Here is a 20th century timeline for Britain, from 1945, the end of the Second World War and Atlee’s Labour Government, through Thatcher’s years, to the year 2000. For earlier 20th century timelines, see Modern Britain from 1914-1945, or a timeline of Edwardian Britain.
End of the Second World War.
The Nuremberg Trials begin in Germany – a military tribunal convened by the victorious Allies (the UK, USA, USSR and France) to bring those deemed guilty of war crimes to justice.
The Labour Government starts a programme of nationalising key businesses.
The Cold War – Winston Churchill makes his Fulton Speech in the USA declaring that an Iron Curtain has descended across Europe.
A combined radio/TV licence is introduced, costing £2 a year.
Free milk is introduced for all school pupils under 18.
The New Towns Act of 1946, influenced by the garden city movement, established an ambitious programme of new towns to deal with homelessness following wartime bombing, and slum clearance. The first such town designated, on 11 November, was Stevenage in Hertfordshire.
The coal industry is nationalised.
Exceptionally harsh winter brings hardship for many.
India becomes independent and the separate state of Pakistan was created.
Queen Elizabeth II and Lieutenant Philip Mountbatten RN married in Westminster Abbey on 20 November.
The London Co-operative Society opened a self-service store in Manor Park, on 12 January. It was Britain’s first supermarket.
Railways were nationalised.
The SS Empire Windrush docks at Tilbury, from Jamaica – seen by some as the start of mass immigration from Britain’s former imperial possessions.
Declaration of a Jewish state in Israel and British withdrawal from Palestine (precipitates Arab-Israeli War).
The National Health Service is launched.
The Berlin Airlift takes supplies to the city, blockaded by the Soviet Union.
Olympic Games held in London.
The Yangtze River Incident – Royal Navy sloop HMS Amethyst comes under attack from the Chinese People’s Liberation Army.
George Orwell (Eric Blair) publishes Nineteen Eighty-Four.
Formation of NATO – The North Atlantic Treaty Organisation.
C S Lewis publishes The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.
Steel is nationalised – later reversed by the Conservatives.
The first British troops arrive in Korea; ultimately, up to 100,000 UK service personnel were deployed.
Soviet spies, Burgess and Maclean, flee Britain.
The Conservatives win the General Election, remaining in power until 1964.
The UK’s first National Park – the Peak District.
In a wider context, the European Coal and Steel Community, the forerunner of the European Economic Community, or Common Market (1957), is formed; its members are Belgium, France, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and West Germany.
6 February, George VI dies; his daughter becomes Queen Elizabeth II aged 25.
Britain returns the islands of Heligoland to German control.
London smog kills 4,000 people.
Britain successfully tests an atom bomb in the Monte Bello Islands, Western Australia, and becomes the world’s third nuclear power (after the United States and the Soviet Union).
Ian Fleming publishes Casino Royale, the first James Bond book.
The Royal Yacht, Britannia, was launched from the John Brown & Co shipyard on Clydebank.
James Watson and Frances Crick determine the double-helix structure of DNA.
The Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II on 2 June was televised and watched by an audience of 20 million. Many bought TV sets especially; others crowded into neighbours’ homes.
New Zealander Edmund Hillary and Nepalese Tenzing Norgay are the first to reach the summit of Everest.
Roger Bannister ran the world’s first sub-four minute mile at Iffley Road, Oxford.
Rationing, in place since the Second World War, comes to an end.
Commercial television begins.
Mary Quant opens her first shop, Bazaar, on Chelsea’s Kings Road.
Ruth Ellis becomes the last woman to be hanged in Britain.
In a wider context – the USSR forms the Warsaw Pact, in response to NATO.
The Clean Air Act aims to reduce pollution.
Calder Hall, the first nuclear power station in the world to produce electricity for domestic use, opened in Cumbria.
Dodie Smith publishes 101 Dalmatians.
Suez Crisis – Britain and France, secretly in collusion with Israel, invaded Egypt following Egyptian nationalisation of the Suez Canal, but were forced to withdraw under UN and American pressure.
Elvis Presley has his first hit in the UK, Heartbreak Hotel.
Lonnie Donegan has his first hit, Rock Island Line.
The government launches National Premium Bonds.
Prime Minister Anthony Eden resigned in the wake of the humiliation over the Suez Crisis. He was succeeded by Harold ‘Supermac’ Macmillan.
The Toddlers’ Truce, a policy that suspended television broadcasting for an hour each weekday from 6.00pm to allow time for young children to be put to bed, came to an end.
The Gold Coast becomes the first African state to become independent of Britain; it is renamed Ghana.
Britain tests its first hydrogen bomb.
Malayan Independence follows a successful war (called a emergency for insurance purposes) against communist-led insurgents.
Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan, says that, “most of our people have never had it so good”.
In a wider context – The Treaty of Rome signed on 25 March 1957 by Belgium, France, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and West Germany created the European Economic Community.
Her Majesty the Queen’s Christmas Broadcast was the first to be televised, live from the Long Library at Sandringham.
The Munich Air Disaster – 22 of 44 people on board BEA Flight 609 die as the aircraft fails to take-off. Fatalities include 8 members of Manchester United’s football team, nicknamed ‘the Busby Babes’, as well as members of staff and journalists.
The first major Aldermaston march took place at Easter, when thousands of people marched from Trafalgar Square, in London, to the Atomic Weapons Establishment to demonstrate opposition to nuclear weapons.
Britain’s first motorway opened – the Preston by-pass, now a section of the M6.
The last debutantes were presented to the Queen.
Michael Bond publishes A Bear Called Paddington.
Foundation of CND – the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament.
Tension between Teddy Boys and Jamaicans results in the Notting Hill race riots.
Queen Elizabeth II made the first Subscriber Trunk Dialling call (known as a ‘trunk’ or ‘STD’ call) by telephone from Bristol to Edinburgh on 5 December. It was the first long distance call in the UK that did not need an operator.
By 1959, 13% of homes in the UK had a refrigerator. The ‘fridge’ revolutionised lifestyles and diet.
The first Mini motor car rolls off the production line.
The Postmaster General introduces modern postcodes.
In a wider context – the first integrated circuit is patented in the US.
Cyprus gains independence – following a conflict since 1955 against EOKA who wanted union with Greece and the Turkish Resistance Organisation, which opposed it.
The end of National Service (conscription); the last conscripts left the services in 1963.
Penguin Books is found not guilty under the Obscene Publications Act for publishing D H Lawrence’s novel Lady Chatterley’s Lover.
The TV soap, Coronation Street, is broadcast for the first time.
The Road Traffic Act of 1960 introduced the MOT test, single and double yellow lines to control parking and traffic wardens.
HRH the Princess Margaret, sister of the Queen, married Antony Armstrong-Jones in Westminster Abbey on 6 May 1960. It was the first royal wedding to be televised. The couple divorced in 1978.
The Pill – the oral contraceptive pill – becomes available in Britain.
In a wider context – on 12th April, Russian Yuri Gagarin aboard Soviet spaceship Vostok 1 becomes the first man in space. And in August the GDR (German Democratic Republic of East Germany) starts building the Berlin Wall.
The Beatles release their first single, Love Me Do, which gets to No 17 in the charts.
Dr No, the first James Bond film, is released.
In a wider context – the Cuban Missile Crisis brings the world to the brink of nuclear war.
It is announced that Britain will buy Polaris nuclear missiles from the US.
The Profumo Affair – a scandal erupts after it emerges that a government minister, John Profumo, has ‘shared the affections’ of a girl, Christine Keeler, with a Soviet diplomat.
Spy Kim Philby, and MI6 agent and the so-called ‘Third Man’ defects to the Soviet Union. The Fourth Man, Anthony Blunt, is identified but the fact is kept secret until 1979.
Alec Douglas-Home, Baron Home of the Hirsel, became Leader of the Conservative Party and Prime Minister following the resignation of Harold Macmillan.
At the Royal Variety Performance on 4 November, John Lennon asked the audience for help: “Will the people in the cheaper seats clap your hands? And the rest of you, if you’ll just rattle your jewellery.”
In a wider context – on 22 November, John F Kennedy, 35th President of the USA, was assassinated in Dallas, Texas.
The Rolling Stones have their first No 1, It’s All Over Now.
The last judicial hangings in Britain took place simultaneously on 13th August when Gwynne Evans was executed at Strangeways Prison, Manchester, and Peter Allen was executed in Walton, Liverpool, both for the murder of John West.
The Labour Party wins the General Election and Harold Wilson becomes Prime Minister.
Wartime leader Winston Churchill died on 24 January 1965. He was given the unusual honour of a State Funeral, which took place on Saturday 30 January.
The Abolition of the Death Penalty Act received Royal Assent on 8 November. It replaced the death penalty for murder with a mandatory sentence of life imprisonment.
Time magazine publishes an article about Swinging London. The model Twiggy is named “The Face of 1966”.
Britain’s first credit card, Barclaycard, was launched.
England won the Football World Cup, beating West Germany 4-2 in the final at Wembley, after extra time.
Aberfan disaster – on 21 October, the Welsh village of Aberfan was engulfed in tons of coal slag, killing 48 adults and 116 children, many in their classrooms.
Donald Campbell perishes attempting the World Water Speed Record on Coniston Water, driving Bluebird K7.
The Government nationalises the British Steel Industry.
The right-wing, racist, National Front Party was founded.
The Beatles release Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.
Homosexual acts in private between consenting men over the age of 21 are decriminalised in England and Wales.
Abortion becomes legal in the UK (except for Northern Ireland).
The breathalyser was introduced as a way of testing a driver’s blood alcohol concentration (BAC) level at the roadside.
The BBC launches Radio 1 to win listeners from the popular pirate radio stations (which the Government has declared illegal anyway) and Radio Luxembourg.
The People’s Republic of South Yemen (Aden) is declared following the withdrawal of British troops and a conflict which had lasted since 1963.
Thousands demonstrate in London against US involvement in Vietnam.
Conservative MP Enoch Powell made a speech, subsequently known as ‘the Rivers of Blood speech’, in which he strongly criticised mass immigration.
The first Isle of Wight Festival. Entry cost £1.25 and the line-up included Jefferson Airplane, The Crazy World of Arthur Brown, The Move, Tyrannosaurus Rex, Fairport Convention and The Pretty Things.
The Beatles’ last public performance – on the roof of their Apple Building at 3 Savile Row, London.
Drilling for North Sea Oil begins.
Concorde, a Franco-British aircraft and the world’s first supersonic airliner, made its maiden flight on 2 March.
Troops are sent to Northern Ireland to restore order amidst increasing sectarian violence.
The first broadcast of Monty Python’s Flying Circus.
The voting age is lowered to 18.
The then Prince Charles was formally invested with the title Prince of Wales at a ceremony at Caernarfon Castle on 1 July.
Meanwhile – the USA’s Apollo 11 space mission landed the first two people on the Moon –
Commander Neil Armstrong was the first person to walk on the Moon on 20 July.
By 1970, 65% of UK households had a washing machine.
The first Glastonbury Festival.
The Conservatives win the general election and Ted Heath becomes Prime Minister.
The Ibrox disaster – 66 people are killed and 200+ injured in a crush at a Rangers v Celtic match.
The first British soldier is killed by the IRA in Northern Ireland.
Decimal currency is introduced, replacing pounds, shillings and pence.
The government ended free school milk for the over 7s.
In a wider context – the first commercially available microprocessor is launched by Intel
Bloody Sunday, 30 January – British paratroopers kill 14 unarmed civilians and wound 15 more during a protest march in Londonderry.
The IRA explodes a bomb in Aldershot, killing 7 people (six civilians and a Roman Catholic chaplain), the first of many Irish republican terrorist attacks on mainland Britain.
On 21 July, ‘Bloody Friday’, the IRA set off some 20 or more bombs over an 80 minute period in Belfast, killing nine and injuring 130. Three more car bombs on 31 July in Claudy killed a further nine people and injured 30.
Ugandan dictator Idi Amin expels 55,000 Ugandan Asians; many obtain refuge in Britain.
Philips launched their Model 1500 Video Cassette Recorder (VCR).
The United Kingdom joined the European Economic Community.
The release of the studio album Tubular Bells launched the career of musician Mike Oldfield, and the Virgin record label.
Pink Floyd released Dark Side of the Moon.
HRH Anne, the Princess Royal, married Lieutenant Mark Phillips at Westminster Abbey on 14 November 1973.
The government introduces the 3-day week to conserve electricity during a miners’ strike.
M62 coach bombing – 12 murdered by the IRA.
The general election in February results in a hung parliament. Labour form a minority government and Harold Wilson returns as Prime Minister.
Soviet-made Lada motor cars appear on Britain’s streets.
The winners of the Eurovision Song Contest, held in Brighton, are Swedish group Abba with Waterloo.
The second general election of the year gives Labour a narrow majority.
The first McDonald’s opens in Britain, in Woolwich.
Lord Lucan disappears.
Football hooliganism, present in the game for years, begins to reach its height in the 1970s, leading to segregated crowds and fences at football stadia.
Margaret Thatcher defeats Edward Heath and becomes the first female leader of the Conservative Party.
Charlie Chaplin is knighted.
The European Space Agency is established.
In a referendum on continued membership of the European Economic Community, 67% of voters want to remain.
The sit-com Fawlty Towers is broadcast for the first time.
The Sex Discrimination and the Equal Pay Acts become law.
The UK inflation rate exceeded 24%.
Following Harold Wilson’s sudden retirement, James Callaghan became leader of the Labour Party and Prime Minister.
Financial crisis forces the Labour Government to seek help from the International Monetary Fund (IMF).
The nation celebrated HM The Queen’s Silver Jubilee – 25 years
More than 20 million tune in to watch Morecambe and Wise’s Christmas Show.
The Winter of Discontent – strikes by petrol tanker and truck drivers, hospital staff, refuse collectors, health workers. Rats swarm round uncollected rubbish and in Liverpool the dead go unburied.
The world’s first in vitro baby was born in Oldham.
Viv Anderson, often credited as the first black player to represent the English national football team, made his debut in a match against Czechoslovakia.
The Conservatives win the General Election and Margaret Thatcher becomes Britain’s first female Prime Minister.
9 August – Britain’s first official nudist beach opened in Brighton.
The IRA murders Lord Louis Mountbatten on holiday in Ireland and on the same day, 27 August, kills 18 British soldiers in an ambush at Warrenpoint, NI.
Secretive Welsh Nationalist group Meibion Glyndŵr (the Sons of Glyndŵr), began a campaign of burning English-owned holiday homes in Wales.
The Housing Act of 1980 made it easier for council house tenants to buy the houses they rent.
Queen Elizabeth II, Head of the Church of England, met Pope John Paul II, Head of the Catholic Church, on a state visit to the Vatican.
Arrival of the first IBM personal computer.
The BBC demonstrates the new compact disc (CD).
Racial and other social tensions lead to riots in many of Britain’s towns, especially Brixton (south London), Toxteth (Liverpool) and Moss Side (Manchester).
RAF Greenham Common – women begin a protest against the deployment of US cruise missiles in Britain; the protest lasted 19 years.
Heir to the throne Prince Charles married Lady Diana Spencer on 29 July 1981, at St Paul’s Cathedral.
The Falklands War – Britain sent a taskforce 8,000 miles to retake the Falkland Islands following Argentinean invasion.
Pope John Paul II made history by being the first reigning Pope to visit Britain. On a 6-day visit in May, he travelled to 9 cities as well as meeting the Queen at Buckingham Palace.
Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative Party won a decisive majority of 144 seats in the General Election on 9 June.
Mass coal miners’ strike resulted in violence between strikers, workers and the police. The low point was the so-called Battle of Orgreave in South Yorkshire on 18 June.
The IRA tried to murder the Prime Minister and Cabinet by planting a bomb in the Grand Hotel, Brighton; five people were killed.
Unemployment exceeded 3 million.
First mobile phone in Britain. On New Year’s Day 1985, Sir Ernest Harrison, chairman of Racal Vodafone, was called by his son Michael, who said: “Hi, it’s Mike. Happy New Year. This is the first-ever call on a UK mobile network.”
Live Aid Concerts – massive global fund-raising music concerts in London and Philadelphia (USA) organised by Bob Geldof and Midge Ure in aid of Ethiopian famine relief.
The City of London’s Big Bang – the deregulation of the securities market lead to a revolution in the financial services sector, significantly increasing London’s status as a global financial centre.
The Government began a programme of privatising nationalised companies and public utilities, a policy designed to help create a property-owning democracy, produce capital to help reduce government expenditure and bring an end to subsidies.
“Don’t Die of Ignorance” – the government launched a hard-hitting public health campaign to help counter the increase of HIV/AIDS. A leaflet was sent to every home in the UK.
Prince Andrew, Duke of York, married Sarah Ferguson at Westminster Abbey on 23 July.
Barclays introduce Britain’s first debit card.
Corporal punishment in State schools was banned.
The Great Storm of 1987 over the night of 15-16 October caused widespread damage and casualties in Britain, primarily the south, as well as in France.
Black Monday – a severe and unpredicted stock market crash took place on 19 October.
Hello! magazine – the English-speaking version of the original Spanish Hola! – was first published in the United Kingdom on 21 May 1988. The age of celebrity had truly begun.
A terrorist bomb destroyed Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie on 21 December. All 259 people on board, plus 11 on the ground, perished.
Tim Berners-Lee invents the world wide web.
The Hillsborough Disaster. 96 football fans died in a crush during an FA Cup match between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest at Hillsborough Stadium in Sheffield.
In a wider context – the fall of the Berlin Wall and, in theory, the end of the Cold War.
The Community Charge, or poll tax, a single flat-rate per-capita tax, was introduced to replace domestic rates, first in Scotland then in England and Wales from 1990. It was bitterly opposed, resulted in violent protests, and was replaced by Council Tax in 1993
The House of Commons was first televised on 21 November 1989.
Margaret Thatcher resigns as Prime Minister and leader of the Conservative Party. She is replaced by John Major.
Operation Desert Storm – the First Gulf War, the liberation of Kuwait following invasion by Iraq.
In May, Helen Sharman became the first Briton in space and the first woman to visit the Soviet-Russian Mir space station.
Publisher and tycoon Robert Maxwell drowned on 5 November having apparently fallen from his yacht, the Lady Ghislane, off the Canary Isles.
British troops sent to Yugoslavia as part of the UN Protection Force.
Labour MP MP Betty Boothroyd became the first female Speaker of the House of Commons on 27 April 1992. She served until 2000.
A fire broke out in Windsor Castle on 20 November. It burnt for 15 hours and destroyed 115 rooms, including nine State Rooms. Astonishingly, thanks to the efforts of staff and more than 200 firefighters from 7 counties, only 2 works of art were lost.
HRH Anne, the Princess Royal, and Mark Phillips divorced. The Princess married Timothy Laurence on 12 December, in a private ceremony at Crathie Kirk near Balmoral Castle.
In a speech at the Guildhall on 24 November, Queen Elizabeth referred to the year as her annus horribilis due to the fire at Windsor and family troubles.
Launch of the European single market.
The Treaty of Maastricht creates the European Union from the European Economic Union.
The racially motivated murder of teenager Stephen Lawrence in London leads to the Macpherson report, which highlights institutional racism within the Metropolitan Police.
The Downing Street Declaration between the UK and Eire agreed to respect the democratic will of the people of Northern Ireland to remain in the UK or join the Republic of Ireland. It led to the Provisional Irish Republican Army agreeing a ceasefire in 1994 and helped lay the foundation for the Good Friday Agreement in 1998.
Buckingham Palace opened to the public, originally to help fund the cost of restoring Windsor Castle after the destructive fire of the previous year.
The Channel Tunnel opens.
The Church of England ordains women priests.
In a wider context – Nelson Mandela becomes President of South Africa on 10 May. He was the first non-white head of state and the first to take office following a multi-racial election.
The Sunday Trading Act came into force on 26 August, which allowed shops to open on Sundays, subject to a maximum of 6 hours opening for larger stores.
The Disability Discrimination Act made it unlawful to discriminate against people in respect of their disabilities.
The IRA explodes a bomb at South Quay in London’s Docklands.
The Dunblane Massacre. Thomas Hamilton shoots 16 children and a teacher dead in Dunblane Primary School, injures 15 others and then kills himself.
The Duke and Duchess of York divorce.
The IRA detonates an enormous bomb outside the Arndale Shopping Centre in Manchester.
Dolly the sheep, the world’s first cloned mammal, was born at the Roslin Institute in Edinburgh.
The Prince and Princess of Wales, Charles and Diana, divorce.
‘Cool Britannia’ – a celebratory feeling about British culture manifested itself midway through the 90s, symbolised by the music of bands such as the Spice Girls, Blur, Oasis and Pulp, fashion, the Euro 96 football tournament and the New Labour election result of 1997.
The Stone of Scone is returned to Scotland after 700 years.
Tony Blair leads Labour to a landslide victory in the General Election after 18 years of Conservative government.
Britain hands Hong Kong back to China. The event is seen by some as the definitive end of the British Empire.
Diana, Princess of Wales, is killed in a car crash in Paris.
Scotland and Wales both vote in favour of national assemblies.
JK Rowling publishes the first Harry Potter book, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone.
HMY Britannia was decommissioned in a ceremony in Portsmouth Harbour. She is now a tourist attraction and venue in the Port of Leith, Edinburgh.
The Good Friday agreement provides a basis for peace in Northern Ireland.
Kosovo Crisis – the RAF contributes to NATO bombing campaign and Britain sends troops as part of a peace-keeping force.
Former Warsaw Pact members, the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland, join NATO.
The Millennium Dome on London’s Greenwich Peninsula opened on 31 December 1999 as part of the celebrations to mark the start of the third millennium. The Dome housed a major exhibition for the whole of 2000 and was subsequently redeveloped and opened as a concert venue in 2007, renamed the O2 Arena.
A new millennium and the predicted end of the world didn’t happen.