The First Police Boxes

The original police boxes looked very different to this familiar sight, the TARDIS from Doctor Who.

Snippets 182.  Most people nowadays would associate a police telephone box with Doctor Who and little else, but they were once a common feature of British streets.  They were not actually a British invention though.  The first one in the world was installed in Albany, New York in 1877, just a year after the telephone itself was patented by Alexander Graham Bell.  The first ones in Britain were introduced in Glasgow, in 1891, and remained an exclusively Scottish feature in Britain until the 1920s.  They were initially very different in appearance to the now familiar image of the TARDIS, accommodating far more than just a telephone.

The following quote explains some of the uses a police box could be put to.  It is taken from the Aberdeen Free Press, on 3rd September 1891.  This was of course the year of the introduction of the police telephone box in Glasgow, and it clearly had not gone unnoticed in other Scottish cities.  There were plans at the time to expand the boundaries of the city of Aberdeen considerably, to include Old Aberdeen, Woodside and Torry, and this needed extra policing provisions.  Two new police stations would be needed, and an extra twenty constables added to the existing force.  But perhaps some of those newfangled police boxes could be utilised, to avoid the need for the costly new stations…

As already reported when this proposal was previously brought under the notice of Captain Munro, he suggested the substitution of telephone boxes for the more costly police stations. Yesterday Captain Munro submitted a sketch of the proposed boxes. The boxes, he explained, would be of wood, erected on a foundation of concrete, and placed upon wheels, so that they could be moved about to any part of the city desired. Each box would about the length of the ordinary cabmen’s shelter, but slightly wider, and would contain an operating room, an office, two cells, and accommodation for hose reel and other fire extinguishing apparatus. The boxes, he thought, could be erected for about £100 each, whereas the police stations which the committee originally proposed to be erected would cost from £2000 to £3000. One had recently been erected in Edinburgh at a cost of between £3000 and £4000. The suggestions of Captain Munro in this matter were very favourably received by the committee. It was considered that three of the telephone boxes would be necessary, one in the Rosemount district, one in the vicinity of Holburn, and the third at Torry — the present police accommodation at Woodside and Old Aberdeen would, it was considered, be sufficient to meet the necessities of these parts the city. The working of the arrangement would that, in the daytime, on the occasion of an alarm a bell would ring at the box, and an automatic signal would be set in motion; during the night the bell would ring, and a red light would immediately be turned on. A constable would, of course, be always in the neighbourhood of the box. When any apprehensions are made, the prisoners would in the first instance be placed in the cells of the telephone box. Communication would be opened with the central office, whence “Black Maria” would be dispatched, and the prisoners removed in it to the central police cells.

The boundaries of Aberdeen were expanded, the following month, in October 1891.  The police box idea was approved and three boxes were constructed of teak, and contained cells, fire hose reels, a stretcher, office facilities and a toilet.  Several more boxes were built over the next few years.  Unfortunately none of them were bigger on the inside.

If Doctor Who is your thing, take a look at the Doctor Who articles on my other blog: The View from the Junkyard

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The Spark of Inspiration

Palazzo Pitti, Florence

Snippets 181.  In 1817 Henry Matthews went on a “tour in pursuit of health”, and wrote about his experiences in Diary of an Invalid, in 1820.  In Florence he visited the Palazzo Pitti, taking a keen interest in the art, although he was keen to avoid the guides and form his own opinions of the paintings:

Another morning in the Pitti… Lounged carelessly through the rooms, without any guide of any kind, trusting to first impressions. When one has thus, by two or three visits, become familiarized with what one likes, and what one does not, it is useful to get a catalogue, and compare one’s sensations with authority. Protect me from the tiresome flippancy of a professed Cicerone, — who takes you round a gallery of pictures, like the showman of a collection of wild beasts.

“Cicerone” is a term used for a guide at any tourist site, often (but not always!) an academic or expert.  Later in his journal, Matthews went on to explain why he valued the views of the Cicerone so little, when it came to art appreciation:

When I visit collections of paintings, I go to have my understanding instructed, my senses charmed, my feelings roused, my imagination delighted or exalted. If none of these effects be produced, it is in vain to tell me that a picture is painted with the most exact attention to all the rules of art. At such pictures I look without interest, and turn away from them with indifference. If any sensation be excited, it is a feeling of regret, that such powers of style should have existed, without any sparks of that Promethean heat, which alone confers upon them any real value. If this be wanting, it is in vain that a connoisseur descants upon the merits of the drawing, the correctness of the perspective, and the skill of the arrangement. These are mere technical beauties, and may be interesting to the student in painting; but the liberal lover of the arts looks for those higher excellencies, which have placed painting in the same rank with poetry…

Yet, I would not be understood to deny all merit to mere excellence of execution, I would only wish to ascertain its true place in the scale. The perfect imitation of beautiful nature in the landscapes of Hobbima or Ruysdaal, — the blooming wonders that expand under the pencil of Van-Huysum, — and the exquisite finishing of Gerhard Douw’s laborious patience, — cannot be viewed with absolute indifference. Still less would I wish to deny the praise that is due to the humorous productions of Teniers, Hogarth, or Wilkie. These have a peculiar merit of their own, and evince the same creative powers of mind, which are exhibited by the true vis comica in the works of literature.

“Vis comica” is literally “comic force”, an expression that sprung from a mistranslation of a line of writing by Caesar.  It is used to describe the talent of creating something humorous.

Matthews’s “pursuit of health” was sadly not entirely successful.  He died in 1828, still a young man.  He had managed to fight through ill-health to pursue a successful legal career, and was advocate-fiscal of Ceylon from 1821 to 1827.  His only child was born in Ceylon in 1826, also called Henry Matthews, who became a Conservative MP and was ennobled as the first Viscount Llandaff of Hereford.

Previous “snippets” from Diary of an Invalid:

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The Abolition of Clapping

BioscopeSnippets 180. An early name for a film camera was a “bioscope”, and the name was chosen for a film journal during the silent era of film, published in London. It ran from 1908 to 1932. On the title page of the early issues you will see “incorporating The Amusement World and The Novelty News” under the title. Those were earlier trade journals for showmen. Much like The Talking Machine News, which we looked at last month and which performed a similar service for phonographs, The Bioscope was aimed at the trade rather than the general public, but it still carried a range of articles that are absolutely fascinating from an historical perspective.

The quote below is from the 7th January 1909 issue, and concerns an organisation known as the Hanover League, founded with unusual aims:

The Hanover League just formed for the abolition of hand-clapping in theatres has soon met with opposition. One of our Scottish readers has objected in rather stringent terms to the idea, and he exhorts all his supporters to uphold him immediately. We do not think that the case is quite so serious as our correspondent appears to believe, but nevertheless the case will not be made any worse if a number of our readers express their indignation. The scheme may be successful in Germany, but here—No! They will get no encouragement on our soil. It is interesting to note that the league has also taken upon itself to abolish the ringing of church bells. In this latter work we hope it will find world-wide sympathy and support. We heartily congratulate the league on the adoption of this humane work, and propose them for an honourable place on the scroll of public benefactors. But pictures and artistes will be applauded long after these officious gentlemen have ceased to strive for the abolition of hand-clapping.

Has anyone heard of the “Hanover League”? If so, please comment below.

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Jerrycummumbling Inkle Weavers

The Chapel of the Hospital for Lepers in Kent Street, Southwark, 1813.

Snippets 179.  Francis Grose (1731-1791) was a noted antiquarian who wrote a series of books about medieval antiquities. Financial difficulties inspired him to branch out into other areas of writing, and in 1785 his A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue was published. Slang was a good choice of topic, as it would be entertaining and have a wide appeal. However, it stands as a useful record of the language in the 18th Century beyond the formal language studied by lexicographers. Previously we looked at some selected terms from letters A to H, so let’s continue with some examples beginnning with I, J and K, chosen (in the spirit of the original publication) for entertainment value as much as anything.

Idea-pot: the knowledge-box, the head.

Inexpressibles: breeches.

Inkle weavers: supposed to be a very brotherly set of people; “as great as two inkle weavers” being a proverbial saying.

Irish Legs: thick legs, jocularly styled the Irish arms.  It is said of the Irish women, that they have dispensation from the Pope to wear the thick end of their legs downwards.

Island: he drank out of the bottle until he saw the island; the island is the rising bottom of a wine-bottle, which appears like an island in the centre, before the bottle is quite empty.

Jack Nasty Face: a sea term, signifying a common sailor.

Jack of Legs: a tall long-legged man.

Jack Weight: a fat man.

Jarkmen: those who fabricate counterfeit passes, licences, and certificates, for beggars.

Jawing Tackle on the Board: to be saucy or impudent.

Jerrycummumble: to shake, towzle, or tumble about.

Jingle Brains: a wild, thoughtless, rattling fellow.

Jobbernole: the head

Johnny-Raw: a gawky countryman; as stupid as a waggon-horse.

Jumblegut-Lane: a rough road or lane.

Kent-Street Ejectment: to take away the street door: a method practiced by the landlords in Kent-Street, Southwark, where their tennants are above a fortnight’s rent in arrear.

Kidrig: meeting a child in the streets, who is going on some errand, and, by a false, but well fabricated, story, obtaining any parcel or goods it may be carrying… to kid a person out of a thing, is to obtain it from him by a false pretence.

Kinchin: a little child.  Kinchin coves: orphan beggar boys, educated in thieving.

Kissing crust: that part where the loaves have touched the oven.

Kiss mine a*se: an offer, as Fielding observes, “very frequently made, but never, as he could learn, literally accepted.”

Knack shop: a toy-shop, a nick-nack-atory.

Knight of the Shears: a tailor.

The one that interests me the most: “kidrig”, and the origins of the expression “to kid somebody”.  I had never realised the origins of that were quite so literal: performing a confidence trick on a gullible child.

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An Archaeological Excursion

Midhurst Church in 1880. Source:

On 17th August 1867, the Sussex Advertiser carried a report of the annual excursion of the Sussex Archaeological Society, a happy summertime event for the members of the society.  Each year they chose a different location of historical interest to visit, and in 1867 it was the turn of Midhurst:

The annual summer excursion of the Sussex Archaeological Society took place Thursday last, the ancient town of Midhurst and its neighbourhood being the scene of exploration upon the occasion. The programme provided for a visit to the parish church, also to the Cowdray Ruins and Easebourne Priory. An energetic committee had made every arrangement for the excursion, and nothing was wanted to make the meeting a successful one but fine weather. The heavy rains of the past two days had somewhat damped the expectations of the intending excursionists, and everyone was invoking that, as

“The rain brings dulness, dulness brings dismay,
Come, sun! and chase the weeping clouds away.”

In the early morning of Thursday the rain poured down freely, and prevented many, especially ladies, from joining in the excursion; but notwithstanding, there was a very large gathering of the members and their friends, many of whom had come a considerable distance to be present, Midhurst being at the “far west” of the county. Happily for those who left their homes, the weather cleared up, the sun shone brightly, and the day proved one of great enjoyment…

The party arrived at Midhurst station soon after noon and on alighting they at once proceeded to


An inspection of which was the first the business of the day. The Rev. W. Haydon the incumbent, kindly explained the character and architectural features of the church…


Most of the company at once wended their way to the ruins of Cowdray House, one the most interesting places in the county, kindly thrown open for the occasion by Lord Egmont, its present owner. T hose who visited the place for the first time were struck with the beauty and of the ruins, which are covered to a great extent with neatly-trained ivy, and situated as they are in the midst of charming woodland scenery, the visit was a most pleasing one. The services of Sir Sibbald Scott, Bart., R.S.A., were here called into requisition, and in an able manner he pointed out in succession the features of interest about the runs, and said much that was instructive about Cowdray House and its possessors.

Some excellent views of the ruins and other places of interest in the neighbourhood were exhibited by Mr. G. D. Wolferstan, of Midhurst.

In the course of the day many of the party visited the tomb of Richard Cobden, the great free trader, at Westlavington, and the remains of


Both of which lie within a short distance of Midhurst. The Priory was founded about the middle of the thirteenth century, through the liberality of a neighbouring landholder, John de Bohun, whose family held an important position at Midhurst down to the time of Henry VII.

The members of the society concluded their excursion with a celebratory dinner, where some enthusiastic speeches were given, the perfect end to a very enjoyable day in Midhurst:

“The ladies” and “Our next merry meeting” having been given from the chair, the company separated, and shortly afterwards took their departure for their respective homes, highly gratified with the whole of the interesting engagements of the day, and hoping to have an equally pleasant excursion another year.

Midhurst Church in 1880. Source:

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A Painful Journey

Source: Wikimedia. Photographer: Nicogag.

Snippets 178. We have previously looked at a few snippets from Forest Scenes and Incidents in the Wilds of North America, by George Head, published in 1829.  Head was the assistant commissary-general of the commissariat of the 3rd division of the Spanish army, and in 1815 he undertook a journey across North America.

Today’s quote finds Head nearing the end of the first major leg of his journey, the grueling part that he had to complete on foot, in hazardous and bitter weather conditions.  With just nine miles left to travel, Head found himself almost unable to complete the journey:

I arrived, in a state of extreme pain and fatigue, at the place where we were to pass the night. We crossed several ravines, and had to climb steep acclivities. Both my feet were now swollen to a great size, attended with inflammation so acute as to resemble exactly determined gout. The Canadians told me I had certainly got the mal à raquette; whatever it might have been, I lay awake all night in the miserable log house where we had put up, thinking how unlucky I was to have arrived within nine miles of the end of my journey on foot, without being able to accomplish the little that remained.

January 18th.— Nine miles were now before me, and if I could complete that distance the journey was done. The usual preparations for departure had no sooner commenced, than I felt it quite impossible to remain where I was, although I could scarcely stand upon my feet; but as my servant was still strong and able, I relied on his assistance and set forward. I never was put to so severe a trial in all my life. The exertion of walking, and the twists I met within the holes made in the hard snow by the feet of former travellers, were absolute torture; so that now and then I was obliged to lie down for a few seconds in the snow to recover myself. The cold was so intense, that almost as soon as I was down I was obliged to get up again, and a piece of bread in my coat pocket was frozen nearly as hard as wood. My servant staid by me whenever I lay down on the snow, and helped me to rise, and to him I am indebted for performing the short distance of that day’s journey. I was eight hours on the way; but at last reached the village of Rivière de Loup, where I entered a small public house in the true spirit of thankfulness at having accomplished an undertaking of which I had several times despaired.

The following are some links to previous snippets and quick quotes from the diary of George Head:

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New Year Across the Pond


Wall Street, 1834

Snippets 177. One hundred and fifty years ago, at the dawn of the year 1869, the British papers were all full of reports of new year celebrations.  The local papers tended to recount meetings in church halls with speeches delivered by mayors to cries of “here here”.  The East London Observer instead attempted to give a flavour of how New Year’s Day was celebrated across the pond, with an article titled New Year’s Day in New York.  The following snippet gives selected quotes from the article, which appeared in the 2nd January 1869 edition.

Commerce, in the American metropolis, is a jealous and stiff-fingered goddess, who is loth to yield her power, even for a day, and who detests anniversaries as her natural enemies. But on the first day of the new year she suffers a compulsory abdication. The West End divinity, fashion, for the nonce usurps her place; and for that day, at least, the slaves of commerce desert her musty, down-town and worship the gaudier idol in that New York Belgravia, which the natives sweepingly speak of as the “upper end.” Plainly speaking, business, on New Year’s day, is suspended and the order of the day is to balance the social accounts of the past twelve months, see as many of one’s friends as one can, and to perform “in a lump” those fashionable amenities which, through occupation or disinclination, have during the months gone by been neglected.

…New Year’s Day is full of life out-of-doors; the streets are crowded, the sounds are merry on every side, and everybody has that infectious air of gaiety and jolly good-nature, which the convivial custom of the day, and the excitement of chatting with a heat of agreeable acquaintances inspires. It is essentially the gala day and carnival of fashion, and of people “of the world.” For once the usually busy down-town thoroughfares are deserted, a dreary tranquillity reigns in the realm of commerce…

At high noon, the carnival of fashion begins; and now, in all directions, you hear that sound which to us is the merriest, jolliest, the most inspiring of all street sounds—the jingle of a thousand sleighbells. ‘Twould be disrespectful did we not, first of all, wait upon his honour, the Mayor of New York, who… is expected to go through the wearying process of receiving and shaking hands with “his fellow citizens” in his official rooms at the City Hall…

There are glossy-headed old gentlemen with red noses and bald foreheads, whose white whiskers would be venerable were they not so ferociously brushed and curled—with immense watch seats and portly bodies —the very picture of prosperous and somewhat conceited sons of Commerce: there are the dapper little fops, and ponderous big fops, with bobby coats, which give them the appearance of Chinese chickens, and hair which by the aid of pomade and fashionable hairdressers, they have vainly endeavoured to force into “Hyperion’s curls”…

The social duties of New Year’s over, society has done its duty and squared its accounts, and the divinity fashion, content for the while with the homage of its worshippers, in the daytime at least, yields up once more her masculine votaries to commerce.

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