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Archive for May, 2013

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The great fire at St Katherine’s Dock, London

Posted in Disasters, Famous news stories, Historical articles, History, London on Thursday, 30 May 2013

St Katharine's Docks, picture, image, illustration

Scene of the great fire at the St Katherine Docks, London; from The Illustrated London News, 13 January 1866

On New Year’s Day,1866 the Metropolitan Fire Brigade came into being. The inadequacy of the old London Fire Engine Establishment was self-evident; it simply could not serve the vast area which depended upon it, and the Metropolitan Board of Works realised it had to act. In its first year the new brigade faced many challenges, not least the fire at the Crystal Palace, but even its first few days presented major incidents, the most destructive being the great fire at St Katharine’s Docks. When the fire was eventually put out, it was reported that the docks had suffered over £200,000 worth of damage to warehouses and goods.

Many more pictures of the London Docks can be found at the Look and Learn picture library.

Elizabethan swashbucklers, privateers, buccaneers and pirates

Posted in Historical articles, History, Royalty, Ships, Trade on Wednesday, 29 May 2013

This edited article about seafaring originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 272 published on 1 April 1967.

Sir Francis Drake, picture, image, illustration

Sir Francis Drake, knight of the Spanish Main by Peter Jackson

The Santa Maria was not much of a ship. Precise details of her are lacking, despite all the models. Nobody thought her lines worth preserving before she set out on that one great voyage: she never came back. Columbus lost her in the West Indies, and that was that.

I have been aboard at least two replicas of her, despite this, one at Barcelona and the other at New York. They were different-sized ships. The one in New York was, I thought, the better. She was a chunky little ship with an awkward rig. The Santa Maria must have been very uncomfortable for her sailors to live aboard and to work for she was old when Columbus was loaned her. I should think she was fit for a trade-wind passage, and that was about all. She would never have made the long and difficult voyage to the Straits of Magellan and across the Pacific, as Magellan did.

The success of the Portuguese on their Indian Ocean voyages, caused ships and shipping to leap ahead. Soon fleets of ships were sailing westwards from Spain towards the West Indies and Central America, and from Portugal southwards towards the Cape of Good Hope, East Africa, and India. India soon became the East Indies, as the Portuguese took in Malaya, Indonesia, the Celebes and the other rich islands. Finding the riches of Ecuador and Peru, Spanish merchants began to build coasting ships to sail along the Pacific coasts of South America and north to Mexico. As trade spread, they began the annual voyages of the treasure galleons across the North Pacific from the East Indies – Manila in particular – to the west coast of Mexico.

An obliging Pope, in the meantime, had divided the world known and unknown equally between Spain and Portugal; each had its zone of influence – or rather, its hemisphere. The routes were established. The gold flowed.

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Margaret McMillan pioneered medical examinations for schoolchildren

Posted in Education, Historical articles, History, Labour Party, Medicine on Wednesday, 29 May 2013

This edited article about medicine originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 272 published on 1 April 1967.

British schoolchildren, picture, image, illustration

British schoolchildren in the early twentieth century

“Open your mouth and let us see if you have nice, white teeth.”

The little boy looked doubtfully first at the lady and then at the doctor. They both looked kind, and so he opened his mouth wide.

He was the first of millions of British children to have routine medical examinations at school.

Today, school clinics, nursery schools and physical education as part of the school curriculum are taken for granted. But only 70 years ago, Margaret McMillan had to fight to get these ideas accepted.

Margaret McMillan was born in New York on 20th January, 1860. She grew up in Scotland with her mother and her sister Rachel. She planned to become a governess, then for a time she wanted to be an actress. In fact she achieved neither of these ambitions, for she grew interested in politics and became a member of the Independent Labour Party in 1893.

A year later, she was elected to the local school board and, seeing the poor state of health of so many young British school children, she realised that her life’s work lay in helping them.

By 1899, she had successfully fought to impress on her colleagues the importance of regular medical inspection for children, and supervised it herself in several schools. At the same time, with the help of her sister, she began her first nursery school, and, as soon as that was making progress, turned her energies to establishing camp schools for boys.

In 1910, Margaret and Rachel opened their largest clinic for sick children, in Deptford. After a year of hard work, they won official recognition and government help.

During the First World War (1914-18), the two sisters set up an open-air nursery school for under-fives which caused world-wide interest.

Margaret’s final success came in 1929 when she founded a college for training infants’ teachers which carried on her ideas.

Two years later, On 29th March, 1931, Margaret McMillan died at Harrow.

The selfless humanity of the Belgian missionary, Father Damien

Posted in Historical articles, History, Medicine, Missionaries, Religion on Wednesday, 29 May 2013

This edited article about Hawaii originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 272 published on 1 April 1967.

Father Damien, picture, image, illustration

Father Damien

“And may the Lord have mercy on you lepers.”

It was with these words that Father Damien always blessed his congregation at the dreaded leper colony at Molokai in the Hawaiian Islands.

Then, one day in 1885, he altered his blessing slightly . . . “And may the Lord have mercy on us lepers.”

Tears sprang to the eyes of the stricken outcasts. They knew that their beloved Father had become infected with leprosy himself.

Father Damien was born at Tremeloo, in Belgium, on 3rd January, 1840. His name was then Joseph de Veuster. When he was 18 he decided to devote his life to the service of the Church.

After his religious studies, he went as a missionary to Hawaii. He was ordained a priest in Honolulu in 1864.

In Hawaii he was struck by the terrible condition of the lepers. As soon as a person showed the symptoms of leprosy, the authorities sent them to Molokai, where they were cut off from the rest of the world. Being exiled to Molokai was regarded as a death sentence by the Hawaiians.

Father Damien found that once the sufferers were sent to the island nothing was done for them. Healthy people refused to work there for fear of catching the disease. With no proper water supply or housing, the 600 lepers were left to nurse each other.

At his own request, Father Damien became the residential priest at the colony. With his own hands he built a water supply system, and then he began constructing houses and a little church. He treated lepers with the medicines that were available, but, most important of all, he managed to give them back the will to help themselves.

He could have left his flock then and sought the best treatment in the world. Instead, he continued to work with his Hawaiians and pray for “us lepers” until 28th March, 1889, when he died of the disease which he had spent his life fighting.

The ages of discovery revitalised the Catholic missionaries

Posted in America, Discoveries, Exploration, Historical articles, History, Missionaries, Religion on Wednesday, 29 May 2013

This edited article about Christianity originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 272 published on 1 April 1967.

Ignatius Loyola, picture, image, illustration

Jesuit priest Saint Ignatius of Loyola kneeling at an altar

By the year A.D. 1000 a serious division had arisen in the Church. From that time the Christians of Western Europe were known as Catholics, and those of Eastern Europe as Orthodox.

One effect of this division was to slow down the pace of the global expansion of Christianity. In the Middle Ages the two great branches of the Church were powerful, but opposed to one another. They were also deeply involved in the politics of Europe, and in resisting the advancing tide of another religion, that of the Arabian prophet Mohammed. As a result, there was little spread of Christianity until the 16th century.

In that century the Reformation took place in Europe. This led to the appearance of the many Protestant and Reformed churches which we know today. But there was also a reformation within the Catholic Church itself, of which perhaps the most important result was a great desire on the part of many to take their faith to lands which had not yet heard of it.

Fortunately for them, the late 15th and the 16th centuries were also great ages of discovery. Explorers such as Columbus, Vasco da Gama and Amerigo Vespucci opened new continents and sea-routes to traders and colonists, and also to missionaries. Very many of these early explorations were carried out under the Portuguese flag, so that Portuguese colonies were the earliest to be settled in many parts of South America, West Africa, India, Ceylon and the Far East.

To those colonies there went groups of Christian men, and sometimes women. They did not go in search of gold, or adventure, but to preach the Christian faith, and to show its meaning by teaching the ignorant and healing the sick. Most of them belonged to one of the great religious communities which had been founded in the Middle Ages by notable leaders like St. Francis. They lived according to the rules and customs of their particular ‘order’.

The names of all but a few of these missionaries of early colonial times are no longer known. But it is as a result of their efforts that there is a strong Catholic tradition in many parts of the world today, especially in South America, but also in parts of India and Ceylon, and even in China, Japan and the islands of South-East Asia.

One such ‘order’ was founded in 1534 with missionary work as one of its main objects. Originally known as ‘the Company of Jesus’ it later changed its name to ‘the Society of Jesus’ and its members are still known as ‘Jesuits’. Its founder was a Spanish soldier, Ignatius Loyola, who inspired his followers to missionary enterprises before which even a trained soldier might quail.

Two young sisters were kidnapped by the Tonto Apaches

Posted in Adventure, America, Historical articles, History on Wednesday, 29 May 2013

This edited article about the Wild West originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 272 published on 1 April 1967.

Apache attack, picture, image, illustration

Apache attack by Ron Embleton

With bloodcurdling yells the Indians leaped on the Oatman family, father, mother and seven children, standing by their wagon. There were 19 of them, savage killers, so much more primitive than most Indians that they fought on foot with clubs.

Moments later, the parents and four children were dead. Lorenzo, the eldest boy, who had been clubbed and thrown over a cliff, was left for dead: Olive, aged 12, and Mary Ann, aged seven, had been spared their lives, but were being dragged away into captivity.

The family had set out from Missouri in 1851, as part of a wagon train of 80 people, heading for an area near the mouth of the Gila River in Arizona, where they intended to settle. When they reached Tucson, now in Arizona, but then part of Mexico, most of the party decided to stay for a year – much to the relief of the inhabitants, who wanted American help in their endless wars with the Apaches.

The Oatmans, and two other families, decided to press on before their cattle wasted away in the desert from lack of food and water. After a terrible journey, they camped with friendly Pima Indians before Oatman made his fatal mistake of going on still farther, alone.

Then came the massacre on the banks of the Gila.

Lorenzo, left for dead, managed to crawl to the river to drink and bathe his wounds. This gave him the strength to drive off some coyotes, which attacked him that night, by yelling and throwing stones at them.

Two Pimas found him next day, fed him and went for help, but by now he mistrusted all Indians, and set out on his own. Fortunately, he ran into the other two families, who took him under their protection.

Meanwhile, Olive and Mary Ann had begun their dreadful ordeal. Their captors were Tonto Apaches, and it is hard to imagine a worse tribe for white girls to be enslaved by.

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The burning of the Reichstag symbolised the death of democracy

Posted in Famous landmarks, Famous news stories, Historical articles, History, Politics on Wednesday, 29 May 2013

This edited article about the Reichstag in Berlin originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 272 published on 1 April 1967.

Reichstag in flames, picture, image, illustration

The burning of the Reichstag

Throughout the 1920s and early 1930s, a precarious democracy still survived in Germany. It consisted of an elected government under a President.

Among the political groups fighting for power, two began to emerge above the rest; the Communist Party and the National Socialist Party – the Nazis. In 1928, the Nazis gained only 12 seats of the 491 seats in the Reichstag, or Parliament. But two years later, a series of grave financial crises in Germany turned the situation to their advantage.

By 1932, the Nazis held 230 seats in Parliament – the biggest single party, but still without an overall majority. Their leaders occupied vital places in the government: Hitler had even stood for President and, though he was defeated, in January 1933 he was made Chancellor.

But still the clear majority of votes in Parliament eluded the party: there was the possibility that the coming elections might even reduce their strength.

This was the position in Germany when, on the night of 27th February, 1933, a student hurrying past the Reichstag building in Berlin saw a man standing on the first floor waving what seemed to be a burning torch. The student found a police officer who, after raising the alarm, entered the building in search of the man. Inside, he saw a figure running from window to window, still brandishing his flaring torch. He fired, but the man escaped, although shortly afterwards a patrol caught him. He was a Dutchman called Marius van der Lubbe.

Meanwhile, the Reichstag had burst into flames and by 10 p.m., in spite of a large fire-fighting force, it was obvious that it could not be saved. A hasty interrogation of the Dutchman produced the information that he had started the fire single-handed and on his own initiative.

That same evening, Hitler was dining with his fellow-Nazi, Goebbels, in Berlin. According to Goebbels’s account, the news was broken by telephone. Goebbels recounts that there was “. . . suddenly a telephone call from Dr. Hanfstaengel ‘The Reichstag is on fire.’ I’m sure that he is spinning a yarn and decline even to mention it to the Fuhrer (Hitler).”

But after the telephone call Goebbels began to wonder. He hastily made some telephone calls himself and discovered that the report was true.

Instantly he and Hitler left for “the scene of the crime.” Other leading members of the Nazi Party were already at the Reichstag when they arrived. Watching the blaze, a reporter heard Hitler say “God grant that this is the work of the Communists.”

Whether or not the Nazis genuinely believed that the wretched van der Lubbe was a Communist agent, or whether, as some claimed, he was a tool of the Nazis themselves, Hitler immediately made use of the crime. On the following day he persuaded the President to suspend all civil liberties for an indefinite period and, free now of any legal check, the Nazis completed their stranglehold on Germany.

Big Ben – the origins of our nickname for the Great Bell in Victoria Tower

Posted in Architecture, Famous landmarks, Historical articles, History, London, Music on Wednesday, 29 May 2013

This edited article about Big Ben originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 272 published on 1 April 1967.

Big Ben Caunt, picture, image, illustration

Big Ben Caunt's supporters cheering him on by John Millar Watt

Of all the many chiming bells in Great Britain, the most famous is the heavy, sonorous voice of Big Ben. It has rung out for more than a century over the Houses of Parliament (where once the Palace of Westminster stood).

The name – Big Ben – originally applied only to the giant bell that tolls the hours, but over the years the name has been extended to the clock with the four faces mounted high in its tower.

An earlier clock tower stood in the same place on the Thames. It was put up in 1288 when the Palace of Westminster was a royal residence. Ralph de Hengham, a Chief Justice in the reign of King Edward I, was discovered illegally reducing a fine for a friend of his. Ralph was in disgrace and was made to pay a very heavy fine himself. This money was used to install a big bell in the clock tower: it hourly reminded other judges of Ralph’s misdemeanour.

This bell was called Great Tom, but four centuries later, when St. Paul’s was rebuilt, King William III gave Great Tom to the new cathedral. The bell was broken as it was dragged through the streets, but after considerable trouble, over a period of 20 years, it was recast and hung in St. Paul’s, where it still tolls the hours.

In 1834, the Palace of Westminster was burned down, and the present Parliament buildings were erected to replace it. The clock tower formed part of the design and the clock was installed along with four small bells to tell the quarter hours.

The hour bell was a monster. Nine feet tall, it weighed almost 17 tons. It was made in Stockton-on-Tees and brought into London by ship.

The bell was so heavy that after 10 months it cracked. A smaller bell, weighing 13 ½ tons, was cast by the Whitechapel Bell Foundry in 1858. When this cracked, after a few months, the size of the striking hammer was reduced, and this change added charm and individuality to the note.

The name of the bell was inspired by its size, and it was linked in the public imagination with corpulent Sir Benjamin Hall who was the Commissioner of Public Works charged with the clock project. One day, at a committee meeting, Hall proposed that the bell be officially named St. Stephen, after the old palace chapel where the House of Commons had assembled in its early days. When Hall sat down a member of the committee shouted, “Why not call it Big Ben and have done with it?” – and the name stuck!

Benjamin Hall was not the only ‘Big Ben’ with popular appeal. Prize fighter Ben Caunt, born in 1815 and weighing 17 stones, was known by that name too. Prize fights were illegal but they took place in secluded spots and were well heralded in advance.

Caunt had a long career, and he was still going well when the clock tower went up. His supporters were pleased to think that the new bell in the clock tower at Westminster was named after their hero.

Beau Brummell was the first male fashion icon

Posted in Historical articles, History, Royalty on Wednesday, 29 May 2013

This edited article about Beau Brummell originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 272 published on 1 April 1967.

Beau Brummell, picture, image, illustration

Beau Brummell and the Prince Regent by Paul Rainer

Who said “Who’s your fat friend”?

The answer is Beau Brummell about the Prince Regent, later George IV, in 1812.


Beau Brummell was the leading figure in London Society for nearly 20 years. The poet, Lord Byron said: “I would rather be Brummell than Napoleon,” which suggests there was more to him than a flair for clothes. In fact, everything about him – his dress, personality and conversation – had style.

His revolution in fashion was based on simplicity, perfect tailoring and cleanliness. There was nothing showy about his clothes. When he started his revolution, there were two fashions, over-elaborate dressing and deliberate untidiness. Brummell soon altered this, establishing tightly fitting trousers as the fashion, banning extravagance, and inventing the starched cravat, which nobody could ever tie like its inventor. He changed his shirt thrice a day, and spent an unheard-of amount of time, for those days, washing.

There was also his wit. Asked if he liked vegetables, he replied: “I don’t know: I have never eaten them.” He paused and continued: “No, that is not quite true: I once ate a pea.” Sometimes his wit was cutting. Businessmen were not then ‘in’ Society, and when a merchant asked him to dine, he replied: “With pleasure, if you will promise faithfully not to tell anyone.” Hostesses considered their parties a disaster if he did not put in an appearance.

The Prince admired him tremendously, but their friendship started to wane. Brummell made jokes at the Prince’s expense, forgetting his revengeful nature. One day Brummell and his friend, Lord Alvanley, met the Prince and Lord Moira in Bond Street. The Prince cut Brummell and talked to Alvanley. As the couples moved off, Brummell said: “Alvanley, who’s your fat friend?” It was fatal, especially as the Prince hated being reminded of his weight. Brummell started gambling, lost and could not afford to. Soon he was forced into exile. Despite the help of his friends he got into hopeless debt, and finally could not even dress well. Reduced to rags, French urchins shouted at him: “There goes Monsieur Brummell, the Dandy!” His royal friend never forgave him.

HMS Victory at the Battle of Trafalgar

Posted in Famous battles, Heroes and Heroines, Historical articles, History, Ships, War on Wednesday, 29 May 2013

This edited article about HMS Victory originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 271 published on 25 March 1967.

HMS Victory, picture, image, illustration

HMS Victory at the Battle of Trafalgar by James E McConnell

At Chatham Dockyard on 23rd July, 1759, the keel of H.M.S. Victory was laid. The work was frequently halted and not until 8th May, 1778, did this three-decker ship of the line first put to sea to become the flagship of Admiral Keppel, Commander-in-Chief of the Grand Fleet.

The Victory first encountered gunfire in June, 1778, when Keppel’s fleet fought an action with a French fleet under the Comte d’Orvilliers. At one point during the battle, the Victory, with 104 guns, and d’Orvilliers’s flagship, the Bretagne, with 110 guns, fought a sharp duel.

Another major naval action in which the Victory distinguished herself was the Battle of St. Vincent in 1797. As the flagship of Admiral Sir John Jervis, she played a decisive part in defeating a superior Spanish force.

In 1803, when Horatio Nelson was appointed Commander-in-Chief of the Mediterranean Fleet, he selected the Victory as his flagship. Nelson’s brilliant tactics against the combined French and Spanish fleets in the battle off Cape Trafalgar on 21st October, 1805, threw the enemy into utter confusion and also led to a revolution in naval strategy.

This epic sea-battle established the English as masters of the sea, but during it Nelson was hit by a bullet from an enemy sniper. He died two and a half hours later, but not before he had learned of the triumphant outcome of the battle for the English.

The Victory was paid off from active service in 1812, and was afloat in Portsmouth Harbour until 1922 when, because of the condition of her hull, she was brought permanently to rest on a concrete base. Since then she has been completely restored; hull and rigging are exactly as they were at Trafalgar.