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Archive for March, 2014

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The loss of H.M.S.Victoria stunned the entire nation

Posted in Disasters, Famous news stories, Historical articles, History, Ships on Wednesday, 19 March 2014

This edited article about H.M.S.Victoria first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 597 published on 23 June 1973.

HMS Victoria,  picture, image, illustration

The Loss of HMS "Victoria", the Men jumping from the Ship as she turned bottom upwards before going down

“Full speed astern!” roared Admiral Markham urgently, but it was too late. Only a few moments later his ship, H.M.S. Camperdown, rammed the flagship of the Mediterranean Fleet, H.M.S. Victoria, which went down in a few minutes with 359 officers and men.

One man and one man alone was responsible for this totally unnecessary catastrophe and he was the Commander-in-Chief of the Fleet himself, Admiral Sir George Tyron, who went down with his ship, the Victoria. For it was not the fault of the Camperdown that the tragedy occurred. The date was 1893 and it was the greatest naval scandal of Queen Victoria’s reign.

1893. Great Britain ruled the waves of the world, as she had done ever since the Battle of Trafalgar. There had been no world wars since Wellington defeated Napoleon at Waterloo in 1815 and throughout that time the Royal Navy had kept the sea lanes of the world safe for shipping.

The British Empire, protected by the Navy and Army, was at the height of its power. Soon, but not yet, rival navies, especially the German fleet, were to challenge British supremacy, but already there were signs that the world’s mightiest navy was not as good as it might be. The standard of gunnery was low and conditions for ordinary seamen were to remain poor until, in the early years of the 20th century, Admiral Fisher improved them and became affectionately known as “Jacky” by every Jack Tar.

Many warships were out-of-date, too, before he transformed the Navy. And in 1893, battle practice was not taken seriously enough because there had been no major sea battles for so long. The truth was that the rulers of the Navy were a little smug, like the British themselves!

Against this background the sinking of the Victoria came as a body blow. She had been launched in 1887 and was 340 feet long and 70 feet across at her widest. There were two 111 ton guns on a giant turret and many smaller ones, including twelve 6-inch ones. The battleship had plenty of armour plating, but a few critics, whose voices were drowned in the excitement of everyone else when the ship went into service, pointed out that only 162 feet of her 340 feet were, in fact, covered in armour.

On June 22, 1893, Admiral Tryon, on board Victoria, was leading his ships from Beirut to Tripoli. They were sailing in two columns, with Victoria on the column farthest from land, leading six other battleships and cruisers. The other column, led by Rear Admiral Hastings Markham, sailed parallel to them at the head of six more ships.

There were 718 men aboard Victoria, and the ship’s company were known as a happy, hard-working one. As for the Admiral, he had only just returned to sea duty after a long spell in posts ashore.

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The Black Watch won great battle honours at Ticonderoga

Posted in Famous battles, Historical articles, History, Scotland, War on Tuesday, 18 March 2014

This edited article about Canada first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 596 published on 16 June 1973.

Indians attack British,  picture, image, illustration

Indians attacked the British under Abercromby's command

It began with a ghost in Scotland and ended in a massacre in America.

The ghost appeared to Duncan Campbell of Inverawe Castle in the western Highlands, not long after the rising of 1745, when so many gallant Highlanders had perished trying to place Bonnie Prince Charlie on the throne of Britain.

One night in those wild and dangerous times Duncan Campbell, the Laird of Inverawe, let a stranger covered in blood into his castle. The stranger said he had killed a man in a fight and that pursuers were after him. Campbell agreed to shelter him, but the frightened, blood-stained fugitive made him swear on his dirk that he would not betray him to his pursuers.

Suddenly, there was loud knocking at the door. Duncan Campbell opened it and was told by heavily armed men that his own cousin, Donald, had been murdered. Sick at heart, Duncan did not betray his unwanted guest because of his oath, but that night Donald’s ghost appeared to him and begged him to avenge his murder. Duncan explained that he could not and Donald said: “Very well, then, Inverawe. We shall meet again at Ticonderoga!”

The strange word meant nothing to Duncan Campbell, who later joined the famous Black Watch regiment, which had been raised some years before to police the Highlands. He often mentioned his experience, but none of the other officers had heard of Ticonderoga either.

In 1756, the Black Watch was sent to America where war had broken out once again between Britain and France, the French then owning Canada, and the British possessing 13 colonies which were to become the United States 20 years later. Britain had started the war, known as the Seven Years War in Britain and the French and Indian War in America, with a series of disasters. Her troops, which were trained to fight in the rigid patterns of European warfare, could not cope with the nightmare of war in the American forests, the sudden terrifying war-whoops, bullets and arrows cutting into the ranks, fired by unseen enemies behind dense masses of trees. And their red coats made them perfect targets for enemy marksmen.

By 1750, however, things were a little better. The great William Pitt, Earl of Chatham, had become Prime Minister at home and the war was being properly run, and the British Redcoats were learning something of forest warfare. True, British officers looked down on local American troops, however experienced, and some of the colonists were only too eager to let the British do all the fighting for them. But now, in mid-1758, a great expedition was sailing up the Hudson River to attack Montreal in French Canada by way of a series of lakes that stretched almost continuously up to Canada. Other attacks were under way from different directions, but this one was the big push.

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Peter the Great was a political genius and brutal autocrat

Posted in Historical articles, History, Royalty, Ships on Tuesday, 18 March 2014

This edited article about Peter the Great first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 596 published on 16 June 1973.

Peter the Great,  picture, image, illustration

Dressed as an English sailor, Peter the Great helped shape oaken timbers and to build great sailing ships, offering no hints that he was Czar of Russia

He was dressed in the uniform of an English sailor. Each day he toiled long hours at Deptford docks in London, helping to shape the oaken timbers and to build the great sailing ships that then, in 1698, were second to none in the world.

He was a giant of a man, nearly seven feet in height. He said little, but his eyes were always alert, watching, learning. The way his great hands caressed the wood showed only that here was a man with an obsessive love for ships. And the humble way in which he obeyed orders gave no hint as to his true identity. For this was Peter the First, Czar of all Russia – the Czar who was to become known as Peter the Great.

Peter’s love for ships had begun long ago. Much of his childhood had been spent in a suburb of Moscow mainly peopled by foreigners. It was here that he met Brandt, a Dutchman who at one time had been a shipbuilder. He told Peter about the great ships that sailed the world. Peter had never before seen a sailing ship. Together, he and Brandt built a boat and Brandt showed him how to sail it. He did not know it then, but this was to be his first step towards the future creation of a Russian navy.

Peter’s other great love was playing soldiers. As a small boy he had played long hours with his wooden toy soldiers, working out long complicated manoeuvres far beyond the intelligence of any ordinary child. Later, as a youth of nineteen, Peter organised two real regiments of soldiers, attending to every detail even down to designing their uniform. But he still treated them as toys. He sent them into a “mock” battle against each other. However, the battle proved to be more realistic. One man was killed, many seriously injured, and Peter himself had his face badly burned by an exploding shell.

Peter had had a confused and frightening upbringing. Peter the Great’s father, Czar Alexis, had died leaving a second wife and the children of his two marriages – Ivan and Sophia by his first marriage, and Peter by his second. This could only result in conflict and a struggle for the vacant thrown of Russia. During this conflict, Peter was to see much violence and bloodshed which made him realise how cheaply human lives could be held.

Sophia was the eldest of the children and the most ambitious. Ivan was sickly and weak. Peter, by contrast, was a healthy strapping child but far too young then really to know what was going on. And so Sophia was able to intrigue cleverly with the help of her admirer, Prince Golitsyn. She gained the support of the special regiments of the army known as the Streltsy and so came virtually to rule Russia. She had Ivan and Peter proclaimed as joint Czars with herself acting as Regent. The two children would sit on a special double throne with Sophia concealed behind the curtains whispering the words she wanted them to say.

When he was 16, Peter was persuaded to marry. It was to be an unhappy match. Peter was clumsy, rough and blunt, more like a peasant than a Czar. His wife on the other hand was of noble birth and upbringing. They had little in common. Even the birth of a son, Alexis, did nothing to make their marriage happier.

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The Eyed Hawk Moth has frightening wing markings

Posted in Insects, Nature, Wildlife on Tuesday, 18 March 2014

This edited article about moths first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 596 published on 16 June 1973.

Eyed Hawk Moth,  picture, image, illustration

Eyed Hawk Moth

On a beautiful, spring day, you can often see gaily coloured butterflies lounging on flowers.

Often it is difficult to distinguish them from their close relative the moth, but one of the best ways is to observe them resting. Butterflies close their wings together so that they stick straight up from the back, and moths generally spread their wings out flat on the surface they’re resting on.

More than 2,000 different species of moth live in the British Isles. If your garden has an apple tree in it, the Eyed Hawk moth is probably a frequent visitor, for this is its favourite feeding place.

But you would not see it very often, for like most moths it usually flies only at night. It spends its days resting quietly on a tree trunk, and since its brown tints merge with the background, it is often overlooked.

But if the Eyed Hawk moth thinks that it’s being threatened, it will alternatively raise and lower its forewings to expose two glaring “eye” marks on the underwings. The sight of this is enough to scare off any insect-eating bird looking for a meal.

The Swift is nature’s peerless master of the skies

Posted in Animals, Birds, Nature, Wildlife on Tuesday, 18 March 2014

This edited article about birds first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 596 published on 16 June 1973.

Swift,  picture, image, illustration

The Swift by R B Davis

Great Britain can always expect a large influx of bird visitors in the summer, and the swift is always one of the last to arrive. It usually reaches us from Central and Southern Africa in May.

The swift has an unrivalled mastery of the air, for its small, streamlined body with long tapering wings enables it to fly at speeds of up to 100 m.p.h. For swifts the air is as natural a living space as the ground is to us – they feed, mate and even sleep up there.

As you watch the swifts scream and manoeuvre high in the air on a summer evening, you might notice that just before dusk they soar higher and higher until they are out of sight. Radar observations have shown that they spend the night at altitudes of around 9,000 feet.

The nest of the swift is made of feathers, leaves, and any other light material like paper, which gets carried up into the air where the swift collects it. The swift cements these pieces together with saliva and makes its nest under rafters or in a gap in the brickwork of buildings.

Although similar in general appearance, swallows and martins are not related to swifts. The swift is all black except for a light patch under the chin, while the swallow is dark blue on the upper parts with a blue band on the chest, a red throat and forehead, and white underparts. The house-martin is steel blue above with a white rump and white underparts. Its cousin the sand martin is brown above and white underneath, with a narrow brown band across its chest.

John Ruskin championed the Pre-Raphaelites

Posted in Art, Artist, Famous artists, Historical articles, History on Tuesday, 18 March 2014

This edited article about the Pre-Raphaelites first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 596 published on 16 June 1973.

Sir Isumbras at the Ford,  picture, image, illustration

Sir Isumbras at the Ford by John Everett Millais

Between 1850 and 1852, the original ideal of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood slowly slipped away. The most influential figure in British Art at that time was the critic, John Ruskin. He wrote a letter to the “Times” newspaper; in it he made clear that he didn’t like everything that the Pre-Raphaelites did, but that he was convinced that they were an enormously important movement which should be taken seriously and not just dismissed with sneers and insults.

The letter did two things. Firstly it gave the P.R.B. the stamp of approval from an influential source – something that had been sadly lacking. By this means, other painters were attracted to the movement and it widened its appeal. On the other hand it brought Ruskin and his pretty young wife, Effie, into contact with the young leader of the P.R.B., John Millais. There followed a tragic and unhappy affair between Millais and Effie Ruskin, culminating in a scandalous divorce. Effie and Millais were married in 1855.

By then, Millais had been elected as an Associate of the powerful Royal Academy – only Sir Thomas Lawrence was elected at a younger age – and this tended to alienate him from his colleagues. Not only did they lose their leader, but the divorce meant that they could no longer rely on the influence and friendship of Ruskin.

From then on, Millais painted only a small number of really noteworthy pictures, including “Sir Isumbras At The Ford” and the famous “Blind Girl” – one of the most popular pictures at the Art Gallery in Birmingham. After that he allowed his great skill to waste away, and he only painted society ladies and an occasional “chocolate box” picture, like the “Boyhood of Raleigh.” His genius simply degenerated. An authority on the Pre-Raphaelite movement, Timothy Hilton, has brilliantly summed up the sad ending of Millais: “England had lost, at the age of twenty-eight, the most talented painter, apart from Turner, that she had ever produced.”

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The Suez Crisis damaged Britain’s international reputation

Posted in Famous news stories, Historical articles, History, Invasions, War on Tuesday, 18 March 2014

This edited article about the Suez Crisis first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 596 published on 16 June 1973.

Suez Crisis,  picture, image, illustration

British tanks enter a street in the Egyptian town of Port Said in November 1958, after an Anglo-French bombardment has devastated buildings, by John Keay

In July 1956, the British Prime Minister, Anthony Eden, gave a formal dinner – an uncomfortable affair for the men, who had to wear strictly conventional attire. In the middle of the banquet, news was brought to the Prime Minister that President Nasser of Egypt had nationalised the Suez Canal. Eden got rid of his guests as quickly as politeness allowed and called an immediate meeting of his ministers. “The Egyptian,” he told them, “has his thumb on our wind-pipe.” It was in this mood of desperation that he committed an act of aggression which destroyed his reputation and that of his country for many years to come.

President Nasser had come to power following the expulsion of the ineffective and corrupt King Farouk from Egypt. He inherited an impoverished country which had lost face in its struggle with the new state of Israel and which badly needed a boost to its morale. A project to build a great dam – the Aswan dam – seemed to offer a chance to improve the country’s economy and to bolster its prestige: Nasser compared the project in importance to the building of the pyramids. At first the United States and Britain agreed to finance the scheme; but Nasser’s anti-western policy led them to withdraw their help. It was in retaliation for this act that the Egyptian President nationalised the Suez canal, intending to use its revenues to finance his dam.

Nasser’s action caused great alarm in Britain and France. Both countries felt certain that he would eventually close the canal to the oil supplies from the Persian gulf which were vital to Europe’s industrial development, and Nasser’s intemperate speeches did little to allay these fears. In both countries he was regarded as a second Hitler and neither government intended to trust him as Hitler had once been trusted. The French had a separate grievance: Egypt was an open supporter of the Algerians who had recently revolted against France.

Attempts were made to settle the crisis by diplomacy. The United States supported Britain and France, but without enthusiasm. America, after all, was much less dependent on the canal than Europe. A way had to be found, said the American John Foster Dulles, to make Nasser disgorge what he was attempting to swallow. Dulles was thinking of negotiation. Britain and France were thinking of force.

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Cocos Island continues to guard its fabulous treasure

Posted in Adventure, Historical articles, History, Legend, Ships on Tuesday, 18 March 2014

This edited article about Cocos Island first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 596 published on 16 June 1973.

Captain Thompson and mate,  picture, image, illustration

Captain Thompson and his crew fled from their Spanish captors but only Thompson survived, dying in Newfoundland in 1844 by C L Doughty

In a stretch of waste ground at racing driver Sir Malcolm Campbell’s country house, every available man was busy digging. As soon as a hole was deep enough, unwanted pieces of old iron were thrown in and the excavation hurriedly filled up. When no more rusty chains, door locks or buckets could be found, Sir Malcolm ordered his superbly equipped workshops to be raided, and racing wheels, cylinder blocks and other car parts vanished underground.

The object of this hasty burial was to provide a test for a new treasure seeking aid in the form of an electric metal detector. Unfortunately for the one-time holder of the world speed record on both land and water, the gadget proved a total failure. Today, almost fifty years later, several hundred pounds worth of car spares are still quietly rusting beneath that particular stretch of ground, one more memorial to man’s passion for hidden gold.

For Sir Malcolm Campbell, it was only the beginning of a long story of rapidly mounting expenses that would eventually prove to him that although motor racing was unquestionably a rich man’s sport, treasure hunting could prove a pastime that was strictly for millionaires. But even if the great driver had been able to look into the future it is doubtful if he would have behaved any differently, for he had fallen under the spell of one of the great quests of all time. This was the search for the treasures of Cocos Island.

It was easy to believe that there might well be more than one. Cocos Island lies 300 miles south-west of Costa Rica, a tiny, volcanic heap of rock jutting up out of the blue waters of the Pacific Ocean. Only 4 miles in diameter, it has deeply caved cliffs that rise 600 feet, and what little land there is consists of almost impenetrable jungle. Unwelcoming the island may be, but it stands on what was once the main highway for treasure ships and pirates alike. For many a desperado in need of a quick hiding place, Cocos Island was the only available spot.

The first of its hurried visitors seems to have been Captain Edward Davis, who in 1683 commanded a pirate fleet of no less than 10 vessels. After plundering the coast about Panama, Davis’s flagship headed for Cocos Island on her own, and the pirate leader went shorewards with a number of heavy chests. Davis returned to the ship, but the chests remained behind.

In 1816, a particularly bloodthirsty scoundrel named Bonito Benito heard of a large consignment of gold due to be moved from Mexico City. Disguised as mule drivers, he and his men captured the load, hid it aboard their ship, the Relampago, and set sail. Bonito Benito managed to land his staggering haul on Cocos Island, but shortly afterwards he was cornered by a British corvette. Before he could be questioned, the pirate blew his brains out on his own quarter deck.

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The curse of Tutankhamen made frequent headlines

Posted in Archaeology, Famous news stories, Historical articles, History, News, Superstition on Tuesday, 18 March 2014

This edited article about Tutankhamen first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 596 published on 16 June 1973.

Tutankhamen,  picture, image, illustration

Tutankhamen by John Millar Watt

Lord Carnarvon was laughing, his lean, lined, aristocratic face creasing with amusement at the joke. The archaeologist, Arthur Wiegall, frowned as he watched him. This was no way to act at such a solemn moment. Jokes and quips were hardly apt on the threshold of any tomb, and even less so at a time when everyone inside the antechamber might be standing on the brink of the greatest treasure ever excavated in Egypt.

Wiegall turned furiously to a journalist, standing nearby. “If he goes down in that spirit,” he muttered darkly, “I give him six weeks to live.”

Just over six weeks later, on 6th April 1923, Lord Carnarvon died. The leader of the famous expedition which discovered the tomb of Tutankhamen in the Valley of the Kings had been bitten by a mosquito. The bite turned septic, pneumonia developed and Carnarvon succumbed.

Naturally, the death of so prominent and newsworthy a man was a matter for the headlines. For five months, ever since Carnarvon’s partner, Howard Carter, had found Tutankhamen’s burial chamber, Carnarvon’s name had been constantly in print. In its sombre way, his death was merely the latest development in a fascinating tale of buried treasure. But it was also something more sinister. Wiegall’s remark, prompted by pique, now looked very much like a doom-laden prophecy come true.

It also gave colour and conviction to the warning issued to the dying Carnarvon by Marie Corelli, the popular writer of romantic melodramas. Two weeks before Carnarvon died, newspapers publicised Miss Corelli’s prediction that “the most dire punishment follows any rash intruder into a sealed tomb.”

This sort of thing was newsman’s gold, and there is no doubt that journalists made the most of it.

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The haunting enigma of Kaspar Hauser

Posted in Historical articles, History, Mystery, Oddities on Tuesday, 18 March 2014

This edited article about Kaspar Hauser first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 595 published on 9 June 1973.

Kaspar Hauser,  picture, image, illustration

The seventeen-year-old Kaspar Hauser arriving in the city of Nuremberg by Andrew Howat

Kaspar Hauser staggered into the house, moaning with pain, his hand pressed hard against his left side. There, a deep red stain was already spreading out, discolouring his padded jacket.

Appalled at the sight of his pupil in this piteous state, Dr Mayer rushed over to him. Faint words gasped disjointedly from Kaspar’s lips. All Dr Mayer could make out were “garden,” “man,” “purse” and “stabbed.”

These were among the last words Kaspar spoke. But before he died three days later, on December 17, 1833, he did manage to tell Dr Mayer that his killer had lured him into the public gardens at Ansbach with the promise that he would at last learn who his parents were.

This was a puzzle which had teased people all over Germany for more than five years.

Kaspar Hauser had appeared in a Nuremberg square on May 28, 1828, when he was found leaning against a wall dazed and incoherent. He staggered about rather than walked, could not bear strong light on his eyes, and at first could eat nothing but bread and water.

The only clues about him lay in a letter he carried and the phrases he kept repeating, “I want to be a soldier like my father” and “horse, horse.” He spoke mechanically without real understanding, something which tied in with the distinctly odd upbringing that was revealed in the letter.

In October 1812, Kaspar, then six months old, was left at the house of the letter-writer, a poor labourer, who kept him confined and alone for the next sixteen years.

The only instructions the labourer received from Kaspar’s mother were to keep him until he was 17, then send him to Nuremberg to the Sixth Cavalry Regiment in which the boy’s dead father had once served.

Kaspar was hardly the most promising of recruits. When he was taken to the Nuremberg police and imprisoned by them as a vagrant, he spent his time either sleeping or sitting on the floor staring into space.

In this state he was a fascinating exhibit for the sightseers who came in their hundreds to gawp at him in his prison cell. To them Kaspar was a curiosity more compelling than any animal in the town zoo.

Certain more humane councillors of Nuremberg were offended by this, and decided in July 1828 that the boy should be properly cared for and educated: only in this way, they felt, could anything definite be learned about him.

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