Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Rodney Ansell and the legacy of larrikinism

Australian, Rodney Ansell died in 1999. To many his name means very little but the 44-year-old bushman was the inspiration for Paul Hogan's famous character, Mick Dundee. Tragically the Territorian met his maker in much and the same way as he lived his life, i.e. on the edge and he was killed during a shoot-out with Darwin police. Like Ned Kelly, the larrikin was part of Australian folklore but where did the term Larrikin, originate from.

The origins of the word larrikin remain unclear but many etymologists believe it came from a mispronunciation of "larking", as in ‘larking around ‘. It was first used in Australia in 1870, and referred to a group of wild, adolescents, from inner urban areas of Melbourne. It took another ten years before the term larrikin was officially used in police records. Defined as anti-authoritarian, the larrikins were compared to the London "Loafers"; New York "Hoodlums” and San Francisco "Corner Boys".

A characteristic of the youth culture was their dress. Described by the press in 1870 as "youths with a hang dog look and careless in attire" they were the great grandfather of juvenile delinquents. Contrary to their contemporary put down the original larrikin dressed in quite spectacular style. They would appear in the street wearing long frock coats made from dark or black material. The jackets were tailored with tight waists and velvet collars. Quite Spanish in style, the long fingertip jacket was similar in cut to Edwardian drapes, later adopted in the 1950s by the UK Teddy boys. Trousers were either bell bottomed or cut very tightly. The larrikin wore either a slouch or small round (like a bowler) hat which had to be black. To complete the outfit, they wore high heeled boots with extremely pointed toes. Loud silk ties and jaunty waistcoats would complement their sumptuous attire.

Larrikins were usually accompanied by young female companions called Cafe Belles. The girls were gaudily dressed to attract attention and in public displayed much irreverence by being loud (unlady-like) and smoking (usually associated with prostitutes). Larrikins were idle lads who often became involved in petty street crime much in the same way today's street kids can drift into crime by being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

There is no historic evidence larrikins were anything other than "naerdae wells" or “jack the lads". Whereas their North American counterparts i.e. Hoodlums and Bowery Boys (Soaplocks) eventually became the crime families we now recognise today as the Cosa Nostra (or Mafia).

The terms Bodgies and widgies were used to describe the youths of the fifties in Australia. Bodgies were the boys and the girls were known as Widgies. Again the origins of the terms remain unclear but the behaviour and clothing styles bare remarkable similarities to Larrikins and cafe belles albeit they were parted by almost a century.

Bellanta M (2012) Larrikins: A History St Lucia, University of Queensland Press
Manning A.E. (1958) The Bodgie: A Study in Abnormal Psychology A.H. and A.W. Reed, Wellington.

Reviewed 23/03/2016

Sunday, March 6, 2016

A brief history of shoe making in Australia

It was well documented among the penal colony population that boots and shoes wore out quickly due to the harsh conditions. From 1790 convict shoemakers made large quantities of footwear from imported leathers. Problems of mass production were hampered because of the lack of raw materials. Local cattle hides were not strong enough for soling, although kangaroo skins were successfully treated for uppers in 1805. Australian convicts were rarely issued socks and their prison issue shoes were straight lasted. Part of their penance was having to break in their shoes.

Convicts who were by trade shoe makers (Snobs) could not keep up with the demand and made shoes for private commission as well as for fellow inmates. Many continued in their trade once released from prison and quickly established themselves as saddlers and leather tradesmen. In the 1828 census the outback had one shoemaker for every 236 inhabitants. Western Australia became a penal colony much later and received a small numbers of juvenile offenders from 1842. It was not formally constituted as a penal colony until 1849.

Convicts were taught to make boots and shoes in the West Australian prisons with many taking their trade to the towns and bush on release. Convict transportation to WA stopped in 1868.

At first Australian made shoe were expensive and most settlers continued to send to England for their shoes well into the 1830s. A decade later, Australian shoe making had improved and outback boot makers were making quality hard wearing boots for rural Australians.

It was common practice among the early Scots and Irish immigrants to go bare foot; this was by choice and not borne through adversity. However, by the 1830s it had become a mark of deprivation in the eastern colonies to be without footwear. Settlers in the more tropical climates started to dress for the conditions and men in Brisbane abandoned shoes for sandals and the more middle class wore plaited leather shoes for ventilation. The absence of shoe makers in Perth Western Australia in the early 19th century is apparent by this letter sent to England from a lady in Perth, Western Australia (1830):

“many respectable females with their children are going - barefoot - not a shoe maker can be got to work."

Absence of shoemakers and money to buy shoes meant many Australians went barefoot. Shoe mending (cobbling) fell mainly on women in Australian towns and country areas.

New comers to the colonies were often met with a stare because they sported the latest European fashions. In the eighteenth century Top boots were all the rage in London but had little practical use in Australia. New arrivals immediately acquired the bush dress of rough clothes and equivalent manners. New comers to the colonies were often met with a stare and cries of derision because they sported the latest European fashions. In the eighteenth century Top boots were all the rage in London but had little practical use in Australia. New arrivals immediately acquired the bush dress of rough clothes and equivalent manners.

The clothes worn by working people were usually ready made in heavier materials with women's clothes made of softer fabrics. Rural dress was more practical and governed by shortages. Australian men traditionally wore something special on Sundays. Children wore cast offs or adult style clothes made to smaller sizes. The working class bought their shoes at the slop shops which catered for the cheap and cheerful.

Towards the end of the 19th century, middle-class Australian women became preoccupied with fashion and the new urban bourgeois shopped at the new stores in Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane. They employed agents in Europe and Britain to conduct their import business.

John Lobb trained as a bootmaker in London before moving to Australia to try his luck in the goldfields. Whilst he never found fortune in gold he did strike on the idea of making hollow heeled boots for prospectors to hide their gold. The idea caught on and Lobb set himself up in business in Sydney in 1858. When the Great Exhibition came along in 1862 he sent a pair of his boots along and won a gold medal for their quality. Twelve months later he sent a pair of his riding boots to the Prince of Wales and was awarded a Royal Warrant. He returned to London and established a business " John Lobb, Bootmaker" which continues to trade as the world's most famous bespoke shoemaking establishment.

Besides European influences the effect of American styles on colonial woman's fashion was profound. None more so than the high quality shoes available around about 1890. By 1894 the American shoes had replaced British footwear in the Australian Market. The mass production stateside made them cheaper but also the range of styles and leathers were much bigger. There was an American Shoe Company in George Street Sydney selling modish forms of footwear.

Australian footwear industry in the mid nineteenth century faced similar problems to clothing manufacturing. Colonial made boots and shoes commanded the local market in New South Wales from 1840-1852. The period also recorded high productivity in South Australia and shoemakers were able to provide much of the footwear for the local market. Adelaide had four tanneries in full production in 1843, and colonial articles were reputedly preferred to import ones.

The British manufacturers made a deliberate attempt to capture Australian trade by flooding the market. Low manufacturing costs and mechanisation meant the UK could produce footwear at low prices even with high transport costs. These imported shoes were not always suited to the climate. Often the leather would become mildewed on the outward journey. Colonial made boots and shoes commanded the local market in New South Wales from 1840-1852. The period also recorded high productivity in South Australia and shoemakers were able to provide much of the footwear for the local market. Adelaide had four tanneries in full production in 1843.

Local manufactures alleged the colonial boots were longer lasting. An Australian made working boot would last on average one calendar month whereas the English slops were doomed by two to three weeks. Australian made footwear was more expensive than the cheaper imports. By the end of the 1850s prices women's boots cost between 3/6 to 7/- for British boots; whereas the colonial made equivalent cost 12/6. The decade between 1850 & 1860 saw a decline in the footwear industry in New South Wales due to high wage claims caused by the gold rush. Boot makers' wages had doubled between 1840 and 1860. By 1870 Sydney boot makers were producing 15,000 pairs of boots each week.

Once mechanisation was established bootmakers could cater for the neglected market of children's shoes (although Clarks of England had been exporting children’s shoes to Australia since 1842). Shoes were made for men and children rather than women. Boot and shoemaking was one of the most successful of the garment industries because the product was produced to be profitable, hard wearing and practical items. By 1890s the Melbourne manufacturers had converted to a modern system of mechanisation. Concentration of practical footwear meant the fashionable imports remained popular with consumers.

A home grown fashion industry tried to establish itself and a Melbourne firm responded by producing shoes made from kangaroo skins. The Kangaratta was popular partly because kangaroo skin looks like superior glace kid. Unfortunately, by the mid-1890s the US had captured the Australian market.

In 1858 new technologies had been introduced in the States which completely revolutionized the manufacture of mass produced boots and shoes. At first these were poor quality and scarcely lasted more than 12 days but eventually quality improved. American manufacturers over produced for their domestic market and became a major exporter during the late 19th and early 20th century. A spike came with the Gold Rushes (US 1848- 1855; and Aus 1850s - 1890s). During this time the population of Australia quadrupled and the Australian market continued to be flooded with cheap US imports. Australian manufacturers found it difficult to compete until tariffs were introduced then they started producing their own footwear. The effect of American styles on colonial woman's fashion was profound and by 1894 the American shoes had replaced British footwear in the Australian Market.

Making shoes is a complex business involving many subsidiaries and footwear operations sprung up in many metropolitan areas across Australia including: Ballarat, Geelong, Goulburn, Hobart, Perth and Adelaide. By the beginning of the 20th century good quality leather was abundant and many new Australian companies started making quality boots for farmers. The onset of World War, meant Australian boot makers went into war production mode, manufacturing footwear for the Australian military. Many of these companies have survived producing quality footwear for mountaineering and industrial needs. The First World War saw a massive demand for Australian footwear and by the 20s there were large Australian footwear companies with many hundreds of employees.

During the Depression these firms went to the wall and in their wake came smaller boutique companies who thrived due to demand of an increasing population and the Second World War. By the 60s the entire Australian economy was expanding, fuelled by large scale immigration and technical and scientific innovation, as well as the increasing availability of raw materials after protracted wartime shortages. As the 80s and 90s approached there was a marked decline in Australian produced footwear and more dependency on imports from Asia. Currently local manufacturers produce about 12% of the footwear purchased in Australia with much of the production now done off shore.

Maynard M 1994 Fashioned from Penury: dress as cultural practice in colonial Australia Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
Michell L 1997 Stepping out: three centuries of shoes Sydney: Powerhouse Publishing

More Information
Hyde Park Barracks Museum

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

A short history of Australian Quackery

The term quack or quackery means fraudulent or ignorant medical practices. A quack is a "fraudulent or ignorant pretender to medical skill" or "a person who pretends, professionally or publicly, to have skill, knowledge, or qualifications he or she does not possess i.e. a charlatan". The term quack is a clipped form of the archaic term quacksalver, (Dutch: quacksalver a "hawker of salve") and in the Middle Ages, quack meant "shouting" as the quacksalvers sold their wares on the street shouting in a loud voice. During the Middle Ages, the combination of plagues and syphilis left the orthodox medicine in the absence of antibiotics, unable to cope with painful skin sores. Things were dire and a blind eye was turned to charlatans and quacks purveying all manner of so called remedies, most of which had little or no effect or worse caused further complications. Among the popular salves and quack cures was one which survived to this day i.e. the corn cure. By the middle of the nineteenth century quack medicine had been banned in France and Germany causing many purveyors of life’s elixir to spread throughout Europe and the colonies. In Australia at this time it was unclear who could practice medicine and many quacks roamed the country making the best of the opportunity. Not all were scoundrels but many were.

Lying and extravagant claims in newspaper advertisements were all accepted norms in these days and reflected an era when free enterprise was the name of the game. Victorians were agog with electricity and all manner of therapeutic appliances that plugged into the electricity grid were for sale. A physiotherapist’s delight. From corsets to belts all were electrified and claims of curing weak backs, functional irregularities, hysteria, kidney disorders and rheumatism would put today’s infomercials to shame. Most of course did not work and many of the so-called inventors spent long years doing vertical sun tan for their frauds and scams. Some however survived and became legitimised.

Pall Mall Electric Association was an Australian company which advertised extremely practical products such electrical hairbrushes, toothbrushes and electric insoles. All had one thing in common; they were all mercifully harmless which is perhaps not what might be said about the advertising copy which appeared throughout Australian newspapers in the 1880s.

Nothing to do with the old plates of meat (Rhyming slang for feet) but a fellow by the name of Doctor Richard Foot came in Sydney in about 1860, his motto was “Vitality force” and was the Viagra of the time. At seventeen shillings and sixpence Doctor Foot would supply you with his voltaic appliance for coping with seminal weakness.

In Melbourne he introduced his Brown Sequard or monkey gland injections. Foot was a professional showman and held regular seminars to the demonstrate his products, throughout Australia, he then moved to New Zealand, returned briefly to Sydney before setting himself up in South Africa as Professor Foot. His fortunes were less well starred there and eventually he was exposed for contravening the Medical and Pharmacy Act.

The Victorians were also fascinated magnetism and any manner of magical creams and potions. Dr Sheldon’s Magnetic Liniment was popular and claimed to cure rheumatism, backache, toothache, neuralgia, sore throat, corns and cuts and bruises, according to the newspaper adverts. Water (hydropathic) became a treatment in itself, whether recommended to drink in copious quantities or just bathe in it, great efficacious benefits would accrue. Antiseptic footbaths were recommended for ailments causing flatulence, bowels dysfunction, lungs and headaches.

Perhaps the greatest hydro therapist of the day was Father Sebastian Kneipp. from Worishofen in Bavaria, the parish priest had no medical training but was interested in water cures. He was used herbal remedies and was reat believer in walking barefoot for good health. So popular was his hydrotherapy Australian doctors began using it.

Phillips P 1984 Kill or cure: Lotions, potions, characters and quacks of early Australia Richmond: Greenhouse Publishing

Reviewed 27/01/2016

Thursday, January 7, 2016

A brief history of Congress Boots (Gaiters) and how they became an Australian icon

The congress boot (or Congress Gaiter) was very popular in the 19th and early 20th century. These below ankle boots became available circa 1840 and were probably a version of the Balmoral boot, reputedly designed by Prince Albert, husband of Queen Victoria. Once the potential of elastic was realised new boot designs incorporated elastic gussets. The boot’s upper was made from soft kid leather and resembled modern wrestling boots. Some authorities reckoned them to be the most comfortable shoes ever designed. The elasticated sides provided both easy access and neat fit ably assisted by a cloth tab at the back of the heel of the boot. These were to prove so popular with politicians in the US, they were known as Congress boots or gaiters.

19th century sea captains bought them in bulk and kept them on board in the ship’s store. At that time many crew members were recruited or Shanghai’ed barefoot and were then sold a pair of sturdy boots once on deck with the cost deducted from their wages. By law once a sailor signed on board a vessel for a voyage, it was illegal for him to leave the ship before the voyage's end. The boots became coveted throughout the western world and were sometimes used as bribes to customs men by unscrupulous smugglers eager to have them turn a blind eye whilst illegal cargoes were being unloaded.

Something else about the elasticated boot was it was to become an Australian icon. RM Williams, was in his early teens when left home in South Australia to work as a lime burner in the Mallee scrub of north-western Victoria. So keen was his sense of adventure aged 16 he signed on as a camel boy to an expedition charged with the immense task of surveying a huge tract of arid land from the Western Australian border to the north-south railway at Oodnadatta in South Australia. Later he worked at a number of the huge pastoral stations of central Australia and the Northern Territory. During this time the young Williams learnt bush lore from the aborigines of the region.

He was also influenced by the many bushmen and stockman he met. One particular fellow who left an impression was Dollar Mick. He was a gifted saddler and passed on many of his craft skills to the young Reg Williams. Between them they were able to produce a wearable pair of riding boots for the price of a dollar. During the Great Depression, whilst working as a well sinker, Reg began to make and sell his boots by mail order. Handcrafted, comfortable and made to last a lifetime, they were ideal for the harsh conditions of the Australian outback. From these humble beginnings has grown the world-wide company we know today.

The secret of the boot was its simplicity, the upper and quarters of the riding boot were shaped from one piece of leather. This meant only one seam at the back, which improved the boots, waterproof properties. The footwear was further strengthened by the absence of side seems. With no protruding seems to catch in the stirrups the boot ideal for horsemen. At first heels were handmade. Today a pair of RM Williams boots is made by teams of skilled craftsmen who take over a week to make each pair of boots using sixty eight hand-held processes, before they are finished, inspected and ready to leave the factory floor. A quality product from Australia.

Monday, May 4, 2015

Happy as Larry - the origins

The earliest printed reference to “Happy as Larry” (meaning extremely happy or content) is from New Zealand writer G. L. Meredith, dating from around 1875:

"We would be as happy as Larry if it were not for the rats".

When Australian middleweight boxer, Larry (Laurence) Foley (1847 - 1917) retired unbeaten at 32 (1879) , he collected a purse of £1,000 for his final fight. A newspaper article in New Zealand carried the headline “Happy As Larry,” to describe the father of Australian boxing. The phrase slipped into common lexicon thereafter and a reference can be found in Tom Collins’ (the pen name of the popular Australian writer Joseph Furphy), Barrier Truth, 1903:

"Now that the adventure was drawing to an end, I found a peace of mind that all the old fogies on the river couldn't disturb. I was as happy as Larry."