Tuesday, 18 February 2020

The Cato Street Conspiracy

Building in Cato Street where
the conspirators were found
200 years ago this week (and more than 200 years after Guy Fawkes and the Gunpowder Plot), another attempt was made to murder the serving Prime Minister (Lord Liverpool in this case) and all the British cabinet ministers. 

Known as the Cato Street Conspiracy, it was named after the conspirators’ meeting place in a hayloft located close by to  London's Edgware Road.

On 23 February 1820, England was a country on the brink of revolution. Lord Liverpool led a Tory government which has severely restricted free speech and free assembly while supplying the authorities with greater powers to prosecute critics of their regime. Only 3 weeks into his reign, King George IV was the monarch of a country stricken by austerity and ruled by political turmoil (does this sound familiar at all?).

A group called the Spencean Philanthropists, who took their name from the radical Thomas Spence, spent many months devising their plot which reached its climax at 7.30 in the evening, when 30 men met at a house in Cato Street, ready to walk the short distance to nearby Grosvenor Square. Once arriving at the more fashionable area of the capital, they planned to storm a house where the PM and his aides were having dinner.

Arthur Thistlewood
Led by Arthur Thistlewood, a former soldier, the Cato Street mob planned on one member of the gang knocking at the door with a supposed parcel delivery and when the door was opened, for the group to force entry.

Once the entire cabinet had been murdered, the plan was to decapitate all the members and display them on spikes at Westminster Bridge (especially those of the particularly reviled Foreign Secretary Lord Castlereagh and Home Secretary Lord Sidmouth).

But like Fawkes’ attempt 2 centuries earlier, this attack at the state was foiled from within as Thistlewood’s group was infiltrated by a police spy George Edwards.

Arrest at Cato Street
The Bow Street Runners, London’s first professional Police service, had been watching the premises in Cato Street all day and when all the conspirators had arrived, a battle ensued and with assistance from the Coldstream Guards, most of the gang were arrested at the scene. Thistlewood actually managed to slip away and was actually caught the next morning while sleeping.

In all 13 plotters were charged with treason, with five conspirators being executed and five others transported to Australia.

Other historical factoids this week:

150 years ago: 23 February 1870 - The U.S. state of Mississippi was restored to the Union following the American Civil War.

90 years ago: 18 February 1930 - The dwarf planet Pluto was discovered by American astronomer Clyde Tombaugh.

15 years ago: 18 February 2005 - Hunting wild mammals with dogs was banned in England and Wales. (Hunting foxes with dogs had already been banned in Scotland.)

Famous Deaths

75 years ago:  21 February 1945 - Death of Eric Liddell, Scottish athlete. Olympic gold medalist in 1924 (400m). Because of his religious convictions, he withdrew from the 100m heats because they were held on a Sunday, and entered (and won) the 400m instead as the heats and final were held on weekdays. He was portrayed by the actor Ian Charleson in the film Chariots of Fire.
(Died in a WWII internment camp in China, aged 43.)

30 years ago: 24 February 1990 - Death of Johnnie Ray, American singer, songwriter and pianist. Hugely popular in the1950s, he was known for his early rock and roll style and wild stage persona.

Alf Wight (James Herriot)
25 years ago: 23 February 1995 - Death of James Herriot (real name Alf Wight), British veterinary surgeon and writer who wrote semi-autobiographical stories about his experiences, (All Creatures Great and Small).

20 years ago: 23 February 2000 - Death of Sir Stanley Matthews, British football player.

Thursday, 1 August 2019

Herman Melville, Moby-Dick Author is 200

Herman Melville
200 years ago on the 1st August 1819, Herman Melville - the writer of Moby-Dick, or The Whale - was born. 

The American novelist and short story writer, was born in New York City, the third in a family of eight children of Dutch extraction. Coming from a well established family, his father Allan being an importer of French dry goods, spent much time away in Europe during Herman’s early years. 

Moby-Dick, the inspiration over the years for naming many a pet goldfish, was stated in February 1850, taking Melville 18 months to complete - a full year longer than was first intentioned. 

It relates the story of Captain Ahab, the skipper of a whaling vessel, and his quest for revenge against Moby-Dick, a giant sperm whale who had previously bit off Ahab’s leg at the knee, on an earlier voyage. 

Like much of Melville’s work, it was not received well by critics receiving mixed reviews when published back in 1851, becoming more successful over time. Indeed, initially it was a commercial failure and was out of print by the time of the author’s death in 1891. 

Its reputation as a great American novel was restored in the 20th century however when William Faulkner suggested he wished he had written it himself and D.H. Lawrence called it “one of the strangest and most wonderful books in the world”. 

Herman died in New York during September 1891 at the age of 72

Sunday, 21 July 2019

175 Years of Spoonerisms

This week sees the 175th anniversary of the birth of the Rev. William Archibald Spooner (22nd July 1844). OK, so it's maybe not the most exciting historical fact you may have come across, but please bear with me and let me explain….

Oxford don Spooner was notable for his absent-mindedness and propensity to mix up his syllables and words, often to comic effect. These are now popularly known as spoonerisms.

Born in London and educated at Oswestry School, he went on to study at New College, Oxford where he remained for more than 60 years serving as a fellow, lecturer, tutor, dean and warden. He lectured on ancient history, divinity and philosophy. 

He was a very popular and amiable man, being highly respected by his peers. Described as “an albino", small with a pink face and having exceptionally poor eyesight, it is said that he had a head rather too large in proportion to the rest of his body.

He died in 1930 at the age of 86 and is buried in Grasmere Cemetery in Cumbria.

Saturday, 20 July 2019

Sir Edmund Hillary - First Man to Conquer Mt Everest

100 years ago today, Sir Edmund Hillary - the first of two people (along with Nepalese Sherpa Tenzing Norgay) confirmed to have conquered Mount Everest - was born. 

Born in Auckland on July 20th, 1919, Hillary was part of the ninth British expedition to the World’s highest mountain, which was led by John Hunt (1953).

In NZRAF uniform
He first became interested in mountaineering at secondary school, making his first major climb in 1939 (Mount Ollivier in his native New Zealand) and after 2nd World War service in the NZ Royal Air Force, he was part of a British reconnaissance expedition to Everest in 1951, culminating in conquering the summit 2 years later.

Hillary talks of the 1953 Everest expedition

In future years he was to travel overland to the South and North Poles, becoming the first person to reach both poles and climb Everest. He also dedicated himself to helping the Sherpa people of Nepal through his Himalayan Trust, which he led until his death.

Sir Edmund died of heart failure at Auckland City Hospital in January 2008. Flags were lowered to half-mast on all NZ public buildings and he was given a state funeral by his adoring nation.

Friday, 19 July 2019

Seasons in the Sun

Terry Jacks’ 1974 hit “Seasons in the Sun” was a no.1 smash on both sides of the Atlantic and all around the world. 

Still heard on the radio on occasions, it was an English language adaptation of the song “Le Moribond” (The Dying Man) by Belgian singer-songwriter Jacques Brel, with re-written English lyrics by American poet/singer Rod McKuen. It tells the story of an old man who is dying of a broken heart because of his unfaithful wife.

Originally released as far back as 1964 by the Kingston Trio, the song was latterly covered by Westlife in 1999, becoming a UK Christmas no.1.

Jacks’ version was originally meant to be released by the Beach Boys who had started to record the song with Jacks as producer. But when that version was abandoned, Terry Jacks decided to record the song himself in Vancouver, along with his then wife Susan in 1973. After an original release put out on his own Goldfish records label, Bell Records got hold of the track, promoting it to become a worldwide mega-hit.

“Seasons in the Sun” was followed up by another Brel/McKuen collaboration “If You Go Away” (previously “Ne Me Quitte Pas”) which was a minor hit in the UK. Subsequently, although he remained successful in his native Canada, his popularity waned elsewhere.

As the 1970s came to a close, Jacks withdrew from the music industry to become involved in environmental issues, focusing on pulp mill production in Canada earning him several awards. 

In the intervening years he has made the occasional foray back into the music world producing work for other artists and working with friend Alan Jardine and other members of the Beach Boys. In 2015 a double cd-set containing 40 of his favourite hits from the last 40 years was released.

Now 75 years old, Terry Jacks has not been in the best of health in recent years, suffering a stroke in 2016. Earlier this year there was a hoax report of his death, but as of writing he is alive and well.

Saturday, 22 December 2018

Beatrix Potter - 75 Years On

Pictured in 1913

75 years ago today, British children’s author and illustrator Beatrix Potter died of complications from pneumonia and heart disease at the age of 77.

The creator of such loved characters as Peter Rabbit, Squirrel Nutkin, Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle, Jemima Puddle-Duck and many more was also a natural scientist and conservationist, being widely respected in the field of mycology.

Born into a well-to-do family in Kensington, London in 1866, Helen Beatrix Potter wrote 30 books in total, being fondly remembered for her 23 children’s tales. On her death on 22nd December 1943, she left the majority of her sizeable estate and property to the National Trust.

Her books continue to sell to this day, bringing the stories of her created animal characters to life for millions of children (and adults) worldwide.

Saturday, 10 November 2018

The First Ever London Derby!

This weekend saw the 111th anniversary of the first ever First Division London derby when on 9th November 1907, Arsenal were the visitors to Stamford Bridge to play Chelsea.

Stamford Bridge pictured in 1905

Arsenal were the first London club to enter the top flight of the Football League in 1904 and remained alone among those nasty northerners for 3 years until the Blues joined them in 1907.

Previously in the season Chelsea had struggled, so it was something of a surprise when Chelsea took a 2-0 lead with a brace from George Hilsdon. Arsenal narrowed the gap to 2-1, but could get no closer and suffered their fifth defeat of the season. Various reports suggested the crowd was somewhere between 50,000 and 70,000, which was a new league record.

By the end of the season, Chelsea finished in thirteenth, one place ahead of Arsenal, with whom they were level on points, by virtue of a superior goal average.