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;

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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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).


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!


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.


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.

Shipboard Life during the Age of Sail


Before the 1930s, commercial air-travel was but the dream of fools. And before the mid 1800s, an ocean-voyage in a ship powered by something other than oars or the wind, was seen as absurd. From the earliest days of the Age of Sail, starting in the 1500s, until sailing ships were finally declared obsolete by the faster and more powerful steamships, life at sea was hard, dangerous and scary, even at the best of times. A voyage from England to America, India or even as far as Singapore or Australia, took weeks, even months of travel-time, stopping off at ports on the way, to pick up fresh supplies and to deliver and pick up cargo.

What was life onboard a sailing ship like? What kind of food did people eat? How did they sleep? Go to the toilet? How the hell did they even know where they were GOING? These questions, and more, will hopefully be clearly answered in the contents of this post.


Arguably, the most important part of a sea-voyage was navigation; knowing where the hell you were going, and how to get there. Navigation required a lot of skill when you were out in the middle of the ocean without a landmass within sight to act as a point of reference. So, how was it done?

Determining direction was easily accomplished by using a standard compass, with a needle which would point to Magnetic North. Using a compass, you could determine your direction. This was easy enough; even without a compass you could determine your direction, based on the movement of the sun. But how did you determine your position?

Finding out your co-ordinates (the two reference-points which, when put together, would pinpoint your position on the globe), took considerably more skill. Using a sextant or octant, you were able (by measuring the angle of the sun against the horizon), to determine how far north or south you were. This, with some practice, became fairly easy. The real challenge was determining how far east or west you were, from a given point. Longitude (east-west bearing) had been nearly impossible to determine accurately, until the last quarter of the 18th century. An English clockmaker named John Harrison created the world’s first marine chronometer, a clock (or watch) which was accurate enough to be used for navigation at sea. The most accurate clocks in the world at the time, were big longcase pendulum clocks (grandfather clocks). While they could keep almost dead-accurate time, they were useless out in the middle of the ocean, where the waves would throw the pendulum-swing out of kilter. Pocket-watches small enough to be brought out into the ocean were too inaccurate to serve as reliable time-standards. Over the years, Harrison refined his chronometer until it was good enough to be used at sea. His reward for his invention? A princely ten thousand pounds from the British government.

The Marine Chronometer.

The marine chronometer was arguably the most important invention of the 18th century. Without it, ocean-travel as we know it today, would likely never have taken place at all. Using the chronometer (which was set at Greenwich Mean Time), a navigator could determine how far from land he was, by counting the time-difference between the time on the clock, and the position of the sun at noon each day. Marine chronometers (‘chronos’ meaning ‘time’, ‘meter’ for ‘measure’), had to be incredibly accurate. A variation of just a few seconds each day, was enough to throw a ship off-course by MILES. In his voyage from England to Australia in the 1780s, Captain Cook (who agreed to test Mr. Harrison’s new invention), recorded in his papers that this newfangled clock managed to keep an accuracy of +/-5 seconds after one month at sea. Now that’s good timekeeping!

With navigation solved, the ship was ready to be provisioned. What kinds of things did a ship carry back in the 1700s?


When a sea-voyage could last a month at its shortest, stocking enough provisions onboard ship was of vital importance. Provisions included everything. Water, food, spare sails, spare spars, spare ropes, nails, oakum, pitch, tar, gunpowder, shot, cargo, medical supplies, clothing, candles, coal, timber and oil.

The modern refrigerator as we know it today, did not exist until the 1930s. How the hell did they stop all the food from going rotten?

Preventing food-spoilage was a big problem onboard ships. Captains typically loaded their vessels with foods that could last for weeks or months without needing refrigeration. So how was it done?

Shipboard food included such delicacies as salted pork, dried or salted fish, hard-tack (also called a ship’s biscuit), grains such as oats or cornmeal, and maybe a bit of nice cheese. Drinks included barrels of water, wine, rum and grog (which was watered-down rum). So, what were all these things?

Pork was salted. That is to say, it was packed into massive barrels of salt, to preserve it. Fish was either dried, to prevent it from going mouldy, or it too, was packed into barrels and salted. Grains such as oats, barley and cornmeal, which would be used for making porridge, were stored in sacks and barrels, tightly sealed. And last but not least, there was the ever-present, ever-despised hard-tack or the ‘ship’s biscuit’.

If you’ve ever eaten an ANZAC biscuit, you’ll know how hard and tough it can be. Hard-tack made ANZAC biscuits feel like overcooked pasta. Hard-tack was a special kind of cookie which was baked so that when it came out of the oven, it was literally rock hard. You could drive a nail into a plank of wood with this thing, and it wouldn’t break. Hard-tack was notoriously difficult to eat. But why did they stock it? Because hard-tack is like the cockroach of foodstuffs. It can survive almost anything. Provided that it was sealed properly and kept dry, hard-tack could keep fresh for months, even years at sea. Hard-tack was so damn tough that if you ate it ‘raw’, you’d probably break your teeth off! So instead, sailors would dunk it into their tea or coffee to soften it up a bit before taking a bite out of it. But before you dunked it into the tea, you had to bang it on the table a few times to knock out the beetles and weevils and other nasty little insects that had taken up residence inside your lunch.

You’ll notice that there is a distinct lack of greenery in the shipboard diet. Keeping things like fruits and vegetables fresh onboard a sailing ship with no fridges, was a nearly impossible task. Fruit goes mouldy after a few days, a few weeks if you’re lucky. And greens were important, and still are important, for preventing the horrific disease called scurvy.

Scurvy was nasty. It caused your joints to ache, it made your gums bleed, it made you go dizzy and faint, and when it was really bad, your teeth rotted and you’d be spitting your pearly-whites all over the floor. To prevent this, sailors drank great quantities of fruit-juice. It’s for this reason that British sailors were called “Limeys”; because they drank gallons and gallons of lime-juice. On the same ticket, German sailors ate pounds and pounds of sauerkraut. It’s for this reason that Germans are called “Krauts”.


It’s well-known that sailors slept in hammocks onboard ships, even as recently as the mid 20th century. But why would you want to sleep in a rocking, rolling hammock that could pitch you out onto the floor when the ship hit a swell?

Ship’s hammocks are not like garden hammocks. They’re more compact. When you get in, the sides of the hammock spring upwards and wrap around you, so that you’re as snug as a bug in a rug. Being wrapped up like this prevents you from falling out if the ship rolls. Sailors didn’t sleep in beds because there was no room for them. And at any rate, it was easier to be thrown out of a bed than a hammock, during a storm. Naval tradition dictated that when a sailor died, he was sewn up in his hammock (with the last stitch through his nose, to make sure he wasn’t snoozing), he had a pair of holystones (a type of scouring-rock, used to clean the deck) tied, with a rope, around his ankles…and then his body was tipped into the sea.


Open flames were forbidden on sailing-ships. While the only source of light was fire, its use was strictly regulated. All candles had to be housed in lanterns, for extra safety, and the only fire permitted onboard, was in the galley stove. Most ships would have had a stern lantern (a big lantern hammered onto the back of the ship), to act a bit like the tail-light of a car. It would make it easier to spot in the dark. When escaping an enemy ship, captains usually doused the stern lantern to remain hidden in the dark.


When a sea-voyage could take months at a time, keeping yourself entertained was pretty important. Sailors would play cards, dominoes, chess, checkers or play on whatever musical instruments they had, like flutes or violins. The most well-known aspect of shipboard entertainment during the Age of Sail was the sea-shanty. A shanty was a song which sailors sang onboard ship, while they worked. The most famous shanty, “The Drunken Sailor”, was typically sung when the crew was downstairs, running around the capstan, hauling up the anchor. The chorus “Hey, ho, and up she rises!” was the cue for sailors to start pushing on the capstan-bars to raise the anchor.

Naval Warfare in the Age of Sail (Pt. I).


Usual disclaimer: I’m a not a historian or an expert on any specific period or aspect of history. I’m just an all-round history buff, trying to educate and interest people in the parts of history which I find fascinating and exciting. Enjoy the article and feel free to post comments.

During the ‘blackpowder era’ of firearms warfare, battle on land could be terrifying, with cannons and shells and musket-balls flying all over the place, and sure it was terrifying, but try doing it two hundred miles out in the middle of the ocean onboard a rocking, rolling wooden warship where defeat meant drowning in the waters of the Atlantic Ocean or the English Channel. These were the very real dangers faced by sailors and marines of the British Royal Navy during the period from 1792 until 1815, starting with the French Revolution and ending with the end of Napoleon’s conquest of Europe in the mid 1810s. What was battle like, out on the high seas back then and what happened during and after battle?

Ships of the Period

The first, all-metal ships did not appear until the mid 19th century. Before then, all vessels were made of wood. A warship of the 1790s, as typified by the ‘Man-o’-War’, was a multi-decked, three-masted affair with cannons and ropes and sails and all manner of other things onboard. Ships were wind-powered by massive sails and Mother Nature. The majority of the construction was of wood hammered onto wooden frames, with the gaps between the wood filled in with pitch (a black, tarry substance) and oakum, which was the broken-down fibres of old ropes. Oakum and the pitch were absorbent and sticky; contact with water made the hulls of the ships (mostly) watertight. While ships were able to deliver considerable firepower from either their starboard (right) or larboard (left, later changed to ‘port’) ‘batteries’ of guns (cannons), they were very vulnerable to attack from the front or back. The front, consisting of the bowsprit and the strengthened, curved, angled hull, was harder to destroy with cannonfire, but the stern of the ship, where the Great Cabin (also called the captain’s cabin) was located, was about as weak as soggy tissue-paper. With big, glass windows and few cannons, the stern was the weak-point of all vessels of the period.


Weapons to be found on ships during the Age of Sail consisted of bladed weapons such as boarding-axes, cutlasses, rapiers, daggers and bayonets, and firearms, such as pistols, muskets, rifles (what few that there would have been), and blunderbusses. There were also the various classes of large guns (cannons). These guns were massive, iron beasts which fired a variety of shot (ammunition) at any enemy ships. Firearms of this period were all single-shot, flintlock or matchlock weapons. They were slow to reload and inaccurate beyond a few hundred yards, for the cannons, and a few dozen yards, for smaller firearms.

Clearing for Action

If you were a captain onboard a British Man-o’-War during the Revolutionary or Napoleonic wars, and you saw an enemy, French warship sailing towards you, you had two options. To either prepare for battle, or to high-tail it out of there. When escape was impossible (due to being unable to pick up enough speed, or from being out-gunned), the order would be given to ‘clear for action’, or to ‘beat to quarters’.

‘Beating to quarters’ literally meant beating on a drum. The drummer set the pace of how fast everyone was expected to move. On the order to beat to quarters or to clear for action, everyone was expected to be in their places as soon as possible. The surgeon and his mate and the loblolly-boy were roused or set on alert to recieve injured sailors. Powder-monkeys (young boys, or even women!) were sent down to the powder-magazine at the bottom of the ship to fetch up gunpowder, and cannons were loaded and readied for action. The captain ordered his officers around to make sure that everything went smoothly. Officers were in charge of such things as organising the firing of the guns, relaying orders and helping to move away injured sailors. At the start of battle, the ship’s colours (national flag) were raised on one of the masts, to clearly identify the nationality of the ship (in case of mistaken identity) and valuables were put safely away.

The Heat of Battle

A real naval engagement was a terrifying thing to be in on. While in movies it looks glamourous and exciting, there was very little glamour about all the smoke and blood and guts and bullets whizzing around everywhere. As the two combatant ships drew up alongside each other, they would attempt to broadside (fire their full complement of guns on one side of the vessel) each other to cause the most damage. Although they were simple machines, naval cannons could pack a mighty punch. A single cannonball could blast a hole in a ship big enough for a man to crawl through. During combat, more sailors died from their injuries or infections, than actually died from being struck by cannon-blasts. In most cases, it was not the cannonball which killed you. It was the thousands of splinters of wood which the cannonball blasted aside as it smashed into the ship, that would slice into your body like knives and kill you through infection.

Dozens of cannons going off all at once produced amazing amounts of smoke, and the noise was literally deafening. Shouted orders were useless in such chaos, so instead, bosuns (boatswains), issued commands to the sailors using “bosun’s pipes”, long, metallic whistles which were capable of letting out piercing, shrill notes, which could be heard through the battle.

How fast a ship could fire its guns (and possibly win a battle), was dependent on many things. First, the skill of the gun-crew. Cannons were incredibly heavy firearms and they took an amazing amount of muscle to operate properly. Secondly, came the speed of the powder-monkeys. Gunpowder for the cannons was stored in the powder-magazine at the very bottom of the ship. The magazine was a large, copper-lined room, below the waterline, where gunpowder was stored in sacks and barrels. The walls were lined with copper because copper didn’t spark, like iron did. Powder-monkeys (usually young boys) had to be very fast in running the powder from the magazine up to the gun-deck as quickly as they could, in a relay fashion, slinging their powder-kegs from one to the other, back and forth, up and down.

A gun-crew firing an 18-pounder cannon. From left to right: The powder-monkey (with his cylindrical powder-keg), the gun-captain (with the burning taper), and the four other members of his gun-crew, waiting to arrest the cannon when it begins its recoil, after firing.

Naval Surgery

Injuries from cannonfire could be horrific. Imagine having your arm blasted away by an 18-pound, solid iron cannonball, travelling fast enough to smash a hole in the side of a ship with bulkheads over a foot thick. Injured sailors were stretchered, carried or dragged from the gun-decks, to the infirmary at the back of the ship, near the Great Cabin. Here, the ship’s surgeon and the surgeon’s mate, together with the loblolly-boy (another assistant), had to look after and treat patients maimed by the battle upstairs. The treatments and surgery available, were mediocre at best and chances of survival or recovery varied wildly. Badly infected limbs would have to be amputated with a knife and hacksaw.

Bullets, shrapnel and other foreign bodies were removed from patients without anasthetic, the same for amputations. A surgeon was considered especially skilled if he could remove an arm or leg within two minutes. The only relief from the pain was lots of grog, or lots of laudanum (which is a mix of rum and opium). It was a kind of painkiller that dulled the pain and made the patient groggy, but it didn’t completely knock them out, so they could still feel a considerable level of pain. The surgeon’s quarters were often so drenched with blood, that he would pour sand (like what you find at the beach), onto the floorboards of his cabin and surgery, to soak up all the pints of blood which were spilling onto the floor and which caused a slipping-hazard.

Ships during the Napoleonic era would have had a surgeon and a mate. Note that: A surgeon. Not a doctor, a surgeon. Because so many of the injuries would have required amputation, it made more sense to have a surgeon onboard instead of a physician. Stephen Maturin in the “Aubrey & Maturin” series by Patrick O’Brian is a physician, and yet takes on the lesser position of surgeon onboard his friend’s ship, when he is in-search of a medical-man onboard his vessel.

The Weather Gage

One key factor in naval battles of the Age of Sail, was of course…the weather. Specifically the wind. How strong it was and in which direction it was blowing. Of course, the wind and its direction wasn’t the end-all of all battles, but it was certainly important. If the wind is blowing from north to south and there are two ships sailing side by side in an either easterly or westerly direction, the nothernmost ship is said to have the weather-gage. The direction of the wind means that it can easily sail away from an attacker, or sail southwards quickly, to engage the enemy. The southernmost ship, having to fight against the south-blowing winds, would have to trim (take in) sails to be able to move upwards to meet the attacking ship, which could, if it desired, sail away and disengage from the action.

This article is continued in Part II, below.

Naval Warfare in the Age of Sail (Pt. II)


The second part of my two-part post on sea-battles during the Age of Sail (1500s-mid 1800s).

Cannons and their Ammunition

In the 18th and the first half of the 19th centuries, a warship’s main armaments, as typified by the frigate or Man-o’-War of the period, consisted of rows of cannons lined up on gun-decks inside the ship. While cannons such as these were simple to learn how to load and fire and operate in general, they were not easily worked, especially in the heat of battle, when a single cannon-blast might decide the outcome of an engagement. Cannons were massive, unwieldly, metallic beasts. Even the smallest of cannons, which fired roundshot of a weight of six pounds, could weigh several dozen pounds, not including the gun-carriage which the cannon rested on.

Firing a cannon was not a simple, one-man-presses-the-button operation back in the 1790s. It took skill, co-ordination and discipline to do it properly. Given their size and weight, it took several men to get a gun loaded and ready to fire. A typical gun-crew consisted of five men: a gun-captain, who was in charge of aiming and firing the gun, and four subordinates, who were in charge of loading the gun and running it out. When the enemy was sighted and the order was given to prepare the guns, this is how they were loaded:

1. The gun is charged with gunpowder, either loose gunpowder poured down the barrel with a special scoop, or a bag or pouch of gunpowder shoved down the barrel with a ramrod.

2. The gun is loaded with its ammunition. Depending on the size or type of ammo, it may need forcing down with a ramrod.

3. The charge and shot are wadded down with wadding (usually old, ripped up cloth), to prevent the ammunition from rolling out or moving unexpectedly.

4. The gun is primed and made ready to fire. On earlier cannons, this meant shoving a metal spike into the touch-hole at the top of the cannon-breech and feeding in either a burning match-cord (for a fuse), or a burning taper, to set off the charge. In later cannons, the gunlock (a type of flintlock firing-mechanism adapted for cannons) would be charged with powder and prepared to fire.

5. The gun is run out on its gun-carriage, pushing open the gun-port in the side of the ship. As cannons could weigh several hundred pounds, even when empty, running out a gun took a considerable amount of strength. Smaller guns could be pushed out by hand, but larger, 36 or 42-pounders would have to be winched out by ropes and pulleys, requiring the efforts of the entire, five-man gun-crew.

The order of ‘fire!’ is given. At this point, either the match-cord is lit, the taper is put to the touch-hole, or the lanyard operating the gunlock mechanism is pulled. The gunpowder explodes and propels the ammunition out of the muzzle, directly at the enemy. The recoil of the gun going off was significant. For safety reasons, sailors never stood directly behind a cannon, as the recoil could throw the gun back and either knock them over, or even worse, the wheels of the gun-carriage could roll over their shoes, crushing their feet! The ropes attached to the cannons didn’t just make it easier to run the cannons out, they controlled the powerful kick of the recoil, once the gun had discharged.

6. The gun is then swabbed with a sponge, to douse any embers inside the cannon, and the process from 1-5 is repeated all over again.

Cannons were simple to operate, even if they weren’t very easy to maneuver. But their simplicity-of-design allowed for a wide range of ammunition to be fired out of them, creating all kinds of hell for the enemy being fired at. While in theory, anything that could fit down the muzzle could be considered ammunition, there were several purposely-manufactured types of ammo which gun-crews used.

Roundshot. The classic, round, iron cannonball. These came in various sizes, the smallest being six pounds, the very largest being forty-two pounds. Roundshot was used to blast holes in the hulls of enemy ships. Roundshot was the mainstay of most battles, and the damage it could cause was considerable, to say the least. At thirty yards, roundshot from an 18-pounder cannon, could blast a hole straight through the hull of a ship three feet thick.

Hotshot. These days, someone who’s a ‘hotshot’ is someone who thinks he’s really skilled or effective at doing something. A little over 200 years ago, ‘hotshot’ was an actual type of ammunition! It is, as the name suggests, quite literally, ‘hot shot’. That is to say, a cannonball (roundshot), heated until it was smoking, red hot, before it was loaded into a cannon and fired at the enemy. Hotshot was both very effective and very dangerous, for obvious reasons. Hotshot required fires to heat the cannonballs red-hot. Onboard a sailing ship made of wood in the middle of the ocean, fire is the last thing you want. Hotshot was usually ‘baked’ on the galley stove, before being loaded into the cannon with a special scoop. Extra wadding was placed inside the cannon, to prevent the shot from setting off the gunpowder charge prematurely. Once loaded, the hotshot was fired just like any other cannonball, but with significantly more damage.

Once the ball had smashed through the enemy hull, it would roll around, too hot to touch. If it stopped anywhere for a long enough period of time, it would set the entire ship on fire, causing absolute chaos and distracting the enemy, probably long enough for you to blow the hell out of them.

Case-shot and grape-shot. Pretty-sounding names, aren’t they? Grape-shot. Sounds like a drink. Grape-shot and case-shot (more-or-less the same thing), consisted of several dozen musket-balls, chain-links, nails, bolts, shards of glass or whatever else you could find, shoved into a metal can (case) or into a cloth bag (grapeshot), and loaded into a cannon. When this was fired, it turned the cannon into one hell of a massive shotgun, spraying musket-balls (or other shrapnel) all over the place. It was particularly effective against groups of enemy soldiers or sailors, huddled together onshore or on the open deck of a ship.

Chainshot and bar-shot. Chainshot and bar-shot were two small cannonballs (or iron bars) linked by a length of chain and loaded into a cannon. Once fired out of the gun, the chain links unravelled, turning the shot into nothing short of a bolas from hell. Chainshot and bar-shot were particularly effective in slicing rigging (ropes), ripping sails to shreds, or dismasting an enemy ship. These whirring, whizzing necklaces of death could render a ship totally immovable once they had put the rigging and sails out of commission.

Explosive shell. The explosive shell was a hollow cannonball filled with gunpowder and stoppered with a match-cord fuse. Once the cannon was fired with this inside it, the ball would whizz through the air, the fuse (ignited by the gunpowder in the cannon) would burn until it reached the gunpowder inside the shell, blasting the thing open and sending metal everywhere.

Winning a Battle.

While cannons could pack a hell of a punch, it was a slow punch at best. To make the most use out of his cannons, the captain or commanding officer of the attacking ship, would be sure to target various weak-spots in the enemy ship, to get the biggest bang for his buck, so to speak. The four best places to shoot at were:

The rigging and the masts. Blowing them apart with chainshot and bar-shot rendered the enemy ship unable to move. You could now blow it to pieces as you wished.

The hull. Blowing holes in the enemy ship’s hull at, or below the waterline, would cause it to sink. Game over. While easy in theory, it took a fair bit of skill and timing to achieve successful destruction of a ship’s hull and make it sink. Most cannons could not be angled far down enough, to shoot into the hull on their own. They needed the help of the ship which they were mounted on. And the ship needed the help of Mother Nature.

On a ship rocking and rolling around at sea, if the ship was broadside to the waves, it would cause one side of the ship to be higher than the other, as it slid up and down the crests and troughs of each wave. Captains used this angling of their ships to their advantage, and would call out one of two orders, to fire ‘on the up-roll’ or ‘on the down-roll’. To fire on the ‘up-roll’ meant to fire when your side of the ship was angled upwards. Firing in this position meant that you could blow the masts off the enemy ship. On the other hand, firing on the ‘down-roll’ (when your side of the ship was angled downwards), meant that you could send your shot down, closer to the waterline, blasting holes in the enemy’s hull and sinking it.

The quarterdeck. The quarterdeck was the main deck of most ships and on smaller ships, it was also the gun-deck. Shooting at this area with case-shot and grape, would kill several dozen sailors, allowing you to board (if you wished) without fear of immediate attack.

The stern. Ships of the Napoleonic era (and before) were notoriously vulnerable at the stern, where there were few cannons to protect it, and where there were large windows, letting light into the captain’s cabin. This lack of protection allowed the attacking ship to destroy the enemy in absolutely horrific ways, if they could pull it off successfully. To successfully attack the stern of another frigate, you had to execute the maneuver known as ‘crossing the T’, where your long axis crossed the enemy’s short axis at the stern. You then had to carry out the firing-procedure known as ‘raking’. Raking fire was devastating, to say the least. It worked like this:

As each of your cannons passed the stern of the enemy, the gun-captain or officer in charge, would yell out the order: “Fire as you bear!”, which meant to discharge your cannon when you sailed past the enemy stern. This sent your shot smashing through the back windows of the ship and right down through the middle of it, destroying cannons, ripping through masts and killing and maiming enemy sailors, who had nowhere to run. Firing at the stern could also disable the enemy’s steering which meant they couldn’t come about (turn around) to face you, broadside-to-broadside, and give you a payback round. Firing at the stern could also sink the ship, leading to a decisive victory in your favour.

During battle, there were three basic outcomes: Sinking, burning or boarding.

Sinking a ship invovled blowing its hull to pieces and then leaving it (and the crew) to drown. Any sailors you picked up would become prisoners of war.

Burning a ship (either with hotshot or flaming torches) meant that it would turn into a massive, floating fireball, probably killing most people onboard.

Boarding a ship involved coming up alongside it, throwing grappling-hooks over the side and swinging over, onto the enemy ship. Boarding-parties (led by officers or the captain), could be ensured of heavy, close-quarters, hand-to-hand combat with enemy sailors. Weapons included muskets, bayonets, daggers, cutlasses and pistols. If you were lucky, you could beat the enemy and take his ship intact, as a prize (for which you could be handsomely and richly rewarded).

Winning a battle at sea was a great triumph for you and your men, and a great shame and dishonour to the enemy. An official surrender or defeat was recognised when the enemy captain surrendered his sword to either the attacking captain, or the attacking officer in command. Another way of surrendering was to ‘strike colours’. ‘Striking your colours’ was the action of lowering the naval flag of the country which your ship was a part of. Continuing to fight after the striking of colours was considered dishonourable, cowardly and above all…a serious crime.

Myths and Legends of the Fountain Pen


There are several myths, legends and beliefs (mistaken or otherwise), about the love of my life; the fountain pen. Here, I will try to answer or debunk some of these assumptions and confusions.

1. Fountain pens leak.

No they don’t. No good fountain pen will ever leak. I can understand where people get this impression from – fountain pens are delicate instruments filled with water-based ink. They HAVE to leak, right!? Well…no, they don’t, actually. You see, in the earliest days of fountain pen invention, yes, leakages were very common. This caused pen-manufacturers around the world to refine, alter and improve the fountain pen to such a level that it doesn’t leak at all. The very design of the pen was so that it would not leak. As a result, no functional, good-quality fountain pen will leak.

“But I can see ink on the nib!” you might say.

Yes, you might see this. But this is not classified as leaking. A real, leaking pen will have great drops or smudges of ink dribbling out of it. Ink on the nib is called ‘nib-creep’ (yes, that is the actual term for it). Nib-creep is caused by minute imperfections in the cutting of the nib-tines, and by various brands of fountain pen inks. As I explained in “Natural, Inky Goodness”, fountain pens work by gravity and capillary action. If the slit in the pen-nib is cut poorly, and there are rough spots in it, ink is liable to seek out these spots and seep out of the slit and go all over the nib. This does not damage the pen, nor is it a sign of a poorly functioning pen, it just means that the slit of your pen needs smoothing to prevent this. If you can’t be bothered sending your pen away to a repairman to do this, then I suggest trying a different brand of ink.

2. Fountain pens can’t be used on airplanes.

There is a “Yes” and “No” kind of answer. The concern here is that the pen will leak while you’re up in the air, due to pressure-differences (remember how I said air-pressure regulates inkflow?). So…Does a fountain pen leak in an airplane? Yes, if it’s not cared for properly. Can you safely use a fountain pen in an airplane? Yes, provided you take a couple of very simple precautions.

“What are they?” you ask.

The answer is suprisingly simple. To prevent the pen from leaking during ascent or descent of the aircraft, you must keep the pen in a nib-up position. This means capping the pen and keeping it point-facing-upwards during takeoff and landing. This is best-done by keeping the pen clipped to your shirt-pocket or keeping it vertically inside your coat-pocket during these times. Doing this keeps ink away from the nib and prevents leakage. It allows free-flow of AIR during the pressure-changes, without the chance of ink dribbling out of the nib.

Once airborne and safely at cruising altitude, it is perfectly safe to take out your fountain pen and fill in the crossword on that long, 18-hour flight from London to Singapore. Just remember to keep the pen capped, and nib-up when not in use. Also, ignore people who tell you that fountain pens DO NOT leak on planes. Believe me, they do. It’s happened to me, but only because I was stupid. The tip about keeping the pen nib-up when it is not in use is a failsafe technique for preventing this kind of catastrophe.

3. Gold nibs are better than steel nibs.

Yes and no. This myth surfaced back in the old days, probably during WWII. During the war, steel was an important metal in the American and British war-efforts, so fountain pen nibs were all made of gold. In Japan, gold was seen as an important war-material (why, I don’t know), but it caused Japanese pen-manufacturers to make their nibs out of steel. Unfortunately, stainless-steel had not been fully developed at that time, which caused the steel nibs on Japanese pens to rust. Gold, being a largely unresponsive metal, doesn’t rust in contact with the water-based ink of fountain pens, so it was naturally the better metal to make nibs from. In this respect, yes, gold is better than steel. Or at least, it was true back then. Now in the 21st century, there really is no difference, since stainless steel doesn’t rust like its WWII predecessor did.

“But is there any difference in writing feel or quality?” you might ask.

Some say ‘yes’, some say ‘no’. Certainly, gold looks a hell of a lot nicer, but does it really affect the writing-quality? No. In this respect, a gold nib is just as good as a steel nib. The ONLY place where this might make a difference, is when you have a fountain pen with a flexible nib. Gold, being a softer metal, flexes and bends more comfortably and smoothly than a steel nib, which is more rigid and firm.

4. You can use any kind of liquid ink in a fountain pen.

Absolutely not! ONLY…and…ONLY fountain pen ink should be put into a fountain pen. Do not try Indian ink, powdered ink, Chinese ink or iron-gall ink (especially not IGI, because it has shellac and other nasty things inside it, which will destroy your pen entirely) in your fountain pen. Fountain pen ink is about 99% water, with specially-developed pigments inside it, to give it whatever special and distinctive colour it has. This is the only thing you should put into your pen (that, or water). Ink from manufacturers such as Parker (Quink), Sheaffer (Skrip), Waterman, Montblanc, Lamy, Visconti, Private Reserve or Noodlers is generally safe to use (steer away from Montblanc blue/black, though; that has shellac in it and it may not be 100% advisable to use this ink).

5. Fountain pens can shoot ink incredible distances!

A staple of slapstick cartoon comedy since the 1930s, is the scene where a character grabs a fountain pen (usually a lever-filler), and opens the lever in the pen-barrel, to eject a stream of ink into his adversary’s face, drenching him in blue liquid. Or maybe you watched “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade” and saw Sean Connery squirt his enemy with a pen full of black ink. Can a fountain pen do this in real life?

Yes, and no. Can a fountain pen squirt ink? Yes, depending on the type of filling-system. Squeeze-fillers and some lever-fillers can actually do this rather effectively. Can fountain pens squirt ink considerable distances? No. The ‘range’ of ink-squirtage is actually rather pathetic if you care to try it in real life. You’d be lucky to get a couple of feet, or even twelve inches, if you were really lucky.

6. If someone else takes your fountain pen and writes with it, it’ll permanently damage it and you won’t be able to use it anymore.

You’d be surprised how many people still believe this. It is FALSE. The fear here, is that if you have a fountain pen, and a friend borrows it, even for two micro-seconds, to jot down a phone-number, the nib will be irrepairably shaped to his hand and that this’ll somehow damage the nib. Or alternatively, you can’t let someone use your fountain pen because the nib has grown ‘used to’ your hand and that anyone else using the pen will damage the nib.

100% bupkiss.

YES, a fountain pen’s nib WILL wear down as you write with it. YES, a fountain pen MIGHT ‘mould’ itself to your hand and your particular style of writing. But NO, this doesn’t mean you can’t let someone use your pen and fear that he’ll alter its writing characteristics. It takes DECADES of DAILY, INTENSE WRITING to wear down a fountain pen nib. A five-second jaunt in someone else’s hand is unlikely to damage it, unless they press the nib into the paper like a ballpoint pen (which will cause the nib to break!) or if they slam it into the paper, causing the tines to bow and break.

Feel free to post questions and pester me with other fountain pen myths or legends that you might be interested in, and I’ll try and answer them.

“Natural, Inky Goodness: The Joy of the Fountain Pen”


In this day of high-speed internet-access, ipods, iphones, PCs, laptops and blackberries, it may come as a shock to many, that there are still weirdos out there who write stuff by hand. You know, with a pen, on a piece of paper? What manner of people are these who would subject their delicate digits and palms to such torture and who *gasp!* even gain some sort of masochistic pleasure out of it?

Well, I happen to be one of them, so I’ll try and provide an answer.

As a writer (albeit an unpublished one), I do a great deal of pen-pushing every single day, and my choice as my instrument of torture is the subject of this article; the classic, gold-nibbed, ink-filled fountain pen. What? Yes they still exist! Yes, people still make them, and what’s more, there are still people who use them, such as myself. I love fountain pens!

My reasons for loving them are perhaps not always obvious or understandable to others, but here I will try and explain my affection for these archaic ink-splatterers and why I choose them over some sort of more modern writing apparatus.

The first reason is that fountain pens are functional history. They last for decades, centuries, even. Think for a moment, of all the great novels written with fountain pens, think of all the great and famous documents signed with them, drafted with them, written with them. The Instruments of Surrender for WWI and WWII were all signed with fountain pens from leading pen-manufacturers, such as Parker and Waterman, with designs just as famous as the companies themselves. The last ‘Sherlock Holmes’ stories written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, in the 1920s, during the last years of his life, were all written with a very famous fountain pen called the Parker Duofold. Fountain pens last for decades and, with proper maintenance, can last for decades more. As an avid collector of fountain pens, I can firmly and safely say that a fountain pen made 80 years ago writes just as well today as it did back in 1922.

My second reason for liking fountain pens is the sheer uniqueness of them. How many people out there still use fountain pens? Probably not many. Using a fountain pen sets you apart from the crowd. It makes you different, unique, special. Unfortunately in the modern world, using a fountain pen also means that you have to be a filthy-rich snob who happens to be a doctor, lawyer, judge or Donald Trump. So a fountain pen makes me look like a rich snob, does it? That’s just yet another reason to use one! They make you look good! And everyone wants to look good.

My third reason for using fountain pens also happens to be the chief reason why I don’t use ballpoint pens. Variety. Or, lack of variety, when it comes to ballpoints. A ballpoint pen is bland, boring, yawn-inducing and about as eye-catching as a plank of wood. It’s plain, utilitarian, boring and comes in only four ink-colours – Blue, red, black and green. A fountain pen, by comparison, comes in more varieties than Heinz, Skittles and Smarties combined. Countless shades of inks to write out an entire rainbow, a million different pen-designs, manufacturing materials and dozens of nib-styles to create almost any kind of script imaginable. The loopy, narrow-wide roundhand script of the American Declaration of Independence would be impossible to write with a ballpoint pen, but perfectly achievable with a fountain pen with a flexible nib.

On the surface, the fourth reason doesn’t seem to make much sense, but once I’m done, I think it should make about as much sense as to why you don’t make teapots out of chocolate.

Cost is the fourth reason why I use a fountain pen over another writing instrument. Yes, I know, fountain pens can be expensive. Them being expensive surely means that they can’t possibly be cost-effective, can they? Well, yes they can.

A ballpoint pen costs $1. For that one dollar, you get a pen that’s non-refillable, that’s ugly, that writes like a hammer and chisel, and which causes cramps and frustration and which you’ll never use until it’s out of ink, anyway. Most likely, you’ll chuck it out into the bin where it’ll eventually end up in landfill, its disgusting, pastey ink leeching into the groundwater. Yum!

A decent fountain pen can be got for around 20-40 dollars. For this money, you have something that will LITERALLY last your whole life. You have something that’s light, comfortable, easy to use, stylish, smooth, refillable and which you’ll be proud to pass onto your children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren (should you live that long!). A bottle of ink costs $20 and for twenty bucks, you have 50ml of ink in a glass bottle (that’s recyclable!), which will last for two, three, maybe even four years, before you need to buy another one (this is based on personal experience). You buy your first fountain pen say, at the age of 18 when you’ve just left school. 70 years later, you could use that pen to write out your will, with almost no environmental impact (this is for the greenies out there. Think about this, people!) and with major plusses in the pleasure-department. Fountain pens are looking significantly more appealing now, aren’t they?

The fifth and final reason for selecting a fountain pen over a ballpoint pen or indeed, even a rollerball pen, is the most practical reason of all. Sheer writing pleasure and comfort. I’ve heard several people describe writing with a fountain pen as being ‘unique’, ‘a joy’, ‘effortless’, ‘stress-reducing’, hell, even ‘erotic’. There HAS to be something there that’s good, for people to say such wonderful things, right?

Well of course there is. And here, in a nutshell, is that goodness. A fountain pen is just purely a better writing instrument. Both on a technical level, a comfort level and a medical level, and it all boils down to the fact that fountain pens were made to be comfortable writing instruments to begin with. It is built into their very design.

A ballpoint pen works by pressure, and pressure alone. You need to PRESS the pen-point into the paper to create the FRICTION to rotate the ball to pick up the ink to press it into the paper to create the lines. Without pressing, you don’t rotate the ball, you don’t get ink. How long could you write comfortably under these conditions? A few lines? A couple of paragraphs? More than a page? I doubt it.

A fountain pen, by comparison, works purely by the force of gravity and literally nothing else. No pressing, no forcing, no exertion at all, on your part, except mental exercise. Fountain pen ink is mostly water. Not paste. So, it flows, under gravity, under its own weight, through the pen. Simple air-pressure and capillary action is all that is needed to regulate the flow of ink. No pressing needed at all. The weight of the pen concentrating all that weight into the tip of the pen-nib means that you don’t have to add any additional pressure, which means all your efforts can be directed to WRITING instead of digging the Western Front into your notepad. Don’t believe me? Try this test. Get a ballpoint pen and rest the point on a sheet of paper and the barrel between your thumb and index-finger. Push it and pull it along the page. At best, you’ll get a broken line of faint ink. Try the same thing with a fountain pen and you’ll get a nice, strong, even line of ink which never skips or breaks. I’ve done this myself, and yes, it does work.

Given all these wonderful traits, it’s obvious that a fountain pen is a significantly better writing instrument. Do you do a lot of writing? Are you a student in highschool or university? Are you a working-man or woman who writes reports and fills out forms all day? Buy a fountain pen. They’re smoother, more comfortable, more stylish and more cost-effective in the long-run. As a testament to how comfortable these things are, I wrote the entire four-and-a-half page draft for this post with a fountain pen with hardly any wrist-cramps or strains at all. If you have those symptoms, chuck out the Bic Cristal and buy yourself a Waterman Harmonie.


Shahan Cheong