Chickens, the Greenwich Meridian; Tony Benn, a British Queen, ‘Colonal’ Cody, a Saint and Dr. Crippen

Wednesday 12 October 1938: On this day George Orwell wrote from Marrakech to Jack Common who was looking after his cottage: ‘I hope the hens have begun laying. Some of them have by this time, I expect, at any rate they ought to. We’ve bought the hens for our house, which we’re moving into on Saturday. The hens in this country are miserable little things like the Indian ones, about the size of bantams, and what is regarded as a good laying hen, i.e. it lays once a fortnight, costs less than a shilling. They ought to cost about 6 pence, but at this time of year the price goes up because after Yom Kippur every Jew, of whom there are 13,000 in this town, eats the whole fowl to recompense him for the strain of fasting 12 hours.’

Monday 13 October 1884 was the day that Greenwich was confirmed as the place for the Meridian. Before this, almost every town in the world kept its own local time. There were no national or international conventions which set how time should be measured, or when the day would begin and end, or what length an hour might be. With the vast expansion of the railway and communications networks during the 1850s and 1860s, the worldwide need for an international time standard became imperative. 1884 saw forty-one delegates from 25 nations meet in Washington DC for the International Meridian Conference. By the end of the conference, Greenwich had won the prize of Longitude 00 by a vote of 22 to 1 against (San Domingo), with 2 abstentions (France and Brazil). There were two main reasons for the choice of Greenwich. The first was the fact that the USA had already chosen Greenwich as the basis for its own national time zone system. The second was that, in the late 19th century, 72% of the world’s commerce depended on sea-charts which already used Greenwich as the Prime Meridian. The decision, essentially, was based on the argument that, by naming Greenwich as Longitude 0º, it would be advantageous to the largest number of people. From this decision forward Greenwich became the centre of world time separating east from west in the same way that the Equator separates north from south.
Inextricably linked with Greenwich Mean Time, it sits at the centre of the system of time zones. Its presence is determined by the location of an historic telescope, the Airy Transit Circle, which is housed at the Royal Observatory, Greenwich. The Transit Circle was built by Sir George Airy, the 7th Astronomer Royal, in 1850 and the cross-hairs in the eyepiece of the Transit Circle precisely defined Longitude 0° for the world. As the earth’s crust is moving very slightly all the time the exact position of the Prime Meridian moves very slightly too, but the original reference for the prime meridian of the world remains the Airy Transit Circle in the Royal Observatory, even if the exact location of the line may move to either side of Airy’s meridian.
Such is the Meridian’s fame that each year, hundreds of thousands of visitors from all around the world make their way to the Observatory to stand astride the Line.

Sunday 14 October 1855: For many the happenings of this day spelled the birth of ‘Speaker’s Corner’ in London. For the people gathered in Hyde Park on this day it was about Bread. The London Standard of Monday 15th tells us the story under the heading ‘MEETING IN HYDE PARK YESTERDAY’.
‘For many days past large placards have been posted on the hoardings about London deploring the present high price of bread, setting forth possible causes and certain remedies for the evil, and calling on the working men of the metropolis to meet in ‘Our Park’ on Sunday next (yesterday), for the purpose of giving expression to their feelings on the subject, and taking measures for bringing about a change in so sad a state of affairs. Accordingly yesterday, at about two o’clock, great numbers of persons were found to be wending their way towards the park, where already had assembled many not of the best order of society, and of those itinerant gentry who ply their various callings on such occasions. Until three o’clock nothing of an unusual character occurred, but shortly after the hour named a movement towards the centre of the park gave indication of something exciting, and a rush from all parts to the point of attraction brought together, of a sudden, a crown that continually increased, until at last as many as 5,000 persons must have been assembled together, the majority of them being of respectable appearance. All available men of the police force, and those who otherwise would have been off duty for the day, were disposed about the park in case their service should be required, but not the slightest interference in the subsequent proceedings took place. Presently two immense rings were formed, and a man of serious aspect, with a profusion of hair about his face, made his way to one of the spaces thus made, and addressed the people. He said he was a hard-working man; that it was no vain desire for popularity that had induced him to leave his large family on the Sabbath for the purpose of meeting his fellows in Hyde Park; it was because he believed that he had it in his power to help his fellow countrymen to a right understanding of the purpose for which they had assembled together. After two of the most plenteous harvests that ever blessed the earth bread was at famine prices. The war was set forth as the cause of this. It was no such thing. There was plenty of corn in Turkey, which could be imported at 20s a quarter, and yet Russia corn at 73s. per quarter was permitted to be brought over. The speaker, who was said to be an eloquent carpenter, had proceeded in this strain for upwards of an hour, when a counter agitation seemed to be rising within 20 yards of the crown which had gathered around him. A baker by trade was endeavouring to defend the corn factors and landed proprietors, against whom his oppositionist had been inveighing; but the mob was in no humour to listen to the “other side,” and, a cry of “Out with him” having been raised, the baker was pushed, and dragged, and carried off in the direction of the Marble Arch. Two or three gentlemen interfered to defend the unfortunate man from the usage to which his boldness had subjected him, but he did not escape even then, and he would undoubtedly have received some rough treatment had not a body of police appeared to the rescue. The inspector on duty at that spot evidently saw an admirable chance of giving a favourable turn to the events of the day. Eight officers, surrounding the baker, trotted off with him at a smart pace, followed by an immense number of persons, among whom were those who appeared to be most bent on mischief; they ran on, following the baker and his guard, towards Apsley-gate and outside the park. Returning to the carpenter, whose audience had been considerably thinned, he was found to be still holding forth; he continued to speak and to declaim against “the powers that be” until dusk, when he brought his harangue to a close.’ Welcome to the first event at London’s SPEAKERS’ CORNER.

Tuesday 14 October 1969 – I just could not miss including this from Tony Benn’s entry in his diary for this day – ‘In the evening Caroline and I went to Number 10 for a dinner for the American astronauts, the first three men to have been on the moon. Neil Armstrong and Buz Aldrin and their wives were there and Harold had laid on the evening in grand style with lots of television coverage. I sat next to Pat Collins who is a very intelligent and delightful woman. I felt sorry that she had George Brown, completely pickled, on the other side of her.’ What a mix of persons; oh to have been a fly on the wall there.

Tuesday 15 October 1839: Researching for these Blogs can be great fun and often a significant frustration. I had seen somewhere that this was the day that Queen Victoria proposed to her cousin Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha who was visiting at Windsor Castle. In trying to validate this I found a headline in the London Standard for Wednesday 16th October 1839 – ‘Arrival of the British Queen’. That seemed promising but this is what I found:
‘The ‘British Queen’ anchored at Spithead at half-past one p.m. and remained two hours, when she proceeded for London’. (and there I was thinking she was at Windsor).  ‘About 30 passengers landed here in a hired steamer, many of whom proceeded forthwith by post for London’. (She’s late for her date?) The British Queen has brought home 73 passengers, and experienced the last week very bad weather, not having seen the sun the last four days, – blowing and raining. The British Queen has brought home 700,000 dollars in specie [hard cash not notes], together with remittances to the amount of 1,000,000 sterling.  While writing (the journalist, not me) I may inform you that Colonel Pasley had made arrangements again to blow up the remains of the Royal George this day. The hour fixed for the explosion was two o’clock p.m., at which time the British Queen anchored, and immediately the explosion took place, which was evidently a great curiosity. The water was thrown upwards of 18 feet from the surface. Much tallow has come up, and numerous fish have evidently been killed from the effects of gunpowder. The cylinder contained 2400 lbs of powder.
When the Royal George was finally raised in 1841 some of the timber was used to make high-quality billiard tables. You can find one such table at Burghley House near Stamford.
I carried on checking on the Royal Proposal and found on Wikipedia: ‘Victoria continued to praise Albert following his second visit in October 1839. Albert and Victoria felt mutual affection and the Queen proposed to him on 15 October 1839, just five days after he had arrived at Windsor’. (The sources quoted for this are: Hibbert, pp. 107–110; St Aubyn, pp. 129–132; Weintraub, pp. 77–81; Woodham-Smith, pp. 182–184, 187! I’m happy for her and Albert, and pleased I found the press report of a very different British Queen.)

Friday 16 October 1908 saw showman and inventor ‘Colonel’ Samuel F Cody make the first aircraft flight in Britain. This same evening the Lancashire Evening Post, along with a number of newspapers around the country (news could travel fast) told the story under the headline: AEROPLANE SMASH; BRITISH MACHINE WRECKED AT ALDERSHOT; MR CODY’S LUCKY ESCAPE. The Press Association’s correspondent telegraphed:
‘An accident occurred this morning to the British aeroplane which has been constructed under the supervision of the Army authorities. The machine, whilst some 20ft in the air above Farnborough Common, was seen to suddenly swoop toward the ground, and before Mr. Cody who was in the car, could right it, the aeroplane collapsed and fell with a crash. Mr. Cody just managed to get his feet just clear of the framework and was thrown some distance, but beyond a bad shaking was unhurt. An attempt to fly was made for the first time this morning, considerable alterations having been made in the machine since the first trials along the ground. Mr Cody, who throughout has conducted the trial, was confident of success this morning, and after testing the machine along the ground and testing the steering apparatus, ran it up the hill near Farnborough Common and took off from the top. The machine travelled at about 20 miles an hour and journeyed about 500 yards at the height of 12ft to 20ft. Attempting to clear a clump of trees on the Common, Mr Cody sent the aeroplane to the left but the turn proved too sharp, causing the right wing to drop to such an extent that the machine lost its balance and fell to the ground smashing the framework very badly and doing considerable injury to the engines. Mr Cody, after scrambling out of the soft ground where the shock had thrown him, said the accident was due to want of room for manoeuvre. The turn he had to make to avoid the trees was almost at right angles, hence the failure of the aeroplane to maintain its balance. He did not think the engine had sustained much damage’.

17 October is the Feast Day of St. Etheldreda of Ely – also known as St. Audrey.
In 597 A.D. St. Augustine, a great Roman missionary, came to Kent to try to convert the pagan Saxons to Christianity. He was well received and people all over the country became enthusiastic supporters of the new religion. Among them was Anna, the King of East Anglia and one of his four daughters, Etheldreda, who became an ardent Christian and wished to devote her life to religion. For political reasons it became desirable to marry her to a prince whose territory bordered East Anglia. As a dowry her new husband gave Etheldreda the land and royal rights of the Isle of Ely. Three years later her husband died and she became a rich young widow and still anxious to pursue the religious life. For five years she lived on her estates, but once again policy necessitated her marriage to a prince, this time heir to the Kingdom of Bernicia in the north of England. The marriage was not a happy one and she obtained her husband’s consent to retire from worldly affairs. She entered the convent of her husband’s aunt where she received the veil and clothing of a nun at the hands of Bishop Wilfrid. A year later she moved to her lands in Ely and there, in 673, she founded a monastery for both nuns and monks. Later she became a victim of plague which caused a large swelling in her throat. This was lanced by her surgeon, but she died on 23rd June, 679. Sixteen years after her death the grave was opened in the presence of Bishop Wilfrid and several other witnesses. It was alleged that her body was found to be uncorrupted. Her shrine was destroyed in 1541, but some relics are alleged to be in St. Etheldreda’s Church, Ely Place, London (where the bishops of Ely formerly had their London residence). 17th October, the date of her translation, or second burial, has been observed at her festival until the present day.
The St. Audrey’s Fair used to be held on this day at Ely with various items such as necklaces, silk ribbons and lace neckerchiefs on sale. These became known as St Audrey’s Laces – later shortened to ‘tawdry laces’. Modern dictionaries now tell us that ‘tawdry’ means ‘Showy without taste or worth’ but that was not the case in St. Etheldreda’s time. It is recorded that she thought that the growth in her throat was a punishment for wearing jewelled necklaces.

Tuesday 18 October 1910 saw the start of the trial of Dr. Hawley Harvey Crippen. My Blog of 27th July tells of his arrest on 31st July – now the Western Times of 19th October paints a word picture of this opening day of his trial:
‘Opening Stage of the Trial Yesterday – INTERESTING EVIDENCE. London, Tuesday
The Central Criminal Court, or as it is more popularly called, the Old Bailey, is today the centre of cosmopolitan interest, for there this morning began the trial, for the murder of his wife, of Dr. Hawley Harvey Crippen. Seldom in the history of English criminology has a case excited such intense interest as that surrounding the murder of Belle Elmore, or Cora Crippen, fragments of whose mutilated remains were found in the cellar of Crippen’s house at Hilldrop Crescent, Camden Town, in February last. The part played by electrical and analytical science, the former in tracing the suspect, the latter in building up a circumstantial structure of evidence, has for months past provided an absorbing theme of dramatic interest in the public mind. Every seat in the chief court of the Old Bailey was filled this morning when the Lord Chief Justice took his seat on the Bench. Court officials, barristers, and pressmen occupied most of the limited space in the gallery, and behind the dock a fortunate few of the general public, having the talismanic ticket of the Under Sheriff, found seats.
       The only man in the court who had elbow room was the man who sat in unenviable isolation in the spacious dock.’


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