In April 1851, Alfred C. Hobbs boarded the steamship Washington bound for Southampton, England.
His official duty was to sell the New York City-based company Day and Newell’s newest product – the parautopic lock – at a trade show – London’s Great Exhibition.
But Hobbs had something a bit more nefarious up his sleeve, or rather in the small trunk that accompanied him on the ship. In it sat a large assortment of picks, wrenches, rakes, and other slender tools.
You see, Hobbs wasn’t just trying to sell his locks. He was trying to prove that his competitors’ locks were, quite simply, not good enough. He had the tools, skills, and charisma to do just that.
Alfred Hobbs was about to launch the Great Lock Controversy of 1851.
Of all the locks at the Great Exhibition in July of 1851, the “Detector” was thought of as top of the class.
Patented in 1818 by Jeremiah Chubb, it had become the most widely used and prestigious lock throughout England.
In fact, in 1823 Chubb was given the distinguished honor of being the sole supplier of locks for England’s post offices and “Her Majesty’s Prison Service.”
By 1851, Chubb & Son and their “Detector” lock was so highly respected that they were given the assignment of creating a special security display cage that housed the great Koh-i-Noor diamond, a 186 carat diamond that currently sits in the Crown of Queen Elizabeth which is locked in the Tower of London.
Numerous picklocks in London had made attempts at getting past the Detector with no success. In one instance, a picklock who had been imprisoned was offered his freedom if he could figure out a way to pick the Detector lock. He couldn’t do it.
What made the Detector so difficult was that the lock had a built in anti-lock picking mechanism which, if triggered, would render the lock inoperable, even if you had the key.
This trap worked such that if you lifted one of the pins beyond what the key would have done, it triggered the lockdown mechanism.
By this, you could also tell if someone had tried to pick the lock, if your key suddenly stopped working.
To get the lock to work again, a special regulating key was needed, which would reset the lock such that it could be opened once again with the normal key.
The “Detector” was thought to be in a lock class all to itself. That is, until Hobbs got to it.
According to a report filed by Benji Johnson, “an agent of the state of New York appointed to attend” the Great Exhibition, Hobbs wasted very little time in proving that Chubb’s locks were not impenetrable.
As the report read, “Soon after the exhibition opened, Mr. A.C. Hobbs, of New York, who had charge of Day and Newell’s locks, obtained one of Chubb’s locks and opened it in a space of 10 or 15 minutes, in the presence of several gentlemen.”
As one would imagine, this did not sit well with many an Englishmen who were using the Detector to lock away their homes and valuables; most of all, it did not sit well with Chubb & Son.
They challenged Hobbs to try something a tad more difficult, a Chubb’s lock attached to an iron door of a vault in Westminster that was a “depository of valuable papers.” Hobbs sent out an invitation for them to come watch him pick, “Gentlemen- An attempt will made to open a lock of your manufactured on the door of a strong room… You are respectfully invited to be present and witness the operation.”
At approximately 11:35 am, in front of the iron door in Westminster, Hobbs met his skeptical onlookers.
He took out from his “waistcoat two or three small and simple-looking tools – a description of which, for obvious reasons, we fear to give” and went to work.
Within twenty five minutes, he had the lock open with a “sharp click.”
He had once again successfully picked a supposedly impenetrable Chubb lock.
A flaming Christmas pudding. © Matt Riggott at Wikipedia
Over the course of the 18th century, pottage and porridge became unfashionable as sophisticated cuisine increasingly took its cues from France.
In 1758 Martha Bradley, the author of The British Housewife: or, The Cooke, Housekeeper’s and Gardiner’s Companion said of plum porridge that “the French laugh outrageously at this old English Dish”.
Her own recipe for ‘plum porridge’ sounds very rich; it contains a leg and a shin of beef, white bread, currants, raisins, prunes, mace, cloves, nutmegs, sherry, salt and sugar.
As plum pottage died out, the plum pudding rose to take its place. Thanks to cheap sugar from the expanding West Indian slave plantations, plum puddings became sweeter and the savoury element of the dish (meat) became less important.
By the Victorian period the only meat product in a Christmas pudding was suet (raw beef or mutton fat).
At this point it had really become Christmas pudding as we know it, with the cannonball-shaped pudding of flour, fruits, suet, sugar and spices topped with a sprig of holly, doused in brandy and set alight.
How exactly plum pudding got to be associated with Christmas is the next mystery. The earlier plum pottage was apparently enjoyed at times of celebration, although it was primarily associated with harvest festivities rather than Christmas.
There is an unsubstantiated story that in 1714, King George I (sometimes known as the Pudding King) requested that plum pudding be served as part of his first Christmas feast in England.
Whether this actually happened or not, was can see that recipe books from the 18th century onwards did start associating plum pudding with Christmas.
In 1740, a publication titled Christmas Entertainments included a recipe for plum pudding, which suggests that it was increasingly eaten in a Christmas context.
The first known reference to a ‘Christmas pudding’ is, however, not to be found until 1845, in Eliza Acton’s bestselling Modern Cookery for Private Families.
Read more via Dance’s Historical Miscellany: Christmas pudding: a history.
The Carlisle Arms on Bateman Street was the scene of London’s only known death through near-inhalation of a billiard ball.
In November 1893, a 24-year-old envelope cutter named Walter Cowle reckoned he could place a whole billiard ball in his mouth and still close his teeth.
This he achieved, but only by accidentally blocking his windpipe and choking to death.
The coroner later declared that it was a ‘silly and dangerous feat to attempt’.
You can still drink in the pub to this day, but it no longer contains a billiard table.
Source: Grantham Journal, 11 November 1893
It made headlines from the off when it became the first prison in London to introduce the treadmill.
This was an ingenious but sadistic form of punishment: up to a hundred prisoners a time spent ten hours a day climbing its revolving steps.
These connected to millstones which ground flour for the inmates’ daily bread. It was mandatory for all those who weren’t sick or dying. Anyone who complained was chained to it.
The treadmill made Brixton famous. It fascinated a public cowed by a seemingly unrelenting rise in crime.
Poems and plays were written about it, ballads were sung and cartoons printed.
The dukes of York and Wellington and even royalty were said to have seen it for themselves.
Some of those forced onto the mill gained a fame of their own. Among them was John Dando – the Oyster Eater.
He feasted on what he couldn’t afford, touring London’s eateries, consuming huge quantities of food then refusing to pay.
He ate anything, though shellfish was his weakness. In Brixton he had to be separated from the other prisoners whom he robbed of bread and beef.
The Forty Thieves was a notorious band of child pickpockets, based in Lambeth, which stole its name from an infamous gang of New York.
Its members were regular visitors to Brixton and easily identified by a distinctive tattoo of five dots inked onto the web between thumb and forefinger.
The prison’s first governor also gained notoriety. John Green terrorised prisoners, but also staff, and had a fondness for whipping children. He was eventually sacked for violence, being drunk on duty and having an ‘addiction’ to swearing.
In the 1850s Brixton achieved another first when it became a convict prison solely for women.
Victorian sensibilities, though, meant only women could be put in charge of its inmates.
The governor, Emma Martin, had eleven children who lived with her in the prison grounds and in contrast to her predecessor, John Green, earned a reputation for kindness and fairness.
Brixton served as a military prison in the 1880s, but at the turn of the century became the remand prison for the whole of London. It would come to entertain some of the most extraordinary figures of the twentieth century.
Among them was Terence MacSwiney, the republican activist and Lord Mayor of Cork, who died in the prison in 1920 after a 74 day hunger strike.
It brought the world’s attention to the cause of Irish independence, prompting workers to down tools in New York and sparking riots in Barcelona.
Oswald Mosley was moved in Brixton during the invasion scare of 1940 where he was said to have taken German lessons.
The philosopher and pacifist Bertrand Russell had two stints in Brixton and likened his stay to a cruise on an ocean liner.
The Krays, who epitomised a darker London glamour, were remanded to Brixton on a charge of murder.
The Battle of Zama by Henri-Paul Motti. Public domain illustration
Without elephants, the ancient Library of Alexandria might not have existed.
Every war has, as a byproduct, cultural and technological innovation: in our world, the US Civil War led to medical advancements and the Cold War put us in space. In the classical era, it was the race to build elephant armies that changed the world.
By 275 BCE, Alexandria was the largest, most beautiful city in the world.
Its buildings were made of limestone and marble, imported from places worlds away. Its relatively temperate climate meant that flowers were almost always in bloom, impressing foreigners both from warmer and cooler climes.
Scholars from around the world came to study and work at the Museum and Library. Life in the city was good.
But it wasn’t always that way.
Just seven years earlier, when Ptolemy Philadelphos (second of the rulers of the Ptolemaic dynasty) took the throne, Alexandria was but another city on the Mediterranean.
In less than one hundred years, it went from a small seaside town founded by Alexander the Great to the city you learned about in your high school world history classes, with its famous lighthouse and library.
All because of elephants.