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& able cane; these walking sticks' secret powers make them all fascinating prizes for collectors.

MACABRE, possibly, ironic, most definitely. I've written here before how my modest collection of walking canes once included two on loan from the National Health Service. Thankfully, I was able to return them once my broken bones had set.

I was admiring one of the canes illustrated here on the stand of a dealer at the recent excellent Oswestry Showground Antique and Collectors' Fair Macabre, because it's a cane made from the vertebrae of a shark. Ironic, becausewell, put it like this, the shark was somewhat less fortunate than I was.

Fact is, I've been collecting canes since I was a kid. No walk across the fields around my home would be completed without finding some branch hack into a walking stick.

Now older and with a little more cash in my pocket, I yearn to form a collection of gadget canes, for I confess, I am a sucker for any and all ingenious novelties.

They come in all shapes and sizes and knives, swords, firearms, tiny liquor and perfume bottles, money, dice, clocks, even fishing rods can all be found concealed inside them.

I have even heard tell of a walking cane capable of turning itself into a bicycle, but that may be apocryphal. Could it really have its own wheels? There was a time when no gentleman would be seen about town without a walking cane and they were as much (if not more) of a status symbol than they were aids to walking.

The fashion doubtless harks back to the days when primitive man carried a stave with which to defend himself, while those in authority such as tribal chiefs or elders inherited an elaborately carved example that served as his badge of office.

When the Egyptologist Howard Carter unearthed Tutankhamun's tomb in 1922, he found hundreds of walking sticks among the treasures interred with the pharaoh, presumably to aid him on his long journey in the afterlife.

By the 16th century, the walking cane was firmly part of the social order in European courts. Crowned heads and aristocrats sported highly elaborate canes made from precious metals and encrusted with gems, many of them outlandishly oversized in displays of one-upmanship. Henry VIII (1509-1547) was a notable fashion-setter, using a stick so long it could be described a walking prop, rather that aid.

The fashion continued with Charles I (1625-1649) when long sticks sporting coloured ribbon loops were carried by all men of taste. The idea continued in the military with soldiers marching with long cane sticks.

After a period of restraint during the Commonwealth period (1649-1653), extravagant costume and ornate sticks carried by both sexes returned during the Restoration (1660-1785). They were generally very long, but gentlemen chose to restrict their use to formal events, favouring shorter canes for every day.

Malacca canes with ivory, amber and silver tops imported from Malaysia were popular during this time, to be replaced by ebony with gold or silver tops during the Regency.

However, the inventive Victorians took walking canes to their hearts and the accessory achieved its greatest period of popularity. Its use spread through the classes resulting in an enormous range of canes in styles and materials.

With it came ingenuity as manufacturers competed with each other to produce canes that doubled as something else, resulting in more than 1,500 patents to protect their inventions.

The swordstick was perhaps the best known and simplest, the blade being hidden inside the shaft, to be drawn by the owner to defend himself from thieves who operated in city streets. Others contained firearms, the trigger of a rifle concealed in the crook of the walking stick handle, while in others, a twist of the handle allows it to be detached from the stick and turned into a pistol.

An extension of this was the oil-fired lamp stick containing a wick that could be lit to provide light in fog or unlit streets.

Screw-top gold and silver handles variously revealed sticks containing a flask of cologne or a vinaigrette to ward off the evil smells of drains and open sewers, while others were intended to carry snuff, tobacco, pipe, cheroot or cigarette holder, cigar cutters, vesta case, spirit flask and glass, corkscrew or pill box.

Another interesting walking stick I saw at Oswestry was one containing an extending rule to measure the height of horses, while the detachable arm intended to lay across the animal's withers doubled as a spirit level.

A doctor might carry a cane containing stethoscope and surgical instruments; an artist, brushes and paints; an adventurer, a slim draw telescope and compass and Hercule Poirot types, a cane the handle of which conceals a spyglass.

I suspect, however, that such gadget canes were novelties to amuse and entertain rather than for serious use. They were invariably based on simple canes that might otherwise have little aesthetic value, but it is worth inspecting such a cane carefully before passing it by.


L-R: Some of the walking canes on sale at the Bruton antiques fair; A cane was made from a shark vertebrae

An ivory-topped for the gambler, containing three dice
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:The Journal (Newcastle, England)
Date:Oct 1, 2016
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