5 May has seen two very different events that were to resonate through the British psyche through the 20th century.
On Thursday, 5 May 1904 there were, I am sure, quite a few male children born. One of them was born in Ivy Row (known to the locals as Potato Row), in Donnington Wood, Oakengates, just outside Telford in Shropshire. He was baptised Gordon, the son of Mr & Mrs Richards, and would take some while to grab headlines – but there is no doubt that when he did everyone knew about it. The son of a Shropshire coal miner he had an early relationship with horses as his father reared some pit-ponies at home and young Gordon was soon riding them bareback. He became a stable boy at 15 and he won his first race, at Leicester in March 1921. He became a full-fledged jockey in 1925 and won 118 races, and became Champion Jockey, in his first full year of race riding. The rest, as they say, is history. He was the British flat racing jockey champion 26 times during his career; is often considered the worlds’ greatest ever jockey and he remains the only jockey to have been Knighted – arise Sir Gordon Richards.
In contrast, the event on this Sunday, 5 May 1930 was instant fame – and, like Sir Gordon, the name and event remains in our psyche. That name was Amy Johnson and her ‘event’ was her taking-off in a second-hand de Havilland DH60 Gipsy Moth aircraft which she had named “Jason”. It was not named after the voyager of Greek legend, but after her father’s business trade mark! This flight earned her worldwide recognition as the first woman pilot, or in the language of the time, “aviatrix”, to fly solo from England to Australia – landing in Darwin in the Australian Northern Territory, on 24 May after flying 11,000 miles. She received a CBE in recognition of this achievement, and was also honoured with the No. 1 civil pilot’s licence under Australia’s Air Navigation Regulations. Amy died on 5 January 1941, while flying for the Air Transport Auxiliary from Blackpool to RAF Kidlington near Oxford. She appears to have gone off course in poor weather conditions and, reportedly, ran out of fuel – bailing out as her aircraft crashed into the Thames Estuary. Her body was never found, nor that of her passenger, and it has never been ‘discovered’ why she was so far off course.
Wednesday 6 May 1954 was the day that Roger Bannister – with the pace-making help of his friends – broke the 4 minute mile barrier. That run is indelibly fixed in my mind – but not in the way others may remember. ‘Why?’ you may ask. Well, way back in those early days of television there was no morning programming – but there was a morning feed for television engineers – TVs were not the most reliable pieces of equipment around. As the decade ended I was working for a small Hertfordshire company called CRT Limited. The CRT meant ‘Cathode Ray Tubes’; one of the less reliable pieces of a television at that time. The company brought in tubes that no longer worked and rebuilt them – I may well tell you that whole story on a separate blog. I was there for around a year and, for a few months, my job was to test that the reworked tubes worked OK before we sent them out again. That meant that throughout the morning, once every 15 minutes if I remember rightly, I watched Roger Bannister break the 4 minute mile barrier. Never has one event on one day in history been so burned into my mind!
It was on Thursday 7 May 1846 that Elizabeth Barrett wrote a note to Robert Browning saying that – “Miss Bayley told me that she was a materialist of the strictest order and believed in no soul and no future state. In the face of those conclusions, she said, she was calm and resigned. It is more than I could be, as I confessed. My whole nature would cry aloud against that most pitiful result of the struggle here – a wrestling for the dust, and not for the crown. What restless melancholy would fall upon me if I had such thoughts! All joy to be based upon nothingness! All love to feel eternal separation under and over it! Dreary and ghastly, it would be! I should not have the strength to love you, I think, if I had such a miserable creed.” Elizabeth and Robert would marry in August of this year before heading off to Italy.
On 8 May every year (or on the preceding Saturday if the 8th is a Sunday) the Cornish town of Helston is home to ‘The Furry Dance’ (pronounced to rhyme with “hurry”). The 1790 publication of the Gentleman’s Magazine carries a report, signed ‘Durgan’, which tells us that: ‘At Helstone (sic), a genteel and populous borough town in Cornwall, it is customary to dedicate the 8th of May to revelry (festive mirth, not loose jollity). It is called the Furry-day, supposed Flora’s day; not, I imagine, as many have thought, in remembrance of some festival instituted in honour of that goddess, but rather from garlands commonly worn on that day. In the morning, very early, some troublesome rogues go round the streets with drums, or other noisy instruments, disturbing their sober neighbours, and singing parts of a song, the whole of which nobody now recollects, and of which I know no more than that there is a mention in it of the ‘grey goose quill’ and of them going to the ‘green wood to bring home the summer and the May-O’ and, accordingly, hawthorn flowering branches are worn in hats. About the middle of the day they collect together to dance hand-in-hand round the streets, to the sound of the fiddle playing a particular tune, which they continue to do till it is dark. This is called a ‘faddy’. In the afternoon, the gentility go to some farmhouse in the neighbourhood to drink tea, syllabub, etc., and return in a Morris-dance to the town, where they form a faddy, and dance through the streets till it is dark, claiming the right of going through any person’s house, in at one door and out at the other. And here it formally used to end, and the company of all kinds to disperse quietly to their several habitations, but latterly, corruptions have in this, as in other matters, crept in by degrees.’. Many things have changed since this piece was written but the day still sees a 7 a.m. dance; a Hal-an-Tow pageant at 8 a.m. [this is derived from the individuals described above as ‘troublesome rogues’]; children’s dance at 10 a.m.; a midday dance which replicates the earlier dance of the gentry – only now the men wear top hats and tails while the women dance in their ‘best frocks’. All wear Lily of the Valley sprigs – Helston’s symbolic flower – with the gentlemen wearing it on the left, with the flowers pointing upwards, and the ladies wearing it upside down on the right. The day ends with an evening dance at 5 p.m.
Saturday 9 May 1671 – There are some events and/or individuals in history that are a challenge to unravel or understand. One such person is ‘Colonel’ Thomas Blood and the event is his attempt to steal the Crown Jewels of England. It is reasonably certain that he was born in Ireland and that he was educated in Lancashire; that he married the daughter of an English gentleman and that they returned to Ireland. In 1642 he took up arms in support of King Charles I and then switched to the Parliamentarian forces. At the end of hostilities he was given land as payment for his service and was appointed a Justice of the Peace. At the restoration of the Monarchy he returned to Ireland with his family but, under the 1662 Act of Settlement, he lost all the lands gifted to him by Cromwell. Now financially ruined he became involved in many nefarious schemes and – no matter how badly the scheme failed – Blood seemed to get away with it. It was on this day – 9th May 1671 – that the most audacious of his schemes took place. The assistant keeper at the Tower of London at this time was one Talbot Edwards. Blood, via a number of ruses – including claiming he was a priest – had got Edwards totally ease with him so when Blood asked him to show him, and some of his friends, the Crown Jewels Edwards agreed. After they had entered the Jewel chamber, and the door was shut, a cloak was thrown over Edwards and he was knocked to the floor, bound, gagged and stabbed to subdue him. The Crown Jewels were now un-protected. Blood used a mallet to flatten St. Edward’s Crown so that he could hide it beneath his clerical coat. Another of the group filed the Sceptre & Cross in two so as to fit in his bag, while a third participant stuffed the Sovereign’s Orb down his trousers! They escaped from the Tower but appear to have panic when the ‘hue and cry’ was raised and were captured soon after. They had dropped the Sceptre as they escaped; and the Globe and Orb were recovered at their capture although several stones were missing and others were loose.
It is now that the story becomes more puzzling. Following his capture, Blood refused to answer to anyone but the King. He was taken to the Palace in chains and there questioned by King Charles, Prince Rupert and others. King Charles asked Blood, “What if I should give you your life?” Blood’s replied that “I would endeavour to deserve it, Sire!” The King pardoned Blood – and also gave him land in Ireland worth £500 a year. Why was the King so generous? Some historians believe he feared a revenge uprising by Blood’s followers; others speculate that the King had a fondness for audacious scoundrels such as Blood, and that he was amused by the Irishman’s claim that the jewels were worth only £6,000 instead of the £100,000 valued by the Crown. It has also been suggested that Blood’s actions may have had the connivance of the King – the King was very short of money at the time! Whatever the truth might be, Blood became a familiar figure around London and made frequent appearances at Court, where he was employed as advocate in the claims of suitors to the Crown!
Tuesday 10 May 1864 – Arthur Munby was – among other things – a poet of some distinction with Robert Browning praising his work highly. In his diary of this day Munby records that ‘near Covent Garden I met Charles Dickens’. Well that’s not quite true because he goes on to say that Dickens was ‘walking along alone and unnoticed.’ He describes him as ‘a man of middle height, of somewhat slight frame, of light step and jaunty air.’ Dickens was, he says ‘clad in spruce frock coat, buttoned to show his good and still youthful figure; and a brand new hat airily cocked on one side, a stick poised in his hand.’ His description then takes an almost negative turn, describing Dickens as ‘a man of sanguine complexion, deeply lined and scantly bearded face, and countenance alert and observant, scornful somewhat and sour; with a look of fretfulness, vanity; which might however be due to the gait and the costume.’ He concludes his detailed snapshot of the man – ‘Thus he passed before me, and thus, in superficial casual view, I judged of him.’ I just wish that I could have such a brief glance of something or someone and record it in the descriptive detail that Munby achieves!
Tuesday 11 May 1762 saw Spencer Percival become the first – and so far the only – British Prime Minister to be assassinated whenhe was shot dead through the heart as he entered the House of Commons lobby. His assassin was a bankrupt named John Bellingham who, it was said, had been driven mad by his failure to get Government compensation for the loss of a merchant ship en route to Russia – and his subsequent imprisonment there. As it turned out the man who arrested Bellingham was actually his own MP – General Isaac Gascoyne. Not only that, Gascoyne was the person who had advised Bellingham to see Percival and petition him for his money! Bellingham had done this but had failed to get any positive response from Percival. After the shooting Bellingham is recorded as looking at his dead victim and saying ‘I wish I were in his place.’ Spencer Percival had been widely unpopular across the country and a troop of Life Guards had been called in to prevent a crowd rescuing Bellingham at the assassination site. At his trial 4 days later before the Lord Chief Justice Sir James Mansfield, Bellingham was found guilty and sentenced to hang. Mansfield told Bellingham that: ‘You have been found guilty of the murder of a person whose suavity of manners disarmed hostility and rancour. By his death Charity has been deprived of its warmest friend, Religion of its best support, and the country of its greatest ornament.’ That is not quite how many in England saw the man. Percival was buried on 16th May and on 18th May 1762 Bellingham was hanged for his murder.