The Gift of Prophesy

This editorial in the Otago Daily Times looked ahead 110 years and put faith in human ingenuity to solve predicted problems, with surprisingly accurate results.

THE Otago Daily Times. FRIDAY, NOVEMBER 8, 1872. (abridged)
Our weekly contemporary in Melbourne has lately been enacting the part of alarmist upon the subject of the exhaustion of the coal fields of England, and the consequent decay of the British Empire. Following in the steps of an able writer in the Quarterly Review, the Australasian draws a dismal picture of the effect which the loss of her coal supplies must inevitably have upon the leading industries of the mother country, and sees in prophetic vision her workshops and manufactories, with the helots that inhabit them, flying to those lands blessed with larger stores of the necessary article.

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Professor W. Stanley Jevons. 1835-1882

It will be remembered that some seven years ago Professor Jevons alarmed the world a good deal by sounding the first note of alarm concerning England’s coal mines becoming exhausted, and a Royal Commission was appointed to take stock of the resources. Its report concluded that by 1982 England’s mines would be exhausted; but the writer in the Quarterly is by no means satisfied with so lengthy a tether, and proves incontestably that 1945 will see an end of England’s greatness. The difference, indeed, will seem to most of us something like that once discovered to exist betwixt tweedledum and twedledee. By the time that the 39,000,000,000 tons of coal which all think are still to be found in England are exhausted, the want of fuel will make but little difference to those who are now eagerly debating the subject. We can indeed imagine some selfishly-minded matron piling on the lumps all the more profusely on the drawing-room fire, in the fear of not getting her full share of what is left. Beyond the increase in coal bills due to this cause, we do not see any great reason for alarm in this generation.

In all seriousness, it does seem as if this sort of dismal prophesying of England’s decadence towards the end of the next century, owing to the consumption of all her coal, was rapidly reaching the ridiculous. No doubt, not many among us will remember when something of a panic was created by the discovery that the supply of timber by means of which the wooden walls of Old England [navy ships] could be constructed was running short, not only in England, but in Europe. We were then familiar with the gloomy phrases that warned us of a time when we should no longer be able to bid defiance to the world upon the sea. England, however, manages still to get along without exhausting the last oaken plank or bulwark.

Can any one doubt that long before the last ton of coal sends its smoke to heaven, science will have discovered some method of storing and applying heat without the use of so costly and cumbersome a material as coal? It certainly requires less faith in the future, and demands a far less implicit confidence in the resources of genius, to suppose that this will be done, than it did some fifty years since to conceive of iron ships floating upon the water.

If we consider how largely even the discovery of a partial substitute for coal — a discovery, for instance, which would place at our disposal some means of moving ocean steamers without its aid — would alter the whole condition of things upon which these dismal calculations are based, we shall realize more profoundly the absurdity of predicating the decline of England from such a cause. It is indeed only by trading upon the historical fact that each nation in turn has risen to its zenith and then declined, that such ill-omened prophets of evil obtain a hearing at all.

That England must one day yield her supremacy among the nations is probably as certain as anything in the world; but if history repeats itself, and if the lessons of experience have any value, we may safely declare that she will not do so from any such cause as the loss of her coal. ….

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Coalmines and iron works in Victorian England. Source: historywebsite.co.uk

We should suppose that the enormous increase in the price of coal at home, which, by the last accounts, had reached as high as 40 per cent advance on last year, was the moving cause for stirring up the outcry again. There is about it something of the judicious puff with which Weston and Holloway have made us familiar. Gather your rosebuds, or rather fill up your coal cellars, while ye may. Professor Jevons and his congeners have warned us that the supply of coal will soon be exhausted and it is the duty of every prurient householder to procure an immediate supply of this indispensable article.

We will not follow the writer into his particularly unreal description of the coalheavers of the Black Country, whom he describes as helots, and then as Israelites, doomed to make bricks without straw. Of all the labouring classes at home, we should have thought them the last to whom such terms might be applied. A certain sturdy independence of character, a habitual indulgence in luxuries of the table, a mild partiality for bull-dogs, &c., &c., were the peculiarities which we thought used to mark them more especially. But it is plain that the writer in question is earnestly desirous of having a fling at the ‘Philistines of the London press, who, it seems, are accustomed to ask, concerning these helots—Am I my brother’s keeper?’

Let us hope that ere this he has succeeded in making an amicable arrangement with his coal merchant, and that notwithstanding the melancholy predictions of which he is so full, some twentieth century Micawber will find it possible to earn a precarious livelihood as a coal merchant until something better turns up, even though he should not begin until 1945.

1945 did see “an end to England’s greatness” but not because of a lack of coal. The “mother country” was almost bankrupt after two world wars, a situation that none of these writers could have foreseen. India gained independence in 1947 and the rest of the Empire followed over the next 20 years.

Coal mines began to close in the ’70s and, by 1982, slag heaps on what had been some of the most productive coal fields were being landscaped and planted with trees.

The way of the Dodo

While the first New Zealand Company settlers were trying to establish a foothold at Port Nicholson (later Wellington), 20-year-old Jerningham Wakefield set off to explore the coastline to the north.

March 14, 1840. — Having engaged eight natives, slaves of a chief of Wanganui, to carry my baggage, and accompanied by another, an inhabitant of Pari Pari [Paraparaumu], a settlement on the main land near Entry Island, I started over the hills immediately beyond the Koro Koro stream. Our way lay over hilly forest land and the path was much obstructed by the karewau or suple-jack. On the way I shot a young huia.

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A male Huia.
Huia, Heteralocha acutirostris, collected no data, New Zealand. Acquisition history unknown. CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. Te Papa (OR.000064)

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A pair of Huia in Canterbury Museum. Male, at left, and female.

This bird is about the size of a small fowl, its plumage is black, with the exception of the tail feathers, which are tipped with white, and are much esteemed by the natives as ornaments for the head. The beak is long, and curved, and a yellow wattle grows from each side of its insertion. The natives imitate the bird’s note, from which it takes its name, and thus attract it until almost within their grasp. These birds are peculiar to this part of the country, and their skins are frequently sent as presents to the natives of the northern parts.

It should come as no surprise that the Huia is now considered extinct, although exactly when the last example flew into the great beyond is a matter of debate.

Dickens in Washington (continued)

Charles Dickens visited both houses of Congress nearly every day, during his stay in Washington, and left his impressions in ‘American Notes’, published in 1842.

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John Tyler, U.S. President in 1842.

The House of Representatives is a beautiful and spacious hall, of semicircular shape, supported by handsome pillars. One part of the gallery is appropriated to the ladies, and there they sit in front rows, and come in, and go out, as at a play or concert.

The chair is canopied, and raised considerably above the floor of the House; and every member has an easy chair and a writing desk to himself: which is denounced by some people out of doors as a most unfortunate and injudicious arrangement, tending to long sittings and prosaic speeches. It is an elegant chamber to look at, but a singularly bad one for all purposes of hearing. The Senate, which is smaller, is free from this objection, and is exceedingly well adapted to the uses for which it is designed. …..

Did I see among them the intelligence and refinement: the true, honest, patriotic heart of America? Here and there were drops of its blood and life, but they scarcely coloured the stream of desperate adventurers which sets that way for profit and for pay. It is the game of these men, and of their profligate organs, to make the strife of politics so fierce and brutal, and so destructive of all self-respect in worthy men, that sensitive and delicate-minded persons shall be kept aloof, and they, and such as they, be left to battle out their selfish views unchecked. And thus this lowest of all scrambling fights goes on, and they who in other countries would, from their intelligence and station, most aspire to make the laws, do here recoil the farthest from that degradation.

That there are, among the representatives of the people in both Houses, and among all parties, some men of high character and great abilities, I need not say. ….
It will be sufficient to add that to the most favourable accounts that have been written of them, I more than fully and most heartily subscribe; and that personal intercourse and free communication have bred within me …. increased admiration and respect.

There are more quarrels than with us, and more threatenings than gentlemen are accustomed to exchange in any civilised society of which we have record: but farm-yard imitations have not as yet been imported from the Parliament of the United Kingdom. The feature in oratory which appears to be the most practised, and most relished, is the constant repetition of the same idea or shadow of an idea in fresh words; and the inquiry out of doors is not, “What did he say?” but, “How long did he speak?”

Dickens went on to describe, at length, the universal habit of chewing tobacco in both houses and spitting – with “disregard of the spittoon” – but I’ll spare you that to avoid causing nausea and putting you right off your food!

Mr. Dickens goes to Washington

Charles Dickens visited Washington D.C. in 1842 and found it still under construction.

800px-Charles_Dickens_sketch_1842-2It is sometimes called the City of Magnificent Distances, but it might with greater propriety be termed the City of Magnificent Intentions; for it is only on taking a bird’s-eye view of it from the top of the Capitol that one can at all comprehend the vast designs of its projector, an aspiring Frenchman.

Spacious avenues, that begin in nothing, and lead nowhere; streets, mile-long, that only want houses, roads and inhabitants; public buildings that need but a public to be complete; and ornaments of great thoroughfares which only lack great thoroughfares to ornament – are its leading features.

One might fancy the season over, and most of the houses gone out of town forever with their masters. To the admirers of cities it is a …. pleasant field for the imagination to rove in; a monument raised to a deceased project, with not even a legible inscription to record its departed greatness.

Such as it is, it is likely to remain. It was originally chosen for the seat of Government, as a means of averting the conflicting jealousies and interests of the different States; and very probably, too, as being remote from mobs: a consideration not to be slighted, even in America. It has no trade or commerce of its own; having little or no population beyond the President and his establishment; the members of the legislature who reside there during the session; the Government clerks and officers employed in the various departments; the keepers of the hotels and boarding-houses; and the tradesmen who supply their tables.

It is very unhealthy. Few people would live in Washington, I take it, who were not obliged to reside there; and the tides of emigration and speculation, those rapid and regardless currents, are little likely to flow at any time towards such dull and sluggish water.

The principal features of the Capitol, are, of course, the two houses of Assembly ……
(more on those in the next post).

The Mystery of the Three Chimneys

From ‘Otago Daily Times’, 7 October 1869.

The special correspondent of the [London] Times who accompanied the Great Eastern during the laying of the French Atlantic Cable, after describing the course which it was intended the cable should take, says :— “This course would have brought the Great Eastern close to the northward of the supposed gaunt spires of rocks called the ‘Three Chimneys,’ and which, as laid down in the Admiralty chart, were confidently believed to exist. When this was mentioned some months ago in the Times, a controversy at once arose in these columns, some naval men utterly denying the existence of these extraordinary rocks; while the other side tendered the evidence of eye-witnesses, who averred that they had actually seen them.

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 I.K. Brunel’s Great Eastern laid the French Atlantic telegraph cable in 1869.

The matter is now set at rest, and if ever the ‘Three Chimneys’ had an existence they have none now. The Atlantic cannot afford to lose the small amount of interest which attached to the supposed presence of those solitary peaks, but facts are stubborn things, and it has now been placed beyond a doubt, that they are not to be found, at least in the latitude and longitude in which they appear on the charts. Lieut. Johnstone in the course of his soundings went over the exact spot where they are indicated in the chart, and found more than 2000 fathoms water [12,000 feet], with deep water all around, and not the slightest trace of rock or shoal in any direction. The sooner, therefore, they come out of the Admiralty Map the better, and it would be curious to know how they ever got there at all.”


This mysterious rock formation was first reported by a Captain de Clas Fernel who claimed to have “approached within two leagues of it” on 10th July 1729 and “remained two hours in sight of it.” The position varied on charts and its existence was considered “very doubtful” by the turn of the century.

Then, in 1824, a Mr Heron of Greenock, Scotland, chipped in with – “I am informed by the master of a merchant-vessel that the Chimneys actually exist, for a whole watch as well as himself saw them. They were seen about twilight, and three heads were distinguished. From an observation taken at the preceding noon, it was inferred that their latitude, as laid down on the chart, is very near the truth.”

Captain Roallens of the brig Eagle was quoted in the ‘Nautical Magazine’ for 1843, claiming he saw it in July 1842 from a distance of four miles. “It formed in three distinct points, the highest 80 feet.”

The following year, Captain William Skiddy, in command of the Packet Ship Garrick, “determined, first opportunity, to run for and, if possible, see this danger.” The opportunity came twice, running 10 miles north and 10 south of the supposed position, “having on both occasions clear, beautiful weather” but “nothing could be seen from the royal yard*.”

So the question remains – assuming Fernel, Roallens and the other witnesses hadn’t been raiding the rum locker – what did they see, and where did they see it?

Background information from ‘Memoir of the Dangers and Ice of the North Atlantic Ocean’, George William Blunt, Third Edition, 1848.

*royal yard – the highest yardarm on the main mast.