Spondonicals

When I started bushwalking a very useful bit of gear that was sold by Paddy Pallins was a pair of spondonicals (or spondonicles?). These were always referred to as a “pair” like a pair of scissors. Other names for these devices are “billy lifters” or “billy grips” and they were used to put billies on and off fires. And I do mean fires here rather than stoves. The Paddy Pallin spondonicals had long handles – about 16cm long. Much longer than the tiny pair of billy grips that come with Trangia stoves or cooking sets.

The original Paddy Pallin spondonicals

Spondonicals were made from very strong thick wire (about 4mm thick). I can remember talking to Nick Gooch, when he was manager of Paddy Pallins Sydney Store back around 1980 about them. This was just after they were no longer being made. He explained that they were a special order for Paddy Pallins, made by a fellow who had a machine that could bend strong wire and its usual use was for making rabbit traps. The reason they were no longer being made was that the fellow had retired and the machine was no longer running. This was not a problem. Most bushwalkers already had a pair – they were ubiquitous. If you forgot yours on a trip then there would always be plenty of other pairs you could borrow to lift off that boiling billy. But their ubiquity was also a problem. Since they were more or less identical, no one was really sure which pair was theirs. What happened was that when people packed up their gear from around the campfire, they may have packed away a pair of spondonicals without realising they belonged to another walker and their own pair may have been deep in their pack or even left at home. So pairs were lost….

In more recent times, original spondonicals are seldom seen. People with them are either¬†bushwalkers like myself who have been walking since the 1970’s or the descendants of such bushwalkers. What about modern spondonicals? Sure they are lighter, being made from aluminium, and fine for lifting pots off stoves, but not so good when it comes to campfires. If you have an original type of billy that has a “bail” – or semi-circular handle, then you can use a long stick to put the billy on or off a roaring fire. But many modern pots come with no such bail. Or, if you have old billies like I do – you find the bail has long ago melted and fallen off. So many of us are stuck with using spondonicals of some sort.

It is interesting researching the origin of the name “spondonical”. Where did it come from? This question was raised in the aus.bushwalking newsgroup back in 2002 by Margaret Covi –

Campfire discussion over the weekend raised the question as to where & when
the word spondonicals (billy tongs/grips/lifters)began. It is not a word
I’ve found in a dictionary, & while a lot of walkers use the word, others
don’t know of it. An internet search only revealed it as a piece of
equipment in equipment lists for some organisations.
I would appreciate any information about the word’s derivation or origin or
use.

After a lot of discussion, Joe Mack comes up with this very plausible explanation for the name –

As explained to me by Dave Kelly, who introduced the term to me on a rainy,
multiday trip through Wollongambie on the Australia Day weekend of (I think)
’72.
It’s from a Three Stooges movie where they are performing a surgical operation.
Larry (the guy with the straight hair anyhow) is the surgeon and the other
two are helpers.
Larry: “anaesthetic”
Helper passes large rubber mallet, Larry dongs patient on head.
Larry: “scalpel”
Helper (passes scalpel): “scalpel”
Larry: “scissors”
Helper (passes scissors): “scissors”
Larry: “spondonical”
Helpers:”spondonical?!” (rummage frantically through piles of instruments)
The pronunciation back in the 70’s was “spondonical” or “spondonicle”.
For the original spelling, we’ll have to go back to the Three Stooges script.
I’m surprised people have forgotten this, it was common knowlege back then.
I’m sure I’ve explained this before on the newsgroup, but I didn’t find it
in dejanews at least.
Joe
SUBW, early 70’s

This did seem reasonable and likely to me. It has also become the defacto explantion for the name. See the Bushwalkers FAQ and this word of the week page. Here is another page that repeats the story. The Three Stooges story is also in Wikipedia. But is it true? Most or all of the old Three Stooges movies are now available on YouTube and there is a mallet/anaesthetic scene in “Three Stooges Pull a Tooth Out” and there are at least two movies I could find that feature the trio performing operations – “Men in Black” and “Three Stooges in a Gem of a Jam“. Neither of these mention the word “spondonical” even though there are nonsense words used for surgical instruments. None of these nonsense words in both scenes even sounds vaguely like “spondonical”.

So perhaps this story is only apocryphal? Did Paddy Pallin come up with the name? I have a copy of his 1972 catalogue. It only refers to them as “Billy lifters (wire) 72c” – so it does not seem likely that he came up with the name. But the name was in very common bushwalking usage at that time. It is possible that the word was invented around a campfire by a bushwalker not long after they were first manufactured. A bit like “pass me those thingamebobs”, it could have been “pass me those spondonicals” and the name stuck and spread.

Can you still get them? I mean the original Paddy Pallin ones? They don’t seem to come up on eBay. A friend tried to make his own pair once. He used the strong wire from bucket handles ( the correct term is “bail” again). They looked right, but did not perform. The wire was far too weak and just flexed when trying to grip even a small billy. Interestingly, last year in the markets of Namche Bazar in Nepal – we saw very similar billy grips being sold. They worked in an inverse fashion to the Paddy Pallin ones (so the large grips gripped the inside of the billy rather than the outside) – but they were much too heavy to be useful bushwalking. Not too long ago a friend did spot a pair of the original Paddy Pallin spondonicals, new and on sale in the Jolly Swagman shop in Hobart. He quickly bought them and was very pleased with his purchase. They must have been the last pair to have been sold in Australia. But as it turned out….. a few weeks later he misplaced or lost them…..

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7 Responses to Spondonicals

  1. Ted malthouse says:

    I still have a pair and “NO! You can’t have them” LOL

  2. Jackie & Wally Robpole says:

    Never heard of spondicles – sounds like a runcible spoon. (See Edward Lear “The owl and the pussycat”)

    We bought our many pairs of spondicles in Paddy’s shops as PADDY FINGERS. We had Some in each car, 1 set in the billy box and 2 sets in the kitchen for lifting the baking dish out of the oven. Gave them readily to friends, relatives and scout & guide leaders. Obviously not awfully expensive as we were fairly strapped for cash back then!!!

    Gave our (unfortunately) last pair away in about 1992, expecting to buy a few more pairs the next week, and knowing we still had some.

    Having been without them EVER SINCE and learned to live that way, we have now managed to melt the plastic hinge on the lifters that came with our convection oven. So we are seeking them again – and we reckon they will be out of patent!!!

    So if anyone wants a good little earner!!!!

    • Dave Noble says:

      I have heard the term “Paddy Fingers” – perhaps from Melbourne based walkers I met in Tassie? But in the Paddy Pallin catalog – its “Billy Lifters”. “Spondonicles” was in very widespread use by walkers of the Sydney based bushwalking clubs in the early 1970’s. I do not know if the term was used outside Sydney.

  3. Des says:

    Does anybody have dimensions and size of bar used ?

  4. Andrew says:

    There is a guy who is proposing to tool up for another production run, he has an online survey here where you can submit your name and details

    http://spondonicles.piapplications.com.au/Spons.aspx

    • Dave Noble says:

      That survey is a few years old. Not sure how things are going, but I assume it may have been too hard to make them or not enough interest.

      • Andrew says:

        Hi Dave, I quoted you and used some of your words in a little gear review on TrailSpace, a US gear review website here

        http://www.trailspace.com/gear/paddy-pallin/spondonicles/

        This blog post of yours is spot on! But I never knew the history. I grew up bushwalking in the snowy mountains. Everyone used to have a pair! And I also find that when I pull them out now people are very jealous. Thanks for writing up this beautiful piece of Australian history.

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