Plymouth, Montserrat – the Pompeii of the Caribbean


Everyone is familiar with Pompeii, the Roman city that was entombed after nearby Mt Vesuvius erupted in AD 79. What is less well-known is that a similar experience happened to a modern-day city just over 20 years ago.

Montserrat is one of the Lesser Antilles Islands, an archipelago in the Caribbean Sea, north of South America. Many of the islands are volcanic, and their location roughly traces the edge of the Caribbean Plate along its boundary with the tectonic plates (North and South American Plates) beneath the Atlantic Ocean. The Caribbean Plate is overriding the North American Plate. As the plates collide, the mantle of the overriding Caribbean Plate melts, generating magma that rises to the surface and feeds many volcanoes in the region.

Map of the Caribbean showing the location of Montserrat.

Aside from a seventeenth-century eruption, Soufrière Hills, a volcano on the southern part of the island, had been mostly quiet during historical times.

All this changed in mid-1995. On the 18th of July 1995, an eruption of ash prompted an evacuation of almost 5,000 residents. The volcano grew a new dome on November 1995. By January 1996, the old dome was rapidly buried and between March and September of the same year, the first pyroclastic flows poured down the Tar river valley. This created a new delta and in April the south of the island was evacuated. The capital city of Plymouth was also abandoned, with government officials and many residents relocating to Brades, on the northwestern tip of the island in 1998, to this day, Brades is the “de facto” capital of the island, although a new capital is being built in the Little Bay area. Legislatively, Brades was never officially made the capital, so Plymouth is still the “de jure” capital, and the only capital city in the world that is officially abandoned.

Map of Montserrat, showing the site of the abandoned capital of Plymouth, the “de facto” capital of Brades and the exclusion zone around the southern part of the island.

By 26 December 1997, when the most extreme explosive event occurred, approximately 90% of the resident population of over 10,000 had had to relocate at least once and over two-thirds had left the island. Virtually all the island’s important infrastructure was destroyed or put out of use. The private sector collapsed and the economy became largely dependent, directly or indirectly, on British aid funding public sector and related activities.

An area around the volcano, containing about two-thirds of the island, is vulnerable to volcanic hazard and is a no-go area. Around 40% of the island is unaffected by volcanic activity but these areas may be prone to ash falls and volcanic gases during any volcanic activity and if the wind is blowing from south to north. These sometimes cause cancellation of flights to and from the island.

Sign showing the beginning of the exclusion zone on the southern part of Montserrat.

In addition there are three areas around the coastline which are designated Maritime Exclusion Zones where no shipping should enter. The largest of these extends for 4km on the eastern side of the island and there are two on the western side of the island. The most southerly of the two extends for 2km off shore and the third for a half kilometre off shore.

An island-wide siren system is installed to warn of volcanic activity. The sirens are tested daily at 12:00 midday. Radio Montserrat (ZJB) also provides regular scientific updates and advice to listeners.

Drone footage showing the abandoned city of Plymouth – the devastation caused by the multiple eruptions can clearly be seen.

The following sites were used for the creation of this blog post:

https://www.worldatlas.com/articles/the-1995-eruption-of-the-soufriere-hills-volcano-in-montserrat.html

https://www.caribbeanislands.com/montserrat/

Mrs Scott’s Sad Mistake


Elizabeth Scott was the first women to be hanged in Victoria. Like Jean Lee, the last woman to be hanged in Victoria, Scott believed that her gender would save her from the gallows. Like Lee, she was sadly mistaken.

Scott had come to Australia with her parents in 1854, and within a year, aged just 14, she had married 28 year old Robert Scott. Scott was an unprepossessing man, coarse and vulgar and a drunkard. He had however, made some money from the Gold Rush that had enveloped Victoria in the early 1850’s, and Scott’s parents thought he was something of a catch. The couple ran a shanty pub for miners at Devil’s River, north-east of Melbourne, and by the time she was 20, Elizabeth had given birth to five children, of which only two survived.

Robert Scott’s drinking had gotten worse, and after 9 years, Elizabeth began to look for a way out of the marriage and escaping Devil’s River. She found it in a customer at the pub, 19 year old David Gedge, and the two started a passionate affair. Gedge wasn’t the only young man devoted to Elizabeth. Julian Cross, a labourer who worked at the pub, was besotted with Elizabeth as well. On the 13th of April, 1863, Elizabeth put the young men’s devotion to the ultimate test – to be involved in the murder of her husband, Robert Scott.

Gedge and Cross each had conflicting accounts about how Robert Scott died.
Gedge claimed that he was sitting by the kitchen fire in the Scott residence when Cross walked past, carrying a pistol, into Robert Scott’s room. There was a shot, Cross reappeared, pointed the pistol at Gedge and threatened to kill him if he left the residence to report the death.

Cross’s account was different – he said that Gedge had tried to shoot Robert Scott in his bed, but the gun had misfired. Gedge gave Cross the gun, and said it was his turn to shoot Robert Scott. Cross declined, but Elizabeth ordered him to shoot her husband. She poured Cross a large brandy to calm his nerves, and according to Cross, “I took up the gun and went into the bedroom and shot Scott.”

Elizabeth tried to pass the murder off as a suicide, but police quickly realised that it was a murder. Early next morning, they had a confession from Julian Cross implicating both David Genge and Elizabeth Scott. All three were sentenced to death by hanging.

Notification of the hangings of Elizabeth Scott, David Gedge and Julian Cross.

On the 11th of November 1863 at the Melbourne Goal, 17 years before bushranger Ned Kelly would stand on the same spot, all three were hanged simultaneously.

The hanging gallow at Melbourne Gaol.

To the end, Elizabeth Scott believed that she would be reprieved. After all, she had not pulled the trigger, and she was a woman – a beautiful woman.

When she appeared from her cell to be taken to the gallows, the spectators below gasped at her beauty. She was dressed in a long black coat, with her dark hair carefully braided. As she was placed between the two young men who were to die for her love, she carefully adjusted the noose so that it didn’t spoil the folds of her cloak. Then just before the hangman pulled the lever, she asked her lover, “David, will you not clear me?” She never heard his answer.

Paul Taylor’s book “Australian Ripping Yarns – Cannibal Convicts, Macabre Murders, Wanton Women and Living Legends (Five Mile Press, Rowville, 2004, pp. 166-168) was used as the basis for this post.







The 1904 St Louis Olympic Games Marathon


The men’s marathon at the 1904 St Louis Olympic Games ranks high on the list for the most bizarre, unusual and controversial events ever held in Olympic Games history.

To begin with, the organisers of the marathon knew almost nothing about staging such an event. The course, which measured 39.99 kilometres (24.8 miles) in length included seven hills and was run on dusty roads, made dustier by the many cars which the judges, doctors and journalists used to follow the runners. The only water available to the runners was from a well located 19 kilometres (12 miles) from the main stadium where the race began and ended.

MarathonMap
Map of the course, from the front page of the St Louis Despatch newspaper.

The event attracted nearly all of the top American marathon runners, including:

Sam Mellor – winner of the 1902 Boston Marathon

John Lordon – winner of the 1903 Boston Marathon

Michael Spring – winner of the 1904 Boston Marathon

Thomas Hicks – 2nd in the 1904 Boston Marathon

Arthur Newton – 5th in the 1900 Paris Olympics marathon.

There were also some lesser-known and unusual entrants. One was 1.5 metre (5 foot) tall Felix Carvajal, a Cuban mail carrier, who had lost all of his money when playing craps in New Orleans after arriving from Havana. After hitchhiking to St Louis, he arrived on the starting line wearing heavy street shoes, long trousers, a long-sleeved shirt and a beret.

CarvajalMarathon
Felix Carjaval prior to the start of the marathon, after he cut off his pants at the knees.

Also entered were the first two black Africans to participate in the Olympics – Len Taunyane and Jan Mashiani, who were Zulu tribesmen. They were not athletes – they had been brought to the United States as part of the Boer War Exhibition in the St Louis World’s Fair, which was held concurrently with the Olympic Games.

AfricanMarathon
Mashiani (L)  and Taunyane (R) prior to the start of the race.

 

The race was scheduled for the middle of the afternoon on the 30th of August, when temperatures would hit 32 degrees Celsius (90 degrees Fahrenheit). It was not surprising when the hot conditions and tough course had an immediate impact on the competitors.

MarathonStart
The runners just before the start of the race.

 

John Lordon started vomiting after only 16 kilometres (10 miles) and had to withdraw. American runner William Garcia was discovered lying in the middle of the road, after collapsing due to inhaling dust kicked up by the cars following the runners. Sam Mellor, the leader at the halfway mark, retired after 25 kilometres (16 miles). Taunyane lost time when he was chased off the course and through a cornfield by two large dogs. The only runner who didn’t appear to be bothered was the Cuban Carvajal, who stopped a number of times to chat with spectators, discuss the progress of the race and practice his English. He also quenched his thirst by snatching a couple of peaches from an official in one of the cars, and by raiding a farmer’s orchard of some green apples, which gave him stomach cramps.

Marathon_race_during_1904_Summer_Olympics
Competitors during the race – the rough and dusty nature of the course can clearly be seen.

Back in the main stadium, the spectators were unaware of these incidents, although the more knowledgeable fans might have wondered why three hours had passed without any athletes entering the stadium. Finally, after 3 hours and 13 minutes, New York resident Fred Lorz entered the stadium, did the 5 laps required and crossed the finished line. He was declared the winner, and was about to be presented with the gold medal, when it was discovered that he had stopped running after 14 kilometres (9 miles), hitched a ride in a car for 17 kilometres (11 miles) and then started running again.
American Athletic Union officials were not amused, disqualified Lorz and gave him a lifetime ban from competing. The ban was lifted, and Lorz went on to win the 1905 Boston Marathon.

LorzMarathon
Newspaper report of Lorz’s “victory” in the Marathon.

With Lorz’s disqualification, the real winner was Thomas Hicks. If modern-day rules had been in place, Hicks would have also been disqualified. Second at the halfway mark, Hicks found himself in first place when Sam Mellor retired. 16 kilometres (10 miles) from the finish the heat started to get to Hicks, who begged to be allowed down and rest, but his handlers wouldn’t allow it, even though he had a lead of nearly 2.5 kilometres (1.5 miles). To keep Hicks going, his handlers gave him a drink of a concoction made up of styrchnine sulfate mixed with raw egg whites. A few kilometres later he was given more strychnine, as well as some brandy, as well as being bathed in warm water.

Hick was forced to slow down to a walk when faced with a final, steep hill just 3.2 kilometres (2 miles) from the stadium, but a couple more doses of strychnine and brandy revived him enough to win by six minutes ahead of French competitor Albert Corey, with Albert Newton finishing third. Carvajal recovered from his stomach cramps to finish fourth. Only 14 of the 32 starters managed to complete the course, including Taunyane, who finished ninth, and Mashiani, who finished twelfth. Needless to say, Hicks was in a stupor after the race had finished. He had lost 4.5 kilograms (10 pounds) during the event, and announced his retirement straight after the race had finished.

HicksAfterMarathon
Hicks resting after the finish of the race – he still appears to be suffering from the effects of the heat, course and what his handlers gave him to drink.

After the race had finished, the athletes who had suffered in competing my have received some satisfaction when they learned that two of the race officials in charge of patrolling the course were badly injured as well, when their car swerved to avoid one of the runners and careened down an embankment.

David Wallechinsky’s book “The Complete Book of the Olympics”, Penguin Books, 1984 p. 44-45 was used as the basis for this blog post.

September 3, 1967 – Sweden switches from the left to the right


No, this post isn’t about a major change in Swedish politics after an election.

Until 1967, Sweden drove on the left—opposite from its neighbouring countries (Denmark, Finland, and Norway). Swedish drivers who travelled abroad got into car accidents because of their unfamiliarity with the traffic patterns, as did tourists who came to Sweden.

Additionally, Swedish car companies such as SAAB and Volvo made cars that were meant to be driven on the right so they could be more easily exported to the rest of the right-driving world, but many of these cars found their way onto Swedish roads. Swedish drivers were thus seated closest to the outside edge of the road, making visibility difficult.

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Traffic in Stockholm in 1966, with cars travelling on the left hand side of the road.

To fix these problems, the Swedish government made the case for switching driving to the right side of the road, and put the decision up for a public vote.

The response was overwhelmingly negative, with most Swedes wanting to stick with what they were used to. The government just decided to move forward with their plan anyway.

The government went on a major publicity drive to help with the transition. They designed signs and stickers featuring a new “H” logo (short for höger, or “right”). They distributed pamphlets and made public service announcements on TV and radio.

Dagen-H
One of the more creative ways that the Swedish government publicised the switch from LHD to RHD

One TV station even ran a competition for a song to help make people aware of the upcoming switch. The winner was Håll dig till höger, Svensson (“Stick to the Right, Svensson”) by The Telstars.

There were multiple issues that need to be addressed. Buses had their doors open to the curb, so bus stops had to be moved to the other side of the road. Road signs face one way, on one side of the road, and they also have to be changed. Intersections need to be reconfigured, and new road lines need to be drawn. Car headlights illuminated the wrong area of the road, and thus had to be replaced.

September 3, 1967 was declared Dagen-H (or “H-Day”), short for Högertrafikomläggningen (“the right-hand traffic diversion”). All nonessential traffic was banned from the roads from 1 a.m. to 6 a.m. If you were on the roads at that time, you had to come to a stop at precisely 4:50 a.m. and sit there for 10 minutes until precisely 5:00 a.m., at which point you had to move to the other side of the road.

H-Day went very smoothly, probably due to the majority drivers displaying excessive caution in the face of what was presumably a terrifying shift – what if someone forgot to changeover, and a head-on collision occurred? However, once everyone had gotten used to the change, accident levels rose to normal.

Several countries (Iceland, Nigeria and Ghana, to name a few) followed Sweden’s lead and changed from the left to the right, but in 2009 Samoa did the opposite, going from the right to the left.

LHDvRHD
Map showing the comparison between LHD & RHD countries in the world.

 

The Today I Found Out and 99percentinvisible web pages were used as sources for this blog post.

Hangers, speccies and screamers


One of the most, if not the most spectacular part of Australian rules football is the high mark, where players jump into the air to catch the ball, often jumping over or on opposition players to grab the ball.

Over the long history of the game, many of these great marks have been captured by photographers, who were in the right place and the right time to take a brilliant picture.

Here are some examples of the best hangers, speccies and screamers taken in Australian rules football history.

Edwards

Aaron Edwards (North Melbourne) versus Hawthorn (AFL – 2007)

Carlton

Unidentified Carlton player versus Melbourne (VFL – 1960’s)

Ryan

Bill Ryan (Geelong) versus St Kilda (VFL – 1968)

 

Gerovich

John Gerovich (South Fremantle) versus East Fremantle (WAFL – 1956)

 

Walker

Andrew Walker (Carlton) versus Essendon (AFL 2011)

 

Coleman

John Coleman (Essendon) versus North Melbourne (VFL 1950’s)

 

sampi-5580624.jpg

Ashley Sampi (West Coast Eagles) versus Melbourne (AFL 2004)

 

Holst

David Holst (Glenelg) versus Norwood (SANFL 1979)

 

Knights

Peter Knights (Hawthorn) versus Collingwood (VFL 1973)

 

Roach

Michael Roach (Richmond) versus Hawthorn (VFL 1980)

 

Dugdale

John Dugdale (North Melbourne) versus St Kilda (VFL 1961)

Oisne Aisne Military Cemetery – “Plot E”


Plots A-D of the Oise Aisne American Cemetary hold the remains of American soldiers who died fighting in a small portion of Northern France during World War I. However set across the street unmarked and completely surrounded by impassible shrubbery is Plot E, a semi-secret fifth plot that contains the nearly forgotten bodies of a number of American soldiers who were executed for crimes committed during and after World War II.

Over 6,000 soldiers are buried in the first four plots of the Oise Aisne Cemetery, but just 94 bodies are currently buried in the shunned fifth plot. While the small patch of land is technically on the grounds of the greater cemetery, it is not easily distinguished as it sits across the street, hidden behind the tall hedges that surround it. The only way into the secret cemetery is through the superintendent’s office.

 

The soldiers eventually interred in Plot E were tried for rape, murder, and in one case, desertion (although the remains of the deserter, Eddie Slovik, the only American executed for desertion in WWII, were returned to the states in 1987). After being convicted in U.S. courts martial held in Europe, the men were dishonorably discharged and executed via hanging or firing squad. In many cases, the men who were buried in Plot E were initially buried close to the site of their execution. Those bodies were later exhumed and moved to Oise Aisne in 1949 when the plot of shame was established.

 

PLotE
The lone headstone in Plot E.

 

Plot E has been referred to as an anti-memorial. No US flag is permitted to fly over the plot and the graves themselves, small in-ground stones the size of index cards, have no names; they are only differentiated by numbers. Even underground they are set apart with each body buried in Plot E positioned with its back to the main cemetery. The site does not exist on maps of the cemetery, and is not mentioned on the cemetery website.

 

Louis-Till-84-Grave-73
Marker for Private Louis Till, who was hanged in Italy in July 1945 after murdering an Italian woman, raping two others and then assaulting a US navy sailor.

 

Plot E has been described by one cemetery employee as a “house of shame” and “the perfect anti-memorial,” especially as the original intent was that none of the individual remains were ever to be identifiable by name.

“The Fifth Field: The Story of the 96 American Soldiers Sentenced to Death and Executed in Europe and North Africa in World War II” by French L.Maclean (Schiffer Publishing, 2013) was the basis for this blog post.

Maurice Buckley- Victoria Cross recipient


Back in November 2015 I made a blog entry about Frederick Whirlpool, the Victoria Cross winner who ended up leading a hermit-like existence in the Hawkesbury. Here is the story of another Victoria Cross recipient, and the unusual way that he was awarded the highest honour in the British armed forces.

Maurice Buckley was born in Melbourne on the 13th of April 1891, and joined the 13th Light Horse Regiment the week before Christmas 1914, and was sent to Egypt.

BuckleyEnlistment
Maurice Buckley’s enlistment form.

 

Like so many of his comrades, Buckley contracted gonorrhea and syphilis. Venereal disease was a huge problem for Australian troops based in Egypt. With the troops not actually fighting, they spent each day training in camps outside of Cairo, and when off duty they frequented the many brothels in the city as well. By February 1916, almost 6,000 men had been infected, and more than 1,000 of them were shipped back home to Australia.

Buckley ended up at the Langwarrin Venereal Diseases camp, located 40 kilometres outside of Melbourne in November 1915.  The facility at Langwarrin had originally been a training camp for Boer War soldiers, and at the start of the Great War was recommissioned as an internment camp for German and Turkish civilians. But with the dramatic emergence of venereal disease amongst enlisted men, the facility became a ‘pox camp’.

The camp was located well away from the township of Langwarrin, and conditions for the patients who went there were terrible – the men were herded behind barbed-wire enclosures, and slept in tents with rubber sheets and blankets for bedding. There was a shortage of water, which impacted on treatment and hygiene. In October 1915 there was a mass break-out involving 50 patients who had been refused leave to visit the township. The patients overpowered the camp guards, and caught the train to Melbourne, where they were subsequently arrested by police.

 

AWM-Langwarren-Camp-Venereal-Hosp
Entrance to Langwarrin Venereal Diseases camp, circa 1915.

 

After five months in Langwarrin, Buckley had had enough, and in March 1916, he escaped from the camp, never to return.  His Army papers were stamped ‘deserter’ and he was struck off the army roll. Buckley returned to his family’s house in the leafy Melbourne suburb of Malvern, to explain to his family why he was no longer serving in the Army.

With Military Police looking for her son, Agnes Buckley suggested that Maurice re-enlist, but under another name. So Maurice travelled to Sydney and re-enlisted as Private Gerald Sexton. Sexton was his mother’s maiden name, and Gerald was the name of his brother who had died in an army camp almost a year earlier of meningitis.

 

MauriceBuckley
Maurice Buckley – awarded the Victoria Cross under the alias Gerald Sexton.

Sexton was assigned to the 13th Battalion of the 4th Division, embarking shortly after for Plymouth in England and then France. Sexton was promoted to Sergeant, and on the 8th of August 1918, earned a Distinguished Conduct Medal for his bravery in the action around Morcourt Valley.

Sexton received his Victoria Cross for bravery during action near Le Verguier on the 8th of August 1918. Here is the official citation, as reprinted in the “London Gazette” of the 13th of December 1918:

“No. 6594 Sjt. Gerald Sexton, 13th Bn., A.I.F.

For most conspicuous bravery during the attack near Le Verguier, north-west of St. Quentin, on the 18th September, 1918. During the whole period of the advance, which was very seriously opposed, Sjt. Sexton was to the fore dealing with enemy machine guns; rushing enemy posts, and performing great feats of bravery and endurance without faltering or for a moment taking cover. When the advance had passed the ridge at La Verguier, Sjt. Sexton’s attention was ‘ directed to a party of the enemy manning a bank, and to a field gun causing casualties and holding up a company. Without hesitation, calling to his section to follow, he rushed down the bank and killed the gunners of the field gun. Regardless of machine-gun fire, he returned to the bank, and after firing down some dugouts induced about thirty of the enemy to surrender. When the advance was continued from the first to the second objective the company was again held up by machine guns on the flanks. Supported by another platoon, he disposed of the enemy guns, displaying boldness which inspired all. Later, he again showed the most conspicuous initiative in the capture of hostile posts and machine guns, and rendered invaluable support to his company digging in.”

At the end of 1918 the commanding officer at the Langwarrin camp notified the authorities of Sexton’s real identity. When Sexton received his Victoria Cross at Buckingham Palace in May 1919, he did so under his real name of Maurice Buckley. Buckley returned to Australia and was discharged from the Army. Buckley, a strong Catholic, was openly aligned to the controversial Archbishop Daniel Mannix, and marched with Mannix in St Partick’s Day parades. Buckley established a strong friendship with infamous Melbourne identity John Wren, who business empire was built on SP bookmaking, sly grog and prostitution. Wren gave Buckley financial support to help set up a road-contracting business.

Buckley died after a horse-riding accident in January 1921, aged just 29. At his funeral, his casket was carried by ten other Victoria Cross winners. He was buried in the Brighton Cemetery, and fittingly was laid to rest alongside his brother – whose name he had borrowed to restore his reputation.

BuckleyGrave
Buckley family grave at Brighton Cemetery.

As far as I know, Buckley is the only soldier to have earned a Victoria Cross while serving under an assumed name/alias.
Russell Robinson’s book  “Khaki Crims & Desperadoes” (Pan Macmillan Australia, Sydney, 2014) was the main source for this entry, along with various Australian and international military history sites.