August 16th 1819: Peterloo massacre
On this day in 1819 a cavalry charge killed 17 and injured 600 at a public meeting in St. Peter’s Field, Manchester, England. The meeting of around 60,000 was held to demand parliamentary reform and was addressed by famous radical Henry Hunt, known as ‘the Orator’. Radical agitation had been on the rise in recent years due to the famine and unemployment that followed the Napoleonic Wars and the introduction of laws that many felt unfair to the working class. Despite the peaceful intentions of the meeting, local magistrates feared it and sent in the cavalry, who violently dispersed the crowd. 15 people died in the ensuing violence, with hundreds more injured. The event was nicknamed ‘Peterloo’ in reference to the Battle of Waterloo of 1815. The massacre caused public outcry which only encouraged the government, led by Prime Minister Lord Liverpool, to crack down on radicalism. This period is sometimes referred to as ‘reactionary toryism’.
August 13th 1910: Florence Nightingale dies
On this day in 1910 the famous English nurse, Florence Nightingale, died in London. Born in 1820, she was named for the Italian city in which she was born where her wealthy parents were visiting at the time. Her parents initially tried to prevent her from training to be a nurse, which she resolved to do after she believed God wanted her to do some work. However Nightingale bucked the tradition of upper class women settling for a good marriage and instead pursued a career as a nurse. She became famous during the Crimean War of 1853 - 1856 when she drew attention to the poor conditions of the troops and nursed wounded soldiers. Other nurses laboured in Crimea alongside Nightingale, including the Jamaican-born Mary Seacole. Upon her return to Britain Nightingale began the movement for professional nursing by establishing a nursing school in 1860, leading many to call her the founder of modern nursing. Florence Nightingale was 90 years old when she died, and passed away in her sleep at her London home.
August 8th 1963: Great Train Robbery
On this day in 1963, the ‘Great Train Robbery’ took place in Buckinghamshire, England. The team of 15 robbers stopped the Royal Mail train by changing a signal from green to red and stole £2.6 million, which is the equivalent of around £40 million today. Only 6 of the 126 bags on the train were not taken by the robbers. Most of the money, which was made up of used banknotes, was never recovered. 12 of the 15 were caught and jailed but some escaped and some were never caught.
July 17th 1790: Adam Smith dies
On this day in 1790 the Scottish philosopher Adam Smith died in Edinburgh aged 67. He is best known for his 1776 work ‘The Wealth of Nations’, a treatise on economics which has earned him the title of father of modern economics. He is also remembered as one of the first thinkers to expound the principles of what is now referred to as ‘capitalism’; an economy based upon rational self-interest and a competitive free market in which the ‘invisible hand’ of the market should be trusted. Having enjoyed an illustrious career as a teacher and famed thinker, Smith died at an Edinburgh hospital after a long illness.
July 12th 1543: Henry VIII marries Catherine Parr
On this day in 1543, King Henry VIII of England married his sixth and last wife Catherine Parr at Hampton Court Palace. Henry’s previous wife, Catherine Howard, had been executed on 13th February 1542 on charges of adultery. Of his other four previous wives, he divorced two (Catherine of Aragon and Anne of Cleves), one was executed (Anne Boleyn) and Jane Seymour died of natural causes. Catherine Parr helped reconcile the King with his daughters and assisted in restoring them to the line of succession. Henry died on 28th January 1547, and thus his last wife outlived him.
July 7th 2005: London bombings
On this day in 2005, a series of suicide bombings took place in the British capital city of London. The attacks were co-ordinated in order to achieve the most damage by striking the city’s busy public transport system at the end of the morning rush hour. At around 8.50am three bombs detonated on Underground trains: one near Liverpool Street station, one near Edgware Road and a third travelling between King’s Cross and Russell Square. The fourth explosion targetted one of London’s iconic red double decker buses and occurred at around 9.50am on a bus in Tavistock Square near King’s Cross. The four bombers responsible were Mohammad Sidique Khan (believed to be the ringleader), Hasib Hussain, Germaine Lindsay and Shehzad Tanweer. Each used homemade bombs they carried in their rucksacks. Along with the four perpetrators, the attacks killed 52 civilians and injured over 700. The attacks came during the Iraq War in which Britain, alongside the United States, took a leading role. The bombers were radical Muslims and considered the war in the Middle East oppression of their people. They also admired the head of terrorist organisation Al-Qaeda Osama bin-Laden, who was subject of an international search effort in order to bring him to justice for his role in the 9/11 terrorist attacks on New York City. The London bombings shook the Western world as well as Britain itself, for whom the 7/7 attacks were the country’s first suicide attack (previous terrorist attacks included the 1988 Lockerbie bombing). The incident also raised concerns over domestic terrorism (as all four attackers were British citizens, not foreign agents) and London’s security, especially as they came a day after London won its bid to host the 2012 Olympic Games.
"I don’t know what heaven looks like but I have just seen hell"
- a young policeman at the Russell Square scene
July 5th 1948: NHS launched
On this day in 1948, the National Health Service came into effect in the United Kingdom. Ideas for a nationalised health system had been around for decades before 1948, but it was not until then that they became a reality for British citizens. The Labour government of Clement Attlee, elected in 1945, were committed to the principles of the welfare state. They were greatly influenced by the 1942 Beveridge Report, which recommended social reform to tackle the five ‘Giant Evils’ of squalor, ignorance, want, idleness and disease. Thinkers around Britain thus came to see healthcare as a fundamental universal right, not a privilege held by a few. Working with these ideas, the government passed the National Health Service Act in 1946, which came into effect on July 5th 1948 and created the NHS in England and Wales (Scotland’s was created separately). The creation of the NHS led to universal health care in the United Kingdom, paid for through central taxation, ending the requirement that patients pay directly for their own healthcare. It radically restructured the British health care system, with the NHS taking control of the almost half a million hospital beds in England and Wales and placing almost all hospitals and staff under its jurisdiction. Despite ongoing debates over the efficiency, cost and structure of the NHS, it remains a central feature of the British welfare state. As seen with its celebration during the London 2012 Olympic Opening Ceremony, the NHS is a point of national pride for Britain. Indeed, according to a recent study, thanks to the NHS Britain has the best healthcare system out of eleven of the world’s wealthiest nations, with the United States in last place.
66 years ago today
June 18th 1940: Churchill’s ‘Finest Hour’ speech
On this day in 1940, the British Prime Minister Winston Churchill gave his famous 'Finest Hour' speech in the House of Commons. The speech came at the end of the Battle of France during World War Two, after France had fallen to the forces of Nazi Germany. In this speech, Churchill called for Britain to prepare for its role in defending the world from the Nazis; he called for people to make this ‘Darkest Hour’, after the fall of a key ally, into a ‘Finest Hour’. After making the speech to the Commons, Churchill recorded it to be broadcast to the British people over the radio.
"the Battle of France is over. I expect that the Battle of Britain is about to begin…Hitler knows that he will have to break us in this Island or lose the war. If we can stand up to him, all Europe may be free and the life of the world may move forward into broad, sunlit uplands. But if we fail, then the whole world, including the United States, including all that we have known and cared for, will sink into the abyss of a new Dark Age made more sinister, and perhaps more protracted, by the lights of perverted science. Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves that, if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, ‘This was their finest hour.’”
August 15th 1965: Beatles at Shea Stadium
On this day in 1965 the Beatles played their iconic concert at Shea Stadium in New York City. The gig was part of the band’s 1965 tour of the United States, by which time they were international superstars and ‘Beatlemania’ gripped the world. The band formed in Liverpool in 1960, and came to prominence with their first hit ‘Love Me Do’ in 1962. By the time of the Shea Stadium gig they had a huge following in the US, and at Shea played to around 55,600 fans. As typical of Beatlemania, the crowd was deafening with their screams, which meant that the music could not really be heard, and were often seen crying and fainting. The Beatles did still manage to play a 30 minute set (very short by modern standards) with 12 songs. It was the intensity of these concerts, and the fact they could not hear themselves, that contributed to the band’s decision to stop touring in 1966. Soon after the Shea Stadium gig, which was followed by another huge concert at Los Angeles’ Hollywood Bowl, the band recorded their sixth album ‘Rubber Soul’. The Shea Stadium gig was immortalised in a 1966 documentary about the event, which contributed to it becoming one of the band’s most famous concerts. Shea was also an important milestone for the Beatles, and in fact for all musicians, as it ushered in the age of stadium concerts.
"At Shea Stadium, I saw the top of the mountain"
- John Lennon in 1970
August 11th 1897: Enid Blyton born
On this day in 1897 the famous British children’s writer was born in East Dulwich, London. Blyton’s books have enjoyed enduring popularity, selling over 600 million copies worldwide. Her most famous works include the character of Noddy, The Famous Five series and the Secret Seven series. Beyond her novels, Blyton was also a prolific writer of non-fiction, writing on topics as diverse as natural history and the Bible. Despite later criticisms of her work as representing outdated ways of thinking, including some arguably racist and sexist content, children around the world still read her books. Blyton died in 1968 aged 71 in Hampstead, England.
August 5th 1862: ‘Elephant Man’ born
On this day in 1862 Joseph Merrick, otherwise known as the ‘Elephant Man’, was born in Leicester. Merrick was an Englishman with severe facial and body deformities which resulted in him being exhibited as an ‘Elephant Man’. Treated poorly by his peers, Merrick eventually ended touring Europe as a ‘human curiosity’ and remained in a London Hospital for the rest of his life. Merrick died in 1890 aged 27 from asphyxiation, supposedly because he decided to sleep lying down (the weight of his head meant he had to sleep sitting up) in order to be like other people. His story became especially famous after the 1980 film about his life starring John Hurt as Merrick and Anthony Hopkins as his good friend Frederick Treves.
July 13th 1985: Live Aid
On this day in 1985, the Live Aid benefit concerts took place at Wembley Stadium in London and John F. Kennedy Stadium in Philadelphia. Bob Geldof and Midge Ure organised the concerts to raise money to provide aid for victims of the famine in Ethiopia. Notable artists such as Queen, Phil Collins, David Bowie, U2, The Who, Bob Dylan and Paul McCartney performed. The London concert drew 72,000 and the Philadelphia concert was attended by 100,000. The global audience watching the live broadcast is estimated to have been at around 1.9 billion. The event was a great success, ultimately raising around £150m.
July 9th 1877: First Wimbledon began
On this day in 1877, the Wimbledon Championships tennis tournament took place for the first time. The competition is the oldest tennis tournament in the world and has been held in London annually since 1877. The first championship only included a men’s singles competition and only saw 22 competitors; in 1877 Spencer Gore became the first Wimbledon champion. It is often considered the most prestigious tennis competition in the world. In 2013, the women’s champion was Marion Bartoli of France and the men’s champion was Andy Murray. Murray was the first male British champion in 77 years. This year’s men’s final winner was Serbia’s Novak Djokovic and the female champion was Czech Petra Kvitova.
July 6th 1483: Richard III crowned
On this day in 1483, Richard III was crowned King of England. He had previously served as protector of the realm for his nephew the 12 year old King Edward V. Supposedly to protect him in the run up to his coronation, Richard had the young king and his brother lodged in the Tower of London. However Richard claimed the throne for himself and soon after his coronation ‘the Princes in the Tower’ disappeared; many believe Richard had them killed in order to consolidate his claim to the throne. Richard’s reign, and indeed much of that of his predecessors, was dominated by the Wars of the Roses. These wars for the throne were fought during the mid to late 15th century between the houses of Lancaster and York, both rival factions of the royal House of Plantagenet. Richard III was a Yorkist and contributed to many of his house’s early victories in the conflict, helping ensure his brother and then his nephew’s reign. However, Richard III was destined to become the last king of both the House of York and the Plantagenet dynasty itself. He was defeated by the forces of Lancastrian Henry Tudor in the Battle of Bosworth Field on 22nd August 1485. Richard III was killed in battle, the last English monarch to be so, allowing Henry to become King and begin the rule of the Tudors. The hastily buried remains of Richard III were lost for centuries, until an excavation in 2012 found his skeleton under a car park in the city of Leicester.
June 19th 1937: J.M. Barrie dies
On this day in 1937 the Scottish author and playwright J.M. Barrie died in London aged 77. Barrie is best known for his creation of Peter Pan. Originally a play entitled Peter Pan or The Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up, which later became the novel Peter and Wendy, they told the story of a boy’s adventures in ‘Neverland’ with his friends and their encounters with the villainous Captain Hook. The aspiring writer was inspired to write this most famous work by his relationship with the Llewelyn Davies family. Whilst Barrie wrote other plays and novels, the adventures of Peter Pan remain his most famous, and earned him numerous honours in his lifetime including some bestowed by King George V. Before his death, Barrie gave the rights to Peter Pan to London’s Great Ormond Street Hospital for children.