3, 15 and 26 September
At a time when the Royal Navy is shrinking, and when UK’s political masters would rather have Britain’s naval heritage as a dim memory, if at all, let’s begin this month’s article by looking back on some great seagoing events.
In 1580 Francis Drake completed his circumnavigation of the globe in his ship ‘The Golden Hind’ (26) and was knighted by Elizabeth I.
A mere forty years later (15) the ‘Mayflower’ departed from Plymouth to settle permanently its puritan passengers in New England to discover new food, drinks and people.
And a voyage of discovery of a different kind - two hundred and fifteen years later to the day, 1835 - laid the foundations of the Theory of Evolution, when HMS ‘Beagle’ brought Charles Darwin to the Galapagos Islands (15).
Ninety-nine years later, the steamship RMS ‘Queen Mary’ was launched (26) into the Clyde.
Scotland also witnessed a somewhat less illustrious nautical event in 1931: the infamous Invergordon Mutiny began (15) against the Royal Navy pay cuts and lasted two days. Although mutiny then carried the death penalty, the sailors’ strike was considered to be industrial action and while it was admitted that they had a good grievance - many liable to a 25% pay-cut, when they were poorly paid anyway - the ringleaders were jailed and some two hundred were dismissed from the Navy.
While the sea can be attractive and fickle, it can be treacherous and deadly too. No less deadly are rivers. The River Thames has been linked to our history for millennia and in 1878 over 640 passengers died when the crowded pleasure cruiser ‘Princess Alice’ collided with the ‘Bywell Castle’ (3).
Before moving on from boats and ships, mention should be made of Sir Malcolm Campbell. Lake Maggiore in Italy and Lake Hailwil in Switzerland respectively in September (2)1937 and (17)1938 saw him break the speed record on water in his boat ‘Bluebird’.
He was a true speed king and broke the land speed record (3) on the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah, the first person to drive an automobile over 300mph (attaining 304.331mph).
This month we can also commemorate two men famously associated with the motor industry. Born (3) in 1875, Ferdinand Porsche was an automobile engineer whose name can still be seen on vehicles, just like another engineer and designer, Ettore Bugatti, who was born (15) in 1881.
Civil engineer Sir Donald Bailey designed the Bailey Bridge while working in the War Office and was later knighted for that; he was born (15) in 1901.
One of the world's greatest engineers was Isambard Kingdom Brunel, who died (15) in 1859.
Kingdoms wax and wane and even though he was king for ten years, being crowned (3) in Westminster in 1189, Richard I, the Lionheart, only spent about six months of his reign in England, because he considered it ‘cold and always raining’ and didn’t particularly like rusty chain-mail.
Charles II was made King of the Scots but his army of Scots and Royalists was decisively beaten (3) at Worcester in 1651.
Then there are those who depose kings. Oliver Cromwell, Lord Protector of England, changed the face of politics, royalty and Ireland and died (3) in 1658.
After his death his body was exhumed from Westminster Abbey and posthumously ‘executed’ on the anniversary of the beheading of Charles I. Cromwell’s head was placed on a pole outside Westminster then changed hands several times before finally being buried in a Cambridge college in 1960.
Near another county’s college is the spiritual centre of the Church of England, Canterbury Cathedral. My surname-sake, John Morton was Archbishop of Canterbury and a great builder. The central tower of Canterbury Cathedral, known both as the ‘Angel Steeple’ and as ‘Bell Harry’ was erected with Morton’s help and at his expense.
The Gateway Tower of Lambeth Palace, where he lived and where Sir Thomas More served him as page, bears Morton’s name and remains as a monument of his taste and generosity. He died (15) in 1500, the same day that Thomas Wolsey was made Archbishop of York (15) fourteen years later.
Wolsey, the pope’s representative, went on to become powerful, shaping England’s power at home and abroad for over ten years; he advocated the dissolution of the monasteries which Henry VIII completed. Then he fell into disfavour with Henry, when the king wanted to be rid of Catherine of Aragon, and was summoned to London for treason but died on the way. Wolsey fancied becoming pope but this was denied him because his arrogance and greed were too obvious to all. He’d never make a saint, unlike More who was beheaded by Henry VIII and canonized in 1935.
In 608 AD Saint Boniface IV became Pope (15). He was responsible for making the Pantheon - the temple to Mars, Jupiter and Venus, built by Agrippa and Hadrian - into a Christian church and thus preserving this remarkable building for posterity. He took great interest in the fledgling church in England and had dealings with the Irish monk Saint Columban.
Three hundred and thirteen years to the day later (15), Saint Ludmilla was murdered at the command of her daughter-in-law, Drahomira who secretly favoured paganism over Christianity.
Jealous of her mother-in-law’s influence over her young son and heir, Saint Wenceslaus (Father Christmas), Drahomira hired two not so noblemen to strangle Ludmilla with her veil.
Ludmilla’s remains finally ended up in the church of Saint George in Prague and she is one of the patrons of Bohemia and her feast is celebrated on 16 September.
A saint of stone rather than flesh is the San Lorenzo del Escorial Palace near Madrid, which was finished (15) in 1584.
An intriguing mixture of royal grandeur and monastic austerity, it’s the gilded resting place of twenty-six kings and queens of Spain. It was built to commemorate Spain’s victory over the French at San Quentin in 1557.
In 1687 a building of even greater antiquity - the Parthenon - was partially destroyed (26) after an explosion caused by the bombing from Venetian forces while besieging the Ottoman Turks situated in Athens.
Greek film actress Irene Papas, star of about eighty-three films, including ‘The Guns of Navarone’, ‘Zorba the Greek’, ‘Yerma’ and ‘Captain Corelli's Mandolin’, was born (3) in 1926.
Talking of Captain Corelli, another string musician was Frenchman Charles Munch, who was born (26) in 1891. He was the conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra for thirteen years. Born in 1898 on the same day (26) was George Gershwin, the composer of such classics as ‘Rhapsody in Blue’ and ‘Porgy and Bess’. Still on the same day (26) but in 1957, Leonard Bernstein’s ‘West Side Story’ opened in Broadway.
This is the same day (26) that the Third World War was averted in 1983. At the height of the Cold War, only weeks after Korean Airlines Flight 007 was shot down by Soviet aircraft, Early-warning Commander Stanislav Petrov was facing a crisis when his Soviet computer system told him that the US had launched five missiles at Russia.
Petrov had seconds to make a decision. He came to the conclusion that if the West was going to attack it would do so in massive numbers of missiles, not just five. He declared it was a false alarm - which it was, caused by the satellite interpreting sun shining off the tops of clouds as a missile launch. Having avoided all-out nuclear war, Petrov was neither punished nor rewarded but essentially his career was over and he retired to live in poverty outside Moscow. This was all kept secret until 1999.
The other moment when the world stood on the brink of nuclear holocaust was in 1962. The Soviet ship ‘Poltava’ headed towards Cuba (15), one of the events setting in train the Cuban Missile Crisis. Krushchev backed down. He actually was the first Soviet leader to visit the United States (15) - in 1959 when things were not so tense with America.
American novelist James Fennimore Cooper was born (15) in 1789, the same day as namesake actor and director Jackie Cooper (1922). Fennimore Cooper’s ‘Deerslayer’ series, including ‘The Last of the Mohicans’ were surprisingly popular, probably influenced by the life story of Daniel Boone, frontiersman, who died (26) in 1820. Cooper’s stories defined much of the bravery and pioneering spirit of the Old West.
A pioneer of a different kind was Sir Alexander Fleming who noticed in 1928 a bacteria-killing mold growing in his laboratory and thus discovered penicillin (15).
Besides medicine and new frontiers, there were pioneers in transport systems too. In 1830 the Liverpool to Manchester railway line was opened - though the event was marred by death. The Liverpool MP William Huskisson alighted from the train to chat to the Prime Minister, the Duke of Wellington, and misjudged the speed of the approaching locomotive The Rocket. He died shortly afterwards (15).
Another casualty, hit by a train on the same day (15) though in 1885, was P. T. Barnum’s Jumbo, the circus elephant, while crossing the railroad tracks. The train was derailed and it took 150 men to haul the body off the line. Twenty-four-year-old Jumbo was later stuffed and featured as an exhibit.
I think I’ve stuffed enough linked facts and dates for now.