Category Archives: Tudor, Stuart and Georgian Periods (1500-1800)

A Monarch’s Insanity: The Madness of George III

“It’ll be like mad King George the Third! I’ll be mad King George the Stammerer!”Colin Firth; ‘The King’s Speech’ (2010)

Whatever the real King George VI thought about his stammer, Colin Firth was certainly right when he said that George the Sixth wasn’t the only English monarch in history who might have been thought of as ‘mad’ by his people. In fact, the crown for that award was given out over two hundred years ago, to another King George, whom this article is about; King George III.

Who Was George III?

He was born George William Fredrick on the fourth of June, 1738. He ascended to the British throne as King George III upon the death of his grandfather, the late George II, in October of 1760. By all accounts, the new monarch was a perfectly healthy and normal human-being and the first half of his reign ran relatively smoothly with no serious health complications of any kind. For George III, life was going well. He was happily married to his consort, Queen Charlotte; he had several children (fifteen in total!) and the British Empire was on the rise. During his reign, he saw the American and French Revolutions; he saw the wars they created and he saw the great battles that were fought against Napoleon. He was an avid student and was fascinated with science and technology. He gave his personal support to a struggling clock and watchmaker named John Harrison, whose invention, the marine chronometer, would go on to vastly improve accuracy of navigation at sea. He was the third ‘George’ of the Georgian-era which ran from 1714-1830.

George III was furious and devastated at the result of the American Revolutionary War (1775-1783), but eventually came to accept the United States as a new nation, despite his frustrations and disappointments regarding the outcome of the War. But the king’s dismay at the loss of the American Colonies was as nothing to the dismay of his friends, family and politicians when the king began to lose his mind…

The Madness of King George

George III is famous for many things, but he is most famous for the fits of “madness” that plagued his health towards the end of his life. Many kings and even queens, have gone mad over the centuries, but perhaps why George III is remembered so well in the history books, is because he lost his mind at a key point in history, with the fall of the French Monarchy and the rise of Napoleon Bonaparte, and the serious military threat that the new French leader posed to Great Britain. Because of the rumblings in Europe and danger of war with France (again!), George III’s incapacitation and a hopeful cure of this insanity, was of vital importance to the British government and the royal household.

George III’s illness started in October of 1788. Prior to this date everything had been just fine, but eventually, things began to go wrong. The king’s personal physician suspected something was up when “Farmer George” as his subjects affectionately called him, due to the monarch’s love of nature, the outdoors and of the occupation of farming, tried to plant a steak! He believed that meat grew from trees and that by planting a nice T-bone in the garden, he might perhaps grow a new breed of hotdog tree (or something like that). The royal physician thought this rather odd. He didn’t do anything about it, but it certainly made him pay closer attention to the king.

The first real sign of George’s madness happened when his servants happened upon him in the grounds of Windsor Castle…shaking hands with a tree…whom the king believed was the person of King Frederick the Great of the Prussian Empire! Apart from the fact that Frederick the Great never had bark, branches or leaves on his person…there was also the rather inconvenient fact that by 1788…Frederick the Great had been dead for two years! It was now that royal physicians really began to worry!

George III gradually grew worse. He suffered from a variety of complaints ranging from severe stomach-cramps and general abdominal pain, joint-and-muscle pain, anxiety-attacks, depression and hallucinations (which probably explains the royal tree and the steak-planting). He would have great discomfort in sleeping and suffered from seizures and fits that were so bad that his doctors were compelled to strap the king into a chair to prevent him from harming himself or others! As the year 1788 progressed into October and November, the king grew more and more unmanagable and erratic and there were talks of creating a regency if the king was unable to rule effectively.

Treating the King

Medicine in the 18th century was rudimentary at best. While physicians in the 1780s knew how to treat injuries and various illnesses with medicines of mild effectiveness, they had absolutely no understanding of mental afflictions. There was no distinction between one mental condition to another and there was no real way of knowing how to treat mental illness and certainly no way of curing it! George III’s condition was simply labelled “Madness”.

In the truest sense of the word, the king was given the full Georgian medical treatment for “Madness”, a series of procedures that were far from pleasant. It would not be until the mid-1800s that doctors finally threw out the millenia-old theory of ‘Humorism’, that the human body supposedly contained four humors or liquids: Black and Yellow Bile, Phlegm and Blood. In the 1780s however, this medical theory was still in full swing. And it was with this misguided knowledge that the doctors attempted to treat the king.

The usual treatments included such procedures as bloodletting, blistering, sweating, restraints and scary cocktails and potions designed to treat the king’s various symptoms, all to no effect. Something drastic had to be done.

Enter Dr. Francis Willis.

Francis Willis was a qualified physician for the day and he was recommended as the best person in all England to treat the ailing king. A friend of Queen Charlotte mentioned that Dr. Willis had successfully cured her mother and that his methods appeared effective and creditable. Desperate to try anything, the royal physicians backed down and gave Willis free access to the king.

Willis’s treatments were both familiar and unfamiliar to the doctors of the day. He employed many of the usual methods of dealing with mental illness that other 18th Century doctors were familiar with, such as restraints and blistering, but instead of acting blindly, Willis also tried to counsel and provide therapy for his unfortunate patients. Due to the sheer hopelessness of it, perhaps, most physicians probably failed to remember that their patients were human and didn’t bother trying to communicate with people suffering from mental illnesses. Willis spent time with the king, talking him through things, trying to understand what was going on.

It was clear to Willis at least, that if the king was mad and out of control, then it was someone’s duty to bring the king back UNDER control…by force if need be. And if the royal physicians weren’t willing to do it due to their patient’s status and title, then he would. Apart from regimens of therapy, restraints, control, exercise and plenty of exposure to fresh air and regular labour, Willis also tried to make it clear to his patients that they themselves had to make an effort to fight against their demons.

Meanwhile, all the other doctors just laughed. They thought that Willis himself was probably only just slightly less mad than his patient and that his treatments couldn’t possibly work and that he was wasting his time and that he should go and do something else!…Despite the fact that Willis had significant success in treating mental illness…something that none of the royal physicians could claim…and despite the fact that Dr. Willis’s treatments did produce results. As indeed they did with the king.

By 1789, the king’s madness had subsided. The regency had not been declared and he was now able to resume his normal royal duties, aided back to health by the determined and persistent Dr. Willis who would never give up. Willis’s ability to cure the king made him a national celebrity and he made a name for himself as a pioneer of mental health treatment. For a while…things seemed alright.

But for George III, his madness was not over. Between 1789-1810, he would have another five episodes of “madness”. Unfortunately, Francis Willis died in 1807 at the respectable and ripe age of 89, but he was succeeded in his work by his two sons, Drs. John and Robert Willis. Familiar with their father’s methods, these brother physicians continued to monitor the king and treat him for his occasional reccurences of insanity for the next twenty years. As much as he probably appreciated their efforts, it’s not surprising that the king grew to hate the sight of Dr. Willis and the sight of his sons. He refused their treatments despite their effectiveness and he barred them from his presence. Despite this resistence, Queen Charlotte was insistent that the doctors ignore her husband’s ravings and to continue treating him since it was clear to her that only constant monitoring and treatment would drive away his madness, and this persistence did seem to work. Although George III was not free of his madness, with help, he was at least able to control it and it seemed that life could go on as normal.

Or so they thought.

In 1810, the king’s madness returned, and this time, it came back with a vengeance. Not even the determination and experience of the Willis brothers could save him, and George III was eventually deposed as king a year later. Wholly unable to rule despite the best efforts of the Willises and other doctors, George III was declared incurably insane and finally, in 1811, a regency was declared, with his son, the future King George IV, taking the reins of monarchy and government.

The End of George III

George’s final descent into complete madness destroyed his family. In 1811, his first son was declared Prince Regent. George’s devoted and loving wife, Queen Charlotte, was devastated by the news of her husband’s return to insanity and despite the fact that they did no good at all, she would visit her husband regularly in the room that he would eventually be taken to, in Windsor Castle. Again, George’s insanity came in waves, but try as they might, it was impossible to pull him out. He was in too deep by now. As the years went on, he eventually went blind and was lost to the world. He wasn’t even informed of his wife’s death in 1818. In the end, George III would die alone and insane at the age of 81, in 1820.

Diagnosing the King

It is widely believed the George III suffered from recurrent and eventually, permanent porphyria. In layman’s terms, porphyria is a genetic nervous disease that effects the brain and nervous system. Sufferers of Porphyria experience a range of discomforts, ranging from vomiting to stomach-pains, sensitive skin, diahrrea, purple or red urine, seizures and muscle-weakness. The most famous symptoms of porphyria, however, are severe mental disturbances. Sufferers of severe porphyria are afflicted with depression, paranoia, panic-attacks and hallucinations. It is possible that the king’s porphyria was worsened by the ingestion of arsenic, a strong poison that was a common ingredient in cosmetics and even some medicines of the 1700s.


“A woman might piss it out!” – The Great Fire of London

Everyone’s heard of the Great Fire of London; it’s one of those famous disasters that you grow up hearing about. It’s like the sinking of the Titanic or the 9/11 attacks or the Boston Molasses Flood of 1919. However, in most cases, it’s probably likely that you know it was a fire, that it was big, and that it happened in London and…that’s it. So…what was the Great Fire of London and what made it ‘Great’, anyway? Surely a city as old as London has had hundreds of fires. Why should this one stand out and be any different or any more memorable than any of the dozens that had come before it, or that had gone after it?

What was the Great Fire of London?

The Great Fire of London was a massive conflagration that started on Sunday, 2nd of September, 1666 and ended on Wednesday, 5th of September. Burning for four days and three nights, it destroyed four fifths of the ancient city of London, reducing thousands of homes, businesses and public institutions to rubble and ruin. It covered several hundred square yards of the city and it remained uncontrollable for several days, with Londoners’ 17th century firefighting-methods and technology, unable to effectively combat the blaze. Although the fire could have been stopped earlier, the bungling and indecision of the city’s officials caused a citywide catastrophe that left thousands of people homeless and destitute. But what was the cause of all this misery?

The Start of the Fire

    “…Some of our mayds [sic] sitting up late last night to get things ready against our feast to-day, Jane called us up about three in the morning, to tell us of a great fire they saw in the City…”

– Samuel Pepys.
Diary, Sunday, 2nd September, 1666.

The spark that was to ignite one of the most famous disasters in history, was born in the ovens of Mr. Thomas Farynor, official baker to His Majesty, King Charles II. In the 1660s, commercial bakeries had large, open-fire, wood-burning brick ovens, consisting of a small fireplace underneath and a cavity above, and a chimney and flue behind, to carry away the smoke. The fireplace at the bottom was where the burning fuelwood was set and burned, and the cavity above was where the dough was placed to be baked. At the end of the baking day, it was common for bakers and their assistants to rake and remove the ashes from the ovens and to put the kindling for the next day’s fires inside the empty fireplace. The bricks of the fireplace, heated by the day’s baking, would dry out the kindling ready for use the next day.

It is theorised that Farynor had placed his kindling and firewood for the next day into or near his ovens, to dry it out for the next morning’s use and had then retired to bed. Near midnight, the kindling and fuelwood caught fire. The flames, unchecked by the baker and his staff, quickly spread through the kitchen, setting fire to the wattle & daub walls of Mr. Farynor’s home. Farynor and his family (who lived above their bakery), were awoken by the smell of smoke. Finding their way downstairs blocked by smoke and flames, Farynor thrust his wife and children out of an upstairs window onto a neighbouring roof. With his family safe, Farynor made the jump himself, and turned back to help the family’s servant-girl to safety. The maid, too frightened to make the jump from the windowsill to the roof next door, was the fire’s first victim.

Downstairs, the flames spread rapidly. Houses in Stuart London, much like in the Tudor period before, were made of wattle and daub, materials used in construction for centuries before. A typical Tudor or Stuart-era building had strong, wooden beams creating the framework of the house, and then reeds which were interwoven between the beams and longer, upright reeds (forced into the ground), to create a rudimentary wall. These reeds or ‘wattles’, were then strengthened with a substance called ‘daub’, which was made up of…ehm…animal droppings…straw and water. Mixed correctly, ‘daub’ became a bit like plaster and once it was slapped onto the walls (by hand!), it would dry hard and solid. It was then painted or whitewashed over, eventually creating a structure that would look something like this:

A typical ‘wattle and daub’ house. The wattles are plastered over and filled in by the daub, which is then whitewashed. The thick, dark, oak beams give the house its strength.

Although they were cheap and easy to make, wattle and daub houses had one big problem…they were incredibly vulnerable to fire. The wattles, the oak beams, the floorboards and even the daub itself, were all amazingly flammable, and in the summer of 1666, houses were baked dry until just the tiniest spark could turn them into raging infernos. Thomas Farynor’s bakery (located on the aptly named Pudding Lane), was just one of thousands of similar structures that could be found in nauseating abundance in Stuart-era London.

The Fire Begins to Spread

Farynor and his family (with the exception of the housemaid) had escaped unscathed from their burning home, by running across the rooftops and then descending to the street below. Their house was not so lucky. Within minutes, first one, then two, then three, then the entire block of houses, was on fire! There hadn’t been a drop of rain in weeks, and the thatched rooves of the houses were as flammable as tissue-paper. All it took was one stray ember to set the roof on fire! With Mr. Farynor’s building burning like a bonfire, stray embers were everywhere, and nearby houses were soon raging infernos. People, roused by shouts and cries of alarm, quickly evacuated their homes, taking with them, whatever valuables they could lay their hands on at the time.

It was around this time that Lord Mayor, Sir Thomas Bloodworth, was roused and alerted about the fire. He surveyed the unfolding catastrophe, famously uttered that “A woman might piss it out!”, and then went back to bed, leaving the people of London to their fate and ignoring the crackling of the flames and the billowing smoke.

17th Century Firefighting

These days, we have all kinds of things to fight fires with: Fire extinguishers, high-pressure hoses, aerial water-bombers and fire retardents. Back in the 1660s, Londoners had to make do with buckets, archaic and ineffective water-pumps and water-squirts, to combat a blaze larger than anything that they’d had to deal with before! In the 17th century London, the main way for firefighters (or rather, citizens and soldiers, as actual firefighters didn’t exist), to combat a fire, was to create firebreaks. This isolated the fire and prevented it from spreading. The contained fire could then be drowned by bucket after bucket of water. One of the big problems with this method of firefighting, was that to create the firebreaks, it was necessary to tear down buildings in the fire’s path…private buildings. People’s homes and their shops and their businesses. Obviously, nobody wants their homes torn down, even if there is a fire on the way, and to override this, the firefighters needed the permission of the Lord Mayor. Bloodworth considered such actions to be unnecessary, so for several hours, the people of London fought a losing battle with a fire that was by now, totally out of their control.

The main combatants against the Great Fire of London included ordinary civilians, trainbands (militia-groups) and city watchmen. These three groups of people, later assisted by soldiers, had to fight a fire that by now, was covering several city blocks. The main firefighting tools of the day were buckets, made of either leather or wood, which were slung, hand-to-hand, in long bucket-brigades, water-pumps, which were huge, wooden water-barrels on wheels with hand-pumps and a leather water-hose, and the water-squirt, which was a big, metal syringe which could take up to three men to operate. While all of these firefighting tools were good against small blazes, they were useless against huge infernos. Bucket-brigades couldn’t deliver the water fast enough, mobile water-pumps were slow and cumbersome to move, and the water-squirts were too cumbersome for one man to operate and at any rate, had about as much power and effectiveness as a “super-soaker” water-gun!

One of the water-squirts or water-squirters used to fight the Great Fire of London.

The Great Fire of London

By dawn on the 3rd of September, the fire was well and truly out of control. Farynor’s bakery, along with the homes and businesses of hundreds of other Londoners, were now reduced to rubble and ashes. London Bridge, located a few streets away, was a blazing holocaust, and people who lived on the bridge fled their homes southwards, away from the flames. London Bridge in the Stuart Era had several shops and houses built upon it and this made it a great firetrap. Fortunately, breaks in the buildingworks, which allowed people who crossed the bridge, to look out between the buildings and over the water, acted as firebreaks, preventing the spread of the fire southwards. This came at a cost, though. The fire had destroyed the waterwheel at the north end of London Bridge, cutting off the firefighters’ main source of water to fight the blaze. Without the waterwheel (which pumped water up from the tidal River Thames, to street-level, several feet above), Londoners faced a serious shortage of water to put out the fire.

A Blast from the Past

Finally given permission to start ripping down buildings, firefighters and soldiers started pulling down or otherwise destroying buildings which stood in the fire’s path. King Charles II himself was alerted to the presence of the fire and wasted no time in rushing to the aid of his subjects, taking part in the firefighting efforts himself, by manning bucket-lines and helping to pull down buildings. The king’s presence amongst his subjects was a big morale booster…especially when the king pressed gold coins into the hands of his subjects whom he believed were working particularly hard to fight the fire, as an incentive to work even harder and not to give up the fight.

In a risky move, permission was granted to access the powder-stores of the Tower of London. In the 1660s, the Tower of London was still a working military base, and barrels of gunpowder, stored there since the end of the English Civil War, were now rolled out into the streets of the English capital. The idea was to use the gunpowder as an explosive to bring down buildings faster and more effectively, to create better firebreaks. This was a hit-and-miss method of firefighting which didn’t always work. Usually, people brought down houses using long firehooks – long poles or ropes with hooks on the end of them. The hooks would be attached to rafters or the rooves or windowsills of houses and then teams of men would pull the wooden frames out, causing the house to collapse.

Fleeing the Fire

By the afternoon of the 3rd of September, London was well and truly ablaze. The docks were on fire and the barrels of oil, wine, pitch and resin which were stored there, burned and exploded from the heat of the flames. Terrified Londoners fled from their homes, taking with them their most treasured belongings. With London Bridge now closed to traffic, people were forced to cross the river by going down the steps near the riverbank and paying watermen (the men who operated private river-ferries) to save their lives and their worldly goods. Watermen quickly raised their prices as the fire progressed, trying to make as much money as they coud of off the desperation of their fellow citizens. More people fled out of the city’s gates to the fields nearby, to escape the flames, smoke and the sound of the collapsing buildings. Strong winds and high temperatures fanned the fire rapidly northwards and westwards.

The Fires of Hell

    “…The fire coming on in that narrow streete, on both sides, with infinite fury. Sir W. Batten not knowing how to remove his wine, did dig a pit in the garden, and laid it in there; and I took the opportunity of laying all the papers of my office that I could not otherwise dispose of. And in the evening Sir W. Pen and I did dig another, and put our wine in it; and I my Parmazan [sic] cheese, as well as my wine and some other things…”

– Samuel Pepys.
Diary, Tuesday, 4th September, 1666.

The 4th of September was the most devastating day of the Great Fire. High winds and temperatures had made it utterly uncontrollable and time and time again, the fire jumped firebreaks made by soldiers and army officers who attempted to fight the fire with military efficiency. Charles II continued to rally his subjects to extinguish the flames by assisting them personally in their duties and by continuing to reward those who worked especially hard, with generous tips of gold and silver. The king placed himself in more danger on this day than in any other because of how fast the fire was spreading. This day saw the destruction of the famous St. Paul’s Cathedral, which was being restored by Sir Christopher Wren at the time. The wooden scaffolding around the building meant that the cathedral, made of stone and therefore thought impervious to flames, caught fire, destroying several hundred valuables stored therein for safekeeping during the blaze.

    “…The stones of Paul’s flew like grenados [sic], the melting lead running down the streets in a stream, and the very pavements glowing with fiery redness, so as no horse, nor man, was able to tread on them…”

– John Evelyn.
Diary, Tuesday, 4th September, 1666.

In a turn that must’ve scared thousands, the winds changed later in the day, and the fire started burning backwards along the way it had come. Although it had burned westwards for the past two days, it now burned, heading eastwards, towards the Tower of London and its valuable and dangerous stores of gunpowder. Guards at the tower awaiting orders from the Duke of York (later James II, and Charles II’s younger brother), finally decided that they could no longer hang around to wait for royal permission and took matters into their own hands. They rolled out the gunpowder and blew up several buildings in quick succession, thus halting the fire’s spread to the East.

The End of the Fire

The Great Fire of London finally ended on Wednesday, 5th of September. On this day, the winds subsided and the firebreaks had effectively starved the inferno of its fuel. With the fire beginning to die out, it was easier for firefighters now, to close in on individual blazes and extinguish them with buckets, water-pumps and water-squirters. Moorfields, then a public park on the outskirts of London, was turned into a refugee camp for the homeless, with tents and temporary housing set up there to house the newly destitute. King Charles II visited Moorfields once the fire had been successfully extinguished and encouraged his subjects to leave London and to start lives elsewhere, away from the destruction of their nation’s capital. How many people acted on the king’s suggestions of relocation, is unknown.

Rebuilding London

Once the fires were out, rebuilding London became everyone’s chief priority. There were several plans drawn up for the reconstruction of the city, but the bold new plans and layouts, which favoured wide roads, central squares, large public parks and large, open, welcoming avenues, were largely ignored by the city’s officials. While King Charles himself admired several of the new suggestions, he bowed to the pressure of the city’s government officials, who stressed the necessity of rebuilding the city as quickly as possible, as opposed to redesigning it from the ground up. As a result, London was rebuilt on virtually the same lines as it existed on, before the fire and London’s basic street-plan has remained unchanged for the past, nearly 400 years.

King Charles and Sir Christopher Wren, who was one of the architects who had submitted plans for a ‘new and improved’ London, did manage to keep some of their ideas, much to their relief and to our safety. The king decreed that houses should be made as fireproof as was then possible; thatched rooves were banned outright within the city of London, and buildings made of wood and wattle and daub were discouraged or made illegal, in favour of buildings made of safer materials such as stone, slate or brick. Houses which still had thatched rooves had to have these rooves replaced with roof-tiles, slate or shingles, to prevent the risk of the house catching fire in the future.

The Great Fire of London also saw the rise of insurance companies. After the Great Fire, fire-insurance companies sprang up all over town, and they issued various marks (metal plaques) which their customers could purchase and affix to the outer walls of their houses. In the event of their houses catching fire, the company would help to put out the fire, or if the house was destroyed, to compensate the homeowner for the loss of his home and contents.


“Avoiding it like the Plague: The Horrors of the Black Death”

Swine Flu, Bird Flu, Flu-Flu, Spanish Flu, Yellow Fever, Typhoid, Typhus, Consumption and Polio. All famous diseases, and all, in their respective eras, the unseen terrors of mankind. In the 21st Century, it’s swine flu and bird flu. In 1918, it was the dreaded ‘Spanish Flu’. In 1793, it was Yellow Fever and in the 1930s, it was Polio. But these, now largely treatable and preventable diseases, pale in comparison to the Granddaddy of all sicknesses, the very name of which, brave people dared not to speak. They called it ‘the pestilence’, ‘the sickenesse’ (original, 17th century spelling), ‘the plague’ and ‘The Black Death’.

Known to modern, medical science by the name ‘Yersinia Pestis’, Bubonic Plague, often shortened to ‘the plague’ or ‘the Black Death’, was one of the most feared diseases for hundreds and hundreds of years. From as far back as the 14th century, people lived in horror of another, unannounced and unstoppable outbreak of a disease so lethal, it could kill within hours. Such was the Plague’s ferocity and fear-factor that even today, a phrase which has its origins from over 700 years ago, still lingers in the English language today: “To avoid it like the Plague”.

The History of the Black Death.

The Black Death has been known to mankind for centuries. The most famous outbreak of the Black Death started in the 1340s, not ending until 1350. Over the course of three years, the dreaded ‘Plague’ killed as much as two thirds of the people of Europe, in some cases, killing every single person in a given community. But where did it come from?

The pandemic of 1347 is widely believed to have started in Asia, possibly China or Hong Kong. The plague bacterium, living in infected fleas which lived on rats, crossed the seven seas on ships which sailed from Asia to Europe, trading goods such as precious metals, cloth and spices. When the ships docked in Italy and Greece, they were ordered to be quarantined, when it was seen, what terrible health the ship’s crews were in, but it was too late. Rats onboard the plague ships scampered onto European shores, along the mooring-ropes of the ships, tied up in the harbour. Once with a toe-hold in Mediterranian Europe, the plague was unstoppable.

Such was the plague’s ferocity, that until fairly recently, it never fully went away. The worst years were from 1347-1350, but the plague came back again in the mid 1400s and almost every successive generation since. In 1665 it returned again, devastating several major cities in England, especially London, killing up to 100,000 Londoners, roughly 1/3 of the city’s population at the time.

It wasn’t until the 19th century, with improved hygeine, that the plague, in urban areas, at least, started to disappear. Eventually, the link with rats was established, and rat-catchers could make big bucks sweeping through houses and catching rats and killing them. But until modern antibiotics, the plague had a mortality rate in the high ninties for every outbreak that occurred.

What is the Plague?

The plague is a bacterial infection. The bacterium known as ‘Yersinia Pestis’ lives in the fleas on rats. When the rat dies, the flea has to find a new host-body. If it was a human, then the flea would bite the human, vomiting infected blood (previously from the rat), into the human’s bloodstream. There were two forms of the plague, the more famous ‘Bubonic Plague’, and the less well-known ‘Pneumonic Plague’, both of which are lethal. After being bitten by the flea, nfection follows very quickly. If I were to describe the symptoms of the plague in one word, it would be: “Horrific”.

And they were.

The Symptoms.

Once bitten by an infected flea, you could expect to be dizzy, faint, feverish, weak, fatigued and queasy. As the infection grew worse, large lumps filled with blood and pus would start to grow around your pelvis, armpits and neck. These were called ‘buboes’. Filled with blood and pus as they were, they turned the skin a dark red which eventually went black, which gives rise to the two names: ‘Bubonic Plague’ and ‘Black Death’. Other symptoms included uncontrollable vomiting and joint-pains.

The swellings were incredibly painful. When they burst, blood and pus went everywhere. The infection soon got even worse, though, and not long after, you’d be suffering from internal bleeding which resulted in dark bruises all over your body. When the infection reached your lungs, you coughed up pus and blood. If this was the pneumonic strain of the disease, your coughing spread the bacteria through the air, infecting anyone stupid enough to stand near to you. While in some places, it is written that you could last up to a week, in most cases, death came in a matter of hours. Usually, twenty-four hours after being bitten, you were dead. If you were really lucky, you lasted two days, but not much more beyond that.

Controlling the Plague.

In the days before hospitals, before PA announcements, the internet, modern medicine and widespread literacy, controlling the spread of the plague and enforcing the laws regarding its containment was very tricky and the methods used were very extreme. People from the 14th to the 17th centuries had almost no idea how disease was spread. Many believed it was due to ‘bad blood’ and that to cure the patient, you had to ‘bleed’ them (a practice that existed right into the dawn of the 19th century!). Bleeding involved making a cut or an incision in the arm of the patient and bleeding out a measured quantity of blood (say, two quarts), and then bandaging the arm up again. It was believed that bleeding the patient removed the ‘bad blood’ and the ‘pestilence’ from the afflicted sufferer and that this would eventually restore the balance of good blood. Unfortunately, all bleeding did was make the patient even weaker and even less able to survive. Treatments such as bleeding and the various quack medicines that people peddled to desperate plague-victims were about as effective as making a frying-pan out of tissue-paper.

What people did understand, however, was that to stop the plague from spreading, they did have to isolate it. If you isolated the sickness, it had nowhere to go, and it would eventually die out with no fresh victims. As a result, officials of all kinds, from priests to city mayors and kings and noblemen, imposed strict quarantines on their communities. Nobody was allowed to enter and nobody was allowed to leave, at least, not without written permission. The houses where plague-victims lived were invariably locked up. The doors were locked and bolted, windows shuttered and the entire house was sealed up. Everyone inside the house (the dying patient as well as his or her family!) was NOT allowed OUT and nobody apart from ‘authorised personnel’ such as plague-buriers, seekers of the dead, plague-nurses or doctors, were allowed in. Houses having the disease were marked with big, red crosses and had to be sealed up for at least two weeks. When the house was declared safe again, a large, white circle was painted around the cross, to indicate that the ‘pestilence’ had left the house. The words ‘Lord have mercy on us’ were usually written on the door as well, as a prayer for the poor souls under house-arrest.

Burying the Dead

Some of you may remember a scene from “Monty Python and the Holy Grail”, with a plague-burier going through a squalid slum in Medieval England, pushing a cart and ringing a bell, calling out the mournful words: “Bring out your dead!”, and then having the corpses of plague-victims dumped onto the cart. This isn’t just fanciful filmmaking. This is what really happened. Plague-buriers and Seekers of the Dead (old women who were paid tuppence for examining dead bodies), went through communities, ringing a bell to signal their approach, and calling out the famous, ever plague-associated catchphrase: ‘Bring out your dead!’.

The dead were usually wrapped in white shrouds (like a body-bag). Once dragged out of the house, they were dumped onto the cart and then wheeled away, often dozens of corpses at a time. Early on in the plague, you could generally get a decent burial, with a priest and a coffin and mourners…but as time went on and the plague got worse and worse, there just wasn’t time for all the pomp and ceremony. Gravediggers who dug massive holes called ‘plague pits’, would help the plague-buriers fling the bodies of the dead into the plague pits. With each layer of bodies, a bucket of crushed lime was thrown over the top, to aid in decomposition, before a layer of soil was thrown over, and then the process was repeated again, with more bodies, until you had this sort of chocolate-and-lime layer-cake of death. There are dozens, hundreds of plague-pits all over Europe and England. The locations of many are lost to history, but occasionally, construction-workers digging the foundations for new buildings or renovating existing buildings, do stumble across the dozens of skeletons of plague-victims, buried on that spot all those centuries ago.

Resistance to the Plague

Despite its incredible mortality rate (which was anywhere from 70-100%), some people actually did survive the plague, despite everyone around them dropping like flies. The most famous case of plague survival is the tiny village of Eyam in Derbyshire, England.

Eyam in Derbyshire, was struck by the Plague in the August of 1665. At the time, the English capital, London, was suffering nearly 1,000 deaths a week from Plague. The Plague came to Eyam in a cart, of all things. A delivery of cloth to the village tailor had plague-infected fleas living in it. When the tailor handled the cloth, he was bitten. Within a week, he was dead. The residents of Eyam, understandably shocked and terrified, at first thought that they should flee. Unsure of what to do, they consulted the village rector, the Reverend William Mompesson. Rev. Mompesson insisted that the best thing to do was to put the entire village on lockdown. A voluntary quarantine to prevent the disease’s spread to nearby communities.

A nearby nobleman, catching wind of the villagers’ determination to contain this most dreaded of diseases at all costs, agreed to send deliveries of food and basic medicines to the village, at great risk to his own life. The supplies were left on the outskirts of the village at nightfall and Eyam residents would go out, under cover of darkness, to retrieve them. The supplies were paid for with coins soaked in vinegar, as it was believed that vinegar (being acidic), would kill off the ‘pestilence’ and sterilise the coins, making them safe to touch by others.

The plague raged through Eyam for months on end, in some cases, killing entire households. Stories told of women such as Elizabeth Hancock, who buried her entire family of six sons and her husband, all within a week, and yet never falling sick herself. Another tale tells of another woman, driven mad by the death of her husband, who ran downstairs one evening and consumed an entire jug (or at least a great quantity) of…bacon fat! Whether or not bacon fat is a cure for the plague, I don’t know, but the story continues that she survived. The village gravedigger, despite handling and burying upwards of 250 plague-corpses, never fell ill himself.

Today, Eyam is still famous as the Plague Village, and descendants of the 1665 plague-survivors, still reside there, over 300 years after their ancestors fought and won a battle against one of the most dangerous diseases ever known to mankind. Genetic research in the village (using DNA samples from residents who can reliably trace their ancestry back to a village resident of 1665), has revealed that these villagers…and their incredibly lucky ancestors…contained a genetic mutation which gave them a natural resistance to the plague, which explains why, despite being literally surrounded by death for well over a year, they never succumbed to the diseaase themselves.

The Plague Today

Believe it or not, but the Black Death still exists today. It never really died out, it just went away, waiting to come back, unannounced, to wreak havoc on mankind yet again. The World Health Organisation still records hundreds of cases of Plague each year, but the legendary outbreaks of 1347 and 1665 are now, thankfully, little more than the texts in our history books, since with modern medicine, plague is now treatable and controllable.

“A Generall Bill for this present year, ending the 19th of December, 1665. Report made to the King’s most Excellent Majesty”.

This is the Bill of Mortality for the middle of December, 1665, in London. Down the bottom you can read the entry:


Males: 48,569.
Females: 48,737.
In All: 97,306.
Of the Plague: 68,596”.

Over two thirds of the burials listed were for the Black Death. The Great Plague of London did not finally end until February of 1666, by which point, 100,000 people had died.


Pistols at Dawn – The History, Art and Culture of Duelling

When we think of the Victorian, Georgian, Regency or Stuart periods of history, we think of gaslight, candles, silverware, horses and carriages…and we think of one of the oldest and most dangerous customs which mankind ever thought fit to invent. The art of duelling.

Duelling has existed for centuries and while it largely died out by the end of the Victorian era, before then, it was generally seen as the ‘manly way’ of settling an argument or for gaining satisfaction for an offense, either to oneself, or to a friend or relation. Despite myth, duelling was never actually legal. Most countries had strict laws against duelling, but it happened so frequently that lawmakers and lawmen were pretty much helpless to stop it and over the years, hundreds of men shot, slashed or beat it out in the middle of a field, to gain satisfaction for an insult dealt to them by their opponent.

This article will explain what a duel is, how it was conducted, how it was fought, and what was the etiquette and culture surrounding them.

What is a Duel?

A duel is a fair fight between two gentlemen which comes after one party has “demanded satisfaction” from the other party after the exchange of insults by one, or both, of the parties.

Why Duels were Fought

Reasons for fighting duels were numerous, but the main reasons were to preserve one’s honour or to deal out revenge for an insult. Duels were fought between men, that is, gentlemen, who were members of wealthy and socially prominent families. In centuries past, the conduct of a single member of a family could taint and soil the reputation of the entire tree. It would give the family a bad name and it would disgrace the offending member for the rest of his life. Individual honour, and still more, the honour of the family and its name, was therefore of the utmost importance, and it was to be guarded fiercely.

Such was the importance of an individual’s reputation and family honour, that many gentlemen would go to great lengths, either to defend their honour, or to protect the family name; hence the duelling, which was then considered the only ‘manly’ way to settle an argument. Think of it as 18th century machismo.

Weapons of a Duel

In theory, ANY weapon can be used to fight a duel. Anything from billiard-cues, cutlery, kegs of gunpowder – at least one French record states that a duel was fought by two men in hot-air balloons. Traditionally, however, a duel was fought with swords or (from the 17th century onwards), duelling pistols.

Duelling pistols were made by master gunsmiths, and were typically sold in pairs, to wealthy gentlemen. The pistols were (and still are) single-shot, muzzleloading flintlocks. They would come in their own case, complete with accessories, everything from rammers to powder-horns and cleaning-brushes. An antique set of duelling pistols is shown below:

How a Duel was Fought

As mentioned, a duel is a fair fight between two gentlemen. These days people think of fights as bar-brawls or full, one-on-one, street-brawls. Back in the 18th and 19th centuries, the art of proper duelling was a tangle of ettiquite, rules and manners. If you didn’t play by the rules, it wasn’t a proper duel.

If a gentleman insulted another, for example, calling his wife a whore, then the insulted party had the opportunity to demand a duel. If he did desire a duel, then he would typically tell the other gentleman that he would “demand satisfaction for that insult!”.

If the offender refused to duel, the insulted party would accuse the man of cowardice (“Will you duel, or are you a COWARD?”) If the other man desired to leave the argument with his honour intact, he would be compelled to say that he would fight the duel (“Then you will have it [satisfaction] sir!”).

One rule of duelling is that it is the insulter, and not the instigator of the duel, that can select the weapons. This was only seen as being fair. Once weapons were selected (say, duelling pistols), then a time and a place would be selected for the duel. With the date agreed on, the two men would head their separate ways.

On the date of the duel, both parties were expected to show up, with their pistols loaded and ready. A flintlock pistol is an inaccurate weapon at best. It is slow to reload and has a range of only a few dozen yards, if that. After loading their weapons, the two men would stand back to back, while a second (each man had a ‘second’, that is, a companion to the duel), would count out the number of paces. A rule of thumb was that the greater the insult – the fewer the paces.

After the paces had been counted, it was up to the men to turn around and fire. If they both missed, they could reload and try again. If one was hit, the injured (or dead) man, lost the duel. Firing to miss DELIBERATELY, was a breech of the rules and the duel was disqualified.

Duelling with swords (which was common even after pistols became the favoured weapon), could be done to three different stages:

1. To first blood.

The duel would start and continue until one opponent was cut badly enough to bleed.

2. To first Injury.

The duel was fought until one opponent was injured badly enough that he could not continue the duel.

3. To the Death.

Self-explanatory, the duel was fought until one man died.

After the completion of the duel, the insulted party (if he lived) had to state that he had recieved satisfaction. Had he not, then he could demand another duel.


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.


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.


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.


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