Family Heirlooms: Grandmother’s Antique Silver Peranakan Nyonya Belts

I’m writing this post as a tribute to my grandmother. I did write another post about this, but it was too waffly and boring, and the photographs looked like crap. So I decided to rewrite it and use better pictures. Anyway, without further ado, this is the story of my grandmother’s silver Peranakan belts.

Grandma and the Peranakan

My grandmother grew up in Singapore in the 1910s and 1920s, during the heyday of the British Empire. Grandma was descendant from, and was part of, the vibrant Peranakan culture that existed in what was then called the Straits Settlements. It was for this reason that the Peranakan were also called the Straits Chinese.

My paternal grandmother. Bertha Fu Kui Yok. The original owner of these belts. 7th May, 1914 — 28th November, 2011. Aged: 97. This photograph was taken about six months before she died.

The Straits Chinese or the Peranakan were the descendants of trading Chinese, who migrated from China to Southeast Asia during the 1500s-1800s. They were traders and merchants, sailing back and forth between the Chinese mainland, and countries in the South Pacific, like Indonesia, Singapore, Malaya and Bali. Over time, Chinese traders colonised these parts of the South Pacific, intermarrying with the local indigenous peoples. The descendants from these unions were called “Peranakan” (which literally means: “Descendant of Intermarriage Between a Foreigner and a Local”)

The Peranakan were famous for intricately decorated works of art. Everything from their dresses, skirts, robes, slippers and shoes, furniture, floor-tiles, window-shutters, porcelain, tiffin-carriers, even their dessert-cakes and snacks, their dinner-meals, luncheons and houses, and especially their jewelry were all very intricately decorated.

Grandma’s Peranakan Belts

Although not wealthy, my grandmother was fortunate enough to grow up with a small selection of jewelry to her name. Sadly, most of this has now been lost. But the two items which have survived are probably the two most important, and therefore, most valuable and significant of them all.

Her silver Peranakan belts.

The gold and silver belts owned by Peranakan women (“Nyonyas”) were specially crafted to be worn with traditional nyonya dress – Sarong Kebaya – A light, form-fitting two-piece outfit consisting of the Sarong (wraparound tubular skirt), and the Kebaya, the short, close-fitting jacket or blouse. The belts were worn with Sarong-Kebaya combinations to hold up the Sarong and prevent it from unwrapping or falling down. Such belts were usually reserved for special events. Family events and such. Weddings, dinners, anniversaries and so-forth. Made by hand by Peranakan jewelers, these belts were works of art to be treasured and used only on rare occasions.

Here are some examples of Sarong Kebaya, which I photographed during a trip to the Penang Peranakan Museum:

The silver dress-belts would wrap around the top of the Sarong to hold it up and stop it from unwrapping accidentally.

Traditional Sarong-Kebaya. Photograph taken at the Penang Peranakan Museum.

This is probably why grandma’s two belts have survived for so long, despite the family fortunes and the trials and tribulations that attended them, because they were stored away and only brought out on extremely significant occasions.

And here they are: First up is the older belt. This one is of a more traditional, segmented design, with dozens of little silver pieces linked together by dozens of tiny silver rings. Each link has a small flower stamped into the silver. The whole thing is 35 inches long. The oval-shaped buckle is removable. If you were a rich Peranakan nyonya, then you would probably have multiple belts like this. Then you could chop and change and swap belts and buckles around, contrasing silver with gold, and favourite belts with favourite buckles and so-forth.

Solid silver Peranakan nyonya belt. Probably from my great-grandmother’s (ca. 1875-1970) time. This belt is the older one, and probably dates to the late Victorian era or early 1900s, ca. 1890-1920. I’ve seen Peranakan belts of similar style dated between the 1880s-1920s.

The (removable) buckle or clasp depicts a tiger and a monkey either side of a lotus bud. Above them is a butterfly, and surrounding them on all sides are lotus flowers, water and leaves.

Closeup of the links and details, showing the rings and panels, and the little silver flowers

The second belt dates to the 1930s. It’s comprised of silver chain, and a 1 Guilder coin (that’s Dutch, in case anyone’s wondering), from 1929. The coin itself is 75% silver, so the chain would also be silver. There are examples of Peranakan belts which are made entirely out of silver coins, taken from British or Dutch currency. As money the coins were then obviously useless, but the Peranakan wanted the silver value of the coins, not the face-value stamped upon them or what they could potentially buy with the coins themselves.

Silver guilder coin with a rod of silver (coiled into a setting) soldered onto the face of the coin. Silver chain is then run through the coin to make up the rest of the belt.

This belt is of course, adjustable, just like the other one, but it works in a different way…

The whole length of the belt

This belt has segments of chain connected with rings and the end of the belt has an S-hook on it. Adjusting the belt’s length is a matter of hooking the S-clasp onto one of the three belt-rings, to get the closest possible length to what is ideal. The belt is then wrapped around, and the coin clasp or ‘weight’ is slipped through the chain, looping around and holding everything together purely by gravity.

How They Survived?

Your guess is as good as mine!

These belts, at least 80 or 90 years old, lived through the Great Depression, the Second World War, the Japanese Invasion in 1942 and all kinds of other family hardships.

They were originally my great-grandmother’s. Then my grandmother’s. Then they passed down to my aunt. She had no interest in them at all, so when my father asked for them, she handed them over. That was a few years ago. But how did I come to own them? Read on…

The Finding of the Belts of Power…

A few years ago, I went back to Malaya for a family wedding. While I was there, we visited the Peranakan Museum in Singapore, where I saw this belt on display:

Solid gold antique Peranakan nyonya belt. Singapore Peranakan Museum

Walking a little further on, I came across this:

Solid silver antique Peranakan nyonya belt. Singapore Peranakan Museum

My father grabbed me by the arm and pointed at it, and said:

“Did you know that grandma has a belt like that?”

I was dumbstruck.


You have to understand that in our family, almost nothing of intrinsic value has survived. All our heirlooms have been lost. Grandpa’s steamer-trunk, grandpa’s pocket-knife, grandpa’s hand-engraved ivory chopsticks, grandpa’s Chinese encyclopedia from the 1920s. And almost all of grandma’s jewelry. All gone! The very notion that there was something THIS significant, THIS rare and THIS valuable still in family hands shocked me!

Then my father told me how he had retrieved the belts from his sister during a previous trip and that he’d taken them home! He knew she wouldn’t value them or look after them, and so had rescued them from her and brought them back with him. It took a lot of pleading, but I finally managed to get it out of his hands so that the belts could finally rest with a person who would take proper care of them, and cherish them, love them, and realise their rarity, and historical, cultural and familial significance.

Grandma’s belts, along with other documents detailing her life.


Posted by on December 5, 2014 in Antiques


“High Class Hand Safe” – Vintage steel-construction strongbox (Ca. 1930)

Here’s something you don’t see every day.

“High Class Hand Safe”

This beast is the “High Class Hand Safe”, although it don’t look that high class, and it sure as hell ain’t a safe!

I bought this at the local flea-market after managing to knock down the price from the seller who didn’t want to have to lug it all the way home again. This charming object is a solid steel, Japanese-made cashbox. Prewar, ca 1920-1930. It’s extremely solid and very strong. To unlock it, you need the key and the combination. It comes with space for banknotes, cheques, papers and cash. And two keys. One to unlock the box, and one to wind up the alarm-bells inside!

The box is extremely rugged and dare I say it, bomb-proof. The clockwork bell-alarm inside the box comes with two settings:

Setting #1: The bell rings whenever the box is unlocked. And that’s all it does.
Setting #2: The bell rings whenever the box is unlocked. Or, whenever the box is moved! So if you try and pick it up and run away with it, the alarm goes off, and it is LOUD! Kinda handy feature if I ever take this to an antiques fair and someone tries to steal the money I made from selling my bric-a-brac! Hahahaha!!

It’s an absolute charmer and certainly very cute. I’ve seen a similar one which belonged to a family friend, but they’re not as uncommon as the seller would have one believe. Although I have seen them in better, and in much worse condition than this, online.

Dad’s always wanted a safe – one of those huge old antique things which you could hide a dead body inside. Well it ain’t a safe, but it sure as hell is a strongbox. Without a key or some way to pick the lock, you couldn’t open this thing. And even then, you still need the combination (which thankfully, I do have!)

Maybe this’ll do until someone dies and leaves us a safe to inherit.

Curiouser and curiouser…here’s an identical strongbox owned by a family friend. I photographed this back in May, when I was visiting Penang, Malaysia:

Leave a comment

Posted by on September 28, 2014 in Antiques


Two Pairs of Antique Theater Glasses

My eyesight sucks. 

I have Retinopathy of Prematurity. I have astigmatism. I have myopia. I have legal blindness. 


When I started going out to the theater more often, I decided that I had to get a better view of what was happening up on the stage. Short of sitting up in a box, I decided to do the next best thing. And I bought theater glasses. Also called opera glasses or theater binoculars. And I thought I’d share them with you. 

My two sets of theater glasses. Blue cloisonne, and both with Mother of Pearl. Date: 1880s.

First, the one at the back…

Blue cloisonne theater glasses with Mother of Pearl around the edges of the viewing lenses. Engraved on the MoP: 

“T. Gaunt. Optician. Melbourne & Sydney”

I date these to about 1880. ‘T Gaunt’ was Thomas Gaunt, a watchmaker and optician operating out of Bourke St., Melbourne, from the 1850s until 1890. 

And here’s my other set: 

This set has absolutely NO markings on it at all. I assume they’re from roughly the same period given how similar they lok. 1870s-1890s. Fully clad in Mother of Pearl. 

Both sets work flawlessly. They extend and focus smoothly, and pack up smoothly. Their finishes are almost flawless  and they’re not broken or damaged in any way. 






Posted by on August 27, 2014 in Antiques


Antique Brass Counter-Top Bell (1880-1900)

About a week ago I was out on the town, running errands and attending to a couple of meetings and trying to get to the bottom of a couple of issues which had been bugging me for a while. After sorting all those things out, I decided to do a bit of antiquing on the way home. I stopped by a tiny little hole-in-the-wall antiques shop that I know of, on a tram-route home from the center of town. I stopped in, poked around, and found something sitting on a shelf…quite dark, dull, ugly, and frankly…unloved.

After some haggling with the shopkeeper he agreed to knock the price down to almost half. And I purchased this rather ugly-looking object, for what can only be described as a pittance – since I’ve seen these things selling for about $150-200 online (and up to $300 in other antiques shops I’ve visited!). Here it is:

My God it’s ugly! What the hell is it, and what swamp did you dig this up from?

What you’re looking at here is a Victorian (or possibly, Edwardian)-era counter bell. To say this was a diamond in the rough is putting it mildly. It was in horrific condition! It was ugly, brown, tarnished and looked like it had been sitting in a sewer for 100 years. But I had to have it.

Back in the days when ringing a bell like this actually provided you with customer-service, a bell like this would be found on every front-desk, lobby, shop-counter and foyer in the world. This particular bell is admittedly, quite plain – there are ones which are extremely elaborate and unique, and which come in all shapes and sizes.

The bell is of a more familiar push-button design, and something which we’d recognise more readily as a service-bell, than say, my other one, which is probably from the 1860s or 70s, and is of a more antiquated, side-striking spring-toggle design:

1860s/70s side-toggle service-bell

But it differs in one main respect. Like the 1870s one above, that ugly duckling in the first picture is a pedestal bell, a style which lasted well into the 1900s, not finally dying out, to be replaced by the more squat, low-based bells which we have today, until probably the 1910s or after the First World War.

Anyway. Back to the bell.

I’d figured out roughly how old it was, and also, how the gong at the top was correctly oriented…Yeah there is actually a way that it fits onto the stand! I didn’t notice it either at first! But if you look at the picture at the top, you’ll notice that the hole drilled through the gong for the stand is NOT drilled dead-center. It’s actually off-center, on an angle.

That is done deliberately – it’s not a manufacturing-fault.

Drilling the hole like that forces the bell-top to sit lopsidedly on the stand. This means that one side of the bell-rim is higher than the other. If you look close, you’ll see that there’s a slight angle, with the left side of the edge higher than the right. It’s made like this so that when the button at the top is pushed, and the clapper underneath swings up (and to the left) to strike the bell, even with your hand or finger still on the button above, the clapper won’t touch the rim of the bell, and therefore, mute the sound – it allows the ring to sound freely and resonate – something that it couldn’t do if the gong was oriented the wrong way around, with the low side of the rim to the left. This would cause the clapper to rub against the underside of the bell, dulling the sound and not producing as loud or clear a ring.

Once I’d screwed the gong onto the bell correctly so that the clapper would strike it properly to produce the best ring, I wondered what I should do next. It is brass…maybe I should polish it?

A bell like this would originally have taken pride-of-place on some shop-counter or hotel desk, its golden yellow brass sparkling in the light from oil-lamps, candles, or the flame of a gas-mantle or an early form of electric-lighting. And I wanted to restore that shine, sheen and sparkle to the brass.

So. Out with the Brasso. Invented in 1905 and still shining to this day, Brasso is probably one of the best metal-polishes in the world. It stinks like hell and it’ll leave your hands as black as coal, but it does the job! It took me AGES of scrubbing and rubbing, wiping, buffing, over and over and over again to remove decades of tarnish, which had built up in caked-on layers of oxidation. But I finally got it all off. And I’d restored a golden shine!

Here is Before:

Dull, dark, tarnished, crusty, rusty, eugh…

…And here’s After:

Golden, polished, shiny brass, scrubbed and buffed to a mirror-finish!

The problem with brass is that…it tarnishes. Left to its own devices, it will eventually turn back to that dull, unsightly brown, tarnished, oxidised appearance all over again. What to do??

Brass has been used for centuries. Its colour, shine, sound and the fact that it’s impervious to rusting has made it an extremely popular metal. And that means that there’s LOADS of ways to clean brass. Everything from ketchup to toothpaste to lemon-juice and baking-soda, crushed salt and Worcestershire Sauce! But the problem is that most of these POLISH the brass…but don’t do much else. Once it’s polished, it’s polished and it’s done.

Of course the way to give the brass any sort of long-term tarnish-protection is to spray-coat it with clear lacquer. I don’t have any, and I’m not about to go out and buy any. That’s when I realised you could use something else at home to produce a similar effect. Not only does it polish the brass, it also gives it a protective coating. It’s not as effective or long-lasting as lacquer, but it does the job if you take care of it.

Olive oil.

A small bowl of oil, a paper-towel, and some elbow-grease not only cleans the brass, but after a bit of rubbing, it gives it a nice, protective layer a bit like lacquer. Obviously since it’s a natural product it won’t last as long, but it does what lacquer does, which is what you want it to do – which is slow down the tarnishing process, which is what brass will do, if you leave it alone. You’ll know that you’ve polished it enough with the oil when the cloth comes away clean from the brass. The layers of oil should keep the brass shiny for a nice long time :)

1 Comment

Posted by on August 11, 2014 in Antiques


Stop Thief! The History of the General Service Metropolitan Police Whistle

What’s the most important piece of equipment an officer might carry? Truncheon? Handcuffs? Sidearm? Pepper-spray? Taser? Notepad and pencil?

In older times, the answer might surprise you. From the 1880s until the 1970s, almost all over the world, policemen, and later, policewomen, had one piece of equipment which was arguably just as important as all of those things, and yet which was tiny, and seemingly, insignificant – the police whistle!

Why Are You Looking At This?

Why not?

Oh okay seriously…why?

The Police whistle was one of the first pieces of equipment specifically made for the police to try and make communications easier between officers. Despite the fact that they haven’t been used operationally in at least 40 years, the police whistle has remained one of the most powerful symbols of law and order to this day. Even now, we still have the term ‘Whistleblower‘, meaning to expose some sort of injustice or corruption which was previously hidden from the public.

Before the Police Whistle

The earliest forms of policing were local watchmen, constables and nightmen who patrolled the streets of cities and towns at night. (think “Ten o’clock and All’s Well!“) Their only form of protection or defense was a wooden staff, or truncheon, or a dagger or sword of some description. To raise the alarm, they had to rely on their lungs, or on heavy wooden rattles. These heavy, bulky rattles were swung around on a central handle. Centrifugal force caused the whole thing to swing around, and the rattle blades struck against the ribbed surface in the middle of the rattle, producing a loud clattering sound.

From as far back as the 1600s, right up to the 19th century, this was all they had to raise the alarm.

And it was hardly ideal, for reasons I’ll explain later.

The Rise of the Police

In the 1800s, the Industrial Revolution in Britain was forcing towns and cities to grow. Major population-centers like Birmingham, Sheffield, Edinburgh, Glasgow and London were bursting at the seams. Impoverished rural workers flooded into cities to find work. And when there wasn’t any work, they turned to crime.

In the 1700s, this was already a major issue, and by the early 1800s, it had become so ultra-extreme that even old standbys like transportation and execution were ineffective as deterrents.

In the early 1800s, the first police-forces as we’d recognise them today, were established in Glasgow, in Scotland, and London, in England. These forces were unlike anything seen before. They were designed to be civilian forces keeping the peace, preventing or deterring crimes, and arresting criminals when crime took place. But the equipment issued to policemen had hardly changed since Stuart times.

A typical officer, in his dark blue uniform (dark blue instead of red, which was used by the Army – the famous British Redcoats), strengthened top hat, and boots, was equipped with handcuffs or manacles, a cutlass, a baton or truncheon, and a rattle for raising the alarm. And for nearly 100 years…that was all they had.

The Introduction of the Police Whistle

Truncheons were used by early police officers because they were easily held in one hand, unlike rifles or muskets, which required both hands to operate. And rattles were used to sound the alarm if backup was required. But the problems with rattles were significant.

As early as the 1860s and 70s, police in Britain were looking for replacements for rattles. And in some smaller police-forces, whistles had been suggested, and were being trialed. It was not until the 1880s, however, that whistles actually became standard-issue.

The General Service Whistle, as it was called, had a number of benefits over the old-fashioned rattle. In its hundreds of years of use, the rattle had shown that it had a number of shortcomings:

1). The rattle was bulky and heavy. It took up space in the uniform. It slowed the officer down. Its odd shape caught on clothing and snagged.

2). The rattle was made of wood. This could crack, warp, chip or break if the rattle was used too rigorously, or if it was dropped and broken.

3). The rattle’s size and weight meant that if it was taken from an officer, it could be used as a bludgeon! A desperate criminal could smash it into an officer’s face or head and knock him out. It was therefore, a safety-hazard.

4). The rattle was not loud enough to be an effective means of communication. And on top of that, the rattling sound it produced would be drowned out or mistaken for something else in the din of traffic – the rumbling of barrels. The clatter of horse-hooves. The grinding of carriage-wheels…Useless!

The whistle on the other hand, was far superior in a number of ways:

1). It’s extremely small. The General Service Whistle is about three inches long. You can put into a pocket and forget it’s there. Less space taken up on a uniform.

2). It’s tough. They’re made of brass. If you drop it, it won’t break.

3). It cannot be used as a weapon against the officer.

4). It’s distinct sound meant that it was impossible for it to be mistaken for anything else.

5). Its loud noise and long range meant that it could be heard better, and further, than rattles, making it effective when calling for backup.

A General Service “Metropolitan”-style police whistle. This one was stamped for the Birmingham City Police

Although some forces did use different whistles in the 1870s, if the police whistle was going to be used throughout Britain and the world, it had to be ONE type of whistle, with ONE distinct sound which EVERYONE would recognise. For this to work, they had to find, or design and make ONE whistle which would be better, louder, and more distinct than any other!

The classic, tubular “General Service Whistle” came about in 1883. The London Metropolitan Police (Scotland Yard) put out advertisements in newspapers around Britain, to find a suitable whistle, and a suitable replacement for the heavy wooden rattles which officers were STILL using in the early 1880s!

Up came Mr. Joseph Hudson, toolmaker and whistle-manufacturer, from Birmingham.

Popular folklore will tell you that Mr. Hudson was an amateur violinist. One evening while fiddling with his fiddle, he walked around, musing over the problem which the police had put to the public. Perhaps distracted by this, he put down his violin and accidentally knocked it off the table. It fell to the floor and shattered at his feet! As the strings snapped in front of him, he heard the twanging, humming sound echoing around the room. He realised if he could recreate that trill, discordant sound, it would be unique, loud and far-carrying! He hurried to his workshop to try and make this a reality.

The result was the “The Metropolitan” police whistle.

The Classic Police Whistle

My two police whistles. The one on the right is a modern ceremonial Metropolitan police whistle; this style has been produced since 1972, and continues to be made to this day. It’s barrel-stamping is: “THE Metropolitan” – “Made in England”. The whistle on the left is an early 20th-century antique (with almost all the nickel-plating gone). Its barrel-stamping is: “THE CITY WHISTLE – PATENT”

Tubular, easy to hold, small, loud and unique, it was ideal for the Metropolitan Police, and could be heard over a MILE away on a good day. More then sufficient for the needs of the police!

The tubular ‘General Service Whistle‘ was not just manufactured for the police. It was used by everyone. Hence the name ‘General Service’. Although originally manufactured for the police, its loud, authoritative shriek became the classic sound of alarm. It was therefore ideal for services where such a whistle might be required. More about that later…

The whistle was used all over the world. From New York City to London, to Toronto, to Melbourne and Bombay. If you had a police-force in the early 20th century, it almost certainly carried this whistle, or at least, had it as an option from a selection of whistles.

The whistle officially replaced the heavy, bulky wooden rattles in February of 1884, when the Metropolitan Police Service’s initial order of 21,000 whistles was finally completed! Police regulations stated that all London police constables on duty had to carry one, and have it easily accessible in case trouble should arise.

The General Service ‘Metropolitan’ police whistle was worn with a pocket-chain and hook-clasp. Uniform guidelines for British police stated that the whistle-chain should be affixed to the second button from the top of the tunic-jacket, and that the chain be draped down the front and the whistle tucked inside the jacket, between buttons. As this was not always comfortable, an alternative method of carrying the whistle was to attach the chain to the second button of your uniform tunic-jacket, and place the whistle in the left-hand breast-pocket, with a couple of inches of excess chain hanging free. In an emergency, an officer could easily grasp the chain, pull out the whistle and blow it!

But what were the guidelines for using the whistle? How did it fit into the policeman’s duties? And what happened when it was sounded?

The Whistle in Action

The heyday of the classic police whistle was from the 1880s-1970s. A period of almost 100 years. The whistles were originally introduced in 1883, and from then until about 1970, remained part of police-uniforms around the world.

To patrol streets, keep the peace, deter or detect crime and uphold the law, police-officers used to patrol in ‘beats’, some forces still do, although these days it’s not as common as it once was.

A ‘beat’ was the area of an officer’s patrol. Typically he circled a set location (typically one or two blocks) for a set period of time (say, one hour). At the end of his beat, and during his beat, a police constable or patrolman would meet with his sergeant, who would note down that he had seen the officer, and therefore, that he was ‘pounding his beat’ and patrolling his area of their jurisdiction properly.

General Service Metropolitan whistles were used to call for backup in emergencies, to alert the public of danger and get their attention, or to direct and control people and traffic.

If a policeman on the beat spotted a crime in progress, he would intervene, as was his duty. If the situation went outside of his control, such as a thief fleeing the scene of a robbery, the officer would give chase. To sound the alarm and give the robber fewer places to run to, the constable blew on his whistle. The far-carrying sound would alert all officers on similar beats within hearing-distance. The policeman in-pursuit would continue blowing his whistle so that other officers could get a fix on his location, and so that they could tell which direction the pursuit was headed.

The whistle was used in any situation where an ordinary shout was insufficient. Directing traffic, gaining attention, raising the alarm, calling for help, or simply telling someone without words, that the game was up!

The whistle lasted a surprisingly long time. It wasn’t until the advent of handheld radios in the 1970s that it was finally replaced. Today, the Metropolitan whistle is still issued to ‘Bobbies’, but its role today is largely ceremonial. It’s worn with dress-uniforms, it’s purchased from shops as a souvenir, or it’s used to direct traffic. Some whistles are presented to senior officers upon retirement. Officers are still issued with these whistles today, although it’s mostly for the sake of tradition.

The whistles manufactured today by the Joseph Hudson ACME Whistle Co. are a lot less ornate than the whistles they used to make. Actual police-whistles which saw service were elaborately marked and stamped. The whistle-barrels were marked with words like “J. Hudson & Co”, the company’s address in Birmingham, “The Metropolitan”, “The City”, and the name of the police-force for whom the whistles had been commissioned. Each city and town had its own whistles with their own city marked on them.

Mr. Joseph Hudson and His Whimsical Whistles

Prior to the 1880s, Mr. Hudson was a struggling Birmingham tool-manufacturer and tinkerer, who liked creating all kinds of things. Whistles were one of his passions, but he built and fiddled with all kinds of things to do anything to get a few extra shillings in his pockets.

After his Eureka Moment in 1883, Mr. Hudson’s life changed forever. As by far the largest provider of whistles to the various British police-forces, Hudson stood to make a fortune! Every officer in every police-force in the British Isles, as well as colonial forces overseas, needed HIS whistle. He would have to produce millions of them to meet demand! The whistles became cheap, and he became rich! By the time he died in 1930, Joseph Hudson’s whistle company was producing whistles for all kinds of things!

Need to train your dog? Hudson made dog-whistles. Need to referee a sporting-match? He made sporting whistles, too! How about calling a taxi-cab in a crowded London street? No need to shout! Just buy the Joseph Hudson taxi-call. A couple of sharp toots and the nearest cab would come chugging up to take you away. What if you’re a ship’s officer at sea? Joseph Hudson’s company also produced the whistles carried by sailors and naval-officers – he even produced the whistles used on the R.M.S. Titanic!

How It’s Made: General Service Metropolitan Police Whistles

The company became so successful that it remained in the Hudson family until after WWII, that’s three generations! The company’s main factory in Birmingham was flattened during the War thanks to German air-raids, but it continues to produce whistles in Birmingham today. Its most popular models are the Thunderer, the Mate’s Whistle, and of course, the General Service Metropolitan.

The Whistle in General Service

Although it’s called a Bobby’s Whistle, Metropolitan Police Whistle and dozens of other variations along those lines, this classic whistle is actually called the ‘General Service Whistle’. The key word being ‘general’.

The whistle was used everywhere. The United States, Canada, Britain, India, Europe, Australia, Africa and all corners of the British Empire. Almost every country in the world would’ve heard its familiar shrill shriek at one point or another. And it was used by a lot more than just the police. Firemen carried them to pass orders or get attention in an emergency, because the shrill blast of the whistle could be heard over the crackling of flames or the crashing of collapsing masonry.

In the two world wars, British officers carried these whistles to pass commands and orders. Specially-marked ‘Trench Whistles’ were manufactured by the ACME Co. and distributed to field officers. They would blow their whistles before going ‘over the top’ during the First World War, to indicate that it was time to attack!

The whistles were also used on the home front. General Service Whistles were also manufactured for Air Raid Precautions, and you can find whistles marked “ARP”. These would’ve been used to direct and control crowds of panicked Londoners during the Blitz in the Second World War. They were more effective than shouting over the explosions of thousands of bombs and the constant wail of the air-raid sirens.

Apart from these more expected roles, the General Service Whistle was also used in hospitals, psychiatric wards and mental asylums, where they were carried by orderlies and hospital attendants. Just imagining the kind of events for which these whistles would’ve been used for in such places is unnerving!

The Whistle in Film and Television

The Metropolitan Whistle was used a lot in film and television, its sound was distinctive and unique. In “Casablanca” (1942), it’s heard in the opening scenes, and later on when Captain Renault closes down Rick’s Cafe. In “The Hound of the Baskervilles” (1939), Basil Rathbone blows the whistle at the end of the film, to alert the village constabulary of Stapleton’s escape. In crime TV series taking place during Victorian times or the early 20th century, the whistle is heard everywhere. “Ripper Street“, “Murdoch Mysteries“, “The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes” and “Agatha Christie’s Poirot” have all used it at least once.

The General Service Metropolitan Whistle Today

The whistle as a practical piece of police-kit ended in the 1970s. In the postwar era, the rise in motorcar ownership meant that louder traffic reduced the audible range of the whistle. It was no-longer effective as a means of communication, and the Victorian answer to a centuries old problem died with the birth of handheld radios.

These whistles are still manufactured, and still by the same original company – Joseph Hudson’s ACME Company, but their use today is almost entirely limited to souvenirs, ceremony, tradition, or novelty. Some are still used for their original purpose, but this is rare. Most people who own them today do so for the historical connection, whistle-collecting, or because they require a whistle on a regular basis and have selected it because of its unique sound and long range.

Want to Hear More About Whistles?

The Whistle Shop – Lots of information about old police whistles and general service whistles here.

The Whistle Gallery – HUGE collection of whistles and information!

There’s also a website called the Whistle Museum, but I think it’s currently offline (or it was at the time of this posting).

1 Comment

Posted by on July 28, 2014 in Criminal History


Return of the Winder – Some Things Just Die Hard

A while back, I made this post about trying to fix the malfunctioning bobbin-winder on my antique Singer sewing machine.

Despite my most determined efforts, and my initial success, it still failed to work flawlessly all the time. It kept jamming or loosening, and none of my adjustments worked well enough for it to be a lasting repair.

 In the end, I completely disassembled the winder to see how it was put together, and what were its component parts.

It assembles in this way:

Nut – Bolt -*WINDER-ARM* – Bolt – Washer – Toothed Wheel – Heart-Cam – Bolthead/screw-head.

My attempts to fix the jamming and loosening by adjusting the nut at the end of this assembly were unsuccessful. On a whim, I added a second, small, flat, round brass washer into the mix, between the bolt and the main wheel, but still kept the original washer (a flat, thin, slightly concave piece of metal) in-place. My guess was that the original washer was probably damaged or worn out from 70-odd years of use.

I reassembled the ‘new, and improved’ bobbin-winder, with the additional brass washer in place, and screwed everything in tight and firm.

And that has made all the difference, so it seems.

The addition of one small piece of metal has had the most remarkable, and pleasing result, in that the bobbin-winder now works 100% flawlessly! I’m very pleased with the results! Yay!!



Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 202 other followers