The Many Meanings of ‘X’

By Tony Pagels

The annotation ‘XXX’ can have numerous meanings.

For centuries illiterate people have used an ‘X’ in place of a signature on contracts and agreements, or to make their mark. This was a regular occurrence in depositions given by illiterate workers to Native Mounted Police (NMP) officers, as well as by many of the troopers who had not been taught to write (Figure 1). In some cases ‘X’ could be seen as a ‘brand’ or mark to indicate ownership. Alternatively, ‘X’ is the Roman number for ten and, as such, under such a system, ‘XXX’ represents the number 30. With the recent advent of texting an X is globally recognised as the symbol for a kiss, the number of kisses determining how special a person may be.

Figure 1 Trooper signatures on an NMP document dated 31 Mach 1857 instructing the Government Resident to pay their salaries to the account of John O’Connell Bligh (QSA17616 Microfilm 1494).

There are several meanings of the symbol X that relate to alcohol. The process of recording the age of whisky after it is placed in barrels is indicated by annually marking the barrel with an ‘X’. An ‘X’ was preferred to an ‘I’ as it was thought that the latter could be confused with an accidental scratch.

An ‘X’ is also used to record the number of distillations of some alcoholic drinks. With each distillation the alcohol content rises, so the more distillations (or Xs) the stronger the brew, though the Xs on a bottle of whisky or rum do not necessarily indicate the alcohol content.

Likewise, beer quality is also sometimes measured in Xs. In 1877 the Fitzgerald brothers moved their brewing operations from Castlemaine, Victoria, to Brisbane, Qld. Their first beer, a sparkling ale, was awarded three Xs and so became known as the ‘XXX Sparkling Ale’. In 1924 the company brewed a beer that was awarded four Xs, hence ‘XXXX Beer’ was born and became the symbol of Castlemaine Perkins Brewery as we know it today.

Other applications for a series of Xs occur within the writing fraternity, whereby a writer completing a manuscript concludes the text with a single line of ‘XXX’ to signify to printers and editors that this is ‘The End.’

When an X is inscribed on a weapon, such as a Snider artillery carbine used by members of the NMP in Qld, however, it may take on an entirely different meaning (Figure 2).

Figure 2 Sub-Inspector Fredric Charles Urquhart (seated second from the left) with part of his detachment of troopers at Cloncurry in 1884. Urquhart and the troopers are holding Snider artillery carbines and the bandoliers are filled with Snider cartridges (photograph courtesy of Qld Police Museum PM0193).

Qld Police Commissioner David Thompson Seymour was appointed in 1863 and was instrumental in ensuring the regular Qld police and the NMP were sufficiently armed with appropriate weapons to effect their purpose. At the time Commissioner Seymour was appointed, the weapons used by the police were antiquated and unreliable muzzle loading percussion arms; this was to soon change.

Advances in arms technology in Europe in the early and mid-nineteenth century produced reliable, accurate, and fast breech loading weapons adopted by Prussian, French, and Russian armies. The British had been left behind and, in order to maintain their position as a ‘military power’, it was necessary for their troops to be re-armed with breech loading weapons. Trials were conducted and modifications considered to a number of weapons before the Snider rifle, artillery and cavalry carbines were approved by the War Office in 1867 as the weapon of choice for the British Forces (Heptinstall 2016:8,14).  Skennerton (2003) has described in great detail the Snider rifle and, along with Robinson (1997) and Heptinstall (2016), placed the arms in an historical context; we direct you to these sources if you wish to learn more about these weapons.

Seymour was keen to acquire these arms, but the Government contractors were unable to supply them to the colony due to the high demand amongst British troops (Skennerton 2003:106–107).

This forced Seymour to source the weapons via Commission Agents, who procured trade-manufactured arms from commercial suppliers, such as P. Webley & Sons. The trade-produced Snider arms did not possess the Royal Cypher (a crown over the letters V.R.), as seen on Government contracted weapons (Robinson 1997:44; Skennerton 2003:181,204), but otherwise were the same.

Robert Kellet was the first Commission Agent to offer 50 Snider carbines (the same as the British artillery weapons), 50 revolvers, and ammunition in 1870 to the Qld Government (QSA COL/A151 Inward correspondence letters 1325, and 1841 of 1870). These weapons, marked ‘Truelock Bros’ as well as ‘Tower’, and of the MkIII pattern with a locking breech (Robinson 1997:41,42,48), were subsequently approved for purchase and supplied to the Colonial Storekeeper.

Messrs Blakemore of London supplied the next shipment of arms comprising five cases of Snider carbines and two cases of revolvers to the Colonial Storekeeper in 1872 (QSA COL/A175 Inward correspondence letters 2272 and 2299 of 1872). These were also of the MkIII pattern and marked ‘P. Webley & Son’ on the lock plate (Webley patent), as well as  ‘J.R. Blakemore, London’ and ‘Q↑G’ (Robinson 1970:44).

A third order for 200 Snider carbines without swords and 50 with swords was negotiated directly between Seymour and P. Webley & Son of Birmingham in 1872 (QSA COL/A173 Inward correspondence letter 2009 of 1872). These arms were also of the MkIII pattern and the lock plate was marked ‘P. Webley & Son’. The lock plate of these arms was also expected to be marked ‘Q↑G’ by Webley, but on arrival in 1873 it was noted this mark had been omitted (Robinson 1997:45–46;).

Another purchase two years later, in 1874, for 200 Sniders without swords and 100 with swords was arranged by the Agent General, again directly with P. Webley & Son. These arms were also of the MkIII pattern and were marked ‘Q↑P’ (Robinson 1997:46). Seymour in a letter to the Colonial Secretary dated 26 February 1875 was clearly pleased with the quality of the Snider carbines, noting:

… although many of the carbines (those supplied to Native Police) have had say rough usage I have not yet had one reported unserviceable (QSA COL/A207 Inward correspondence letter 702 of 1875).

A further order was placed by the Agent General with P. Webley & Son for 250 Sniders without swords and 50 with swords in 1877, then in 1883 yet another order for 50 Sniders to be marked ‘Q↑G’ (Robinson 1997:47).

Examples of Snider carbines with the lock plate marked ‘P. Webley & Sons’ are held at the Qld Police Museum (n=1) and the Qld Museum (n=2).

One carbine at the Qld Museum (catalogue number H1354) was donated to the museum in 1912, though its exact provenance is not known (Figures 3 and 4). The description of this weapon suggests it is from one of the earlier Government purchases made prior to 1877. The weapon has an MkIII pattern breech block and the lock plate is marked ‘P. Webley & Son’, showing the Webley patent (a ‘wing bullet over W&S’). The hammer is pattern III with a flat face and the barrel has provision for a bayonet. The butt is stamped ‘Q↑P’ and the butt tang numbered ‘637’.  On the underside of the fore-end (the wood below the barrel) there are three crude Xs notched into the wood.

Figure 3 Snider artillery carbine with sword bar, MkIII breech pattern held at the Qld Museum (H1354; photograph by Tony Pagels). The lock plate is marked ‘P. Webley & Son’ and Webley patent ‘winged bullet over W&S’. The hammer is MkIII pattern with flat striker face. The butt is marked ‘QP’ and the butt tang numbered ‘637’.
Figure 4 Snider artillery carbine H1354 showing detail of the Q↑P stamped on the butt and lockplate markings, ‘P. Webley & Son’ and Webley patent ‘winged bullet over W&S’ (photograph by Tony Pagels).
Figure 5 Snider artillery carbine H1354 showing detail of the XXX notched into the wood of the fore-end (photograph by Tony Pagels).

The Oxford Dictionary defines a ‘notch’ as:

A nick made on something in order to keep score or record.

Another definition, from the Online Slang Dictionary, suggests notches on guns are related to:

An old Western action describing how many people they have killed by carving a notch in the handle of their gun.

The notched Xs on the Snider artillery carbine held in the Qld Museum could, therefore, be a method of recording or keeping count of the number of people killed by whoever was issued with that weapon.

The practice of marking an object to keep a score or tally of kills was common during periods of war. For instance, World War II fighter pilots would record the number of confirmed kills by marking their aircraft with a flag of the enemy or other symbol (Figure 6).

Figure 6 World War II fighter pilots with their aircraft. (Left) American Lieutenant Colonel James Howell Howard in his North American Aviation P-51B-5-NA Mustang in 1944 with Japanese and German symbols denoting kills. (Right ) German Captain Hans-Joachim Marseille standing beside the tail of his aircraft c1941 with vertical lines denoting kills (images courtesy of https://static.thisdayinaviation.com/wp-content/uploads/tdia/2016/01/FRE_000413.jpg and http://www.toptenz.net/wp-content/uploads/2014/09/fighteraces2.jpg).

Written accounts support the suggestion that kills by members of the NMP may have been celebrated and recorded in a similar fashion.

One trooper, known only to us as Toby, had a chequered NMP career. He was variously dismissed from the Force, was an alleged deserter, and in 1860 was implicated in the rape and murder of a European woman named Fanny Briggs. Toby was captured and escaped before allegedly being shot dead by Lieutenant Morissett in 1861 (Richards 2005:141). An inspection of Toby’s carbine was described, albeit much later, as being:

… covered with notches, which represented blacks he had shot (Bird 1904:165).

Another example whereby a rifle was marked to record the number of kills is also know from the other side of the frontier, on the gun of William Fraser. A provoked, brutal attack by Aboriginal people at Hornet Bank station on the Upper Dawson River in 1857 had resulted in the death of 11 settlers, including eight members of the Fraser family. One of the surviving family members, William Fraser, supposedly sought retribution for the attacks, aided by the NMP, reportedly killing many Aboriginal people (Richards 2005:64) and keeping a tally of his kills:

When I had heard his account of the dreadful tragedy, a friend showed me, in his absence, his rifle, on the stock of which were a row, of very significant notches. These represented natives he had shot in retaliation (Sydney Morning Herald, 4 September 1880, p7).

Similarly, Bottoms (2013:202–204) provided a description of Frank Jardine as a notorious killer of Aboriginal people who had carved 80 notches on his rifle during his expedition to Cape York with his brother Alexander and native police troopers in 1864:

Frank beat them off and scored a few more nicks on the stock of his rifle … Frank had the blood of many natives on his soul were we to believe the significance of the nicks on the stock of his rifle (Cannon 1885:29,30).

Jardine’s violent reputation and disdain for Aboriginal people was not regarded as an adverse characteristic, for he was later appointed Police Magistrate at Somerset in 1868.

We may never know if the carbine marked Q↑P 637 in the Qld Museum was ever used to kill or ‘disperse’ Aboriginal people. However, the probability of the inscribed ‘XXX’ simply being an ownership brand seems low. Instead, the notched Xs on the fore-end of the carbine corroborate the anecdotal evidence that suggests that some NMP members kept a tally of the number of individuals they killed. But did XXX indicate three or thirty? And, if the latter, what is the possibility that an uneducated Aboriginal trooper serving in the NMP would be familiar with Roman numerals? If indeed the numerals are Roman it seems more likely that this weapon was owned by a European officer. If the notation does indicate 30, represented by XXX rather than a series of singular tally marks, this may suggest killings in multiples of ten.

An alternative interpretation of the marks on this carbine is the third ‘X’ appears to be more closely aligned to a ‘K’. If this is the case then it could be the initial of the owners surname. If the owner was prepared to notch the initial of their surname into the timber the question to be asked is why they chose not to nominate all three initials.   Perhaps this was a case of initially recording 21 kills with ‘XXI’, and a further nine deaths brought the tally to 30 when the final ‘I’ was changed to an ‘X’. Without a clear provenance of the weapon we can only hypothesise on the meaning of these notches.

Not to lose sight of further possible explanations, ultimately a notched ‘X’ means whatever the person who put it there wanted it to mean, and may always be elusive to us.

XXX

References

Bird, J.T.S. 1904 The Early History of Rockhampton, Dealing Chiefly with Events up Till 1870. Revised and Reprinted from Articles that Appeared in ‘The Morning Bulletin’ and ‘The Capricornian’. Rockhampton: The Morning Bulletin.

Bottoms, T. 2013 Conspiracy of Silence: Queensland’s Frontier Killing Times. Sydney: Allen and Unwin.

Cannon, R. 1885 Savage Scenes from Australia: Being a Short History of the Settlement at Somerset, Cape York. Valparaiso: Heffermann.

Heptinstall, T. 2016 From Snider-Enfield, to Martini-Henry, to the Magazine Lee-Metford: An Historical and Technical Overview of the Development of British Military Rifles from 1866 to 1895Unpublished MA thesis, University of Huddersfield.

Laurie, A. 1959 The Black War in QueenslandJournal of the Royal Historical Society of Queensland1(1):155–173

Oxford Dictionary 2018 Notch. Retrieved 01 October 2018 from <https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/notch>.

Richards, J. 2008 The Secret War. A True History of Queensland’s Native Police. St Lucia: University of Queensland Press.

Robinson, S. 1997 Arms in the Service of Queensland 1859–1901. Kedron: J.S. Robinson.

Skinnerton, I. 2003 .577 Snider-Enfield Rifles and Carbines, British Service Longarms 1866–1880. Labrador: I. Skinnerton.

Sydney Morning Herald 1880 The natives in the far north. 4 September, p7.

The Online Slang Dictionary (American, English, and Urban Slang) 2018 Notch. Retrieved 1 October 2018 from <http://onlineslangdictionary.com/meaning-definition-of/notch>.

7 thoughts on “The Many Meanings of ‘X’

    1. Maybe you should give it a try before leaving criticism. I found this article very interesting and a fantastic read! Hope you enjoy it too.

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  1. Another excellent post. There are usually many marks on such weapons. Often roman numerals referred to a company in the military. And often owners stamped or notched their names inside the stock – has it been taken apart to check? Military firearms in particular often hold long ownership history details inside, on the barrel as well.

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    1. Hi Stephen
      Thanks for your comments. Despite the direction to mark arms by the Colonial Storekeeper in 1869 the only visible stamps were the Q^P and number on the butt tang. The arm did not posses the usual stamps seen on arms signifying government or war department issue. I am not aware of the arm being taken apart but certainly this it is worthy of consideration.
      Tony

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  2. Another possibility is that the xxx marks have been put there to improve the grip of the shooter’s left hand . the same principal as checkering , though they do seem a little to far back for this .

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