Jail break

An extract from a letter written from Wellington, New Zealand, 24 April 1843, when the settlement was just three years old.

Wellington has been in a state of great excitement for the last few days.
On Wednesday last six convicts who had been sentenced the previous day to ten years’ transportation, broke out of gaol and took possession of a boat lying on the beach.

Wellington Courthouse_Brees

Wellington courthouse on the right c. 1843.

They were half-way across the harbour before anybody went after them. It was blowing a tremendous gale from the N.W., and it soon became dark ; many of the boats returned the same night, but the sheriff [police magistrate] meeting with a small schooner entering the harbour, pressed her in the Queen’s name, and went in pursuit of the prisoners. He returned unsuccessful on Friday morning ; but in the evening everybody was agreeably surprised by the arrival of some Mauris [Maori] in a canoe with the six prisoners.

It appears that the prisoners were wrecked on a reef near Palliser Bay, and got ashore in a most extraordinary manner, each man having from twenty to thirty pounds of irons about his legs. They wandered about the beach in quest of another boat, but they soon fell in with the Mauris, by whom they were captured, and who had been informed of the escape of the convicts by some of the constables. The Mauris behaved well, and will receive £5 for each of the prisoners. It was a daring thing to break out of the gaol in a town where there are 5,000 inhabitants in broad daylight.
‘The New Zealand Journal’, London, 30th September 1843.

Image details – [Brees, Samuel Charles] 1810-1865 :Courts of Justice, Wellington [ca 1843]
Reference Number: B-031-009 http://mp.natlib.govt.nz/detail/?id=4577

The Novelty of Naples

In the summer of 1844, Charles Dickens moved with his family to Italy where he used Genoa as a base while he explored the country. A book about his experiences, Pictures From Italy, was published in 1846. He explained in his introduction that….

The greater part of the descriptions were written on the spot, and sent home, from time to time, in private letters …… a guarantee to the Reader that they were at least penned in the fulness of the subject, and with the liveliest impressions of novelty and freshness.

One of his excursions took him south to Rome and from there down the Via Appia through Fondi (which did not impress him), Itri, Capua, and finally, travelling along….

….. a flat road among vines festooned and looped from tree to tree; and Mount Vesuvius close at hand at last! – its cone and summit whitened with snow; and its smoke hanging over it, in the heavy atmosphere of the day, like a dense cloud. So we go, rattling down hill, into Naples.

Vintage postcard of the Bay of Naples.

A funeral is coming up the street, towards us. The body, on an open bier, borne on a kind of palanquin, covered with a gay cloth of crimson and gold. The mourners, in white gowns and masks. If there be death abroad, life is well represented too, for all Naples would seem to be out of doors, and tearing to and fro in carriages. Some of these, the common Vetturino vehicles, are drawn by three horses abreast, decked with smart trappings and great abundance of brazen ornament, and always going very fast. Not that their loads are light; for the smallest of them has at least six people inside, four in front, four or five more hanging on behind, and two or three more, in a net or bag below the axle-tree, where they lie half-suffocated with mud and dust. …..

Why do the beggars rap their chins constantly, with their right hands, when you look at them? Everything is done in pantomime in Naples, and that is the conventional sign for hunger. A man who is quarreling with another, yonder, lays the palm of his right hand on the back of his left, and shakes the two thumbs – expressive of a donkey’s ears – whereat his adversary is goaded to desperation. Two people bargaining for fish, the buyer empties an imaginary waistcoat pocket when he is told the price, and walks away without a word: having thoroughly conveyed to the seller that he considers it too dear. Two people in carriages, meeting, one touches his lips, twice or thrice, holding up the five fingers of his right hand, and gives a horizontal cut in the air with the palm. The other nods briskly, and goes his way. He has been invited to a friendly dinner at half-past five o’clock, and will certainly come.

All over Italy, a peculiar shake of the right hand from the wrist, with the forefinger stretched out, expresses a negative – the only negative beggars will ever understand. But, in Naples, those five fingers are a copious language.

All this, and every other kind of out-door life and stir, and macaroni-eating at sunset, and flower-selling all day long, and begging and stealing everywhere and at all hours, you see upon the bright seashore, where the waves of the bay sparkle merrily. But, lovers and hunters of the picturesque, let us not keep too studiously out of view the miserable depravity, degradation, and wretchedness, with which this gay Neopolitan life is inseparably associated!

Vintage monochrome RP postcard of Vesuvius and the Bay of Naples, Italy.

Travelling by stagecoach

In the late sixties of last century [19th], when the “Diggings” were in full swing, there was an excellent service of coaches owned by Cobb & Co. Coaches left Dunedin daily by the main north and south roads; the distance covered each day was well over seventy miles, so that an early start was the rule.

stage west coast

Breakfast at 5 a.m. “with our hats on” was the beginning of the first journey alone for three little sisters who set off to spend a happy summer holiday with an elder sister in her home on the banks of the Molyneux River [Clutha].

Our own road down the Glen joined the South Road a mile or so out of Dunedin, and we had, therefore, no share in the bustle and importance of the daily start from the office in town. We had not long to wait before the coach appeared on the crest of the hill and rattled down towards us. Good-byes were said and last instructions given as the big coach pulled up with a swing and stood heaving and swaying on its great leather springs, while the harness creaked and clattered as the six big greys shook it, stamping with impatience at the delay.

We were soon in the places reserved for us at the back of the coach, where we would be well protected from the weather by big leather curtains – on this fine morning rolled up so that we might enjoy the pleasant country through which we drove.

Besides the seats of honour on the box and above it, there were four (or more) seats set across the interior – just hard wooden seats with very little padding and a wide leather strap for a back. The coaches were generally overflowing with diggers, usually very cheerful, confident that they were on their way to make their fortunes, or, still more cheerful, with fortunes in their pockets, on their way to town to spend them……

The number of horses in use by Cobb & Co. must have been enormous, and the quality was outstanding. Beautiful greys were always reserved for the entrance into town, and the procession of the Gold Escort was indeed a sight never to be forgotten. Armed out-riders led and followed the special coach bringing in the gold; and there was frequently a prisoner or two, in which case the armed guard on the box, and riding alongside, would be considerably increased.

Vintage postcard of two stagecoaches on the Christchurch to Greymouth road.

All that, however, was a thing of long past when, after my marriage, I travelled by coach, this time to my new home on the Maniototo Plain. The railway that was eventually to stretch from one end of the [South] Island to the other could now be used to shorten distances, and our coach journey began at Palmerston, following up the Shag river, to Naseby – one day’s journey. In the earlier days the coach had to break the journey for the night at a so-called accommodation house that bore the very descriptive name of Pig-root.

Some of my happiest recollections are of these old coach journeys to our up-country home, my children enjoying the adventure, tucked away inside the coach with their nurse. Of course, there were inevitable discomforts, but one could forget the bumping into and over frozen ruts on a winter’s morning when looking out on the frost-laden snowgrass, the sun covering the great white domes with jewels, and icicles veiling the blue depths of fairy halls below them.

The driver, appreciating my husband’s eye for a horse, always kept the box-seat for us, and his fund of yarns was inexhaustible, so that on many a drowsy summer afternoon their voices seemed to me to grow fainter and fainter as the coach wound up the sunny side of the Range. But, at the top, the fresh breeze in one’s face was like the meeting with an old friend, and, with a crack of the long whip and the rattle of loose swingle-trees, away we would go, down the long cutting and across the river-bed, till, in the cool dusk, sweet with the scent of the flax blossom and dewy tussock, we pulled up at the wayside hotel where we changed horses for the last stage that day.
J. M. Buchanan, a contributor to ‘Tales of Pioneer Women’, Whitcombe & Tombs Limited, 1940.

The stagecoaches illustrated here, with the popular five horse configuration, are similar to the one Mrs. Buchanan would have taken on her trip to Naseby. These coaches travelled some New Zealand “roads” until the early 1920s.

The terrors of the nursery

From ‘The Days before Yesterday’ by Lord Frederic Hamilton (1856 – 1928).

In the early “sixties” [1860s] the barbarous practice of sending wretched little “climbinglord-frederic-hamilton boys” up chimneys to sweep them still prevailed. In common with most other children of that day, I was perfectly terrified when the chimney-sweep arrived with his attendant coal-black imps, for the usual threat of foolish nurses to their charges when they proved refractory was, “If you are not good I shall give you to the sweep, and then you will have to climb up the chimney.” When the dust-sheets laid on the floors announced the advent of the sweeps, I used, if possible, to hide until they had left the house.

I cannot understand how public opinion tolerated for so long the abominable cruelty of forcing little boys to clamber up flues. These unhappy brats were made to creep into the chimneys from the grates, and then to wriggle their way up by digging their bare toes into the interstices of the bricks, and by working their elbows and knees alternately; stifled in the pitch-darkness of the narrow flue by foul air, suffocated by the showers of soot that fell on them, perhaps losing their way in the black maze of chimneys, and liable at any moment, should they lose their footing, to come crashing down twenty feet, either to be killed outright in the dark or to lie with a broken limb until they were extricated – should, indeed, it be possible to rescue them at all.

These unfortunate children, too, were certain to get abrasions on their bare feet and on their elbows and knees from the rough edges of the bricks. The soot working into these abrasions gave them a peculiar form of sore. Think of the terrible brutality to which a nervous child must have been subjected before he could be induced to undertake so hateful a journey for the first time. Should the boy hesitate to ascend, many of the master-sweeps had no compunction in giving him what was termed a “tickler” – that is, in lighting some straw in the grate below him. The poor little urchin had perforce to scramble up his chimney then, to avoid being roasted alive.

All honour to the seventh Earl of Shaftesbury, the philanthropist, who as Lord Ashley neveranthony_ashley_cooper_7th_earl_of_shaftesbury rested in the House of Commons until he got a measure placed on the Statute Book making the employment of climbing-boys illegal.

s.s. Great Britain

The historic s.s. Great Britain in dry dock at Bristol, England.

There are two main reasons why so much effort has been put into the salvage and restoration of the SS Great Britain. One is that she was the very first propeller-driven ocean-going vessel ever built. The other is that her salvage in 1970 when she was 127 years old became an epic of the sea. That she should have survived for so long in the circumstances that she did was very remarkable. But what added a whole new dimension was the timing and method of the operation itself. To be brought home on a huge pontoon, she was raised from her lonely beach in the Falkland Islands at very nearly the last possible moment, in view of her accelerating rate of disintegration. Thus, the fact that we have the Great Britain in Bristol today is something of a miracle.

The Great Britain was designed by the great Victorian engineer, Isambard Kingdom Brunel, and built in Bristol between 1839 and 1843 in the very same dock in which she now lies. She was launched by the Prince Consort on 19 July 1843, and she completed her fitting out late in 1844. ………

The 'tween decks promenade on the s.s. Great Britain, Bristol, England.

‘tween decks promenade

When Brunel had turned from his railways and bridges to ships, trade on the Atlantic was dominated by the Americans with faster and better sailing ships than the world had ever seen before. So the second ship to be built by him* and his associates in the Great Western Steamship Company, the future Great Britain, was intended to be a big leap forward which would set a new standard for Atlantic travel. And it was conceived metaphorically as another extension from Bristol of the new Great Western Railway line from London. …….

As first planned, when her keel plates were laid down in her present dry dock on 19th July 1839, the big new ship was to be of 2936 gross registered tons, and a paddle steamer. She was expected to be called the City of New York. And it was only during her actual building that Brunel gained enough knowledge about the revolutionary new technique of screw propulsion to make the tremendous decision to adopt it for his great ship. Plans were switched, the existing engines were to be swung round at right angles to drive a propeller shaft – another piece of pioneering machinery – and the name was changed to that of the country itself: Great Britain.


Other features to make history included the first watertight bulkheads, first virtual double bottom, and first balanced rudder. This was in fact to be among the dozen most significant ships ever built by man, even to this day.

The Return of the Great Britain. Richard Goold-Adams** (1916-1995). Weidenfeld and Nicolson. 1976.

The dining room on the s.s. Great Britain, Bristol, England.

The dining saloon

*Brunel’s first ship was the wooden paddle steamer Great Western.

** Goold-Adams was the founder chairman of the s.s. Great Britain recovery project.

If your travels take you within 100 miles of Bristol, this is an attraction that should not be missed. Find a used copy of Goold-Adams’ book before you go and you’ll appreciate it that much more. It’s an incredible story of salvage and restoration.

A Tale of a Tail

Every “serious” equipment-laden photographer can tell you how he or she started out with the most basic of cameras. It seems even the pioneers had their own version of the box Brownie story.

This [adventure in photography] began on my eighth birthday [1890] when two of my Californian uncles gave me a 4×5 Kodak, which had to be loaded in a darkroom with a roll of film for forty-eight exposures. The shutter was set by pulling out a piece of cat-gut with a round button on the end of it, the release of which produced the exposure. It had only one speed, and that was not very fast. My first picture was of the neighbour’s dog, a friendly little animal who wagged his tail at the moment of exposure so that the result resembled a fan where there should have been a tail, which pleased me greatly.

Alvin Langdon Coburn (1882 – 1966) Photographer. An Autobiography. Ed. Helmut and Alison Gernsheim. Dover Publications Inc., 1978.

Did all of you DSLR owners get that? One shutter speed – and cat-gut!

Victorian India

Walter Roper Lawrence “went out to India” at the age of twenty-two to be a civil-servant in the British administration. Contrary to the modern impression of the English in India, he grew to respect the country and its people, and learned from both. In these excerpts from an essay originally published in the Times, he remembers his time there, comments on changing bureaucratic attitudes in the early 20th century and considers their consequences.


Slow! It was slow in the Victorian time, for three to four months riding through the villages; and as we rode, others would join our cavalcade, yeomen of the country, and never an official save Shahji, a genial, burly Mughal, mounted on a horse befitting his stature. He taught me my work, covering my blunders with blunt courtesy. He capped every anecdote, and, free spender as he was, gave many a feast of a sheep, with ample rice and sugar. The cavalcade grew in size – we were the best of district committees. For these men knew the country and knew what the people wanted – just to be left alone. They would tell me of some local bandit, usually a Robin Hood, out for a better disposition of other people’s wealth. But they always disapproved and said he was dangerous and had become be-khauf (without fear), an evil portent in India. These men riding with me, whose families stock the regiments of the Indian Army, knew the danger to their homes when a young man became be-khauf.

So we rode on, in single file when the crops were tumbling over the track, or in open line when the country was waste; and one day as we rode, happily talking, suddenly we came on the railway and reined up as the train rattled by. The English passengers waved their hands, and I raised my battered sun hemet; the train passed, and we crossed the line. But the talk ceased, the charm was snapped, and old Shahji edged up on his horse, pointed to the dust of the train and said, “There goes your caste.” For we were a caste. We married and we ate in our own caste. What else? The other 60,000,000 untouchables live on the skirt of the towns, or the fringe of the villages, but we lived farther away in the Dudder Station, or in the Cantonment, if we were of the Army. It was inevitable that we, a few thousands, should come under the compelling influence, the mass osmosis of the many millions always within our sight and hearing. It was natural that we should absorb something of the spirit of the East…….

I used to hear of India being “Anglicized”; but in my experience it was rather the other way. It was we who were being Indianized. I never met an Anglicized Indian. I saw and knew many who spoke and dressed like Englishmen; but they will never be English. They have too much to lose and to leave, and the ancestral mortmain grips them. It would be far easier for the detached Englishman to become Indian. For we went to India at a most plastic and impressionable age, and for our first years we were in the hands of the most charming and courteous of teachers. I went through the hands of more than one Shahji. I am certain that, while I did nothing to Anglicize them, they did much to Indianize me. And it was caste, that great conserving force of India, the caste that went by in that train, that kept me English. The rules of our caste were three – and I had them burnt into my young mind in 1879 – Work hard, Keep English, Keep faith with the Indians…..

And above us was the Barra Sahib, the Head of the District, omniscient, untiring, and self-sacrificing. He knew that the whole machine would crash if weaklings touched it. So we had to work and fit ourselves for the great endeavour. If he ever had time to think, he must have known that his task was becoming too heavy. But in those days he had the Government behind him. I have been a small cog in the machine; have stood in the engine room; and in the last days of Queen Victoria I was a fly on the driving-wheel when it drove its fastest. But even I could see that the business was becoming too complex and too exacting for the District Officer, and that the craze of the Government for centralization, uniformity, and statistics would shackle the man on whom all depends. If he lost personal touch with the people of the district, then all was lost…….

In India it is all a question of pace. The pace of the villagers was the pace of the plough oxen, and in the Victorian days we kept in step with them. Is the day coming when we shall speed along the alien highroad in a cloud of dust, while our old friends and their buffaloes ruminate from afar, and the delegate from the city mutters, “There goes your gram-fed sahib, what does he care for you?” The pace was slow but sure. The pace has quickened now. Are we sure and are the villagers sure? For they are the deep, true sea of India, the cities the foam on its shores.

The Indian Civil Service. Sir Walter R. Lawrence. Fifty Years, Memories and Contrasts. Thornton Butterworth Ltd. 1932.