On this day in history 12th – 18th May

12 May 1937 – a Wednesday – saw the coronation of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth. This was the day that had originally been chosen for the coronation of Edward VIII, before he abdicated. As a result the whole thing appears to have been quite a shambles behind the scenes. All the planned images of ‘King Edward VIII’ were used with the equivalent of a modern day ‘PhotoShop’ job putting George’s face where Edwards would have been. On this day the staff on duty started work at 4am. The guests began arriving at 6am, with many peers reported to be carrying sandwiches in their coronets. At 9.30 the procession of the Regalia started, going through the cloisters to the Abbey. Since the time of Charles II the crowns and other regalia had been brought to the Jerusalem Chamber – a part of the Deanery – the night before a coronation and placed in the charge of the Dean. This time much of it seems to have been brought in at the crack of dawn on the morning. On the plus side, eye witnesses recalled that the overall impression in the Abbey was colour everywhere, with blue and gold hangings and carpets, and crimson robes and uniforms. Queen Mary and Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret were watching from the royal gallery. There were around 40 newsreel cameramen in the Abbey, all in full evening dress, to capture the enthronement. Virtually all of the ceremony was broadcast live on the radio. But .. one of the clergy fainted; a bishop stepped on the king’s train – the King later recorded in his diary that ‘I had to tell him to get off it pretty sharply!’ To cap it all Archbishop Cosmo Gordon Lang put his thumb over the words of the oath when the king was about to read it! Apart from that the ceremony went off very well and the coronation procession was shown as the first major outside broadcast by the BBC’s new television service – with George and Elizabeth being briefed beforehand as to when and where they should wave so that the cameras caught them. An audience of some 50,000 people were claimed to have watched that television broadcast – a broadcast described by commentator Freddie Grisewood. He later described how just as the Royal carriage appeared in the distance, all the equipment failed. The engineer in charge swore, gave it a hefty kick and it all came to life again so the day was saved. Grisewood would go on to be the first to commentate the first televised broadcast of a tennis match at Wimbledon in 1937 and, in 1938, he hosted the first televised game show – a 15-minute Spelling Bee.

13 May 1613: Between 1597 and 1626 John Chamberlain wrote many letters and maintained a comprehensive journal now highly valued by many for their historical value and their literary qualities. His entry of this Monday in his journal provides us with a graphic picture of the harshness of life in early 17th century England. He records how, on Friday (10th May), ‘one’ Bostock, an Under-Customer of Rochester (a close supporter of King James who had knighted him in 1607 and created him Viscount Rochester in 1611), and one Waller, were fined in the Star Chamber at 5,000 marks each. A mark is/was ⅔ of £1 – £3,333 in modern money and more than a lifetimes’ earning for most of the population of England at the time. The accused were sentenced to be locked in the pillory for an unspecified time with their head and arms held firm. After this they were to lose their ears before being whipped through the streets. Bostock was accused of reporting that ‘presently after the Prince’s death, four or five of the Council – whereof the Lord Privy Seal was principal – had kneeled to the King and besought him for toleration of religion’. Waller was accused of ‘writing this news to a ‘customer’ at the port of Dover. He was dead before the letter came and, it was claimed, his wife ‘let it run from hand to hand’. There is no reference that I can trace that names the dead man and his wife.

14 May 1796 – This Friday is claimed to be the day when: ‘the immortal Edward Jenner conclusively established the important principles of vaccination; proving that it was possible to propagate the vaccine affection by artificial inoculation from one human being to another, and thereby at will communicate security to all who were liable to small-pox’; so eulogised the ‘Chambers Book of Days’ in 1864. As with so many ‘breakthroughs’, Jenner’s discovery was not an immediate success. Many remained loyal to Lady Mary Wortley Montague’s procedure of inoculation, called ‘variolation’, with the smallpox virus itself – a discovery she made while in Turkey with her British ambassador husband. In 1721, after a smallpox epidemic struck England, she had her three-year-old daughter inoculated by Charles Maitland, a physician who had been at the embassy in Turkey, and publicized the event. She persuaded Princess Caroline to test the treatment. That was successful so seven prisoners awaiting execution were offered the chance to undergo the process instead of execution: they all survived and were released. Then six orphan children were inoculated: they all survived. In 1722 King George I had allowed Maitland to inoculate two of his grandchildren, children of the Princess. The children recovered. However – there were risks with her process and, in time and after the proving of the reliability of Jenner’s discovery, variolation was outlawed. 

Tuesday 15 May 1957 saw the UK explode its first test hydrogen bomb. Newspapers reported that the bomb was dropped by a Vickers Valiant bomber piloted by Kenneth Hubbard at high altitude over the largely uninhabited Christmas Islands to minimise nuclear fall-out. Weighing about 4,550 kilos the test was sufficient for the British Government to hail it ‘a successful thermonuclear explosion’, announcing to the world that the U.K. had become a thermonuclear power. Details of the bomb, described only as a ‘nuclear device’, were sketchy and the term “device” indicated that it was more an experimental explosive rather than a fully developed weapon. It was reported that scientists were evaluating the results of the testing and would make a further statement in the next few days – very little additional information was released. The test was part of a thermo-nuclear weapons programme which had started in December 1954 with the aim of developing a megaton hydrogen bomb – as powerful as one million tons of TNT. While the results of this test were disappointing, it was claimed that much was learned about the radiation implosion in Hydrogen bombs. Looking at it through the views of the time this was part of an important range of tests carried out by Britain that was being developed with limited resources and in a remarkably short space of time. Scientists had taken just two years to develop this programme compared to their American counterparts who took seven years before exploding their first device.

16 May 1948: Sheffield resident George Taylor was a participant in the Mass Observation project set up in the late 1930s. He is described as a curmudgeonly accountant in his mid-forties. He records in his diary for this Sunday that, in the evening, he attended a lecture given by a biologist Mr Packington, who spoke of the Future of Mankind. He notes that Packington ‘thought that all major evolutionary trends had come to an end, and that the organic evolution of man in society was now the important thing, and he was optimistic that man would be successful.’ He does not, though, tell us successful at what!

Writing in his diary on Monday 17 May 1976 Earl Mountbatten of Burma, ‘voiced’ a very prophetic view of the future for whoever married Charles the Prince of Wales. After attending a Supper Ball at Claridges, where he sat next to Diana Wellington, he records that she had said how much she and her husband had appreciated the Earl’s kindness to their daughter Jane Wellesley after the newspapers had been hounding her because she had been seen a lot with Prince Charles. He records that she was very bitter about the way the press had treated her and her father about the whole affair. She felt that if they had committed some ghastly crime the newspapers could not have persecuted them more. She also felt that the media could kill Charles’s chance of having a happy marriage because ‘what young girl could possibly put up with this appalling persecution. Any girl who would accept a proposal in the face of such prospects would surely not be the right one for Charles to marry in any case’. She thought Charles was absolutely charming and it certainly wasn’t his fault. She wished him luck in finding the right wife, but unless he could in fact meet her quite secretly without the media knowing about it, she thought the chances of a marriage coming off with the right person would be rather slim.

18 May 1830: At some time before this day Edwin Budding, an engineer from Stroud, Gloucestershire, had watched a machine in a local cloth mill that used a cutting cylinder/bladed reel mounted on a bench to trim the irregular nap from the surface of woollen cloth and give a smooth finish. This gave him an idea – ‘could this concept be used to cut grass?’ Budding decided that if he could modify that process to cut the lawns on sports grounds and extensive gardens – it would be significantly better than scythes or animals which were then the prime devices for maintaining a good green-sward. He approached John Ferrabee, the owner of Phoenix Foundry at Thrupp Mill in Stroud with his idea and, in an agreement between the two dated Monday 18 May 1830, Ferrabee agreed to pay the costs of development and the obtaining of letters of patent in exchange for having the rights to manufacture, sell and license other manufacturers in the production of lawn mowers. Budding agreed to this and on 31st August 1830 he was granted a British patent for the device. The first machine produced was 19 inches wide with a wrought iron frame. The ‘mowing device’ was pushed from behind with a rear roller driving gears which transferred the drive to the knives on the cutting cylinder. Another roller between the cutting cylinder and the land roller was adjustable to alter the height of cut. On cutting, the grass clippings were hurled forward into a tray-like box. In other words – pretty much the same as the Webb Witch push mower that I use on my various lawns since the mid-1960s. Two of the earliest Budding machines sold went to Regent’s Park Gardens and the Oxford Colleges. It took ten more years, and further innovations, to create a machine that could be worked by animals, and sixty years before a steam-powered lawn mower was built.


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