflow in fountain pens
Picture by Richard F. Binder; richardspens.com

With a pen that would at last write reliably, Waterman had made a breakthrough which would net him thousands of dollars. Soon after, he founded the Waterman Pen Company in 1884. And while poor Mr. Waterman died less than 20 years later in 1901, his ingenuity had paved the way for greater things to come.


The Waterman Pen Company in Manhattan, New York City, ca. 1910

The History of Writing Instruments (Pt. II)

 

Continued from Part I, above.

While Waterman had discovered the crucial key in regulating ink-flow, he hadn’t yet figured out how to stop a pen leaking! In the 1880s, all the way until the 1910s, most pens were called ‘eyedropper-fillers’. This meant that to fill the pen, you pulled it apart and filled the barrel (main tube) of the pen with fountain pen ink from a regular eyedropper. Eyedropper pens held a ton of ink, but they were prone to leaking from the seams. To stop this, people tried all kinds of things such as tighter-fitting caps, screw-down barrels and retractable-nib pens (which were called ‘safety pens’), but it wasn’t until the 1890s that a man named Roy Conklin came along with the solution.


Ca. 1920 Waterman black hard-rubber gold filigree retractable-nib eyedropper safety-pen.

Roy Conklin and the Self-Filling Pen.

Mr. Conklin had brains. Why should the ink be stored inside the barrel of the pen, where it was liable to leak out and create a damn mess all over the place? Surely, he reasoned, it would make more sense to store ink inside a special, inner-tube or ink-sac, inside the barrel of the pen, to prevent it from leaking? Yes, Conklin liked this idea. With careful experimenting, he soon devised a way for ‘sac-pens’ to be filled with ink, using the simple physics of vacuums and air-pressure. The result of his labours came out in 1901 – The famous Conklin Crescent-Filler, the world’s first successful self-filling, non-leakable, mass-produced fountain pen!


Ca. 1901 Conklin Crescent-Filler in black hard rubber.

The Conklin Crescent-Filler was revolutionary. Almost overnight, Conklin had hit upon something which people had been praying for, for centuries. A pen with a portable ink-supply that was easy to refill and which didn’t leak and create a mess! Indeed, the Conklin Crescent-Filler was so popular that the American author Samuel Clemens (aka Mark Twain), became an enthusiastic user and promoter of Conklin’s new product. The famous writer’s photograph and testimonies appeared on several 1900s Conklin pen advertisments, and Twain used a Conklin Crescent-Filler from ca. 1903 until he died seven years later in 1910. In one testimony, Twain said that the Conklin pen was wonderful because it didn’t roll off the desk and fall onto the ground and its reliablity saved him from previously, frequent utterances of profanity.

The Golden Age of the Fountain Pen.

With Waterman and Conklin’s new inventions, the golden age of the fountain pen, from about 1900 until the 1960s, was born. Pen companies were founded almost overnight and designs and filling-systems ranged from the ingenious to the insane, from the remarkable to the repulsive. Pen companies such as Parker, Sheaffer, Wahl-Eversharp, Onoto, Conway-Stewart, Montblanc, Pelikan and dozens of others sprung up, all within years of each other.

Many famous pen-designs came out over the next few years, from the Parker Jack-Knife, Duofold, Vacumatic, ’51’ and ’45’, the Sheaffer Lifetime, Balanace, Snorkel, the Wahl-Eversharp Art Deco and Skyline, and one of the most famous pen-designs ever, the Montblanc 149.

Now, fountain pens were stylish, dependable, ever-changing and innovating, they were portable and unique. But it wasn’t to last.

One of the biggest problems with fountain pens was that they leaked in the unpressurised compartments of early airplanes. For pilots and navigators who required an inky writing instrument at 5,000ft, the fountain pen was far from ideal. Also, fountain pen ink, which is largely water, was prone to smudging.

Mr. Biro and the…Biro.

In the 1930s, Laszlo Biro (pronounced ‘beero’) was a Hungarian journalist. As a journalist, he obviously did a lot of writing every single day, but he was frustrated by the fact that fountain pen ink, being mostly made up of water, was easily smudged. Biro noticed that the ink used in printing-presses dried almost instantaneously because it was thicker and contained less water. When he filled up his fountain pen with this ink, though, the only thing that happened was that the pen clogged up like a broken toilet. Laszlo and his brother Georg had to figure out a new type of ink, and more importantly, a new type of pen.

The ballpoint pen as we know it today, was finally perfected (in a manner of speaking), in the 1930s and 1940s. During this time, the fountain pen was still king, and would continue to be king for another 20-40 years. The fact was, that early ballpoint pens, like the fountain pens they were designed to replace, leaked. And when they leaked, they caused a hell of a mess. Unlike fountain pen ink which is mostly water, and therefore relatively easy to wash off, ballpoint ink is a thick, pasty substance which can stick to and stain clothes like paint. Nobody wanted a pen which stained their clothes even worse than fountain pens, so nobody bought them. It wasn’t until the 1950s that the ballpoint pen was really perfected and pen-companies such as Parker, started to market them. One of the first successful ballpoint pens was the Parker Jotter, which came out in 1954. Over 50 years later, and the same pen is still being made today.

Showing your True Colours – The Naval Origins of some Popular English Phrases

 

For over two hundred years, the United Kingdom ruled the world. From the start of the Georgian Era, until the end of the Second World War, Britannia ruled the waves and oceans of the globe. When the English culture and language was spread so far around the world for so long, and when the British Royal Navy was such a key part of spreading this culture, several, now, well-known phrases in the English language, were spread around the world and gradually started being worked into popular speech. But what do these phrases mean, and where do they get their origins from? This article will look into the backgrounds of some of the more well-known English phrases which had their origins in the British Royal Navy of the 18th and 19th centuries.

Bite the Bullet.

If someone asks you to ‘bite the bullet’, it means to put up with something unpleasant for a short period of time, to get it over and done with. This phrase had its origins in naval surgery of the 18th century, appropriately enough. The ‘something unpleasant’ was having a limb amputated, and to take your mind off the pain (and more importantly, to stop you screaming), the surgeon’s mate literally gave you a bullet (that is to say, a musket-ball), to bite on. He’d shove it in your mouth and instruct you to ‘bite the bullet’ to distract you from the pain, while the surgeon amputated your limb. In later years, the bullet was replaced with a folded piece of leather (which was more comfortable than biting on a solid lead ball!), but the expression ‘bite the bullet’, remained.

Black as Pitch.

Something described as being ‘black as pitch’ generally means that it’s so dark, you can’t see anything. But what is pitch?

Pitch was a black, tarry substance used in shipbuilding during the days when most ships were still made of wood. Pitch, together with oakum (rope-fibres), were hammered into the seams of the wooden planks onboard ships, to make the hulls watertight. The pitch was so dark that it eventually passed into common parlance that something which was too black to see the details of, was known to be as ‘black as pitch’. Also, the type of jug, today known as a ‘pitcher’, was the vessel or container in which pitch was stored and poured from, when it was in-use.

Broadside.

If someone is said to be giving you a ‘broadside’, it means that they’re attacking you viciously for some reason, perhaps for an opinion that you hold or a belief that you have. Back in Napoleonic times, a ‘broadside’ was a naval tactic for attacking the enemy.

A ‘broadside’ is literally the broad side (long, wide, big side) of a ship. Firing a broadside meant shooting all the cannons you had on one side of your ship, for maximum firepower. Thus, a ‘broadside’ meant throwing everything you could muster, at the enemy.

Mainstay

If something is the ‘mainstay’ of something, it means it’s the one thing which holds it up, the most important thing which keeps it all together.

Onboard a sailing ship, the ropes which held the masts rigid were called ‘stays’. The ‘mainstay’ was therefore the most important of these ropes, which kept the mast from toppling over in a storm.

Running the Gauntlet

To ‘run the gauntlet’ means to endure a punishment dealt out by your friends or colleagues. Back in the 1700s, it was an actual naval punishment.

If a sailor was condemmed to ‘run’ or ‘walk’ the guantlet, it meant that he would be led around the the quarterdeck of the ship and flogged by his fellow sailors. Typically, two officers would stand around the convicted man, one in front (walking backwards), and one behind him, both holding out swords, pointed at his back and abdomen, to prevent him from running away. All the other sailors were given knotted ropes. As the sailor was ‘run through the gauntlet’, each of the other sailors would flog him with his given piece of rope, until the man had reached the end of the line.

Shake a leg.

Your grandparents might use this phrase on you, by coming into your bedroom in the morning, grabbing you by the ankle and calling out ‘Come on! Shake a leg!’, or words to that effect. It basically means ‘wake up!’ But where does this phrase come from?

Before rules were tightened and regulations stiffened, one of the perks of being a sailor or a ship’s officer, was that you could bring your wife or sweetheart onboard with you, for the long voyages. She was someone to talk to, someone to be intimate with and someone to nurse you if you were injured. Usually, husbands and wives or sweethearts, would sleep in hammocks. Since the hammocks onboard sailing-ships were designed to wrap around you really tightly (so as to prevent you falling out in a storm), ascertaining who was sleeping in which hammocks without actually asking them to stick a bodypart out, was pretty hard. When officers went to wake up the men for their shift-duties, they would go through the berths shouting out “shake a leg!” or “show a leg!”. If a woman’s leg appeared out of the hammock, the sleeper was left alone. If a man’s leg popped out, he was hauled out of bed and made to report to duty.

Showing your True Colours.

To “show your true colours” means to show yourself for who you really are, or to show your true intentions in a given situation. But what are ‘colours’ and how do you show them?

In naval warfare of the 18th century, your ‘colours’ were your flags, specifically, your naval jack (the naval flag of the country which your ship was a part of). Under the Articles of War (the Royal Navy’s code of conduct for nearly 400 years; discontinued in 2006!), when going into battle, you were obliged to run up your colours (your naval flag), to identify the nationality of your ship. If you wished to decieve your enemy, you might run up a different flag than that which belonged to your country, perhaps to make the other ship think that you were an ally. Once you were nice and close, within firing-range, you’d literally ‘show your true colours’ as say, a British Man-o’-War instead of a French one, and open fire on a French warship, catching its crews off-guard and gaining an advantage in battle.

Sailing into battle under false colours went against the Articles of War, but unscrupulous captains and officers who cared more for payback and beating the enemy than stuffy rules and regulations, would often go into action with false colours in order to gain the element of surprise.

Show/Learn the ropes.

When you start on something new, you’re generally put under the instruction of a more experienced person who will ‘show you the ropes’, that is, teach you the basics of the job which you are to perform.

Onboard a sailing ship, the ‘ropes’ was the rigging. The stays, ratlines, lashings and other cordage, which operated the ship’s sails. Learning the ropes meant being able to know instantly, which ropes did what, so that you could power the ship effectively through the waves.

Loose Cannnon.

A ‘loose cannon’ is something or someone that is totally out of control, which is going around everywhere, wrecking everything and laying waste to whatever it touches. This phrase came from the gun-decks of 18th century warships, where a cannon and its gun-carriage (which weighed several hundred pounds) might literally break loose from its shackles and ropes, and rock and roll and pitch and swing all over the gun-deck, causing catastrophic damage, like a battering-ram from hell.

Pipe Down.

Yet another phrase your grandparents might use. To ‘pipe down’ is a polite way of saying ‘shut up!’. But what’s the pipe?

The ‘pipe’ is the Bosun’s pipe. The bosun (or ‘boatswain’, as is his full title), was a member of the ship’s crew, in charge of the sails, rigging, and as the name suggests, the ship’s boats. The bosun’s pipe was the long, thin metal whistle which he used to issue commands. On a roaring ocean, or on a warship in the thick of battle, shouted commands were almost useless, since nobody would hear them. The shrill, piercing, almost dog-whistle-like sound of the bosun’s pipe, could be heard clearly over the sounds of wind, rain or cannonfire. A bit like morse code, the bosun piped out long and short notes, which meant various commands.

To ‘pipe down’ meant to be absolutely dead silent. As the pipe could be heard for a considerable distance, it also meant that the bosun was not to blow on his pipe (sounds travel a long way over water), which might reveal the position of the ship in the dark, or in fog, when they were hiding from a persuing enemy.


A bosun’s pipe.

Red Light District.

The ‘red light district’ of a city or town is where brothels are located. They get this name from the fact that back in the old days, brothels were obliged to identify themselves to the public, by hanging red lanterns outside their doors. Why? So that sea-captains could quickly and easily identify houses of carnal pleasure and round up their horny sailors as quickly as possible before setting sail, probably the next morning.

‘Ring for Jeeves!’ – The Life of Domestic Servants

 

For as long as human society has had money, society has been divided into the Haves, and the Have-Nots. The Haves must, of course, have the best of everything. And 150 years ago, you couldn’t properly be considered rich if you didn’t have a nice, big, country estate, with sprawling grounds, a massive house, the finest carriages and horses, a hunting-ground, and of course…servants.

Domestic servants have existed for centuries, but it was not until the Georgian, Regency, Victorian and Edwardian periods of the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries, that domestic servants really entered the mould and manner in which we think of them today. This article will explain who everyone was, and what their duties were.

A country house in the 1880s, or even further back, was almost like a small town. They were vast structures with several floors and rooms, and they needed an army of servants to look after the house as well as to wait on the master and his family. Servants’ duties were varied, unrelenting and usually very exhausting. Without modern conveniences such as vacuum-cleaners, dishwashers, washing-machines, dryers and refrigerators, everything had to be done by hand. Servants had to do everything which the master and his family could not, or would not, do themselves. By the Victorian period, and especially by the Edwardian period of the 1900s, domestic servants were organised into a strict heirachy, which reflected the British class-system of the period. So, who was on top, who was at the bottom, and what kinds of jobs did they do?

In this article, servants will be divided into male, and female servants, starting from the most superior, and going down from there. I’ve tried to explain all their duties as best as I can, but in some cases, a single duty could be performed by any number of people. Here we go…

The Butler.

The butler was the most senior member of all the male servants, and generally the most senior servant overall. The butler is the ‘master’ of the servants. He runs the entire house, and ensures that everyone knows what they need to do and what time it needs to be done by. The popular image of the butler is someone who just answers doors, takes calling-cards, announces guests and provides witty remarks and conversation, but this is just the surface. Underneath all this, was a job which required brains, a damn good memory, organisation-skills and patience. The butler answered to the master of the house.

The butler was in charge of keeping all the servants running around smoothly. He was also in charge of waiting on the master’s family at meals, and of looking after the wine-cellar. The title ‘butler’ comes from an old French word meaning “bottler”, that is, the man who looks after the bottles in the wine-cellar. Apart from these duties, he was also expected to answer the door, announce visitors, take calling-cards, escort visitors out of the house, organise the mail and most importantly – it was his duty to lock up the house each night, making sure that all the doors, windows and shutters were locked, closed and bolted. The butler was usually the first person to wake up every morning and the last person to sleep at night.

The Valet.

The valet (pronounced ‘vallay’, also called a ‘manservant’ or a ‘gentleman’s gentleman’), was the personal attendant or servant to the master of the house. His job was to make sure his master’s life ran smoothly. If the master was going away on a journey, his valet packed his steamer-trunks or suitcases for him. He booked taxicabs, hotel-reservations and train or liner-tickets for him. In day-to-day life, the valet would also handle such tasks as shaving his master, running a bath for his master, serving him and his friends drinks and looked after his master’s wardrobe and clothing. The famous fictional character Reginald Jeeves (mentioned in the title of this article), is a valet.

The Footmen.

The footmen (as there were usually at least two), were in charge of such things as looking after the chinaware, crystalware and silverware. Ensuring that it was cleaned properly, stored properly, and that the silver was polished and cleaned on a regular basis. They directed guests during parties, assisted visitors with their luggage and waited on the family and any guests, at dinnertime.

Footmen were a sort of human fashion-accessory or status-symbol back in the 18th and 19th centuries, as only the wealthiest of masters could afford them. Footmen were liveried (had special uniforms), which the master had to pay for, out of his own pocket, which made their upkeep a bit more expensive than most other servants. Footmen had to be young, tall, handsome and strong. As they were a sign of their master’s wealth, they were expected to keep themselves presentable at all times, with clean clothes, clear complexions and clean-shaven faces. Footmen answered directly to the butler.

The title ‘footman’ is a contraction of ‘running footman’. Running after what? The carriage, of course! Yes indeed. In the 17th and 18th centuries (and probably before that), a footman was literally a footman. His task was to jog after the master’s carriage, and to look after it (in the company of the coachman), when the master went to town. You can see why footmen had to be tall, young and strong now, can’t you? Can’t be a footman if you can’t run after a carriage all day.

In later times, footmen usually sat on specially-made seats at the fronts or backs of their master’s carriage, and would open the doors to let the occupants out when it reached its destination.

Chef.

The job of the chef is obvious. He was expected to be able to cook food. Good food. And lots of it. He didn’t just have to cook for the master, his family and any guests…he was also expected to be able to cook for the ENTIRE servant-population living in the house as well! His job centered around the kitchen, making sure that everything ran smoothly and that dishes were sent upstairs in a uniform manner.

Tutor or Schoolmaster.

The tutor or schoolmaster was in charge of the education of any children of schooling age that the master might have, who lived on the estate. His job was simple. He was to teach the young masters maths, English, history, geography, maybe a language like Latin, some music, and maybe a bit of science. His position in the heirachy of servants was a tricky one, though. A tutor was not a servant, but neither was he a member of the master’s family, leaving him awkwardly in the middle of the two classes.

Pageboy.

The pageboy was a young man (probably aged between 10-20), whose job it was to deliver messages and run small errands around the house. He would deliver the post to the master’s study, he would post letters which required sending, and performed other light duties which the master might need him to perform, while the master conducted business.

Hallboy and Boot-boy

The hallboy was the lowest of all the male ranks within the domestic heirachy. He did all the tough, gruelling or otherwise dangerous jobs that other servants either could not, or would not do. He chopped firewood, he carried firewood, he swept floors, washed windows, polished doorknobs and polished all the shoes (although this could also be done by a lad known as the boot-boy). The ‘hallboy’ got his name from the fact that he usually worked (and sometimes even slept) in the servant’s dining-hall.

The boot-boy’s job sounds exactly like what it does; his job in the great house was to clean all the boots. He scrubbed the soles to remove any encrusted mud or other yucky things from them, and he polished them until they were nice and shiny. To polish the boots to a nice, dark, squeaky clean shine, he would have to use a substance called ‘blacking’, which was an old form of shoe-polish. Before the 20th century, shoe-polish as we know it today, being sold in little flat, round tins, did not exist. Instead, the poor boot-boy had to make it himself. To make it, he used ingredients such as wax, tallow (animal fat), soot or lamp-black, turpentine and even acid! Considering the fact that boot-boys could be working around the clock and could be very tired, messing up this mixture or getting some of the more undesirable and dangerous ingredients on your hands, was not something you wanted to happen!

Coachman and Stablehands/boys.

The coachman and his stable-boys had the jobs of looking after the master’s carriage and horses. The coachman made sure that the carriage worked properly, that it wasn’t damaged, that it was ready for any journey that the master might want to go on, and that the carriage lamps or lanterns were properly fuelled in case of night-time travel. The stable-boys exercised, fed and looked after all the horses in the stables.

The Gardener and Gamekeeper.

The gardener and the gamekeeper were a pair of men whose jobs it was to look after the gardens and grounds of the estate, and to look after any game-animals (deers, geese, ducks, etc), which resided on the estate, should the master and his shooting-party desire to go hunting.

The Housekeeper.

The housekeeper was the most senior female servant. Her job was to keep the house clean, and to organise all the other female servants. She answered to the mistress of the house.

The Housemaid.

The housemaid or maids were the housekeeper’s assistants. They helped the housekeeper with her work. They dusted furniture, shook out rugs and carpets and did other general cleaning around the house, such as sweeping and mopping. The medical condition known as ‘housemaid’s knee’ comes from housemaids always being on their knees, scrubbing and scouring and sweeping.

Nursemaid.

The nurse or nursemaid (today more commonly called a nanny), was responsible for looking after any of the master’s children who were below schooling-age.

Governess

The governess had a job similar the tutor or schoolmaster and also similar to the nursemaid. She educated and looked after school-aged children, belonging to the master, who were not yet old enough to attend boarding-school (as was the style of education at the time).

Chambermaid.

While the housekeeper and her housemaids were responsible for the cleanliness of the entire house, the chambermaid was responsible for just one chamber (room) in the house. It might be a bedroom or a study, the living-room, sitting room, drawing-room, library or dining-room, but it was usually the bedroom. Her tasks included making sure the beds were cleaned and made up properly, that bedsheets were changed and of course, that chamberpots were emptied regularly! Chambermaids would also light fires in the bedrooms during cold weather, to make sure the occupant was warm. They were expected to be able to do this without waking the sleeper up in the middle of the night!

Kitchen-maid.

The kitchen-maid was the chef’s assistant. She helped him prepare dishes and ingredients. Once the dishes were ready, she would deliver food from the kitchen to the dining-room. If the household had no footmen around, then she might also serve as a waitress, serving the family and guests their meals.

Scullery-maid.

The scullery-maid (also called a ‘scullion’!) was the lowest of the lowest servants. She did all the most backbreaking work that nobody else would want to do. The scullery-maid’s domain was the scullery. In a grand house, the scullery was the washing-up room. The scullery-maid was the dishwasher, the laundress, the clothes-drier and the dish-stacker. She had a phenomenal amount of work to do. She washed all the cutlery, all the dishes, the pots, the pans, the plates, the bowls, glassware and silverware. She dried it all. She washed all the clothes and linen and she hung it out to dry. She collected it when it was dry, and she ironed it and folded it and then the housemaids would come and take it back upstairs to be put away and footmen or kitchen-maids would take all the washed and dried crockery and cutlery and pots and pans, and put them away.

Maid of all work.

Just like the name suggests, the maid of all work did…ALL…the work. In middle-class or upper-middle class houses during the Georgian and Victorian eras, the master and mistress of the house might employ just the one (or if the maid was lucky, two!) maids, to do all the work. This meant the cooking, cleaning, washing up, ironing, folding, sweeping out fireplaces, filling lamps, replacing candles and wicks, washing windows, sweeping floors, beating rugs, carrying coal, water, firewood, ice and a million other things.

This style or model of service lasted for several centuries, from as far back as maybe the 1600s until finally dying out in the 1940s! The two World Wars and the Depression of the 1930s meant that it was impractical and impossible to keep such vast numbers of servants. Most would have left to fight in the wars, or fill in other occupations. Rising taxes and inflation meant that servants became more expensive to pay and keep, so many started being laid off. Modern inventions such as vacuum-cleaners, dishwashers and washing-machines meant that fewer servants were needed, anyway. By the end of the 1940s, grand houses with butlers, maids, hallboys, pages and valets were slowly consigned to history, to exist only in the novels and stories of P.G. Wodehouse, Jane Austen and Sir Arthur Conan-Doyle.