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 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 Despite later criticisms of her work as representing outdated ways of thinking, including some arguably racist and sexist content, children around the world still read her books.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.
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.
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.’”
June 8th 793: Viking invasion of England begins
On this day in 793, Vikings raided the abbey at Lindisfarne in Northumbria, thus beginning the Scandinavian invasion of England. The abbey was a famous centre of learning across the continent, and many of the resident monks were killed by the Vikings and the abbey’s treasures were taken. The invasion shocked the Christian West and alerted Europe to the Viking threat; many consider it the beginning of the Viking Age.
“Never before has such an atrocity been seen”
- Alcuin of York, 793
May 20th 1806: John Stuart Mill
On this day in 1806, the British philosopher John Stuart Mill was born in London. Mill hailed from a prominent family, and received a stellar education in his youth; he was reading Herodotus and Aesop by the time he was eight years old. This strenuous study later contributed to a nervous breakdown he suffered in his early twenties. Mill spent some time working for the East India Company, all the while developing his Utilitarian philosophy which was inspired by the works of Jeremy Bentham. Utilitarianism is the philosophy that the moral course of action is the one which would bring about the most total pleasure and minimise suffering; it is essentially the doctrine of the ‘greatest good for the greatest number’. Mill’s Utilitarianism took a more qualitative approach to pleasure in comparison to the quantitative Bentham. Having published his important work ‘On Liberty’ in 1859, Mill became an MP for Westminster in 1865, and was actively involved in liberal politics. In 1869 he published ‘The Subjection of Women’, a statement of feminism which was considered radical at its time, and was the first MP to call for female suffrage. Along with his wife Harriet, who was a huge influence on Mill’s thinking, he was a prominent advocate of social reform and left behind a great corpus of philosophical writings and social commentary. Mill died in 1873, and was buried alongside his wife who had died in 1858.
"It is better to be a human dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied"
- John Stuart Mill in ‘Utilitarianism’ (1861)
May 12th 1937: George VI crowned
On this day in 1937, the coronation of King George VI of the United Kingdom was held at Westminster Abbey, London. He became King upon the abdication of his older brother Edward VIII who left the throne in order to marry the divorced American socialite Wallis Simpson. George never expected to become King, but when the role was thrust upon him became one of Britain’s most loved monarchs. He ruled during the Second World War, and he and his wife Elizabeth were a great morale boost for the nation. However the war was not the only monumental event that took place during the reign of George VI; it was under his rule that the British Empire mostly dissolved, with independence movements in India and Ireland leading to a transition from empire to Commonwealth. George VI died on 6th February 1952 with his oldest daughter Elizabeth becoming Queen - she rules as Queen Elizabeth II to this day.
May 9th 1671: Blood tries to steal the Crown Jewels
On this day in 1671 the Irish colonel Thomas Blood attempted to steal England’s Crown Jewels from the Tower of London. Blood, who was a Parliamentarian during the Civil War, was disaffected with the monarchy after losing his Irish estate after the restoration of the monarchy in 1660. The theft of the Crown Jewels was one of many attempts at insurrection by the colonel. In 1671 Blood, disguised as a priest, and some accomplices subdued Master of the Jewel House Talbot Edwards after he showed them the jewels and then tried to steal them. Blood flattened the St. Edward’s Crown with a mallet and hid it under his coat, another filed the Sceptre with the Cross in two and a third stuffed the Sovereign’s Orb down his trousers. The alarm was soon raised with cries of "Treason! Murder! The crown is stolen!". Blood and his men were soon caught and the Jewels recovered. Blood was taken before King Charles II who, to the surprise of many contemporaries and continued puzzlement of historians, pardoned Blood and then gave him land in Ireland. Since then, the Crown Jewels have been kept under armed guard in the Jewel House of the Tower of London.
"It was a gallant attempt, however unsuccessful! It was for a crown!"
- Blood upon his capture
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 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 9th 1870: Charles Dickens dies
On this day in 1870, the English writer Charles Dickens passed away aged 58 following a stroke. Dickens wrote some popular and famous works such as Bleak House, Oliver Twist, Great Expectations and A Christmas Carol. He died leaving his final novel (The Mystery of Edwin Drood) unfinished, leaving the identity of the story’s murderer unknown. Due to his status as a literary giant of his age, Dickens was buried in Poets’ Corner of Westminster Abbey rather than the “unostentatious” service he desired. His work is still celebrated and widely read today.
"He was a sympathiser with the poor, the suffering, and the oppressed; and by his death, one of England’s greatest writers is lost to the world."
- Epitaph for Charles Dickens
June 1st 1967: Sgt. Pepper released
On this day in the 1967 the British band The Beatles released their iconic album 'Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band'. Their eighth album, Sgt. Pepper was an experimental piece as one of the world’s first concept albums, and represented a marked break from the Beatles’ earlier work. The concept of the album came from Paul McCartney and is that the album is being performed by a fictional band - the titular ‘Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’. Each Beatle took on a new persona in the band, most prominently drummer Ringo Starr as Billy Shears. Having decided to stop touring in 1966, the band were freer to write songs that would be difficult to play live, including the famous ‘A Day In The Life’. Other songs on the album have acquired equally legendary status, including ‘With a Little Help from My Friends’, ‘Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds’ and ‘When I’m Sixty-Four’. The album cover was designed by artists Peter Blake and Jann Haworth based on a sketch by McCartney, and featured cut-outs of famous figures. The figures depicted include Bob Dylan, Edgar Allan Poe, Marilyn Monroe, Robert Peel, Stuart Sutcliffe, Laurel and Hardy, Karl Marx, Oscar Wilde and wax versions of the Beatles themselves; John Lennon was denied his request to feature Adolf Hitler and Jesus Christ. Sgt. Pepper was an instant success, spending 22 weeks at the top of the UK album chart and winning four Grammy Awards; it is still considered one of the band’s best albums and one of the greatest albums of all time.
May 14th 1881: Mary Seacole dies
On this day in 1881 the nurse Mary Seacole died in London aged 76. Originally from Jamaica, the young Mary was taught her nursing skills by her mother. When war broke out in the Crimea, she applied to give medical assistance to wounded servicemen but was refused, and so gave treatment independently. Her patients admired ‘Mother Seacole’ and helped raised money for her after the war when she was left destitute. Despite her exemplary national service and popularity in Britain, Seacole faced discrimination at home due to her race and was unable to vote or hold public office. She has often been forgotten and placed in the shadow of famous Crimean War nurse Florence Nightingale, however in 2004 Seacole was voted the greatest Black Briton.
May 11th 1812: Spencer Perceval assassinated
On this day in 1812 Spencer Perceval became the first and only British Prime Minister to be assassinated when he was shot by John Bellingham in the lobby of the House of Commons. Perceval became Tory Prime Minister in 1809 (replacing the Duke of Portland) and his administration had to deal with economic depression, Luddism and the ‘madness’ of King George III. He had initially been considered a weak Prime Minister, but things had been looking up for his administration until he was shot. Bellingham was a merchant with a grievance against the government for supposedly not freeing him when he was imprisoned in Russia. The assassin was hanged on 18th May.
“I am murdered…I am murdered”
- Perceval’s last words