Questions and Statements about the Titanic’s Sinking.


Just as the Titanic has its legions of fans, affectionately known as ‘Titaniacs’, the ship also has its hundreds of cynics, critics and just plain clueless people, who make sweeping statements, outrageous suggestions or ask questions which can only lead to unhappy answers. Here I’ll list some of the more…interesting…statements and questions that I’ve read in my time:

1. “If the lookouts had binoculars, they would’ve seen the iceberg earlier! Why didn’t they have any?”

This is a popular assertion. Yes, if you have distance-viewing equipment, you can see things in the distance a lot easier and a lot quicker! DUUUH! On the surface, it sounds perfectly logical. But apply this to the Titanic scenario, and it falls down flat like a row of dominoes. Here’s why:

Binoculars (or indeed, any distance-viewing aid, such as a monocular or a telescope), while they greatly increase how far you can see, also greatly decrease your field of vision. It’s no point being able to see ten miles out to sea if you can only look a total of six inches either way with your eyes. You’ve effectively created tunnel-vision for yourself. Without peripheral vision, you’re basically staring into a pair of tubes in a black room.

On the night in question, being almost pitch black with still water and no breaking-water at the base of the ‘berg, the Titanic’s fate was almost invisible to the ship’s lookouts, with a wide field of vision and the help of the ship’s lights. Having bincoulars would only have narrowed their field of vision even more, making them effectively blind. You can’t see something if you don’t know it’s there. They wouldn’t have seen the iceberg because they wouldn’t have a ‘reference point’. By that I mean, they wouldn’t be able to say: “If we start at the tip of the bow and work our way forward, we’ll focus on that area in front of the ship”, because they wouldn’t able to FIND the bow of the ship with their field of sight so severely restricted. If you don’t believe me…Go out into the sky at night with a telescope or some binoculars. Look at the ground. Put the binoculars to your eyes. WITHOUT taking them AWAY from your eyes…look up and try and find the moon. Can you find it? No. It’s impossible to look for it if you don’t know it’s there and it’s impossible to see it without having first seen it with your naked eyes. This was the predicament that the Titanic’s lookouts faced, and why binoculars would’ve been almost no help at all.

As to why they didn’t have any binoculars, well, there were binoculars onboard the Titanic, but they were locked in a cupboard and the crewman who had the key, had taken it with him when he disembarked the ship before it sailed off into history.

2. “Why didn’t they just stop the ship?”

Basic laws of physics is why not. Anyone who passed high-school science will know that the larger an object is, the harder it is to set in motion, and the harder it is to arrest that motion. The Titanic simply wasn’t able to stop in time. During her sea-trials, the Titanic accelerated to ‘full ahead’, a maximum speed of 23kt. She then had her engines stopped and then run full astern at maximum speed. It took her half a mile to stop. The ship had roughly half a mile between the iceberg and her bow when the iceberg was sighted and the crew had only 37 seconds to react. Furthermore, on open ocean, the ship would have had nothing to slow its momentum, apart from the drag of the water.

3. “If they had more lifeboats onboard, they would’ve saved everyone!”

A lot of people have said this. And on the surface, it sounds logical, but unfortunately, it would not have helped. The Titanic had twenty lifeboats; sixteen wooden ones and four Englehardt collapsable lifeboats with canvas sides. In the two hours and forty minutes in which the Titanic sank, the ship’s officers only managed to launch eighteen of those boats at a rate of one every five minutes starting at 12:45am (a full hour after the sinking started). Even if they had the full complement of lifeboats that the Titanic could carry (64 in total), they wouldn’t have been able to launch them all in time, which means the provision of extra lifeboats was rather pointless.

4. “Why didn’t they fully-load the lifeboats before lowering them?”

For all of the Titanic’s history, one of the biggest controversies was why the lifeboats were never fully-loaded when they were filled with passengers and lowered into the water. The reasons for this are numerous and will take some time to explain. There are several factors which one has to consider about the Titanic’s lifeboats to understand why the officers did what they did.

Passengers didn’t want to go.

Brainwashed by media hype, passengers believed that the Titanic was well and truly unsinkable. With this in mind, they did not see the point in getting into the lifeboats. Officers could not force passengers into the boats, so they took what few that would get into the boats, and then lowered them away. They could not afford to wait around and waste time while passengers made up their mind, which was almost invariably, to stay onboard the ship.

The Drop.

The Titanic was a big ship. From the boat deck down to the waterline, it was a drop of sixty-two feet, just over twenty meters, into ice-cold water that was 28F, or -2.2C. Most passengers were not brave enough to get into a tiny wooden lifeboat which was swinging out over the side of the ship on a set of ropes. They considered the Titanic to be a much safer option, foregoing what was probably their only chance of survival.

The Weight of the Boats.

This was probably the officers’ biggest reason for not wanting to fully load the boats with passengers. The lifeboats themselves were already incredibly heavy. I know, they’re made of wood. They can’t weigh that much, can they? Yes they can. The average Titanic lifeboat weighs between two and three tons…empty. Add passengers and that increases the overall weight to five to six tons. Considering that they only had twenty boats, the officers didn’t want to be put in a situation where an overloaded lifeboat snapped free from its falls (the ropes which lowered it into the water) and crashed into the ocean, 62ft below, possibly smashing the boat like matchwood and killing or injuring several dozen people. They preferred to do it safe.

5. “Why weren’t the ship’s pumps turned on?”

The ship’s pumps were turned on. When the Titanic started sinking, the captain ordered all of the ship’s pumps to be turned on, in an effort to bail out the water. Unfortunately, the ship did not have any pumps which were designed to force out the water quicker than it was coming in. She had bilge-pumps for ejecting water from the bilge (the very bottom of the ship), and she had ash-ejector pumps, which forced out a slurry of water and ash into the ocean, but she did not have any pumps purely for preventing the ship from sinking. The water was pouring in much too fast for the Titanic’s small pumps to ever force it out at a speed quick enough to keep the ship afloat.

6. “Why didn’t passengers swim to the iceberg?”

They didn’t swim to the iceberg simply because they didn’t know where it was! By the time the ship had stopped, the iceberg was at least half a mile away, if not more. It would have been impossible to locate it in the middle of the night in the middle of the ocean without any lights.

7. “Why didn’t the ‘Californian’s’ wireless-operator stay on the air throughout the night?”

Cyril Evans, the wireless-operator of the S.S. Californian, shut off his wireless set shortly after 11:15pm and went to sleep at 11:30pm on the night of the sinking. The Titanic would strike the iceberg just ten minutes later. Why didn’t he remain on the air longer?

Because he didn’t want to, he didn’t need to, and he wasn’t legally obligated to. Until after the sinking of the Titanic, it was not mandatory to maintain 24/7 radio-contact at sea for purposes of safety.

8. “Why did Jack Phillips ignore Cyril Evans’s radio-message?”

One of the most famous events in Titanic history. At 11:00pm, Cyril Evans sent out a general message to all ships (including the Titanic) that the ‘Californian’ had stopped for the night, on account of the pack-ice near the ship, which made it too dangerous to continue sailing until morning. The exchange between the two wireless-operators, word for word, was:

Evans: “Say, old man, we are stopped and surrounded by ice”.
Phillips: “Shut up! Shut up! I am busy! I am working Cape Race!”

Why did Phillips ignore Evans? Because Evans interrupted him, simple as that. Phillips was busy sending wireless messages (in morse code), to the wireless land-station in Cape Race, Newfoundland, several hundred miles away. Evans, just a few miles from the Titanic on the S.S. Californian, sent a radio-message that was so loud, it nearly blew Philllips’s eardrums out. Apart from that, Evans did not prefix his ice-warning message with the three letters: “MSG”.

“MSG” stands for “Master Service Gram”; (telegram, that is). All messages prefixed “MSG” had to be sent DIRECTLY to the captain AT ONCE. Evans’s failure to follow basic wireless-operation procedure of the time, meant that to Phillips, Evans’s message was just as good as saying: “Sup dudez? Wez stopped by ice and stuff and like…yeah. Out, man!” instead of something more official, along the lines of: “IMPORTANT MESSAGE: Stopped due to heavy ice in path. Please inform captain ASAP”.

9. “Why didn’t the Titanic just simply back up to the iceberg, park there and offload all her passengers onto it?”

Because it could not be done. For the Titanic to make it back to the iceberg, she’d first have to know where it was, which was impossible. And even if she did, she wouldn’t be able to navigate effectively, backwards, towards the iceberg. And even if she could do that, the momentum built up during the journey would mean that the Titanic would not have been able to stop (AGAIN!) in time to ‘park’ next to the iceberg, probably resulting in another collision and even more damage.

10. “Did a ship’s officer really commit suicide?”

The general consensus is yes, an officer did commit suicide. Was it 1st Officer William McMaster Murdoch? Nobody will ever know for sure.

11. “Did ship’s officers ever shoot anyone on the Titanic?

No. Certainly there were revolvers and ammunition on the Titanic (at least five pistols, four belonging to the crew, one belonging to a passenger), but none of these were ever used to kill anyone. 5th Officer Harold Godfrey Lowe had a revolver (of his own, private property), and the other, more senior officers had revolvers (Webley & Scott breaktop revolvers, which were part of the ship’s supplies), and certainly, Lowe fired at least four shots during the sinking to scare passengers back from swamping the boats, but there is no evidence to suggest that anyone was actually shot and killed or wounded on the Titanic, except the unknown officer who commited suicide.

12. “If the ‘Californian’ had answered the Titanic’s calls for distress, she could have saved everyone”

On the surface, this looks like a rather easy thing to say. If the Californian had answered the Titanic’s radio calls or distress-rockets as quickly as possible, she could be alongside the Titanic and would have saved everyone at once! Unfortunately this isn’t the case, as there were several things preventing it.

Stopped for the night.

The Californian’s engines were stopped for the night. This means that it would take a considerable amount of time to get them going again. Once they were going, it would have taken time to get the ship moving, time which Titanic didn’t have.


The Californian would be sailing through several icebergs to reach the Titanic, which would have greatly impeded her speed and progress.


Even IF the Californian had built up enough steam. Even IF she had reached the Titanic, she still needed to cart all the passengers back and forth, using both her own, and the Titanic’s lifeboats as ferries. Even on a flat calm, still night like that of April 14th, 1912, this would’ve taken several hours. While this might have saved several more lives, it is unlikely that the Californian would still have managed to rescue everyone.

13. “Why was the Titanic going so fast? Why didn’t it slow down?

The Titanic was going so fast because it had a schedule to keep and it didn’t slow down because it wasn’t seen as being necessary. Don’t forget that time is money. If the Titanic arrived in New York late, it meant that passengers would cancel their tickets and pick other ships, which meant that the Titanic and the White Star Line, would lose money.

14. “Did that car in the Titanic film really exist?”

The car in which Jack and Rose had sex in, in the 1997 movie certainly exists. But I figure you’re asking: “Did it exist on the ship in real life?”. Yes it did. The car was a 1911 35hp Renault towncar, owned by Mr. William Carter Snr, a first-class passenger. The scenario in the movie would have been impossible, though, because the car was locked in a crate for the duration of the voyage. It is listed in the Titanic’s cargo-manifest as: “1 Case Auto – W. Carter”.

15. “Hitting the Iceberg Head-On would’ve Saved Everyone!”

This is debatable. The argument is that if the R.M.S. Titanic had slammed into the iceberg head-on, less of the ship would’ve been exposed to major damage and the ship’s ‘usinkable’ design-features would spring to the rescue. Here’s how it plays out:

The Titanic was designed to float with the first four, or any other two of her watertight compartments flooded. The argument contends that if the ship had crashed into the iceberg head-on, the first, or at the very most, first two compartments, would’ve been ruptured by the force of the collision. The water floods in, but the ship is in no immediate danger of sinking. It might even be able to continue sailing to New York City, or at the very worst, it would stay afloat long enough for rescue-ships to reach it and offload all her passengers.

When the Titanic was designed back in the early 1900s, the kinds of accidents it was being ‘protected’ against were T-bone accidents, with the bow of one ship crashing into the broadside of another, or vice-versa. Under these circumstances, where two or three bulkheads might be ruptured, yes, the ship would stay afloat. But the ships of the day were not designed to survive impacts with icebergs. In theory, the ‘headbutt’ argument with everyone (or most of the people) surviving sounds plausible, but as it’s never been put into practice, it is unknown how much structural damage the Titanic would really have sustained, having smashed into a mountain of ice (that’s what an iceberg literally is – ‘ice’ + German word ‘berg’, meaning ‘mountain’, literally ‘ice-mountain’). The ship might have been even more severely damaged and this would have caused great problems later on with the evacuation of passengers.

All Aboard! – Life on the R.M.S. Titanic


Everyone and their brother knows about the fact that the Titanic bumped into one of nature’s ice-cubes and sank nearly 100 years ago. But what was life actually like onboard the ‘ship of dreams’, during those four days when passengers treated this crossing like any other which they might have booked? What would they have eaten, what would they have experienced and where could they go around the ship?

The Ship’s Interiors.

The R.M.S. Titanic was nothing less than a great, big, steam-powered floating hotel. Her public rooms were all lavishly decorated to match the styles of great European palaces, English country houses and famous hotels such as the Hotel Ritz in Paris, France. Her first class areas and accomadations were the most luxurious and the most comfortable which anyone could ever have imagined to have existed on a seagoing boat in the early 1910s. All the public rooms were brightly lit with electric lighting at night, and dazzling sunlight in the morning. The ship’s dining-rooms and hallways, cabins, staterooms and libraries were a whirlwind of polished brass, wrought iron, glass, carved wood panelling, patterned carpets and crisp, bright colours. No expense was spared. The Titanic had not one, but two grand staircases. The first one, everyone knows about, the second, smaller staircase was located further back and it stopped one deck short of the one forward, but it was details like this that made the Titanic famous. She was designed to be impressive and she was designed to be luxurious. Her luxury was part of her very purpose. The Titanic was built as the second of three ships which the White Star Line hoped would provide some stiff competition to its main competitor, the equally famous Cunard Line. Cunard ships prided themselves on speed. They made fast, efficient crossings which won them big bucks in the lucrative transatlantic-crossings business. White Star wasn’t able to build ships that were as fast as Cunard’s, so instead of speed, they went all out on luxury.

Prices and Tickets.

How much did you have to pay in order to be a part of all this floating luxury?

In 1912, a first-class ticket for a parlour suite stateroom cost $3,450. Today that’s $75,260.
In 1912, a first-class ticket for a berth cost $150. Today that’s $3,270.
In 1912, a second-class ticket cost $60. Today that’s $1,308.
In 1912, a third-class ticket cost $15-40, depending on the size and type of the cabin. Today that’s $327-$872.

Even today, that’s a hell of a lot of money to be paying just to hop on a ship to sail across the flipping Atlantic Ocean! But of course…passengers would never have paid so much for their tickets, if they were not assured of the very highest luxuries. What sort of ammenities did the Titanic have for her passengers and which class of passengers could expect what?

Creature Comforts.

As we’ve seen, travelling on the Titanic was anything but cheap. Fifteen dollars in 1912 was about two week’s wages for the average working man. A bottle of Coca Cola was five cents, a film-ticket was five cents (a ‘nickel’, from which we get the term ‘nickelodeon’). The cheapest watch (a pocket watch, back then), cost one whole dollar in a day and age when you could buy an entire meal, plus drink, for about twenty-five cents. For all their hard-earned money, people on the Titanic were expecting bang-for-their-buck on a nuclear level. What could they expect for all their money?

In First Class:

For their meals: An a-la-carte restaurant, the Cafe Parisien and the First Class Dining-Saloon (this latter capable of serving over 600 people in each sitting).

First Class Dining-Saloon.

First-Class a la carte restaurant.

The Cafe Parisien.

For their amusement: The first-class library, the swimming-pool, the gymnasium, the ship’s dark-room and the ship’s squash-courts. Also, the musical abilities of two bands, the Wallace Hartley Quintet (comprising of a cellist, two violinists, a bassist and a pianist), and another musical trio. Passengers could expect music such as selections from the Gilbert & Sullivan ‘Savoy Operas’, classical music, early jazz and ragtime tunes, popular music, folk-songs and classical and opera pieces.

First-class gymnasium, located on the boat deck.

For their relaxation: The promenade deck, the turkish baths, the first-class receoption room, the lady’s reading-and-writing room and the men’s first-class smoking-lounge.

The Titanic’s First-Class Smoking Room.

The First-Class Reception Room on D-Deck. In the second photograph, the double-doors on the left lead into the First-Class Dining-Saloon (photo further up). In the third photo, behind the pillar on the right, you can see the bannister which made up the last flight of the Forward Grand Staircase.

For their accomadation: First-class parlour suite staterooms and berths, complete with electric heaters (it could get below freezing on the Atlantic Ocean at night).
For their servants: The Valets’ & Maids’ dining-room.

The swimming-pool was open to both men and women, at separate times. It contained heated water and was the first such swimming-pool to exist on an ocean-liner.

In Second Class:

For their meals: The Second-Class Dining-Saloon.

The Second-Class Dining-Saloon. You can see a piano at the back of the room, another, neat little detail.

For their amusement: The second-class library and the ship’s dark-room (for any photographers).

The Second-Class Library

For their relaxation: The second-class smoking room and the second-class reading-and-writing room.

For their accomadation: Second-class staterooms and berths.

The food for the first and second-class restaurants were all cooked in the same galley, so the quality of food served to second-class passengers was of the same served to first-class passengers.

In Third Class (also called ‘steerage’):

For their meals: The Third-Class Dining-Saloon.
For their amusement:…not much. Third-class passengers generally provided their own amusement with musical instruments they brought with them.
For their relaxation: The poop-deck, the third-class common-room, which contained a piano for budding musicians amongst the passengers. Considering how expensive a piano is, this was a real luxury for passengers travelling in third class.

Ammenities open to all passengers:

The ship’s infirmary (with an operating room and the services of two expert physicians).
The ship’s marconi room (the radio-room, from which passengers could send telegrams. A telegram was 12s 6d…twelve shillings and sixpence…for the first ten words, and 9d…ninepence…for every word thereafter. It’s no wonder that telegrams were often kept as short as possible. A pound sterling was 20s).
The ship’s four elevators (lifts). The elevators were located behind the Forward Grand Staircase on D-Deck. Three elevators for first-class passengers, one elevator for second-class passengers. Third-class passengers had to walk.
The ship’s two barbershops, available to all classes.

The only known photograph of the Titanic’s elevators. One of them, anyway.

Class-Divisions onboard Ship.

Despite all her bells and whistles, her gadgets and gizmoes, her devices and doovalackies, the Titanic was no different from any other ship on the high seas back in the 1910s in that she stuck strictly to the class-system that existed in society at the time. Onboard ship, all passengers were expected to know their places and they were expected to stay there. First and second-class passengers were not expected to mingle and third-class passengers were expected to stick to themselves, below deck. They were called ‘steerage’ passengers because their berths were often deep down in the ship, some even below the waterline, near the engines…near the ‘steerage’ area of the ship at the stern. Despite popular myth, the Titanic never boasted the big, intimidating accordian-grille gates which the 1997 James Cameron film immortalised. Careful studying of the ship’s blueprints, survivor-testimonies and examinations of the shipwreck itself, provided no evidence that such gates ever existed. There were, certainly, small barriers set into corridors to indicate where one part of the ship ended and another began (indicating, yet again, class-divisions), but these were not in any way meant to be used as crowd-control barriers. They were described simply as low gates which could be stepped over or climbed over in the event of an emergency.

Arriving in New York.

Had the Titanic actually arrived in New York City as it should have, passengers would have disembarked by class, first first, second second and third…last. Luggage would have been unloaded and claimed and any prior transportation which passengers had arranged, would have been waiting for them in New York.

R.M.S. Titanic – The Lure of a Legend.


Ninety-seven years ago, a ship sailed off into history. Ninety-seven years ago, it left the port of Southampton, England, on a sunny, April day at twelve noon. Ninety-seven years ago on the 10th of April, 1912 at midday, the R.M.S. Titanic steamed off into history, carrying 2,228 passengers and crew on a transatlantic crossing which has fascinated the world ever since.

In many respects, the R.M.S. Titanic was like any other ship on the high seas, during the period known as the ‘Belle Epoque’, which is a French term meaning ‘Beautiful Era’. In many respects, the Titanic differed very little from other ships then ploughing through the waves around the world. She was made of iron, she was held together by a hefty three million rivets, she was steam-powered, with coal-fired boilers and she carried all kinds of passengers, both rich and poor. Her sinking was no more interesting than any other sinking, one could argue. The Titanic isn’t even the ship with the highest death-rate from a single sinking! Indeed, when the Titanic set sail on the 10th of April, most people didn’t really see it as anything remarkable or special. The RMS Olympic, the Titanic’s older sister was seen as something special, because she was the first of a new class of ocean-liners. Not many people other than those who made the Titanic, really thought that it should be given any more attention than any other ship. Why then do we, nearly a full century after it vanished under the sea, still continue to hold a fascination with what is now a rusting hull stuck two and a half miles down at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean? There are thousands, millions of articles, books, novels, magazines and films about this ship, but why?

The Lure of the Titanic.

In its day, the Titanic was not seen as something amazingly special. And even now, after all the media hype, some people still don’t see what all the fuss is about, and yet there is still another group of people who won’t shut up about it. Why?

The Titanic fascinates so many people, entrances them, excites them and interests them so deeply purely because of what the ship…was!

In many respects, the R.M.S. Titanic was the embodiment of the Edwardian Age, all hammered, beaten and riveted into reality. The Titanic reflected life as it really was back in the early 1910s. Sailing onboard her decks, sleeping in her cabins and eating in her dining-rooms was a layer-cake slice sample of Edwardian society. Filling the ship’s rooms, offices and running through the walls, under the floors and over the ceilings, were all the latest inventions which had flowered at the start of the 20th century. The Titanic catered for everyone and boasted of everything. In a day and age when most people still sent letters, the Titanic had telephones and a switchboard. In a day when the speed of a train was the fastest way a message got from A to B, wireless radio could send messages across the ocean in a matter of seconds! When previously it took a month to sail across the Atlantic, it now took one week. When most people were still using gas lighting, the Titanic had fully-operational electric lights in every single room and cabin. The ship was seen as the total embodiment of all that was advanced and magnificent. It was proof to everyone that the Edwardian Era had reached a scientific and technological peak, never before seen by humankind.

What the Titanic Represented.

To the people who built her, who fitted her out, who booked cabins on her, who walked her decks, the Titanic represented…progress. Progress in science, arts, engineering, culture and technology. Unfortunately, it also represented stereotypical Edwardian-era arrogance. The arrogance of mankind, as it was thought back then, that they had triumphed over everything, that they had triumphed over nature, and that they had now created something which was truly indestructable. The ship was modern, fast, luxurious, comfortable and unsinkable.

Well no.

The Titanic’s designers, shipbuilders or owners never actually said that the Titanic was unsinkable. It’s never mentioned anywhere. The claim of ‘usinkability’ came from a popular magazine of the period known as ‘The Shipbuilder’. The Shipbuilder, as the name suggests, followed all the major shipping-news, much like how a magazine like ‘Wheels’ or ‘Top Gear’ would follow all the latest automobile news today. The Shipbuilder toted the Titanic as ‘practically unsinkable’. Practically. Not literally, practically. Unfortunately, the ocean-going public of 1912 took the ‘practically unsinkable’, removed the ‘practically’ and changed it for ‘literally’.

High-Tech Titanic.

One of the biggest lures of the Titanic was the technology and the passenger ammenities that were available onboard. The Titanic boasted electric lights in all her cabins, it boasted electric heaters in all the staterooms. It had a 5 kilowatt wireless radio-system capable of transmitting messages to a radius of 400 miles. On a clear night, this range could triple to 1,200 miles! The Titanic boasted a 50-telephone switchboard, a state-of-the-art infirmary with an operating-theatre and four…yes four elevators! Three were allowed to be used by first class passengers, and one by second class passengers. Third class passengers would have to leg it. The Titanic also featured a full gymnasium and a fully-equipped darkroom, for any amatuer photographers onboard.

A Slice of Life.

If the Titanic said anything about society in the 1910s, it showed that the strict class-divisions which had been a key part of life during the Georgian and Victorian eras, was still well alive in the 20th century. The Titanic’s passengers were a real cross-section of Edwardian society. You had everyone from wealthy industrialists and businessmen such as John Jacob Astor, Benjamin Guggemheim and the Strauses, you had well-to-do gentlemen like Lawrence Beesley, then a young teacher and author in his mid 30s and you had poor, humble passengers travelling across a vast ocean to start a new life, like the Goldsmith Family, with Mr. Frank Goldsmith Snr., his wife and his little boy, also named Frank, who was aged just nine.

The History of Modern Policing.


These days when we’re in trouble, our first instinct is to pick up the telephone and dial 000, 999, 911 or any other emergency number and to request ‘Police’ from the list of emergency services available. It’s quick, it’s easy and we’re assured that trained professionals are on the other end of the line, ready to do what they have to do, to protect ordinary citizens such as you and me.

In terms of history, however, the idea of a professional group of people whose sole job it is, to protect, serve, detect and prevent crimes, is a pretty new one. The world’s first real police-force which looks anything like what we would be familiar with today, only came into existence in 1829! Before then, police as we imagine them to be, just didn’t exist. So, where did the idea for a police-force come from and how have police-forces changed over time?

Before the Police.

Before modern policing came around in the second quarter of the 19th century, law-enforcers usually consisted of soldiers, city watchmen, guards or other people of authority or military experience. As late as the 1700s, modern police had not yet arrived on the scene. So, who was around to keep the peace?


For hundreds of years, the only real ‘law-enforcers’ were known as watchmen. A watchman was a man who was paid by the government of the city in which he lived, to patrol the streets after dark. His job was not actually to prevent crimes, but to ensure that curfews (which were imposed in most medieval cities at sundown), were enforced. He was to arrest anyone who was out-of-doors after dark without a legitimate excuse. A watchman was usually lightly armed, if he was armed at all. He might have a flaming torch or a lantern, and a club or stick for self-defense, but that was it. Wandering dark, unlit streets at midnight was a dangerous way to make a living, but curfews had to be enforced.


These days if there’s a public riot, police-forces send in their riot-squads, armed with shields, shotguns, batons and tear-gas. 500 years ago if there was a riot, soldiers would be sent in to quell the violence. And they didn’t always use humane crowd-control methods, either.


Guards in ancient cities who watched and manned gatehouses or defensive walls might also be used to keep law and order in a city, although this wasn’t strictly their job, which was to protect the city against unwelcome outsiders.

While all these people were persons in positions of power and authority, their jobs were not actually to actively persue criminals, their job was to keep the peace. They were around to uphold existing laws, to break up riots and to settle disputes amongst people, but they weren’t there to be called upon if, for example, someone had broken into your house and robbed you, and nor was it their job to try and track down criminals who had murdered someone or done some other crime.

The Emergence of Policing.

The 18th century, in England, at least, saw the rise of the first police-style law-enforcers. They came in two forms: one legal, one not-so-legal.


A thief-taker was not a policeman. Think of him as an amateur private-investigator or a bounty-hunter. If, in the 18th century, your house was broken into, or you were mugged in the streets and had something stolen from you, a thief-taker (for a small fee), would attempt to track down the person who had stolen your property, probably by scouring the underworld and meeting up with contacts to try and strike a deal to get your goods back.

The Bow Street Runners.

The Bow Street Runners were a group of men who worked for the magistrates’ courthouse located in Bow Street, London, England. The Runners were the brainchlid of a pair of brothers, Sir John and Henry Fielding. Henry was a famous novelist and a JP (Justice of the Peace). His younger half-brother, John, who suffered from eyesight problems and who eventually went blind, was the magistrate of Bow Street. Despite his blindness, John Fielding must’ve had incredible hearing and memory, becuase he was reputed to be able to recognise up to three thousand different criminals, purely by the sounds of their voices. The brothers formed the Runners in 1749 and so was born London’s (and possibly, the world’s) first professional crime-fighting force.

The job of the Runners was not to actually arrest people, however, or to necessarily uphold the law. The job for which they were paid, was the apprehension of criminals who attempted to skip their court-dates (and possibly flee justice). The Runners were dispatched, and reported to the magistrate’s courthouse in Bow Street, providing information on criminals, such as who they were, where they were, and what crimes they were being arrested or charged for.

Bow Street Magistrate’s Court, London.

The Metropolitan Police Service.

More commonly-known today as ‘Scotland Yard’, the Metropolitan Police Service (‘the Met’), was the world’s first official, professional police-force. It was the idea of Sir Robert ‘Bobby’ Peel, who convinced the British Parliament that there should be one professional crimefighting, crime-prevention organisation to watch over London. The 1820s saw the rise of the Industrial Revolution. The explosion in London’s population, and subsequent skyrocketing crime-rate, had made it clear to Sir Robert that the Bow Street Runners, thief-takers and watchmen were either overwhelmed or outdated and had to be replaced with something more effective. The Metropolitan Police Act was passed in 1829 and the Metropolitan Police Service was formed later that year.

Early Policing.

The first ‘bobbies’ or ‘peelers’ who appeared on the streets of London, starting on the 29th of September, 1829, were true groundbreakers. These police-officers were the first kind of a new lawman whom nobody had ever seen before in their lives. The original police uniform was navy blue, with a stiffened top hat, to protect the officer against blows to the head. Policemen were armed with truncheons, primative handcuffs, and rattles for calling for backup. Navy blue was chosen for the uniform because red too-closely resembled the uniform worn by the British Army (famously known as the ‘redcoats’). Blue, on the other hand, more readily blended into the London streetscene.

British police traditionally do not carry firearms. Early on in the Met’s history, some fifty flintlock pistols were purchased for use by police-constables in ‘special circumstances’, but these were rarely used. At any rate, advancing firearms technology in the the 1830s and 1840s quickly made the flintlock pistols obsolete when the first revolvers appeared towards the middle of the century.

Today, British police are famous, world-over, for their distinctive headgear. The ‘Custodian’ helmet was introduced in 1863 as a more suitable replacement to the top hat, then in use. They have remained the official headgear for London police-officers ever since.

The current model of the Custodian helmet, worn by London policemen today

Cops on the Beat.

For over 100 years, ever since the world’s first policemen took to the streets in 1829, one of the most enduring images of the modern police-force is the ‘beat-cop’, the friendly, neighbourhood lawman who walks around the neighburhood, making sure that everyone is safe. ‘Beat-cops’ as they were called, survived a surprisingly long time, well into the 1960s, until they were gradually phased out. Some police-forces still have beat-cops, but they’re rather rare today. Those forces which do, usually protect smaller communities, such as villages and towns, instead of large cities.

But what is a ‘beat’?

A policeman’s ‘beat’ was his area of patrol, usually a couple of blocks. His job was to walk around the block or blocks assigned to him, at a specific time, for a specific length of time, usually one hour. This kind of patrolling soon became known as ‘pounding the beat’. Pounding the beat was boring at the best of times. At the worst of times, it mean chasing after someone who had broken the law. At the end of your beat, you would report back to your local precinct, where another policeman would be sent out to relieve you.

If you were out on the beat and you spotted a crime, what action did you take?

In the earliest days of professional policing, you took out your police-rattle and swung it around through the air. The rattle was shaped much like the ones you might see at sporting-matches today. The point of swinging your rattle was to alert nearby officers that a crime was in progress and that you required backup. Rattles were mediocre backup-calling devices at best. On a clear day in open country with favourable winds, a rattle could be heard for about 500 yards. In the middle of a city filled with bustling people, shouting, chattering and the rattling and grinding and rumbling of horse-drawn carriages, a rattle was pretty poor choice for a backup-instrument.

The Police-Whistle.

All cops on the beat have a police-whistle! You see them in old movies and on period TV shows and stuff like that. This may surprise you, but until the 1860s, most police-forces did NOT have police-whistles. Before then, whistles were seen as children’s toys, not crime-deterrents. The failings of the police-rattle, however, caused police-officals around the world to do some serious thinking. A backup-system was no good if there was no-one around who could hear it. They needed something better. The whistle was the answer. In tests done in open country, it was proved that a good whistle could be heard for twice as far as the loudest rattles available, with an audiable radius of up to 1,000 yards!

In 1883, a man named Joseph Hudson created what is probably one of the most famous whistles in the world. Made of brass and plated with nickel, the Metropolitan Police Whistle is the classic police-whistle. About three inches long, pealess and easy to hold, this whistle answered everyone’s prayers. The Met whistle’s size made it easy to store on an officer’s uniform. It’s cylindrical shape made it easy to hold and its split chamber and two sound-holes let out a shrill, ear-splitting ‘chreep!’ which could be heard for blocks in every direction! Anyone hearing the distinctive trill would know at once that something bad had happened.

The Metropolitan Whistle was standard-issue to all London (indeed, all BRITISH) police-officers from 1883 until they were finally retired nearly 100 years later, in 1975.

Having blown on your police-whistle, you, as an officer, could expect backup to arrive in a matter of minutes. It’s generally believed that in London, the policemen had the beat-system down so perfectly that at any place in the city at any time of the day or night, there was always a policeman within whistling-distance who could be at your service within 15 minutes.

Early Police-Equipment.

Apart from the famous Metropolitan police-whistle with an earsplitting, audiable range of one kilometer, which was assuredly going to get someone’s attention in an emergency, what other pieces of equipment did a policeman carry, ‘back in the good old days’?

The Met Whistle (of course!)
Three blasts of a Metropolitan Police Whistle. You actually have to blow quite hard to get it to sound like it does in the movies, but as this was meant to be heard for a kilometer in every direction, that’s not surprising.

Haitt-Darby handcuffs.

A service-pistol (if allowed).

Smith & Wesson Model 10 Military & Police Revolver; formerly standard-issue to most police-departments. Some forces still use these today


The ‘nightstick’ got its name because originally, policemen carried two kinds of batons; the longer ‘daystick’ and the shorter ‘nightstick’. In close-combat with criminals, policemen found that the shorter, more compact and easily-handled ‘nightstick’ was a better weapon, and so started carrying them permanently

Call-box key.

With the rise of telephones and telecommunications in general, at the start of the 20th century, policemen could also use police callboxes to summon backup or to report a crime. The callbox key was used to unlock the box to either pull an alarm-lever, or to gain access to a telephone with a direct line to the nearest precinct

Pen Profile: The Flattop Parker Duofold (1921).


The 1920s. The ‘Roaring Twenties’, a decade of money, new invention, new fashion, new styles and…new fountain pens. Arguably, the most famous fountain pen of the Roaring Twenties was something that was just as bright and flashy as the decade which made it king: The Parker Duofold. While perhaps rather boring-looking today and a bit…bland…the Duofold was revolutionary back in the 1920s.

Pens of the Period.

In the early 1920s, the majority of fountain pens were still made of a material called hard-rubber, also known as ‘ebonite’. Ebonite was alright for making fountain pens with, but it had a fair few problems. It was brittle, it came in only three colours (red, black or black & red), and it was rather hard to make something so boring look appealing-enough for people to buy it. Back in the 1910s and 20s, pen-makers tried to jazz up black hard-rubber pens by having them wrapped in gold or silver patterns, or by ‘chasing’ them. ‘Chasing’ was a process whereby a really hot metal stencil was stamped onto newly-made pen-barrels. This process gave the pen a nice, wriggly pattern on it. But back then, these were the only ways you could dress up a pen.

Apart from that, most pens were still lever-fillers, or eyedropper fillers. The Parker Pen Company which came up with the Duofold, wanted something different. Something that didn’t have a lever sticking out of the side of the pen, something which wasn’t black, or chased or swathed in metal. It wanted something new, to welcome in a prosperous decade of jazz, bootlegging and skyrocketing crime-rates…

The Birth of the Duofold.

The original Parker Duofold was born in 1921. An employee at the Parker Pen Company in Janesville, Wisconsin, USA, came up with the idea that the company should try something totally different. Their newest pen would be big, it would be bold, it would have the newfangled ‘button-fill’ system and instead of being black, it would be bright, fire-engine red. Well…actually it was called ‘Chinese Red’ at the time. While the button-fill fountain pen (an invention of Parker’s) was not particularly new in 1921, it had the advantage over rival pen company, Sheaffer’s ‘lever-filler’ in that the filling-button could be capped by a ‘blind-cap’ at the top of the pen, completely hiding the filling-system from the user’s eyes, creating a cleaner-looking pen. Parker big-wigs were a little nervous about all this, espcially the idea to make the pen red. They knew from experience that dyes in the rubber-making process tended to make the finished product rather brittle, and that was saying something, considering how weak hard rubber could already be. What was even scarier was the price that this new pen would be sold at: $7.00.

Seven dollars is piddlesticks today, but 80 years ago, you could buy dinner for your entire family for seven dollars. It was NOT a sum of money to be sneezed at, again, another thing for the company executives to be worried about. How could a pen so expensive possibly sell?

Despite everything, despite all their misgivings, the Parker Duofold, affectionately named the ‘Big Red’ due to its size and heft, was an instant runaway success! The American public loved the new pen for its size, ink capacity, easy-to-use and discreet filling-system and of course…it’s colour!

The Duofold Hits the Shelves.

When the Duofold came out, it was big, red, expensive, succesful and…bandless. Really early Parker Duofolds (if you can find them), came without a gold cap-band around the lip of the screw-down cap. This was a big problem. As I said, hard rubber is prone to cracking and splitting. Without a cap-band on the pen to strengthen it, the lid could just crack in half like an egg, if an overenthusiastic writer screwed the cap on too tightly, or posted the pen too forcefully. Within a couple of months of release, the Duofold was withdrawn and reissued with a nice, fat gold cap-band on it. These Duofolds, because of the size and thickness of the band, were called “raised-band” Duofolds.

As the years went by, the Duofold started coming out in a wider variety of designs. The original ‘Big Red’ (called the Senior model), was followed by the Junior model (which was a half-inch shorter), followed by the Lady’s Duofold (with a ringtop instead of a pocket-clip), followed by the Duofold Special (which was Senior-sized, but was thinner in barrel-diameter). The biggest change came in 1926.

Pens Play with Plastic.

In the mid-1920s, a new material arrived on the production-line. It was strong, versatile, mouldable and it was called…celluloid. Celluloid was to pen-manufacturers what a truckload of Lego blocks is to a little boy who’s used to playing with wooden blocks. All of a sudden, pen-designers could whip out all kinds of new colours and patterns and shapes and suddenly, a whole new world of design-opportunities was open to creative and artistic pen-makers. The first pen-company to jump on the celluloid bandwagon was Sheaffer in 1924. Not to be outdone, Parker started producing its Duofolds in all kinds of wonderful new colours. First in Lapis Blue (a blue and white pattern), then mottled green, then in 1927, yellow.

Yellow was bold, bright, beautiful…and brittle. Yellow Duofolds were made from 1927 until 1929, but they would barely have been made for one month if George Parker, the company head, hadn’t insisted on them. The problem was that the yellow dye used in the plastic made the resultant pens incredibly brittle, even moreso than the hard-rubber which the celluloid replaced! Today, yellow Duofolds command very very high prices. Finding one in mint-condition is tricky, and when you do, it won’t be cheap.

Duofolds continued to change. In 1928, the first and last time that two-bander models were produced, saw the introduction of vest-pocket and women’s fountain pens with three cap-bands instead of the usual two and regular-sized fountain pens with two thin bands instead of the usual one thick one.

In 1929, with the Art Deco movement gathering steam, the original Duofold made one final change in design: It became ‘streamlined’.

Previous to 1929, the Duofold was very angular and tubular. The cap and barrel ends cut off in sharp, right-angles. In 1929, these right-angles were changed to smoother, more sloping ends, which saw them being transformed…in a manner of speaking…to something more in-style with the coming of the 1930s.

Living in a Castle – What was it Like?


Apart from being fortresses, apart from being places of safety for the commonfolk if their land was under attack, a castle was also a home. Castles built in more peaceful parts of Europe could actually be quite grand and magnificent; they were the mansions in rich neighbourhoods, of their day. But what was life actually like in a castle? Who lived there, what did they do, what was the food like and what happened on a daily basis? While many castles were indeed massive, being small cities in themselves, what were they like to live in?

Who Built and Primarily lived in Castles?

This is obvious. The king and queen, right? Well…yes and no. Certainly, the king or queen would have lived in a castle or a palace, and certainly one of great size and grandeur, but there are dozens, hundreds of castles all over Europe. Crowned heads of France, Germany, Poland, England and all the other countries in Europe, couldn’t possibly live in all of these, did they?

No, they didn’t. The truth is that the majority of castles were never built for a king or queen or any other reigning monarch. Most castles were in fact built for noblemen! In the days when it was still customary for a king to lead his troops into battle, charging on ahead with his standard, or remaining at the rear, directing his forces on the battlefield, the king rewarded especially brave or couragous soldiers or knights the best way that a king could back in those days. He gave the knight with the big balls a nice, fat chunk of land. As Gerald O’Hara says in ‘Gone with the Wind’, “Land’s the only thing worth fighting for, worth dying for! Because it’s the only thing that lasts!” Once a deserving warrior had been given his plot of land, he was allowed to do what he wanted with it. Less ambitious noblemen (since a knight was made an earl or a baron after his services to the king), might build a manor house. Those who desired to build a castle, however, had to get written, signed and sealed permission from the king. It was illegal to build a castle without the king’s permission. Once permission (and funds) had been granted, however, building could go ahead.

Since there were obviously more noblemen and knights than kings, it’s easy to see now, why the main occupants of a castle were not actually the members of a royal family, but more likely, the members of a noble family, comprising of the lord, his lady and any children or relations, along with servants and any close friends and colleagues.

What was it like living in a castle?

Even when it wasn’t under attack, living in a castle was hectic, noisy and they were often packed full of people. Despite what you might think, a castle was not the most comfortable of places to live, even in a castle that was built primarily as a home, instead of as a defensive structure. Castles were large, dark, draughty and cold. Windows were often small, with wooden shutters or (if the nobleman could afford it), leadlight glass-panes. Glass was expensive back in the medieval period, so most castles did without glass in their windows. Most rooms would have had massive fireplaces. Without central heating, this was the only way to warm up a room during winters where it could drop to several degrees below freezing.

Much of the furniture or decorations which one generally associates with castle chambers actually served double purposes. Tapestries were big, pretty cloth pictures which depicted famous events or people, but they were also there to keep the heat in and to stop it escaping through the walls, like a form of insulation. The enormous, four-poster beds which one associates with grand bedchambers didn’t have those hanging curtains and canopies around them just for decoration or privacy. When the sleeper went to bed at night, the curtains were closed to keep out draughts and keep in the heat.

What about answering calls of nature? Well, the usual callbox, the modern toilet, didn’t exist back in the 14th century. Instead, you either used a closed stool (which was a special seat with a bucket underneath it), or you used a privy, which is a seat with a hole in it. Waste going through the closed stool (which is where we get the term ‘stool’ to mean ‘feces’) was collected in the bucket, which was then removed, emptied, washed and replaced. Waste which passed through the seat of the privy (which was an early kind of toilet), ended up in one of two places. If the castle had a moat around it, the waste probably ended up in there. If it didn’t have a moat, or if the privy was located somewhere without access to the moat, bodily waste ended up in the cesspit at the very bottom of the castle. A cesspit is an early kind of septic tank.

Lighting in castles was either natural sunlight, or the light given off by candles or an open fire. As a result, castles were often very smokey. It took at least three or four candles to produce enough light to really read or sew or do anything else by. Any chandler who took up residence in the castle (a chandler is a candlemaker) was bound to make a pretty good living out of it.

What about washing up and bathing? This may come as a shock to most people, but regular bathing as we know it today, did not exist until the very late 19th century. Certainly in the 13, 14 and 1500s not many people bothered with it. Firstly, work was so hard and manual and labour-intensive that you would build up a sweat the moment you got out of the bath-tub, so bathing was seen as a waste of time. Secondly, the trouble of running a bath back then just didn’t make it worth it. There was no running water. If you wanted a bath, and especially a hot bath, you had to boil the water yourself, over a fire, you had to lug it upstairs to the bathtub, fill the bathtub, get the tempreature right, put the soap in (if you had any), stripped naked, got in, washed, got out, dried, put your clothes back on and then you’d have to bail out the entire bathtub by hand with a bucket! It took so long it just wasn’t worth it! And certainly people didn’t brush their teeth, either. Wealthier people had a type of tooth-powder which could be scrubbed and scraped around the gums and teeth, but it was not particularly effective.

Castle Residents.

Apart from lords, ladies, earls, barons, dukes, kings, queens, princes and princesses, who else might have lived in a castle? This isn’t everyone, just everyone I could remember:

The Priest.

Especially grand castles (such as Windsor), would have its own chapel. If the castle had a chapel, it was certainly obliged to have its own priest. Often, the priest was one of the few people who knew how to read and write.

Ladies in Waiting.

A Lady in Waiting was a lesser noblewoman, who waited (that is, served) the queen. They were her companions, assistants and confidants. Women’s clothing of the medieval period was often so elaborate that it was impossible for wealthy women to either dress or undress themselves.


People gotta eat. A castle, especially a royal one, could have dozens, even hundreds of cooks. There would be one or two head chefs, with up to 200 underlings who did everything from carting food, preparing ingredients, stirring pots or cleaning stuff up. The lowest person in a castle’s kitchen was a fellow known as the turnbroach, also known as a spitboy. These two titles pretty much sum up what his job was: To turn the spit. The spit was a long, metal pole with a crank-handle on the end. Meat (beef, chicken, pigs and any other meat that required cooking) was spiked onto the spit and put up on a rack above or next to the fire. The turnbroach’s job was to turn the spit and cook the meat. It was an incredibly boring and amazingly hot job. A castle kitchen could have nearly a dozen (or more!) fires, cooking stuff. They were incredibly noisy, smokey and VERY VERY hot.


Can’t have a castle without guards! Guards and soldiers lived at the castle to protect it in times of danger. When the castle was safe, guards would patrol the walltops, keep a lookout, and control entry or exit to the castle by manning the gatehouse. Guards were on watch all day, and usually did their work in shifts.

Gaoler and Turnkey.

The goaler (sometimes called a dungeon-master) was the man who looked after the castle’s dungeon, or prison-cells, if the castle had any. The turnkey (usually there were more than just one), were regular dungeon-guards. As their title suggests, their main job was to…turn keys, to unlock and lock the cell doors.


The castle gong-scourer or gong-farmer was at the very bottom of the castle heirachy of residents and his job was quite literally, the pits. The cesspits, that is. The job of the gong-scourer was to shovel out the…ahem…contents, of the castle’s cesspits and remove it from the premises. This was a terrible job to do and gong-scourers would have smelt horribly, especially in the middle of summer.

Castle Food and Dining.

The kitchen was an important part of a castle, as it is the important part of any residence. Chefs and cooks had a lot of work to do. King Henry VIII’s court could number up to 1,000 people…and they ALL had to be fed. What was food in the medieval period like?

There were of course, the staples. Bread, cheese, meat, fish…but what kinds of bread, meat, cheese and fish, and where did it all come from?

Any meat served in the castle was likely to be duck, goose, chicken, beef or pork. If the lord of the castle went hunting and managed to shoot down a game-bird such as pheasant, that was eaten as well. Bread was just…bread. But it looks a bit different from what we’re used to. Medieval bakers didn’t have baking-tins, so their loaves of bread came out shaped like circles, instead of the long, rectangular loaves that we’re used to today. Bread was baked in massive, brick, open-fire ovens. Cows and chickens provided the castle with milk, butter, cream and eggs. Grains such as wheat or barley were crushed and ground up in massive water-powered grainmills and the resultant flour was stored in sacks or barrels in the basements.

What about drinks? Well, most people back then would have drunk either beer, ale or wine. Any water for drinking was usually drawn from wells inside the castle, but most people preferred to stick to alcohol. Why? Because don’t forget that the main source of water in a castle was from the moat (if it had one), and all kinds of nasty things such as human excretment went into the moats. You don’t drink out of your toilet. It was common-sense. Drinks like beer, wine and ale had no water in them, so they were considered safer to drink. Everyone back then drank beer or ale, even the children! In fact, some brewers brewed a special ‘children’s ale’ for kids to drink.

So, what was mealtime like? What was breakfast, lunch or dinner like?

Most meals would have been taken in the Great Hall, the main chamber of the castle. The royal or noble family usually sat up on a dais (a platform) at the far end of the room, which gave them some privacy, but also allowed the lord or king to watch over his subjects while he ate. Food was brought in by servants and when each dish was put down, it was customary for each servant to take a mouthful from his presented platter, to show that it was not poisoned. In royal courts, the royal food-taster would do this for them. The food-taster might have had a wonderful diet with all the great food he could nibble on, but he would have lived in constant fear that someone would try to kill the king or queen by poison in their food or drink.

Despite what you might think from movies or cartoons, in the medieval period, most people did not actually eat from plates with cutlery as we know it today. Instead, everyone was given a thick, wide slice of bread, called a trencher. The trencher was your plate. You dumped all your food on top of it and ate off of there. And table-manners should be observed, of course. In the Medieval Period, if you had to clear your throat for whatever reason, it was rude to spit into a cup or a bowl or even into a handkerchief. Instead, the expected thing was for you to hock it right out onto the floor!

If you ate food off of a slice of bread, did you use cutlery? Not really. Most people would have eaten with their hands, but you were also usually given an eating-knife and a spoon; forks had not yet come to the table in medieval Europe.

Grand feasts and parties are often associated with castles and mealtimes, and certainly when a king was on a progress (tour) of his kingdom, any castle he stopped at was expected to throw a grand banquet in his honour. Extra care was put into food-preparation; cakes and pies were moulded into special shapes. There were even special ‘presentation pieces’ which were there purely to be looked upon as works of art, and not to be eaten!

Of course, not everyone ate from bread trenchers. Wealthy people could afford plates and bowls made from gold, silver or pewter. As times went on, even the more common guests at banquets were eating out of plates made of wood, but the term ‘trencher’ still remained.

Condiments served with meals were usually pepper and salt. Salt in medieval Europe was so prized that only the wealthiest of people could afford to add it to their food. It wasn’t easy to get salt back in those days, which was what made it so expensive. It’s because of this rarity that we get the phrases “worth his salt” or “below the salt”.

At the end of a meal, once everything had been served and put away, you would pick up your trencher (that big slice of bread), which would now be covered with gravy and sauce and bits of meat and fish and other yummy things, and eat it! If the king or lord of the castle was feeling generous, as an act of charity, he would implore his guests and diners, not to eat their trenchers at the end of the feast. Instead, they would be gathered up and given as alms to hungry peasants and beggars who lived outside the castle in the village nearby.

Attacking and Defending a Medieval Castle (Pt. I)


Great, stone castles with towers, moats, drawbridges and battlements, have always been one of the key images which come to mind when people think of Medieval Europe. As children, we often dreamt about living in a castle, with its grand halls, dark passageways, cozy chambers and spooky dungeons, but many of us forget that the primary purpose of a castle was to serve as a defensive fortress and as such, they were probably not the nicest places to live in. So, what were they like?

The First Castles.

The first castles that appeared at the end of the Dark Ages are very different in appearance to what most people percieve a castle to be. This is largely because they were made of wood, instead of stone. What…Yes, wood, not stone. Wood. ‘Why?’ you ask? Well, because wood was more plentiful, it was easier to work with and easier to transport. The first kind of castle was known as the ‘motte and bailey’ castle. But what is a ‘motte’ and a ‘bailey’? They were the two key components of early castle-design. The ‘motte’ was the mound or hill upon which the castle keep was constructed. The ‘bailey’ was the walled-in plateau that existed at the bottom of the motte. Within this walled bailey, civilians and soldiers could live in relative safety, with houses, shops and other necessities safely protected by the wall built around their village.

A motte and bailey castle. The motte is the hill on the right, with the keep on top. The bailey is the walled in village at the bottom

When a motte-and-bailey castle was attacked, civilians fled from the bailey, across a wooden bridge which spanned a ditch or moat, and up the side of the motte, to the keep at the top. Defending soldiers would attempt to defend the bailey first, shooting arrows at enemy soldiers gathered outside the bailey walls. Should the bailey be breeched, defenders would retreat across the bridge (destroying it as they went), and up the sides of the motte. Attackers would be forced to go into the ditch or across the moat in order to climb the motte. This put them at a disadvantage, as the defenders, higher up, could shoot them down with bows and arrows.

While the motte-and-bailey castle was effective against small-scale attacks, it was easily overrun by larger groups of enemies. It was soon evident that something more permanent was needed if people desired a safe place to retreat to, in times of warfare.

Stone Castles.

The weaknesses of the motte-and-bailey castle must’ve been evident to their constructors pretty early-on in castle-building history, because while there were hundreds of these, easy-to-build castles all over the place, they didn’t last very long. Indeed, by 1068, the first stone castles started being built in Britain. Wood was cheap, wood was easy to build with, it was easy to transport…but it was susceptable to fire and water. Fire burned away at the wooden walls, and rainwater could rot the wood until it was too weak to be used in making practical defensive walls. Stone, on the other hand, was heavier, harder to cut, harder to transport, but it was a hell of a lot stronger than wood, for rather obvious reasons. The oldest surviving stone castle in Great Britain, Chepstow Castle, was the one built in 1068, and it is the oldest stone castle still surviving in Britain.

Chepstow Castle in Wales, the oldest surviving stone castle in Great Britain.

Now that castles were becoming larger and grander and above all – permanent structures – more care and thought started being put into how they were designed and constructed. We mustn’t forget that a castle’s main purpose was to serve as a defensive fort in times of warfare. So, how was a castle built to make it easily defendable?

Stone Castles – Defensive Features and How Castles were Defended.

1. The Moat.

Every castle has to have a moat! How could you not have a castle without a moat? They’re so wonderful in all their…moaty goodness! Seriously, though, not all castles had moats, it was fact of life, unfortunately. While a moat could make a castle incredibly easy to defend, the truth is that they were not easy to construct. Most moats were shovelled out by hand, or builders surveying the land took advantage of natural depressions or gullies in the landscape, such as building near a dry riverbed. Diverting a nearby river to flood low-lying land, or simply having the depression fill up with water over time, was how most moats were constructed or filled.

Once they were there, however, a moat made a castle ridiculously easy to defend. In a day and age when most people couldn’t swim, attacking a castle which had beautiful, moatside views from its windows, was nearly impossible. To get across, you’d have to row over in a boat, keeping your back to the defenders, who could shoot you between the shoulderblades with arrows. And once you got to the castle walls, you still had to get over them. And certainly by the time you arrived at the castle, the defenders would have hauled up the drawbridge at the gatehouse, which was the only practical way in. It’s no wonder that people loved building castles with moats so much, they made the structures themselves so much easier to defend.

But like I said, not all castles had moats. And if it didn’t have a moat, how else did you protect your castle?

2. The Curtain Wall.

The curtain wall was a massive, defensive wall built around the keep (the main castle building). Curtain walls were truly enormous; they could be up to twenty feet thick and twice as high as they were wide. Most curtain walls had wide walkways along the tops of them, so that defending soldiers could stand up there and shoot down at the advancing enemy, or pour or drop stuff down on them to kill them.

3. Battlements.

Another famous castle design-feature…battlements! The purpose of battlements was to provide protection to defending soldiers who were up on the curtain-wall walkways, shooting or throwing things down at the enemy. Battlements are actually made up of two distinct features: Merlons and Crenels. The ‘merlon’ is the big chunk of stone on the battlements which you could take cover behind. The crenels were the gaps between these stones through which you could shoot at the enemy. Some merlons had special holes built into them, called loopholes or arrow-slits. These enabled defending crossbowmen to shoot their crossbow-bolts through the merlons into the enemy hordes below, while remaining perfectly safe behind a big stone block while shooting through a hole with an outside diameter of a beer-mug. Arrow-slits and loopholes were often conically-shaped so that they allowed the defender a wide field of fire, but presented the attacking enemy with only a tiny hole to shoot at.

4. The Gatehouse.

A Curtain Wall is only as strong as its weakest gatehouse. The gate is the weak-point in any defensive wall, so medieval architects built these entranceways to be as easily defendable as possible, with multiple gates, doors and other features which made them strong, easy to defend and hard to attack.

The first defensive element was the gate itself, a massive, wooden door, usually bolted shut with massive wooden beams to brace the door and to prevent easy entry. The bracing that the heavy wooden bolts provided, made it hard for battering-rams to smash the door down. They also absorbed some of the shock from the ramming.

If the door was broken, there were still plenty of other defensive features in a gatehouse. Most gatehouses would also have a gate (usually two of them) called a portcullis. A portcullis is a lattice gate made of wood and usually strengthened with strips of iron and nails. They were opened by raising them on pulleys and winches, and closed by dropping them down. The metal strips hammered onto the wooden gates made them fireproof, but it also added much-needed strength to the gate, without compromising its weight. When a gate might have to be raised or lowered quickly, it was important that it was made as light as possible.

The latticework in the portcullis’s construction meant that defending soldiers had holes in the gate through which they could shoot at the enemy, but, like with the arrow-slits in the battlements, enemies couldn’t shoot back. Gatehouses usually had two portcullises, one behind the other. The first reason for this is rather obvious – to provide for greater security. The second reason is perhaps not so obvious.

A closed portcullis

A common tactic in siege warfare was to open the gates to the castle and practically welcome the enemy inside. This was an old trick, but it was one that was deployed often, and when you read what happens next, you’ll see why defenders loved doing it so much.

In the event of the main door being smashed open by a battering ram, enemy soldiers would charge into the gatehouse. All doors leading into the entranceway would be locked from the inside, so that the enemy soldiers would be huddled in the ‘tunnel’ produced by the gatehouse’s wide walls and roof. Once enough soldiers had entered the gatehouse, the first portcullis was quickly dropped down, trapping the men between the first and second portcullis.

If you go into a medieval castle today and pass under the gatehouse, take a look upwards. You might see several large holes in the ceiling of the entranceway. They’re not building-mistakes…these are called ‘murder-holes’, and their name directly reflects their purpose.

Murder-Holes in the ceiling of a castle gatehouse

Once the enemy soldiers were trapped between the two portcullises, defenders in the upper levels of the gatehouse would pour things through the murder-holes, to kill the closely-packed soldiers below. It could be heavy rocks, scalding hot sand or cauldrons of boiling water. Contrary to popular belief, oil, which was a scarce commodity in Medieval Europe, was not poured through the murder-holes. It was so valuable that even though it could be heated so hot that it would flash-fry the trapped intruders like a bunch of chicken-wings, it was too valuable a resource to waste during a siege.

5. Towers.

Despite what fairy-tales and movies might give us to believe, towers were used for much more than just locking up fair maidens for tall, strapping knights to rescue. During a siege, a castle tower could be used to signal to approaching allies or reinforcements outside the castle, or it could be used as a command-post, from which superiors could direct their defending soldiers to various parts of the castle, if they saw the enemy army approaching. They also provided execellent vantage-points for shooting at enemy soldiers far below. Towers were often built with clockwise-spiralling staircases, this was so that the defender had the advantage when going up the stairs. A defender would be backing up the stairs, with his sword in his right-hand, with his body protected by the stairway’s central column. The attacker would have his sword-swings blocked by the column and he would have to expose more of his body to the defender, in order to get a decent thrust, which put him at a disadvantage.

6. Castle Grounds.

Really elaborate castles, called ‘concentric’ castles, started being built in the 1200s. These were real masterpieces. Castles within castles. A concentric castle consisted of numerous curtain walls (usually two or three), and a large, central keep. The outer curtain-wall was lower than the inner curtain-wall so that defenders further back, could shoot arrows or bolts over the heads of their fellow soldiers into the grounds outside the castle. Also, the ground between the two walls, should the outer wall be breeched, could be turned into a massive killing-field. Enemy soldiers, with nowhere to hide and duck for cover, would be massacred by defending archers, who shot at them from both walls.

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:



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.


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.


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.


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.