April 16th 1889: Charlie Chaplin born
On this day in 1889 the famous silent film star Charlie Chaplin was born in London. Chaplin came from a musical family, but his family fell on hard times and he spent his childhood on the streets of London. This hardship did nothing to abate the young Chaplin’s aspiration to be an actor. He began to secure roles on stage, securing a reputation as a fine comic actor. Chaplin moved to the United States in 1913 to embark on a promising film career. Soon after arriving he established the character that would make him famous: ‘the Tramp’. The character, a bumbling vagrant, featured in over 10 of Chaplin’s films. This role threw Charlie Chaplin to international prominence, and he soon earned a huge salary of $670,000 a year - a vast amount even now; he had come a long way from his poverty-stricken youth in London. He continued to star in films, notably ‘The Great Dictator’ in 1940 which parodied Adolf Hitler. Chaplin’s popularity waned as he faced controversy in the United States when he was accused of being a communist. However he enjoyed a renewed appreciation by the 1970s, winning an honorary Oscar in 1972. Chaplin died in 1977 aged 88 in Switzerland, where he had moved in the early 1950s after being banned from the States.
April 14th 1759: Handel dies
On this day in 1759, the German composer George Frederic Handel died aged 74. Famous for his Baroque pieces, Handel was born in Germany in 1685 but moved to Britain later in life. He gained a reputation there for his Italian operas, and some of his works were performed for Queen Anne and her successors on the British throne. Handel enjoyed royal patronage, and his music is regularly played at royal coronations even to this day. However he is perhaps best known for his biblical choral masterpiece: Messiah. Handel died in 1759, and was honoured with a state funeral and burial in Westminster Abbey. Alongside his grave is a monument, sculpted by Louis Francois Roubiliac, which was unveiled in 1762 and features a statue of Handel which supposedly has the exact likeness of his death mask.
April 2nd 1982: Argentina invades the Falkland Islands
On this day in 1982, Argentine forces landed on the Falkland Islands and occupied the area, which marked the beginning of the Falklands War. The war was the product of long tensions over who possessed the islands, with Argentina claiming ownership and Britain seeing the islands as British territory. Argentine forces landed on the islands and fought the British Royal Marines at Government House, leading to British surrender and thus Argentina seizing control of the Falklands. British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher responded by sending a naval task force to attack the Argentinians. The conflict killed 649 Argentinians, 255 Britons and three Falkland Islanders, even though it only lasted 74 days. The war ended with Argentine surrender on 14th June, thus returning the islands to Britain.
March 29th 1871: Royal Albert Hall opens
On this day in 1871 Queen Victoria officially opened the concert hall in London which was named after her late husband Prince Albert. The hall had been initially planned by Albert after the success of the Great Exhibition in the Crystal Palace in 1851. The building was designed by Captain Francis Fowke and Major-General Henry Scott and built by the Lucas Brothers. Work began on the Royal Albert Hall in 1867, six years after Albert’s death and was completed in 1871. At the official opening on March 29th the Queen was so overcome with emotion at the thought of her beloved late husband, she was unable to speak. It was Edward, Prince of Wales who had to announce: “The Queen declares this Hall is now open”. The Royal Albert Hall remains a London landmark and a popular concert venue.
March 27th 1625: Charles I becomes King
On this day in 1625, Charles I became King of England, Scotland and Ireland. He succeeded to the throne upon the death of his father King James I. Charles and his father believed in the divine right of kings to absolute rule. This caused Charles’s struggle for power with Parliament and resentment among his subjects for his seemingly tyrannical actions like taxing without the consent of Parliament and interfering with churches. The English Civil War broke out in the last years of his reign, which pitted the crown against Parliament. Charles was captured by the Parliamentarians and executed for high treason in 1649. The monarchy was then abolished but returned in 1660 with Charles’s son in power.
March 18th 1893: Wilfred Owen born
On this day in 1893, the English poet and soldier was born in Shropshire. Owen is famous for his poetry depicting his experiences in the First World War, especially the horrors of trench and gas warfare which he experienced first hand. His grim portrayal of war was contrary to the optimistic public perception of war. Owen was good friends with fellow World War One poet Siegfried Sassoon whom he met whilst they were both in hospital for shell shock. Perhaps Owen’s most famous poem is 'Dulce et Decorum Est'. In the last lines of this poem Owen laments the “old lie” of the dictum “Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori” which is Latin for ‘How sweet and honourable it is to die for one’s country’. Owen was killed in battle in 1918 aged 25 exactly one week before the signing of the Armistice. He was outlived by his friend Sassoon who died in 1967. This year when we commemorate the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War, we must remember Owen’s haunting words and understand the horrors these soldiers experienced.
March 13th 1781: Uranus discovered
On this day in 1781, the planet Uranus was discovered by British astronomer William Herschel. He was in his garden in Bath, England when he observed the planet with his telescope. He initially thought the body was a comet but after he reported the sighting other astronomers weighed in and concluded it was indeed a new planet. At first Herschel wanted to name the planet after King George III, but foreign scientists were not too keen on that Anglocentric name. Eventually German astronomer Johann Bode suggested the name Uranus, which is the Latin name for the Greek god of the sky Ouranos. Thus Uranus joined other planets in the solar system whose names derived from the genealogy of Greek gods: Uranus was Saturn’s father, Saturn was Jupiter’s father and Jupiter was Mars’s father. The element uranium, which was discovered in 1789 by Martin Klaproth, was named in honour of Uranus.
"By the observation of the most eminent Astronomers in Europe it appears that the new star, which I had the honour of pointing out to them in March 1781, is a Primary Planet of our Solar System”
- Herschel in 1783 to President of the Royal Society Joseph Banks
March 5th 1946: ‘Iron Curtain’ speech
On this day in 1946, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill made his famous ‘Iron Curtain’ speech at Westminster College, Missouri. The term had been used prior to 1946, but this was the most public use of it. In the ‘Sinews of Peace’ address, Churchill used the term ‘iron curtain’ to reference a Soviet dominated Eastern Europe. At the time, the West still saw the Soviet Union as an ally after the defeat of Nazi Germany in World War Two, but Churchill’s speech heralded the onset of the Cold War tensions between the capitalist West and communist Russia. As the Cold War took hold, the phrase became popular as a reference to repressive Communist domination of Europe which hid Soviet actions and set a clear divide in Europe.
"From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic an iron curtain has descended across the continent”
April 15th 1989: Hillsborough Disaster
On this day in 1989, 25 years ago today, the Hillsborough disaster occurred in Sheffield, United Kingdom. A human crush during an FA Cup semi-final match between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest at Hillsborough Stadium led to the deaths of 96 people. The victims were mostly Liverpool fans, as the two sides were allocated separate sections of the stadium. The Liverpool area was overcrowded, with the police letting in more spectators than the stadium could contain and making exits into additional entries. The game only lasted six minutes, as the mass of people broke the crush barrier. The incident proved very controversial at the time and still today. The authorities initially tried to cover up the police negligence and blamed the fans for the disaster, claiming they were mostly violent drunkards who rushed the field. Stories swirled accusing the spectators of attacking police officers and each other. However, subsequent investigations revealed the level of police culpability. These concluded that: the fans were not responsible for the disaster; the authorities did try to cover-up what happened; many of the deaths could have been avoided if they had received prompt medical treatment (only 14 of the victims went to hospital); and the findings have led to the abolition of standing spaces in British football stadiums. On the 25 year anniversary, we mourn one of the worst stadium disasters in history and the tragically avoidable deaths of the 96.
April 10th 1998: Good Friday Agreement signed
On this day in 1998 in a major development of the Northern Ireland peace process, British and Irish representatives signed the Good Friday Agreement in Belfast. It was signed by Irish leader Bertie Ahern and British Prime Minister Tony Blair and the talks were led by former US Senator George Mitchell (D-ME). The agreement followed years of historic conflict and negotiation. The agreement included plans for a Northern Ireland Assembly and a pledge by both sides to use peaceful means of conflict resolution. It set out the present constitutional status of Northern Ireland as part of the United Kingdom but with a devolved government. The agreement was approved by Irish voters in a referendum and came into force in December 1999.
"Today I hope that the burden of history can at long last start to be lifted from our shoulders"
- Tony Blair
April 1st 2008: BBC announce discovery of flying penguins
On this day in 2008, British newspapers announced an upcoming BBC short film which would showcase its latest groundbreaking discovery. The film, billed as a ‘miracle of evolution’, was hosted by Monty Python legend Terry Jones and made by the uniquely named Prof. Alid Loyas. The remarkable film shows a colony of Adélie Penguins in Antarctica flying the long distance to the warmer climate of South America. The discovery, appearing on April 1st 2008, rocked the scientific world and has brought into question our very understanding of our planet. If we didn’t know penguins could fly, what else lies undiscovered?
Watch the fascinating footage here and marvel at the wonder of the flying penguins
March 28th 1854: Britain and France declare war on Russia
On this day in 1854 in a pivotal moment of the Crimean War, Britain and France declared war on Russia. This conflict originated in the aftermath of the Napoleonic wars when Europe tried to rebuild and ensure future stability. One of the concerns was the crumbling Ottoman-Turkish empire, known as the ‘sick man of Europe’. The Russians planned to carve up the European part of Turkey, but Turkey objected and eventually declared war. The war was also prompted by debates over the rights of Christians in the Holy Land, which was under Ottoman control. Britain and France, each with their own interests in the preservation of the Ottoman regime, also joined the war when Russian troops failed to withdraw from the Russo-Turkish border. The allies decided to land in the Crimea to assault the Russian naval base at Sevastopol in order to gain the Black Sea. The siege took far longer than expected, and made Crimea the primary front of the war. The Crimean war was characterised by poor military leadership on both sides and a failure to adapt tactics to modern weaponry. The Battle of Balaclava in October saw the infamous British ‘Charge of the Light Brigade’, a frontal assault against Russian artillery. Eventually Sevastopol fell, the Russians were defeated, and the war ended with the signing of the Treaty of Paris in March 1856. This war has been the subject of much recent discussion due to Russia’s controversial annexation of Crimea, which was previously an autonomous region of Ukraine.
160 years ago today
March 25th 1811: Shelley expelled from Oxford
On this day in 1811, Percy Bysshe Shelley was expelled from the University of Oxford for publishing a pamphlet entitled ‘The Necessity of Atheism’. Shelley is best known as a famous English poet, who was part of a group of fellow prominent writers including his wife Mary Shelley and Lord Byron. As well as being as being an author, Shelley was a radical political activist who advocated non-violent protest. Having begun study at Oxford in 1810, it is often said that he only attended one lecture during his time there. He published several works whilst at university, but it was his atheistic pamphlet which led to his appearance before the College fellows and his eventual expulsion as he refused to deny authorship. ‘The Necessity of Atheism’ argued that people do not choose their beliefs and thus atheists shouldn’t be persecuted. However it is unclear whether Shelley was personally an atheist; he may have instead been an agnostic or a pantheist. Either way, this document is an interesting insight into Shelley’s views and shows how atheism was stigmatised in the early nineteenth century.
"Truth has always been found to promote the best interests of mankind. Every reflecting mind must allow that there is no proof of the existence of a Deity"
March 16th 1912: Lawrence Oates dies
On this day in 1912 Lawrence Oates, a member of Robert Falcon Scott’s British team to the South Pole, left his tent never to be seen again. Scott’s Terra Nova Expedition was his second attempt and aimed to become the first group to reach the South Pole. The group succeeded in reaching the Pole on 17th January 1912, only to discover that they had been beaten by Roald Amundsen’s Norwegian expedition. Sadly, Scott’s entire party of five men died on the return journey. Oates was one of those who died first. He was suffering from severe frostbite and, in an apparent act of self-sacrifice, simply walked out of his tent into a blizzard. He had asked them to leave him behind as his condition worsened, and it is likely he felt that he was holding his group back and limiting their chances for survival. Thus on March 16th he walked out of the tent saying: "I am just going outside and may be some time." The others died soon after and their bodies were found by a search party in November, along with some of their equipment and personal effects. Oates’s body was never found, but he and his companions are remembered as brave men and national heroes.
"We knew that poor Oates was walking to his death, but though we tried to dissuade him, we knew it was the act of a brave man and an English gentleman.”
- Entry in Scott’s diary about Oates
March 11th 1864: The Great Sheffield Flood
On this day in 1864 the Dale Dyke Dam in Sheffield broke, causing one of the largest floods in English history. 650 million gallons of water swept down Loxley Valley and through areas of Sheffield. The flood destroyed 800 homes and killed around 293 people, thus making it the largest man-made disaster to befall England, and one of the deadliest floods in history. Individual stories from the disaster are particularly tragic. For example Joseph Dawson found the currents too strong and was unable to save both his wife and two day old baby boy - the Dawsons’ unnamed child became the first victim of the floods. The destruction afterwards led one observer to remark that Sheffield was "looking like a battlefield". Today marks the 150th anniversary of this tragedy, which is often forgotten in English history, and many Sheffielders will take this day to remember what once happened to their city.
150 years ago today