May 14th 1881: Mary Seacole dies
On this day in 1881 the Jamaican nurse Mary Seacole died in London aged 76. She applied to give medical assistance to wounded servicemen during the Crimean War but was refused, and so gave treatment independently. Her patients liked her and helped raised money for her after the war when she was left destitute. 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 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 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. He was also monarch during the dissolution of the British Empire. He died on 6th February 1952, and his oldest daughter Elizabeth became Queen. Elizabeth II rules to this day.
May 10th 1941: Hess parachutes into Scotland
On this day in 1941 during the Second World War, Adolf Hitler’s deputy in the Nazi Party Rudolf Hess fled Germany and parachuted into Scotland in an attempt to negotiate peace with the United Kingdom. On 10th May he took off in a plane from Augsburg and in the evening he arrived over the UK and parachuted down near the Scottish village of Eaglesham. He told authorities he had an important message and was handed to the army who took him as a prisoner of war. Winston Churchill sent Hess to the Tower of London, making him its last inmate. After the war he was tried at the Nuremberg Trials and sentenced to life imprisonment, which he served at Spandau Prison in Berlin. Despite calls for his release Hess died in prison in 1987, supposedly due to suicide by hanging, but many claim others helped in his death.
May 4th 1979: Thatcher becomes Prime Minister
On this day in 1979, Margaret Thatcher became the first female Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. She is known for her conservative policies which have become known as ‘Thatcherism’. Upon winning the 1979 general election and becoming Prime Minister, Thatcher had to deal with high employment and financial problems and responded with deregulation, privatisation and reducing the power of trade unions. She also led Britain during the Falklands War with Argentina in 1982. Thatcher was challenged by others in her party and resigned as Prime Minister in 1990. Known as ‘the Iron Lady’, Thatcher was the longest-serving British Prime Minister of the 20th Century. She died from a stroke in 2013 and remains a very controversial figure in British history.
April 21st 1509: Henry VIII becomes King
On this day in 1509 upon the death of English King Henry VII, his son Henry VIII ascended to the throne aged 17. His coronation took place in June the same year. Henry VIII is best remembered for his six marriages, which ended in two divorces, two executions and one death. He was also the leading force in separating the Church of England from the Roman Catholic Church and establishing the monarch as head of the Church of England. Henry was King until his death in 1547 aged 55.
April 11th 1890: ‘Elephant Man’ dies
On this day in 1890 Joseph Merrick, otherwise known as the ‘Elephant Man’, died in London. Merrick was an English man with severe deformities and was exhibited as an ‘Elephant Man’ which made him very well known. He eventually ended touring Europe and remained in a London Hospital for the rest of his life. Merrick died 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 well known after the 1980 film about his life starring John Hurt as Merrick and Anthony Hopkins as his friend Frederick Treves.
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. Work began in 1867; the hall was designed by Captain Francis Fowke and Major-General Henry Scott and built by Lucas Brothers. It was completed in 1871 and at the official opening on March 29th the Queen was so overcome with emotion she was unable to speak. It was Edward, Prince of Wales who had to announce:
“The Queen declares this Hall is now open”
March 22nd 1963: ‘Please Please Me’ released
On this day in 1963 the first album by the Beatles, ‘Please Please Me’, was released in the UK by Parlophone. The first singles, ‘Love Me Do’ and ‘Please Please Me’ had been very successful, with the latter topping the charts. The success of their debut album was followed up with their second UK album ‘With the Beatles’ in November 1963. The Beatles went on to become one of the most famous groups of their day, and its members (John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr) became icons. The band’s influence continued long after their break up in 1970 and endures to this day.
50 years ago today
13th May 1940: “Blood, toil, tears and sweat” speech
On this day in 1940 British Prime Minister Winston Churchill made his famous speech in the House of Commons. The speech was his first to the Commons since becoming Prime Minister on 10th May. He gave the speech during the Battle of France of the Second World War and it provided a great morale boost in the United Kingdom.
“I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat. We have before us an ordeal of the most grievous kind. We have before us many, many long months of struggle and of suffering.
You ask, what is our aim? I can answer in one word: Victory. Victory at all costs - Victory in spite of all terror - Victory, however long and hard the road may be, for without victory there is no survival”
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 by Bellingham who was a merchant with a grievance against the government for supposedly not freeing him when he was imprisoned in Russia. Bellingham was hanged on 18th May.
“I am murdered…I am murdered”
- Perceval’s last words
May 9th 1671: Thomas 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 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. Blood and his men were soon caught and the Jewels recovered. Blood was taken before King Charles II who, to the surprise of many, 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.
April 27th 1759: Mary Wollstonecraft born
On this day in 1759, the British women’s rights advocate Mary Wollstonecraft was born in London. She was also a writer and is best known for her 1792 work ‘A Vindication of the Rights of Woman’ in which she argues that women are not naturally inferior to men and argues the importance of female education. She died aged 38 after giving birth to her second daughter, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin (later became Mary Shelley), who went on to write ‘Frankenstein’. Wollstonecraft is remembered as a leading feminist philosopher.
April 20th 1968: ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech
On this day in 1968, British politician Enoch Powell made his controversial ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech at a Conservative Association meeting in Birmingham. Powell was the Conservative MP for Wolverhampton South West. The speech was vehemently anti-immigration with its ideas that immigrants were ‘ruining’ Britain and many refused to integrate, thus fostering racial and religious tensions and leading to violence. The speech was very controversial, with some supporting his comments as ‘brave’ and many condemning it as racist. It led to Powell’s dismissal from the Shadow Cabinet by Conservative leader Edward Heath.
“As I look ahead, I am filled with foreboding; like the Roman, I seem to see ‘the River Tiber foaming with much blood.’”
April 1st 1957: ‘Spaghetti tree hoax’
On this day in 1957 for April Fools’ Day, the BBC current affairs programme Panorama broadcast a story about spaghetti trees. The piece told of a Swiss family who harvested spaghetti from a tree, and it was widely believed as spaghetti was not well known in Britain at the time. Many also considered it credible as the voice-over was done by the respected broadcaster Richard Dimbleby. Hundreds of people wrote to the BBC to ask how to grow their own spaghetti tree to which the BBC replied: “place a sprig of spaghetti in a tin of tomato sauce and hope for the best”.
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.