This is the story of a rare and precious family heirloom. The object is a very small and insignificant lady’s purse. It contains a remarkable fragment of the heritage of my family, telling a story of ancient beliefs of sailors that survived until the early 20thcentury.
The item is a caul, a membrane that sometimes as a result of the birth process, came into the world on the head and face of an infant. It was believed in the 19th century that anyone who carried a caul would never drown. Sailors prized cauls for their protective powers against their greatest fear – drowning. An advertisement in the London Times in 1835 read:
“A Child’s Caul to be disposed of, a well-known preservative against drowning, &c., price 10 guineas.”1
English seamen in the First World War, at a time when the German submarine fleet was attacking British ships, paid several pounds for cauls – a lot of money at that time.
Babies born “in the caul” (when their amniotic sac, or amnion, has not burst and remains intact on the baby’s head or face like a circular crown) were thought to be lucky, special or protected. According to Wikipedia, this may happen in less than one thousand births.
The rarity of this occurrence and the watery symbolism of the amniotic fluid led to both the children born in the caul, and subsequent bearers or wearers of the caul as a charm, to be deemed in English folklore as unable to drown.2
My family caul, very shortly after the birth, was transferred onto a piece of parchment-like paper to keep it safe, and then was folded and placed in a very small purse. The sheet of paper on which it was placed measures 100mm square. It was folded several times and when reduced to 25mm square was placed in an inner pocket of the purse.
Left & centre: Camilla Evans’s purse and the caul it contained. Right: Camilla Evans carried the caul in a tiny purse throughout her life.
It came from the birth of a child to my great-grandfather, Alfred Evans, who was born at Southwark, London, in 1820.3 Southwark was then, and remained for many years, a place where mariners lived. Young men who grew up in Southwark at that time frequently became either seamen or coopers. Alfred Evans became both.
I can find no record of his arrival in New South Wales, despite a diligent search of passenger lists of ships arriving in the 1840s. I suspect that he came as crew on a ship that called into Sydney and simply walked ashore. He first appears in the colonial record when he marries Sarah Clegg at St James’s Church, Macquarie Street, Sydney, in January 1851.4
Alfred and Sarah began their married life in a two-roomed cottage in Gloucester Street, in Sydney’s Rocks area, close to the Ship and Mermaid Inn. Alfred found work as a cooper with Robert Towns, whose wharf in Windmill Street (now Towns Place), Dawes Point, was conveniently close to home.5
Gloucester Street, The Rocks, Sydney, in the early 20th century. The cottage in which Alfred Evans lived with his wife, Sarah, is at left. Next to it is the former Ship and Mermaid Inn.
Towns was one of Sydney’s most energetic and successful capitalists of the period. His ships fetched exotic cargoes from the distant reaches of the Pacific: sandalwood, tortoiseshell, beche-de-mer, coconut oil and whale oil. Alfred Evans was on board the whaling barque Jane, one of Towns’s ships, when it called at San Christobal in the Solomon Islands in January 1852. Five members of the crew disappeared into the interior of the island, populated then by hostile tribesmen. They were not seen again.6
As well as whale oil Towns’s ships on occasion picked up Melanesian men who became indentured laborers on his cotton plantation in North Queensland.
But it was whale oil, the petroleum of its time, that made the greatest fortune for Robert Towns. From it came lamplight, soap, dressings for wool and leather, cosmetics and lubrication. England’s textile industry depended on it, for whale oil increased the speed at which spinning frames revolved by twelve-and-a-half percent.7
Alfred’s task was to make the wooden barrels in which Robert Towns’ ships brought the oil back to Sydney. It was highly-skilled work: the staves had to be precisely shaped so that leakage could not occur. But this was no cosy job in some sheltered corner of a sandstone warehouse: a cooper had to go to sea. Once made, the barrels were loaded aboard ship in a knocked-down state. The cooper travelled with them and re-assembled his barrels as the hunt progressed.8
Above left: Robert Towns in 1873, Above right: Towns Wharf, Dawes Point. The long stone building is where Alfred Evans made casks for oil from whales killed in long voyages in the South Pacific. Several of Towns’s fleet, then numbering around ten ships, are tethered alongside.
As the whale-ships surged on the Pacific swells, Alfred Evans, like many a seaman before him, occupied his spare time decorating whales’ teeth with patterns known as scrimshaw. He took these home to the cottage in Gloucester Street where, placed on a mantelshelf or cedar chiffonier in the parlour, they became part of the folk art ornaments of a maritime city. An aunt inherited two pieces of his work, decorated with the figures of Harlequin and Pierrette, dancing on the teeth of a sperm whale.
Sydney’s Powerhouse Museum has many examples of Alfred’s work, including a cruet set for salt and pepper, a needlecase, an awl, dice, a watchstand of wood and whalebone and a magnificent bone walking stick with its handle carved to simulate plaited rope. The strands of ‘rope’ intertwine in spirals more than half the length of the shaft, culminating in a ‘woven’ ball that fits neatly into the palm of the hand. Diamond-shaped inlays of red and black tortoiseshell decorate the stick, a gem from the hands of a craftsman of great talent.
Above left: Harlequin and Pierrette dance on the teeth of sperm whales. Scrimshaw by Alfred Evans, circa 1852. Private collection. Above right: Walking stick of bone with ivory inlaid in contrasting colours. Note the size of some of the inlays. This piece by Alfred Evans, circa 1853, is a stunning example of his skill as a scrimshander. This and numerous other pieces of his scrimshaw were probably made to pass the time on long voyages hunting whales in the south Pacific. Powerhouse Museum, Sydney.
Whaling was by no means a safe and secure occupation. Alfred could have kept the caul for himself. But it belonged to his daughter, Camilla, and this is the purse in which she carried it throughout her life. By the time that she was born the family lived at Gladstone, close to the Macleay River in northern New South Wales. I’m sure that Alfred hoped and believed that the caul would keep her safe from the River.
The twist to this tale is that belief in cauls was a form of magical practice. It combines wonder of the mysteries of birth with human fears of a watery death. As a sailor’s talisman it would have seemed a rare and precious charm against the terrors of the sea.
Today, I’m engaged in research into the widespread use of magic by Australians in the period before circa 1935. I’m Director of the Tasmanian Magic Research Project and I keep this little purse and the caul it contains on my mantelshelf. I see it every day and will always treasure it for the story it tells.
Ian Evans © 2018
- Moore, A.W, 1891. “Folklore of the Isle of Man” (quoted at http://www.isle-of-man.com/manxnotebook/fulltext/folklore/ch08.htm )
- Folklore: Vol.61, No.2.
- Baptism Register, Southwark Cathedral, Southwark, Alfred Evans, 16/10/1820.
- NSW Registry of Births, Deaths and Marriages, marriage certificate, Sarah Clegg and Alfred Evans, 27/1/1851.
- Sydney City Council Archives, Rate Assessment Book, Gipps Ward, 1855-58; Sands’ Sydney Directory, 1855.
- Sydney Morning Herald, 19 January 1852, p 2.
- Ruhen, Olaf, van Sommers, Tess, Thompson, Patricia, The Rocks, Rigby, Adelaide, 1977; Royal Historical Society of Queensland, Yearbook 8, Vol. 1, 1965-66.
- West, Janet, Australian Scrimshaw, in Australiana, Journal of the Australiana Society, Sydney, Vol. 9, No. 3, p 79-80.