19 May is St. Dunstan’s day. I have a two pronged interest in this day. The first is as a historian with a particular interest in Mediaeval Monasticism – and my role as Brother Robert in our Medieval Sokemen re-enactment group. Born around CE910 Dunstan, the son of a West Saxon nobleman, entered a monastic life and, in due time became abbot of Glastonbury Abbey. There he re-built the church and developed it into a centre for education. Highly regarded by King Edgar – to whom he was Chief Minister – he was made Bishop of London in 959 and two years later was enthroned as Archbishop of Canterbury. He was canonised by Pope John XIX in 1029.
My second link is with the St Dunstan’s charity (now called Blind Veterans UK). My father was deeply involved in the Royal British Legion branch where we lived and at this time of year I would be one of his helpers in the collection for those blinded in the World Wars and after. The St Dunstan’s charity was founded by Arthur Pearson in the early 20th century. Pearson had lost his sight due to glaucoma and, as he became aware of the increasing numbers of British soldiers returning from the First World War front lines suffering from blindness, he established a hostel for them. The hostel was soon taking in blinded sailors and airmen as well. Pearson’s plan was that, with training and assistance, they could go on to lead productive lives and would not have to depend on charity. His first hostel was in London’s Bayswater but they soon moved to St Dunstan’s Lodge in Regent’s Park, along with its first 16 members. The Committee’s work was praised by the London press at the time – a reference to the Lodge appeared in The Illustrated London News in 1915, which said: “in a corner of London’s most beautiful park is a house where miracles are worked.”
20 May 1685 – Titus Oates attended Merchant Taylors School and then the Cambridge colleges of Gonville and Caius and then St John’s. Known as a ‘less than astute student’ he was ‘ejected’ from both! Although regarded as “a great dunce”, he did have a good memory, something that would be very useful in his later life. Soon after this ‘ejection’ he became an Anglican priest and the Vicar of Bobbing in Kent. Although an ordained minister he managed to get himself imprisoned for perjury while serving as a curate in Hastings in 1674! He escaped from prison and joined the navy as a chaplain – but was soon dismissed for misconduct! Despite all of this, early in 1677 he became chaplain to the Protestants in the household of the Roman Catholic Henry Howard, 6th Duke of Norfolk. It was there that he had his first extensive contacts with Catholic circles – and also the time he came into contact with a fanatical anti-Jesuit named Israel Tonge. It was Tonge that ‘suggested’ that Titus could make a profit by betraying Catholics to the government. Oates took up the idea and began gathering information about them and their activities. To do this he travelled as a Catholic priest but got himself expelled from seminaries in Spain and France. Returning to London he joined up again with Tonge, and the pair invented an account of a major Jesuit conspiracy to assassinate King Charles II and replace him with Charles’ his Roman Catholic brother James, the Duke of York. They publicized the tale through Sir Edmund Godfrey – a prominent justice of the peace. Their revelations seemed even more plausible after Godfrey was found murdered in October 1678. A wave of terror swept London and Oates was feted as the saviour of his country. Whilst King Charles found his story unconvincing Oates’ testimony resulted in the execution of some 35 persons. However inconsistencies in the story caused the panic to subside and the Duke of York (later King James II) initiated a libel suit against Oates. He won the case and was awarded £100,000 damages.
However, it was on this Saturday, 20th May 1685, following the accession of James II to the throne, that Titus Oates was re-tried for his role in the ‘Popish Plot’. Presiding over the case was Judge Jeffreys, who stated that Oates was a “shame to mankind”. Oates was convicted of perjury, stripped of clerical dress, sentenced to imprisonment for life, and was to be “whipped through the streets of London five days a year for the remainder of his life.” He was taken out of his cell wearing a hat with the text “Titus Oates, convicted upon full evidence of two horrid perjuries” and put into the pillory at the gate of Westminster Hall where passers-by pelted him with eggs. The next day he was pilloried in London and on the third and fourth days he was stripped, tied to a cart, and whipped from Aldgate to Newgate. It has been suggested that the aim of the punishments was to kill Oates by ill-treatment, because they could not impose the death penalty. However, in 1689, following the accession of King William of Orange and Mary, Oates was pardoned and granted a pension of £260 a year! The pension was later suspended but, in 1698, it was restored and increased to £300 a year. He died in mid July 1705.
21 May 1846 – on this Thursday William Wordsworth wrote a letter to William Boxall saying that it was ‘a glorious day for beauty. I wish you could see how lovely our country is at this fine season’.
On this same day in May – but this time on a Sunday in 1950 – a tornado swept across southern England. The BBC reported that: ‘Two people have died in violent storms and a tornado which have devastated southern England. Several others were injured in lightning strikes and fierce winds which caused massive damage to property around London.’ The two who died were both struck by lightning as they ran for shelter while three others with them were injured and taken to hospital. The worst damage to property was caused by a tornado which began in the late afternoon. Eyewitnesses spoke of a dense, black cloud gathering on the horizon and quickly developing into the dark column of a tornado. It swept through towns and villages across the top of London as far as the Cambridgeshire fens, leaving ruin in its wake. In the Buckingham village of Linslade, the wind wrecked hundreds of houses and other buildings as it tore through the streets and surrounding fields. One resident described the scene: “When we looked out of the side of the house, clouds appeared to be coming together in different directions. I believe I saw the actual source of the tornado.” Whole streets of houses were stripped of their roof tiles, with furniture inside ruined by the heavy rain which followed. Dozens of people were made homeless. There were some extraordinary scenes as the tornado passed over: hundreds of trees were uprooted, drawn into the air and dropped some distances away; parked cars were lifted and moved and cattle and horses were whirled into the air and dumped in nearby fields. Witnesses said the tornado was 50 yards wide in some places and just 5 yards wide in others. It took less than an hour for it to travel from one end of the village to the other, but it caused hundreds of pounds worth of damage. Other towns in the tornado’s path were also badly affected. In nearby Leighton Buzzard a shop in the high street was struck by lightning and set on fire, while in Ely, Cambridgeshire, a double-decker bus was overturned. There were warnings of further flooding throughout the entire region, with the likelihood that the difficult weather conditions would continue.
In a letter dated Wednesday 22 May 1697 Lord Fitzwilliam of Milton near Peterborough wrote from his London house to Francis Guybon his steward at Milton Hall, obviously upset at what he considered either wastefulness or a disregard of his instructions. In his letter he says that ‘I thought I had left enough lime in the new stable to have finished the wing next to the Great House but see you have burned a kiln this week and are to burn another next week. Burn no more until I come down.’ Lord Fitzwilliam WAS NOT HAPPY!
‘The Economist’ of Monday 23 May 1960 carried an article on the subject of the caravans in Britain. For those of us who remember the preceding years you may recall that it was a time change as our ‘new world’ began to evolve. The article stated that in 1948 3,618 caravans had been made in Britain – with 10% of these being exported. By 1958 the annual production figure was over 36,000 with the export percentage pretty much unchanged. Their survey, carried out during 1959 established that there were about 180,000 caravans – new and ‘not so new’ – in use in Britain, half of which were used by 200,000 people for purely residential purposes. It recorded that, in the latter part of this 10 year period, there had been a great development of caravan organisations, clubs, rallies, conventions and the like. The research had established that the demand for caravans came from four main classes of people. The first was made up of largely retired couples, spinsters and manual workers whose job involved travel – people who used a caravan to live in, and preferred it that way. The second group also lived in caravans but, it was stated, would have preferred to move into a ‘proper’ house. These were mostly young married couples, often with children, who had moved ‘out of town’ to get jobs but found nowhere to live. These people formed the bulk of the ‘shanty town’ population which had given caravan sites a bad name, something which many did not deserve. It seems that these ‘shanty towns’ were a major problem in Surrey where something like half the caravan population in the county lived on unauthorised sites. The third source of caravan demand/usage came from businesses running seaside sites for holiday makers. Some of these sites, notably in Devon, Cornwall, and Wales, had over 1,000 caravans and were equipped with restaurants, dance halls, and other amenities. The fourth customer, it was considered, was the man who kept a caravan in cold storage for most of the year and towed it behind his car for summer holiday purposes. The article does comment that the average motorist had reason to be glad that this class was the smallest of the four. Taken all in all it was considered that the caravan movement was both useful and admirable. The article also decided that ‘caravan sanitary problems’ had given, on the whole, less trouble than might have been expected!
At 9 p.m. on Friday 24 May 1941 the Admiralty announced the loss of H.M.S.Hood in the form of the following communiqué: “British naval forces intercepted early this morning off the coast of Greenland German naval forces including the battleship Bismarck. The enemy were attacked, and during the ensuing action H.M.S. Hood received an unlucky hit in the magazine and blew up. The Bismarck has received damage and the pursuit of the enemy continues.” It then added a final poignant sentence: “It is feared there will be few survivors from H.M.S. Hood.” Observers aboard H.M.S. Prince of Wales had watched as Hood steamed through the splashes of the Bismark’s shells. Sub-Lieutenant John Wormersley, a control officer on the H.M.S. Prince of Wales, saw “a long salvo fall on the port quarter of Hood and over it by 200 yards. After this,” he said, “a fire appeared on the ‘Hood’s’ boat deck.” It is probable that the fire had nothing to do with Bismarck’s gunnery – instead it had almost certainly been caused by a hit from the Prinz Eugen who was also firing at Hood. Like many other British observers, Wormersley had accidentally confused the fall of shot from Bismarck and Prinz Eugen. On the German cruiser’s bridge, her captain watched through binoculars with Commander Busch, a German journalist, as Prinz Eugen’s second salvo struck home, and listened as Commander Jasper, the gunnery officer confirmed it. Within two minutes of opening fire, Prinz Eugen’s gunners had drawn blood. For a variety of reasons, the exact mechanism of the loss of Hood will probably never be known with certainty. The event occurred with remarkable suddenness and was, to most observers, completely unexpected. No cameras were clearly trained on Hood as she exploded and no “black box” counted down her final, fatal, seconds. There were almost no survivors and there remained virtually no wreckage on which post-mortem might be performed. The results of past investigations – and this one – must be judged with that in mind. Those charged with inquiring into more modern disasters are, by comparison, usually awash in a sea of data.
25 May 1850 – This was the Saturday that the first hippopotamus since Roman times to be seen in Britain arrived at London Zoo. Less than a year old when he was captured, he was named Obaysch after the island on the White Nile from which he was taken. Abbas Pasha, the Ottoman Viceroy of Egypt, had agreed with the British Consul General, Sir Charles Augustus Murray (later known as “Hippopotamus Murray”) to swap the hippopotamus and other exotic animals for some greyhounds and deerhounds. A herd of cows had accompanied Obaysch on his trip down the Nile to Cairo to provide him with milk! On his arrival at London Zoo he was an instant sensation, attracting up to 10,000 visitors each day. In fact, the number of visitors to the Zoo in 1850 was double the previous year. In July 1854 Abbas Pasha sent a second hippo to London, a female named Adhela. The pair finally produced offspring in 1871, but the calf died after 2 days. A second calf died the following year, but a third, born on 5 November 1872, survived. It was a female but was named Guy Fawkes! I wonder why? Obaysch died on 11 March 1878; Adhela on 16 December 1882 and Guy Fawkes on 20 March 1908.