What have William the Conqueror, Shakespeare, Peter Rabbit, the Big Friendly Giant, Bobby Moore and David Cameron all got in common? Answer: they were all associated with anniversaries in 2016. Of course, some anniversaries were very kindly highlighted by publicists, who ultimately decide which momentous dates will be remembered in Britain.
Probably the least trivial anniversary in 2016 was that of the Battle of Hastings on 14th October 1066. The Battle of Hastings and the consequent replacement of Saxon rule with Norman changed the course of history. It is definitely worth visiting the traditional site of the battle, the medieval Battle Abbey that was subsequently built there, as well as the pleasant town of Battle which grew up adjacent to it. Battle is about 6 miles north of the coastal town of Hastings, in East Sussex.
The Royal Mail chose to mark its 500th anniversary in 2016. It was in 1516 that Henry VIII knighted Sir Brian Tuke, his Master of the Posts – though the position had existed and been held by Tuke since at least 1512. Sir Brian had set up a network of stables – or posts – throughout England and Wales and was made Governor of the King’s Posts in 1517. Charles I established the first public service in 1635, but the other essential ingredients of general literacy, postage stamps, post boxes and so on came a couple of centuries later. Royal Mail now employs some 150,000 people (140,000 according to the BBC – it’s a lot, anyway) and is no longer a publicly owned service. The company clearly had particular reasons for picking 1516 as its founding date, perhaps raising its profile, but there is no doubt that the story of the postal service is an interesting one. If you want to know more, visit the website of the British Postal Museum and Archive – the archive is based in London, there is a museum store in Debden, Essex (which can be visited by arrangement) and a Museum of the Post Office within the Victorian town at Blists Hill, Shropshire.
Shakespeare died on St George’s Day, 23rd April, 1616. His death was marked because no one’s sure of his exact birth date, though it was probably in April 1564. The man needs no introduction – his works are known throughout the world and his influence on the English language has been profound. There can be few better illustrations of this than the passage written by journalist Bernard Levin and quoted in The Story of English (McCrum, Cran and MacNeil):
If you cannot understand my argument, and declare “It’s Greek to me”, you are quoting Shakespeare; if you claim to be more sinned against than sinning, you are quoting Shakespeare; if you recall your salad days, you are quoting Shakespeare; if you act more in sorrow than in anger, if your wish is father to the thought, if your lost property has vanished into thin air, you are quoting Shakespeare; if you have ever refused to budge an inch or suffered from green-eyed jealousy, if you have played fast and loose, if you have been tongue-tied, a tower of strength, hoodwinked or in a pickle, if you have knitted your brows, made a virtue of necessity, insisted on fair play, slept not one wink, stood on ceremony, danced attendance (on your lord and master), laughed yourself into stitches, had short shrift, cold comfort or too much of a good thing, if you have seen better days or lived in a fool’s paradise – why, be that as it may, the more fool you, for it is a foregone conclusion that you are (as good luck would have it) quoting Shakespeare; if you think it is early days and clear out bag and baggage, if you think it is high time and that that is the long and short of it, if you believe that the game is up and that truth will out even if it involves your own flesh and blood, if you lie low till the crack of doom because you suspect foul play, if you have your teeth set on edge (at one fell swoop) without rhyme or reason, then – to give the devil his due – if the truth were known (for surely you have a tongue in your head) you are quoting Shakespeare; even if you bid me good riddance and send me packing, if you wish I was dead as a door-nail, if you think I am an eyesore, a laughing stock, the devil incarnate, a stony-hearted villain, bloody-minded or a blinking idiot, then – by Jove! O Lord! Tut, tut! For goodness’ sake! What the dickens! But me no buts – it is all one to me, for you are quoting Shakespeare.
Though much of his work was probably written, and initially performed, in London, Shakespeare will forever be associated with his birthplace of Stratford-upon-Avon in Warwickshire. The website of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust is as good a starting point as you’ll get for more information.
Fifty years after Shakespeare, the Great Fire of London broke out at the end of the long, hot summer of 1666. The conflagration swept away 80% of medieval London, including 87 churches and more than 13,000 houses. You can visit (and climb, if you have the breath) the Monument, go to the excellent Museum of London and of course walk the re-built City!
Charlotte Brontë’s 200th birthday
2016 was the bicentenary of the birth of Charlotte Brontë, on 21st April 1816. Charlotte is primarily known as the author of the classic Jane Eyre, first published in 1847 under the masculine pseudonym ‘Currer Bell’. Charlotte was just one of three immensely talented sisters – the others being Emily and Anne. She also had a brother, Bramwell, as well as two further sisters, Maria and Elizabeth, who did not make it into their teens. In fact, Charlotte outlived all of her siblings, but died too early herself, aged just 38, in 1855. Whether you see Charlotte Brontë as a plain, toothless, weakling, haunted by death, a tragic Victorian Goth, or as a sexy little minx and mother of the modern chick-novel, the only place to go is Haworth in West Yorkshire. The Brontë family moved to Haworth in 1820, when Charlotte’s father, Patrick, was appointed ‘perpetual curate’ of the parish church. The village is now a honey-pot for Brontë enthusiasts, but, despite that, is definitely worth the pilgrimage.
Continuing anniversaries in a literary vein, author, illustrator and early conservationist Beatrix Potter was born in London on 28th July 1866. She is best known for her books for children featuring various animals, starting with The Tale of Peter Rabbit in 1902. Beatrix Potter became also became an accomplished sheep farmer and prize-winning sheep breeder and was a strong supporter of the fledgling National Trust, leaving the bulk of her Lake District estate to it in her will.
You can get fairly close to what made Beatrix Potter tick by visiting Hill Top, the farm she purchased in the English Lake District in 1905. The property, in Near Sawrey, is in the care of the National Trust – who also named their Swindon headquarters, Heelis, in honour of BP’s married name. She died on 22nd December 1943. A film, Miss Potter, starring Renée Zellweger and Ewan McGregor, was released in 2006. Tip: By far the best way to get to Hill Top, in good weather, is to take the car ferry from Ferry Nab just south of Bowness to Ferry House at Far Sawrey across Lake Windermere; the house, which is very small, is a couple of miles from there.
1916 was the second year of the First World War. Somewhat inevitably, many of the anniversaries that were remembered in 2016 involved conflict:
24 April–30 April – Easter Rising in Ireland. In 1916, Ireland was part of the United Kingdom. Members of the Irish Republican Brotherhood proclaimed an Irish Republic and small groups of armed nationalists occupied key buildings in Dublin, including the Post Office. The Government was initially slow to respond, but, inevitably, brought superior numbers and firepower to bear. The republicans surrendered unconditionally in order to avoid further bloodshed. The leaders of the rising were executed by firing squad in Kilmainham Gaol. A total of 466 people, including 254 innocent civilians, were killed in the uprising. In August, Sir Roger Casement, who had attempted to smuggle German arms into Ireland, was hanged in Pentonville Prison in London having been found guilty of high treason.
31 May–1 June – Battle of Jutland. Jutland was the only major engagement of the First World War between the Royal Navy’s Grand Fleet and the Imperial German High Seas Fleet. Taking place off the coast of Denmark, it involved some 250 warships, including 44 battleships, and was essentially an attempt to destroy part of the Grand Fleet and break the British naval blockade of Germany. The Royal Navy lost 14 ships to Germany’s 11 and more than twice as many men (more than 8,500 died on both sides), but the German High Seas Fleet never again ventured out of port (until it surrendered in 1918). The Royal Navy maintained its supremacy in the North Sea and the British blockade of Germany was a decisive, though controversial, factor in finally achieving allied victory.
24 June – 18 November – Battle of the Somme. The Battle of the Somme is etched into national memory. The offensive began with a week-long bombardment from British artillery along a 25-mile front, followed by the explosion of mines buried deep underground, designed to destroy German defences and shatter strongpoints. French and British infantry went over the top early on 1st July behind a creeping barrage. Troops, assured that their enemy had been annihilated, were encouraged to walk steadily toward their objectives; men of the East Surrey Regiment even punted footballs across no-man’s land. But the German lines were largely intact. British Empire casualties alone on the first day of the Somme were 57,470, of which 19,240 were killed – mostly mown down by machine gun fire. To all intents and purposes, some regiments were wiped out. The Somme decimated Kitchener’s Army – the flag-waving lads who had volunteered so enthusiastically in 1914 – many of whom had gone into action for the first time. Operations finally ground to a halt in November. At the end of it all, a few miles of territory had been gained and an estimated one million British, Commonwealth, French and German soldiers had died – no one’s sure of the exact figure.
Born in 1916
Well-known Brits celebrating their centuries in 2016 included:
11 March – Harold Wilson, Labour Party politician and twice Prime Minister of the United Kingdom was born in Huddersfield, West Yorkshire. He died in London in 1995 and is buried in St Mary’s, the largest of the Scilly Isles, where he loved to spend his holidays.
17 March – Ray Ellington, singer and band leader, probably best known for his appearances on the Goon Show in the 1950s, was born in Kennington, London. He died in 1985 and is remembered at Golders Green Crematorium.
8 June – Francis Crick, molecular biologist, best known for his work with James Watson which led to the identification of the structure of DNA in 1953, was born in Weston Favell, Northamptonshire and died in San Diego, USA, in 2004. Crick was a Nobel Prize winner in 1962 and his name was chosen for the innovative Crick Institute in London.
23 June – Len Hutton, Yorkshire and England cricketer, was born in Fulneck, Pudsey, Yorkshire and died in Kingston-upon-Thames, Surrey, in 1990.
9 July – Edward (Ted) Heath, Conservative Party politician and Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, was born in Broadstairs, Kent and died in Salisbury, Wiltshire, in 2005. He is probably best known for taking the UK into the European Union (then called the European Economic Community) in 1973. Heath is buried in Salisbury Cathedral.
13 September – Roald Dahl, author, fighter pilot (and, apparently, intelligence officer) was born in Llandaff, Cardiff, Wales to Norwegian parents. He is probably best known for his children’s books, starting with The Gremlins in 1943 and including James and the Giant Peach (1961), Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (1964), The BFG (1982), Matilda (1988) and, a personal favourite, The Minpins (1991), published after his death in 1990. Dahl also wrote the screenplays to Ian Fleming’s You Only Live Twice and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang as well as working on television series, inevitably with a slightly mysterious or grotesque twist, most famously Tales of the Unexpected. Dahl lived in the Buckinghamshire village of Great Missenden for more than 30 years and is buried in the churchyard of St Peter and St Paul. A Roald Dahl Museum and Story Centre opened in the village in 2005.
3 October – James Alfred Wight, better known under his pen name of James Herriot, veterinarian and author, was born in Sunderland. He grew up in Glasgow, where he qualified as a vet in 1939, and began work at a practice in the Yorkshire town of Thirsk in 1940. Apart from a brief spell in the RAF during World War Two, Wight (or Herriot) stayed in the area, on the edge of the North York Moors and Yorkshire Dales, for the rest of his life. In middle-age, he began writing about his experiences of life as a vet in rural Yorkshire and If Only They Could Talk was published in 1970 and It shouldn’t Happen to a Vet in 1972 (both published in the USA as All Creatures Great and Small). Other books followed, as did various films and TV series. The film All Creatures Great and Small came out in 1975, starring Simon Ward and Anthony Hopkins, and the first TV series, starring Christopher Timothy, Robert Hardy and Peter Davison, began in 1978. James Wight died at his home in Thirlby, close to Thirsk, in 1995. The original surgery at 23 Kirkgate, Thirsk, is now a museum, The World of James Herriot.
75th Anniversaries, 2016
What happened in 1941?
In January 1941, Britain had been at war for 14 months. Most of Western Europe was occupied by Nazi Germany, and British (and Australian) troops were fighting the Italians in North Africa. Mainland Britain continued to be subject to air raids, mostly at night. Among the towns and cities subject to particularly major raids in 1941, in addition to London, were: Portsmouth, Swansea, Manchester, Clydebank, Plymouth, Belfast, Liverpool, Greenock and Birmingham. Thousands were killed, injured and made homeless. The damage caused was indirectly responsible for some of the hideous town centre architecture of the 1960s and 70s. Attacks tailed off after Germany invaded the Soviet Union in June.
In May, the Royal Navy captured and boarded German submarine U-110 and managed to retrieve its Enigma machine and codebooks before the vessel sank. On 10th May, Deputy Fűhrer Rudolf Hess made an alleged peace mission to Britain, parachuting out of his aircraft south of Glasgow. Back at sea, on 24th May, a single shell from German battleship Bismarck sank pride of the Royal Navy, HMS Hood with the loss of 1400 men; there were three survivors. Two days later, aircraft from HMS Ark Royal crippled the Bismarck in a torpedo attack. Ark Royal herself sank in November, after a successful attack by German submarine U-81 off Gibraltar. More happily, on 15th May, Britain’s first jet aircraft, the Gloster E28/39 ‘Whittle’, made a 17-minute flight at RAF Cranwell, Lincolnshire.
In June, clothes rationing was introduced and Iraq was invaded.
On 5th December, Britain declared war on Germany’s allies Finland, Hungary and Romania. More significantly, on 7th/8th December Japan carried out virtually simultaneous attacks on British Malaya, Hong Kong and US military base of Pearl Harbor in the US Territory of Hawaii. Mutual declarations of war followed, which the Japanese had discourteously omitted to issue previously. Conveniently, on 11th December, Germany and Italy declared war on the United States. 1941 can therefore be seen as a turning-point in the Second World War, since the industrial capabilities of the United States and the resources of the Soviet Union were both decisive factors in the final outcome. It may not have looked that way at the time, but at the end of the year the defeat of the axis powers was not a matter of if, but when.
Born in 1941
8 January – Graham Chapman, comedy writer and one of the six founder members of Monty Python’s Flying Circus was born in Leicester. He died in Maidstone in 1989. A clip of the Dead Parrot Sketch is below – classic comedy and beautiful plumage.
12 January – John ‘Long John’ Baldry, singer and influential musician, was born in Northamptonshire, but grew up in North London. He died in Vancouver, Canada, in 2005.
27 February – Jeremy John Durham ‘Paddy’ Ashdown, British Liberal Democrat politician, diplomat and author, was born in New Delhi, India.
26 March – Clinton Richard Dawkins, zoologist, writer and well-known atheist, was born in Nairobi, Kenya.
12 April – Robert Frederick Chelsea Moore. ‘Bobby’ Moore, footballer – most famously playing for West Ham United and as captain of the England team that won the World Cup in 1966 – was born in Barking, Essex. He died in 1993 and is commemorated at the City of London Cemetery and Crematorium in Newham. A TV drama, Tina & Bobby, was screened on UK TV in January 2017.
14 April – Julie Christie, actress, possibly most famously known for the role of Lara in the David Lean film Dr Zhivago, was born in Chabua, India.
23 April – Ed ‘Stewpot’ Stewart – disc jockey Edward Stewart Mainwaring was born in Devon. Who of a certain age will ever forget Junior Choice? Ed Stewart died on 9 January, 2016.
14 June – Mike Yarwood, probably the best-known impressionist of the 1960s and 70s, was born in Bredbury, Cheshire.
4 October – Jackie Collins, writer of raunchy novels, starting with The World Is Full of Married Men in 1968, Jacqueline Jill Collins was born in London and died in Beverly Hills, USA, in 2015.
8 December – Geoff Hurst, footballer – the only footballer so far to score a hat-trick in a World Cup Final – was born in Ashton-under-Lyne, Lancashire.
31 December – Alex Ferguson, footballer and football manager – the latter most famously with Manchester United from 1986-2013 – was born in Glasgow.
50th Anniversaries, 2016
Britain in 1966 had a Labour government under Harold Wilson, who increased their parliamentary majority at the General Election in March. The first British credit card, Barclaycard, was introduced and the Beatles released their Revolver album whilst also playing their last live concert in San Francisco. If you’re English, though, the only noteworthy event of 1966 was England beating West Germany 4-2 in the Football World Cup at Wembley. Despite allegedly inventing the game and, apparently, a genuine sense of shock (in England) that this performance is not repeated every four years, 1966 is the only occasion so far that England has won the trophy. The goals were scored by Geoff Hurst, who got a hat-trick, and Martin Peters; I have met Sir Geoff and he is charming.
1966 is also the year that David Cameron, Conservative politician and ex-Prime Minister, was born, on 9th October. He still only looked about 12 when he resigned.
The Royal Mint issued a series of commemorative coins in 2016 to mark the anniversaries of the Battle of Hastings, Great Fire of London, Shakespeare’s death, Beatrix Potter’s birth and the First World War.